Somehow, and Pikachu would spend weeks beating itself up over the oversight later, neither Ash nor Pikachu had figured out that Ash, being a pokemon now, could be caught in a pokeball.
They'd been in some forest — what forest Pikachu had no idea, because Ash was still remarkably talented at getting lost (possible Ability? consider) and Pikachu refused to learn to read a map on principle — when a travelling trainer challenged them to battle. He’d introduced himself as a water-type master, and now Ash and Pikachu were arguing.
“Ash, ash ashash ash,” said Ash, and then glanced at the trainer and made that face that meant it was attempting to turn its brain inside out, “plus, you have type advantage!”
“Pi-pika pikapi pi-pikachu!” argued Pikachu.
“I’ll be fine! I need the experience, anyways. You won’t have any fun in a fight like this and you know it.” Ash was slurring its a's and sh's like it did when it hadn't had to speak to humans in a little while. Pikachu found it unduly charming.
“Hurry it up ,” said the trainer, and then, when Pikachu opened its mouth to respond, sighed and said, “Dewott, Razor Shell.”
Ash, to Pikachu’s distinct dismay — you are a ground-type! — took the brunt of it due to being much bigger than Pikachu and also due to moving in front of Pikachu. Even though Pikachu would have been much better off taking the blow than Ash was. Pikachu hissed a sigh through its front teeth. Its partner was an idiot , and had only become more of one since realizing it was a pokemon.
But then Ash looked at it, and there was that fire in Ash’s eyes that got there when someone went after one of its friends, or after the world.
“I’ll fight you,” said Ash to the trainer and the dewott, and Pikachu conceded the argument, stepped back to what was usually the trainer’s position at the edge of the battlefield. It would watch the fight, like Ash had always done for it — keep an eye out for anything Ash missed, or couldn’t see coming, or was too absorbed in the adrenaline to realize was a threat. They would battle together, like they always did.
“Razor Shell again,” said the trainer, and the dewott leapt.
Ash ducked away and to the left, and countered with an Aura Sphere spinning off its palm.
The next Razor Shell hit home, and Ash stumbled, recovered and launched itself in an instinctive tackle, or maybe Tackle.
“Water Pulse,” said the trainer.
Ash, about to slam into the dewott, hit a whirling sphere of water instead and was sent skidding back several steps.
The trainer smiled in a way that set Pikachu’s nerves on edge —
— and, while Ash was still staggering in confusion from that last Water Pulse, threw a pokeball.
Ash disappeared in a flash of light.
Pikachu noted in the back of its mind that it was releasing dangerous amounts of static electricity all of a sudden, but that didn’t matter at all, not as its paws curled in on themselves and its cheeks sparked and the world narrowed to a small patch of dirt.
The pokeball shook once, and twice— and Ash emerged, looking confused and a little terrified but none the worse for wear.
Pikachu didn’t hesitate. One thin tendril of supercharged Thunderbolt left the pokeball blackened and charred, the main bulk of it slamming down on the trainer and his dewott and sending them flying far into the air, twitching. Pikachu had a lot of practice blasting idiots off.
It hoped they landed in a herd of carvanha.
Ash was just standing there, breathing hard, so Pikachu did the only sensible thing and leapt into its arms, knocking them both back until Ash was hitting the ground hard and laughing.
“Ow, Pikachu, what the heck!” Then it spotted the broken pokeball and stopped laughing, dropped Pikachu into its lap and reached over with trembling hands to pick it up.
“Pikapi…” said Pikachu. It sent a gentle spark to ground through Ash’s body and make it tingly. “Chu pika?”
“I’m fine,” said Ash, lying blatantly. “It’s just the shock, that’s all.”
Pikachu angled a look at it. “Pi pikachu.”
“I guess…” Ash turned the pokeball over in its hands. “Thing is, there was a part of me that wanted it, y'know?” it admitted, voice shaky. “The pokemon part of my brain that thought, this is a great opportunity to get stronger! But then the rest of me was just so terrified of losing you.”
“Pika, chu pikachu pi-pika.” I was terrified of losing you, too.
“Pikachu…” said Ash. It took a finger and ran it down from the tip of Pikachu’s nose to the base of its tail, like a light breeze; took a long, deep breath. “I dunno. I guess I just never thought? About how I can be caught. I already have a home, and it’s you, so…”
“Pi-pika pikachu pika.” And only idiots try to catch legendaries, anyways.
Ash laughed again, a short sound. “Well, that too.”
“Pi-pikachu, chu chu-pika.” So since we can both agree that trainer was— Pikachu stopped, and swallowed, struck suddenly by how lucky it had been, to find Ash out of all the humans and pokemon in the world.
“Was what?” asked Ash. Its voice still hadn't quite recovered its usual steadiness. “Dumb enough to make you mad?”
“Pi-pikachu.” Well, that. Its cheeks sparked. “Pi pika-pika pikachu pika-chu, chu.” But mostly, that he was dumb enough to think he was worthy of you.
“Pikachu…” Ash spoke softly, that awe in its voice like it was the first time Pikachu had ever said anything of the sort.
(It was not the first time Pikachu had said anything of the sort. They were sappy to each other all the time, in a way Pikachu wouldn’t be caught dead interacting with anyone but Ash. But Ash always reacted with that open awe, set Pikachu’s skin thrumming with electricity and startled love.)
“Pikapi pikachu, chu. Pi-chu, ka-pi, pikachu pika.” You’re my precious partner. And the best person in the world, and nobody gets to take you from me.
“Nobody’s going to,” said Ash. It threw the broken pokeball at a tree, clang, and then pulled Pikachu back into its arms. “Not ever, not even Arceus.”
Pikachu chuckled. “Pikachu pikachu.” It totally owes us, anyways.
Pikachu rested its head on Ash’s chest and listened for the steady rhythm of its heartbeat, heard it still fast and inconsistent from the shock. “Pikachu, pika, pikachu,” it mumbled. “Pikapi chu.” But what happened just now, that was scary. For both of us.
“Mm…” said Ash again. Then it snorted. “Imagine Team Rocket trying to catch me instead of you.”
Pikachu snorted too, at the image, and then made a grab for the topic before they got totally distracted wondering if James would have been able to procure aura-proof nets.
“Pikachu chu-pi pichu pi pikachu, pikachu pikapi, pi pi pikachu, chu.” Someone might go at it smarter someday, and catch you for real, and I don’t think, I don’t think I would be able to stand it. Pikachu paused, and shoved its face in Ash’s arm. “Pi pikachu pikapi pikachu pikachu chu-pika, pikachu.” I don’t think the world would be able to stand it, with how we end up saving it all the time.
Ash slipped one of its arms out from under Pikachu and wrapped fingers around its jaw, lifted its head from where it was pressed against Ash’s other arm. Then, in contrast to that gentleness, said flatly, “By not able to stand it, you mean you’d find whoever caught me, Thunderbolt them until they couldn’t move, wreck their entire livelihood, and come to my rescue.”
“Pi pikachu!” You’d still have been caught!
Ash sighed. “Yeah, I know.” It slipped its hand to Pikachu’s neck, and scratched right where Pikachu liked it. “I mean, I guess…” It paused. “It’s weird to admit, ‘cause I know how much you hate them, but I was always so glad you had a pokeball, you know? It meant you were safe, and you were mine, and I didn’t have to share you with anyone.”
“Piiiii,” said Pikachu, leaning into Ash’s fingers and into its words. And then: “Pi pikapi. Chu-pika. Pikachu. Pika ka-chu.” But you don’t. You’re not safe. You’re not mine. And that’s terrifying.
“Yeah,” said Ash. It set Pikachu down on the ground in front of it. Pikachu protested wordlessly. Ash was very warm, and very real. “Yeah.” There was an odd note to its voice, one Pikachu recognized but couldn’t place.
Ash produced a plain red-and-white pokeball it had probably been carrying since it was human.
“Catch me,” it said, and held it out to Pikachu.
Pikachu blinked, and then blinked again, and then opened its mouth and found that words couldn’t quite make it past the shock in its chest and the lump in its throat. Instead, paws trembling, it reached for the pokeball.
Ash yielded it willingly, and smiled. “C’mon, you’ve seen me do this how many times? You probably know how to catch a pokemon better’n me now!”
“Pikapi…” it managed to squeak out.
“Pikachu…” said Ash back, and reached out to stroke Pikachu’s fur. “We’re partners!” Pikachu had dropped back to all-fours, the pokeball clutched protectively between its forelegs, and it was staring at Ash, its thoughts refusing to cohere. “And this way I’ll be safe, and yours like you’re mine. If anyone in the world is going to catch me, I want it to be you. Even if nobody’s going to catch me, I still want it to be you.”
Ash’s gaze was fiery again, burning, sincere.
“Pikachu, pikapi.” Pikachu shut its eyes, felt light with awe. Thank you, Ash.
Then it opened its eyes, and Ash’s hand came down on the button, and Ash disappeared again in a flash of light.
This time, the pokeball didn’t even shake.
A soft click confirmed the capture, and then Ash released itself, grinning wider than the world. Pikachu stared at it, its body formed back into shape, and at the pokeball that held its life, that Pikachu was entrusted with.
“Pi,” said Pikachu. Uh. How did Ash do this? It shrugged, and held up the pokeball in both arms, towards the sky. “Pi pikachu pikapi?” I caught an ash?
Then Ash really was laughing, a bright and happy sound that flooded the air and sent flying-types scattering from the treetops, and Pikachu fell flat on its back as it joined in, and it felt like nothing more than coming home.