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A Professor and a Student



Ash seemed determined to stay in Alola, and Kukui had a loft going to waste. He'd boarded students before; he didn't expect anything special out of the experience. As it turns out, Ash isn't the only one who's going to be learning a lot this year.

Snippets and fragments of life during Ash's stay in Alola.

Course Outline: Deceptively innocent pokemon trainers

Honestly, after Ash and his mother had waved goodbye to Principal Oak and the other students, Kukui hadn’t expected to see the boy again. But he did have plans – the moment he had approval to begin building Alola’s Pokemon League, he was absolutely going to invite him back to take part. There weren’t enough battle trainers that lived on Alola to justify it, but he figured that if he sold it like that Battle Frontier thing… maybe… maybe competitors had to be alumni of multiple leagues… maybe they had to have achieved a certain rank in each of them…

He was still considering it the next morning, when he wandered onto school grounds only to find Ash standing in the courtyard and staring up at the main building.

“Where was the Principal’s office again…?” he was muttering quietly. The pikachu he’d had out all day yesterday was perched on top of his hat and looking equally lost, staring in the opposite direction of wherever Ash turned his head.

“Pika… pika?”

Kukui smiled and started walking again. “Forget something, Ash?”

His shoulders jerked, and then he turned, eyebrows rising curiously. “Professor Kukui. Alola!”

“Alola,” he replied with a chuckle. Ash seemed to have latched on to the word much better than most tourists – he didn’t have the slightly patronising edge you usually heard when foreigners tried to mimic local language. You could almost think he’d been using it his whole life. “I didn’t expect to see you back here again.”

“About that…” he said, lifting a hand to the back of his head. “I actually wanted to ask about enrolling.”

“En-” He blinked, then frowned. “I thought you were just here on vacation.”

“I am. But Alola is so amazing – a weekend hasn’t been nearly long enough!” he said, spreading his arms while Pikachu enthusiastically gestured and cheered along. “There’s so much I still want to see! The Z-moves, and I want to see a Trial! And the Guardian Pokemon, like Tapu Koko and the others! I want to meet them all!”

Kukui chuckled, shaking his head. “I can’t say I blame you, but you should know that even most Alolans go their whole lives without seeing any of the Guardian Spirits. I haven’t ever met one.”

“That’s okay! There’s still heaps to learn, even if I never see them again!” he said happily, then pulled back a little, reigning in his enthusiasm to explain. “Y’see, I want to be a Pokemon Master, and that means I need to learn everything I can about pokemon from all over the world! And that’s why I want to enrol in this school! Just for a year or so.”

He had to smile. As a researcher, he always approved of people wanting to learn more about pokemon, and as someone who studied moves, he especially approved of battle trainers looking to expand their horizons. But still. “And what does your mother think of all this?”

“I haven’t told her yet,” he admitted, while Pikachu pulled back in an amazing mimic of Ash’s suddenly contrite expression. “I wanted to check with Principal Oak to see whether I could enrol here first. It’s not like the other regions I’ve been to, where there’s a league to compete in. Here, if I can’t study here, I’d really just be taking an even longer vacation. It’s better to have a goal, you know?”

Again, Kukui found himself approving of the argument, even if he had to squash the urge to roll his eyes in exasperation. It had been so long since he’d been to the Eastern regions – he’d forgotten how soon kids considered themselves independent there. Of course Ash, who here on Alola would’ve still been adhering to curfews and asking permission to visit a friend’s house after school, considered his mother a secondary concern to arranging his own plans.

Not to mention – “And where were you planning to stay while you were studying? Pokemon Centres don’t take long term guests, and somehow I doubt you brought enough gear to camp out for a year.”

“We'll work something out,” Ash said cheerfully, and Pikachu pumped its fists in agreement.

“Pika pika!”

Kukui just stared at him for a few moments. Somehow, he actually believed him. He had a sudden mental image of the kid slouching back against a tree for the night, as comfortable as anyone else in a bed.

On the other hand, Kukui had a loft with a futon going to waste.

He remembered the Quick Attack he’d seen yesterday, and that Thunderbolt that had almost effortlessly fried three salandit. He remembered Ash’s confident smile, and how he hadn’t even hesitated before jumping in to help a complete stranger, just because the fight wasn’t fair.

He wondered if Ash really had seen Tapu Koko.

He wanted to get to know the kid.

Kukui took one more step forward, smiling as he reached a decision.

Honestly, Kukui hadn’t really known what to expect when he agreed to take Ash into his home. It wasn’t the first time he’d boarded a student, but normally, the kids he took in weren’t so… enthusiastic.

“This is so cool!” he cried, spinning around with his arms spread wide. “I can’t believe you have a training room in your lab!”

“Well, I was a pretty serious trainer before I became a professor. Even took on the Kanto League when I was just a little older than you,” he said, and was gratified to see Ash’s eyes go wide with awe.

“You competed in the Kanto League? How many badges did you get?”

“All eight; all won through battle,” he said proudly. “I actually won the whole thing. Got through three of the Elite Four, too. But that Lance sure put me in my place.”

“Yeah, he’s super strong,” Ash agreed, before pumping both fists. “But I can’t believe this! You’re a League winner? And to get to Lance you must’ve even beat Agatha! That’s so cool!”

He grinned. He didn’t often get to brag these days – everyone on the islands knew he’d won, and it had been so long ago that no one was particularly impressed by it anymore. It was nice to have someone overlook the time difference to see the accomplishment. “Well, that’s all in the past now. These days I mostly just study moves for my research.”

“For your research? You mean you’re not just a teacher, you really study like Professor Oak and the others too? Whoa, Professor Kukui, is there anything you can’t do?”

He laughed. “You don’t have to flatter me, I already agreed to let you stay here,” he said, even as he revelled in the praise. He was definitely telling Burnet about this. “But yeah. I study moves and move-sets. Right now, I’m looking into why pokemon can only seem to know four moves at any one time.”

“Oh yeah, I guess that is kind of strange,” he said, and then folded his hands behind his back, rocking back and forth on his heels. “But some pokemon have abilities that seem a lot like moves, and they don’t seem to count. And if you train them right, they can kind of do moves that seem like new ones, but they don’t count either.”

He tilted his head, intrigued. “What do you mean?”

“Well, you know…” He rolled his eyes as he tried to find a good example. “A water-type can cloak their whole body in water, right? And the water takes whatever attacks get thrown at them. Kind of like a Protect, only it doesn’t count, because all they’re really doing is using their surroundings.”

Kukui blinked, his hand blindly reaching for a notepad behind him. “You’ve seen this?”

“Sure, loads of times!” he said brightly. “It’s actually how I started teaching my pokemon to use Counter-Shield.”

“Counter-Shield?” he repeated. He’d heard of Counter, and Shield, but Counter-Shield?

“Yeah. It’s a move I made up. You wrap yourself up in attack power, so anything that tries to hit you just gets hurt instead,” he explained, flicking his wrist to wave it off like it wasn’t important. Kukui scribbled the name down as a reminder to himself to ask about it later as Ash continued. “But that is a move. I’m talking about a cloak. You see it a lot with water-types, but I think flying-types do it way more often, using air currents and stuff. But since you can’t see air, it just looks like they’re dodging.”

“That…” Kukui blinked again. “That’s very true…”

“And sometimes, it’s not even like that. It’s like when a fire-type uses flames, but it’s not ember or flamethrower, it’s just fire that they can make. And like how ghost-types can totally ignore physical attacks, and for dark-types, it’s like psychic abilities just don’t exist at all!”

He… had never really thought of it like that. “But for ghost- and dark-types, those things are just part of what makes them their type.”

“Just like water makes a water-type,” Ash pointed out. “And how a fighting-type is all about hitting stuff as hard as you can. A pokemon is more than their type, but they’re all connected to it, right? Even if all you train a butterfree in is psychic or physical attacks, that doesn’t mean it can never make stun spores again. Right?”

“It just… doesn’t use them in battle,” he said slowly, and quickly wrote down the comparison. It was things like that that had first intrigued him about studying moves, but he hadn’t ever applied it on such a wide scale. But Ash was absolutely right – you could teach an incineroar nothing but fighting and dark-type moves, making it forget all the fire it had ever known, but that fire was still there. So, in theory, it could still be used. Maybe not as a move, per se, but…

“Oh, wow, is this a moon ball? Hey, you’ve got all sorts of pokeballs in here! Are they registered to anyone? Are there pokemon in here?”

He glanced up from his notepad, disoriented. “What?”

Ash was pawing through one of his boxes, somehow on the other side of the room to where he’d been without Kukui even having noticed him moving.

“Uh, no, they’re just spares. I give them out sometimes to my graduating students. What was that you said about –”

“Hey, a lure ball! I used one of these for my totodile,” he said, holding it up with a grin. “It’s the only special one I’ve got. I always just buy the ordinary ones.”

“You have a totodile?” he asked blankly. He hadn’t seen Ash carrying any pokeballs – not even one for Pikachu. He shook his head, trying not to get distracted. “Is that who used the water cloak?”

“Nah! Totodile’s really good at dodging,” he said, and then seemed to make eye-contact with the lovediscs in the tank, and hurried over to press his hands against it. “Hey Lovedisc! Wow, that’s so cool! Look at those scales! You’re so beautiful!”

Kukui sighed, rubbing the heel of his hand against his temple. He was getting the distinct impression life with Ash was going to be a little exhausting.

“You’ve been in how many leagues?”

Ash made a face and rocked back to think. Eventually, he released his ankles and started counting on his fingers. “You could count the Orange Islands, and the Battle Frontier, but um… well, Kanto, Johto, Hoenn, Sinnoh, Unova, Kalos… I guess six. I didn’t do very well, though,” he added with an embarrassed laugh, before he shrugged with a broad grin. “I made it to the finals last time, though! Alain was the better battler, but we did pretty good!”

Kukui stared at him, then touched his hand to his chin, wondering if he could somehow take advantage of Ash’s experience. Then he realised how creepy that sounded, even in his own head, and laughed a little to move on. “So that means you must have a full team at home. Pikachu, and you mentioned Totodile last night. Who are the other four?”

“Other four?” he repeated.

“The rest of your team,” he prompted, but Ash only continued looking at him blankly. He scratched the side of his head, not really understanding how Ash was having trouble with this. “You need six registered pokemon to compete in a conference.”


“So if Pikachu is one, and Totodile is another…?”

“Oh. Well, it depends on the battle,” he said, still blinking wide eyes like Kukui was the one not making sense. “I switched my team around a lot for the conference Totodile helped out in.”

When he didn’t expand on that, Kukui chuckled a little helplessly. He was quickly learning Ash wasn’t really one to pick up on subtle cues or volunteer information you didn’t directly ask for. “So you must have quite a few pokemon then.”

“Uh huh! Most of them stay at Professor Oak’s lab. They like it there, because they get to hang out with a whole lot of different pokemon,” he explained. “But Pikachu always comes with me to new regions. He’s my partner!”

Obviously having heard its name, Pikachu looked up from where it was playing with Rockruff just long enough to smile and chirrup some kind of acknowledgement. Ash grinned at it before coming back to Kukui.

“How about you, professor? Do you have any other pokemon?”

“Of course,” he said with a nod. “But they’re a little big to keep around the house.”

“Big pokemon, huh? That’s so cool, I can’t wait to meet them!” he said, bouncing a little. “It’s the best thing about coming to a new place – getting to meet all kinds of pokemon you’ve never seen before.”

He tilted his head, amused by the enthusiasm. “Do you have a specific type you favour?”

“Favour? You mean do I have a favourite type of pokemon?” he asked. “No way! All pokemon are amazing!”

“Of course,” he said with a laugh. He should have expected that.

“Professor Oak,” Kukui said, with all the respect and honour due a man globally known as The Pokemon Professor, inventor of a device used by every pokemon trainer under the age of thirty and leading expert on Pokemon-Human relations. And his very eccentric boss’s cousin. “Thank you for taking my call.”

“Of course,” he said, peeling what looked suspiciously like stringshot webbing off the side of his face. “Thank you for agreeing to board Ash. He’s a close friend of the family, you know – my grandson’s best friend and one of my more…”

Kukui blinked as he waited for Oak to finish his sentence. Apparently he was struggling to find a suitable word. After almost a minute had passed, Kukui decided to lend him a hand. “Experienced? Devoted?” His grin widened. “Enthusiastic?”

“…honestly, I’d call him a fascinating case study, but I don’t think it does him justice,” he admitted, then smiled brightly. “I hope he isn’t causing you too much trouble.”

“Oh, not at all,” he said. It had only been two days, but aside from his apparent rivalry with a living god, he doubted Ash would be a problem. He ate a lot of food, faster than seemed humanly possible, but he was otherwise surprisingly self-sufficient. Still adapting to having to be specific places at specific times, but so far he had been nothing like any of Kukui’s other boarders. He hadn’t needed to remind Ash to do anything or find ways to entertain him, and Ash had been the one to raise the question of how chores should be done – on the very first night, no less. Apparently he’d learned the value of sorting that sort of thing out early. He was a very proficient dish-washer. Kukui smiled at Oak. “I wasn’t aware of just how much experience he has a trainer, however. He tells me he has quite a few pokemon over there – I was hoping you could provide me with his pokedex records. I would hate to try and teach him something he already knows.”

“You would never know if you did,” Oak advised. “In fact, while I don’t mind compiling it, I doubt the list would be beneficial. Ash has seen many pokemon—far more than you or I, I suspect—but he would be the first to tell you he doesn’t know everything about them.”

His smile widened a little. Samson had told him Oak spoke of Ash with something suspiciously close to paternal pride, but a renowned professor letting affection blind him to basic realities—any young trainer having seen more pokemon than The Pokemon Professor, hah—was rather sweet. “Still. If you wouldn’t mind sending it through.”

Oak shrugged and made a note for himself. “I’ll send you the list of his team, as well. Which reminds me, as fair warning. Don’t be altogether surprised if, should he put together another team there in Alola, it seems more like the pokemon choose him. It’s something of a habit.”

“Oh? I would have thought a battle trainer like Ash would select his pokemon with a strategy. I’ve no doubt he would bond with them quickly, but most battle trainers rely rather heavily on –”

Soft laughter cut him off. “If I were you, I would abandon that thought while you can. While Ash has relied on the pokeball connection before—bug- and flying-types, usually—it’s not his standard, by any means,” he said. “The battle, if it happens, is usually more of a formality.”

“Interesting,” he said. “And, I suppose, appropriate for one of your premier trainers. A true example of the best in pokemon-human relations.”

“Hah!” Oak didn’t look nearly as amused as Kukui had expected. “As I said, a fascinating case study. And one that should be experienced first-hand.”

He blinked, not really sure how to take that.

“Forgive the abruptness, but I really should get back to my research. Is there anything else I can do for you, Professor Kukui?”

“Oh, no, thank you very much,” he said. “Good luck.”

“Thank you. You can expect those lists by the end of the day. Good luck to you as well,” he said, and then smirked. “You’ll need it.”

Kukui raised an eyebrow, but wasn’t given time for anything else before the call went black.

Then he got the lists.

Kukui stared at the first one for a long time, noting the geographic date stamps registered to each one, claiming they had been visual matches, rather than Ash just looking them up for research. Kukui didn’t recognise a third of the pokemon listed – he’d never been to Unova and his time in Kalos had been very brief, while his visits to Sinnoh had mostly revolved around Burnet, not pokemon.

He sent a quick note back, checking to make sure this wasn’t a compiled list from trainers that had set out on their journey at the same time. Oak’s assistant sent back a confirmation, with apologies that it wasn’t complete – Ash had apparently gotten progressively lazier about scanning pokemon in Kalos, and had apparently always been prone to skipping it ‘in more unusual circumstances’. Kukui wasn’t quite sure what to make of that.

The other list was much shorter. For a battle trainer, Ash apparently didn’t catch many pokemon. He’d come close to a more standard catch-rate in Unova, but then dropped significantly in Kalos. Checking the fifth registration for Kalos a second time, Kukui sent another email, and the assistant quickly replied that yes, it was correct, but no, they couldn’t send any further data. Goodra apparently hadn’t made it back to Kanto.

It was a habit, the assistant apologised. But if Kukui was interested, the Kalos league had been filmed and PokeVision would probably have videos of a few of Goodra’s battles.

He went upstairs and spent a few seconds just staring at the boy on his couch, who was enamoured of his new rowlet’s soft feathers and gushing about how strong its kicks were.

Then he quietly went back down to his office, and considered what kind of qualities a Guardian Deity would respect in a human.

Assessment Criteria: Different ways of learning

While the others hurried back to the school, intent on the food they’d left behind, Kiawe hung back to walk alongside Kukui. They went in silence for a few minutes, both of them watching Ash. He was laughing and chatting with the others, looking forward to the future.

“That Gigavolt Havoc,” Kiawe said quietly. “Did you notice? It wasn’t just around Tapu Koko; it ripped up the ground almost straight from where Pikachu stood.”

“I noticed,” Kukui replied.

“I earned my Z-Crystal and I’ve seen plenty of battles,” he said. “But I have never seen a Z-move cause so much destruction.”

“No, it surprised me too.”

“Do you think it was because he didn’t earn the crystal?” he asked. “Was it unstable?”

Kukui glanced at him sideways. “I suspect you were right about the crystal cracking because it wasn’t earned, but that attack didn’t look unstable to me.”

“And he’d never even seen an Electrium-Z used before,” he said, his voice going harsh with urgency. “Professor…!”

“Tapu Koko seems to trust him,” he pointed out. “I’m not saying you have to, but don’t you think it would have done something if it sensed any ill intentions from Ash or his pikachu?”

“It’s not that I think he’d try to hurt anyone,” he said. “But Professor, think about it. That much power… in someone who doesn’t understand…”

“You’re absolutely right,” he said. It was why they had the Trials, after all. “So it will be our job to ensure he learns.”

Kiawe hesitated, then nodded once.

Originally, when he found the Rotom infesting his computer, Kukui was a little annoyed. Rotom weren’t native to Alola, so it was yet another example of someone bringing in a foreign species without realising how it could disrupt the local wildlife.

Not to mention that ghost-types were frustrating at the best of times. And difficult to study, so it wasn’t even like Rockruff, who could at least make itself useful while running rampant through the house.

Not that it had made itself all that useful. Rockruff wasn’t particularly interested in being studied, or doing anything beyond hanging around long enough to get fed before disappearing again.

Until Ash showed up, anyway.

Kukui hummed, leaning back from his sparking computer wires as that thought processed through his head.

In the last two days, Rockruff had spent more time in the house than it had in the entire six months Kukui had been trying to study it. There didn’t seem to be any reason behind the change, beyond the fact that it apparently wanted to be around Ash and Pikachu. And all it had taken was Ash opening his hands and telling Rockruff to ‘come’.

Such a strange kid, that Ash…

He’d met the Guardian Deity multiple times. And, having only seen a single unrelated Z-move one time, pulled off the most powerful Gigavolt Havoc Kukui had ever witnessed. He liked battling, which Kukui studied, and pokemon, which Kukui proudly called himself a professor of, and the Professor Oak had just now called him a ‘fascinating case study’.

The words rolled around his head, rebounding off bad ideas.

Rotoms didn’t make very good study subjects. But as Professor Oak had published in an article only recently, if you used them in the right way, they could make excellent study tools

And one of his own colleagues at the lab had recently built that custom-pokedex…

“Kukui used Nasty Plot,” he muttered, reaching into his back pocket for his phone.

“Rotom,” Kukui called as Ash headed into the bathroom, “Could I speak to you for a moment?”

“Of course!” it chirped, and flew over to hover in front of him.

RotomDex was much less mischievous than most rotoms tended to be. Kukui wasn’t yet sure whether that was because it was protective of its possessed casing, or if it was just this one’s specific personality. Either way, aside from its mildly obnoxious personality, it was mostly just interested in fulfilling its casing’s function. It wanted to collect information. Which was fascinating in its own way – Kukui’s colleague would be thrilled when he got the data.

Not that it mattered to Kukui. He had other areas of interest. “So now that you’ve had a full two days as the RotomDex, how are you finding it?”

Rotom beeped and shook in the air. “Ash is very strange. He is not like what a pokemon trainer is supposed to be!”

Kukui raised an eyebrow, intrigued. He’d planned to work them up to talking about Ash, but here Rotom had just jumped straight into it. “Oh?”

“Wild pokemon are caught through battle!” it insisted. “A pokemon trainer uses their existing pokemon to weaken it, and then throws a pokeball to catch it. If compatible, the pokeball creates a soothing environment designed to encourage friendship and trust in the wild creature, which—when combined with proper training—creates a strong bond between human and pokemon.”

Kukui smiled patiently. “Yes…?”

“Ash did not use his existing pokemon to weaken the wild pokemon before catching it!” it wailed, electrical beeps and static colouring every word. “The wild creature was not soothed by the pokeball’s environment! Rowlet practically caught itself!”

“Oh, well, now that might affect his grade,” he said playfully. “The assignment was to catch a pokemon, not have one catch him.”

“Look! Look!” it cried, and lit up with an image of Ash kneeling down, turned away from the camera. As it began rolling, he stood up and turned forward, wearing an odd, unreadable smile.

Okay guys, let’s go home.

Go home?” Rotom’s voice was heavily distorted in the video, but just understandable. “I thought you were going to catch Rowlet.

It’s okay.

Kukui frowned, folding his arms and leaning forward in interest. He knew, of course, that Rowlet wound up caught, but that didn’t match what he was seeing here.

When Oak had warned him that it often seemed like Ash’s pokemon chose him, he hadn’t been entirely sure what the man meant. It could have been like Rockruff, who seemed to have adopted Ash whether the kid liked it or not, or (and this was what he’d actually suspected) Ash could have tricked his pokemon into it.

It wasn’t a nice strategy by any means, but some trainers that knew how the pokeball connection worked were inclined to use it to their advantage. They would trick pokemon into lowering their guards, convincing the poor creatures that they didn’t want to catch anyone. That they were just training their existing pokemon through random battles in the wild. Then, when the pokemon felt safe from capture, they’d throw the ball and let the machine do the rest of the work.

But he wasn’t seeing any hint of that in the video he was watching. As Ash explained, he honestly seemed to think Rowlet would be happier in the wild. And that was… apparently enough for him.

Then the video flickered, obviously moving ahead in time to a shot of Rowlet flying and hooting excitedly, Rotom’s distorted voice asking, “What’s Rowlet doing?

What d’you think?” Ash’s voice shot back, sounding excited. “You want me to catch you, right?

There was no possible way Rowlet’s response could be construed as anything but an emphatic ‘yes’.

Alright, then here we go, Rowlet!” Ash said, and the camera focussed down onto Ash almost lazily tossing up a pokeball. “Go: pokeball!

As the pokeball came down, Rowlet actually bounced up a little to whack itself against the button. And then, against all logic considering how strong the bird had looked, the pokeball barely shook before accepting its new charge.

“Huh,” Kukui said, as the video ended and Rotom’s ‘face’ returned to the screen.

“That is not how pokemon are supposed to be caught!” it cried, and then flew back a foot before coming forward again. “I have updated my data, but according to all scientific evidence, this should not be the case. Further study will be required!”

“It will indeed,” Kukui agreed quietly, before he remembered why he’d actually wanted to talk to Rotom and blinked. “So you don’t mind continuing to help Ash; acting as his pokedex?”

It buzzed a little, screen flickering across data and graphs before settling on its moving mouth image. It was currently a small frown. “He is very interesting. I would like to study him further,” it said, and then flickered into a smug emoticon. “Also, Ash is not very well versed on pokemon, and I can provide a great deal of information! I will be able to teach him how a pokemon is supposed to be caught and trained! I will be an extremely useful pokedex! The RotomDex!”

Kukui chuckled and didn’t argue.

Most people that had never been a part of higher education thought that Pokemon Schools were about teaching people how to be breeders or day care operators. Others thought that it was more like a full-time summer course – you spent mornings learning pokemon types and then your afternoons playing. Those people annoyed Kukui a little bit.

The truth was, most lessons at the School were actually theoretical, and it quickly became obvious that Ash was really going to struggle with that.

He understood the concepts. He knew how to battle and raise pokemon, and he followed most of the explanations he was given.

But if you asked him to define type advantages, the most complex explanation he could give you was ‘water types are strong against fire types’. He was absolutely floored by the fact there was an actual mathematical formula to predict how effective one type was against another, let alone the idea of more complex formulae that added in levels and ability modifiers.

They’d spent most of the day working through calculations. Overall, the class had done acceptably well – Sophocles and Lillie were of course miles ahead of everyone, while Ash and Kiawe struggled with every step. Even Mallow had been exhausted by the end of the lesson, but the two battlers looked like absolute wrecks, and Kiawe had been very close to lashing out at someone. Kukui had decided to end things a little early and instead remind everyone of tomorrow’s field work.

That had thankfully lightened everyone’s mood – extra-curricular lessons usually did. But he was surprised by how effective it was – Ash cheered up almost immediately, and was in a positively ecstatic mood by the time he got home, testing the weight of his borrowed fishing rod and chatting with Pikachu about all the water types they could meet.

Having just started preparing dinner, Kukui watched from the kitchen as Ash carefully carried the rod up the ladder to his loft.

“Well, now that surprises me, Ash,” he said as the kid disappeared from sight. “From what Professor Oak told me of your team, I didn’t really pick you as someone who enjoys spending a lot of time on the water. Totodile, Squirtle, Buizel… they’re all land-based water pokemon, aren’t they?”

“Yeah. I’ve never tried to train a fish-pokemon before,” he called back. “But one of my best friends wants to become a water-pokemon master, and she taught me how to fish. I even have this special lure she gave me. Works like a charm! Didn’t think to bring it to Alola though.”

“I bet there’s a lot of things you would’ve brought if you’d come here planning to stay,” he pointed out, before his attention was redirected by the poke-flap swinging open. As he’d half-expected, it was Rockruff, who got less than a metre inside before stopping to look around, ears and tail lowering in obvious disappointment. Kukui scoffed. “What, am I not good enough for you anymore?”

“What?” Ash, Pikachu, and Rotom all peeked over the landing, and Rockruff immediately perked up again with an excited bark. Pikachu leapt up onto the railing to wave excitedly, while Ash just grinned and leaned a little further over. “Hey Rockruff! When did you get here?”

As Rockruff barked happily back, Kukui shook his head with a mock-glare. “You know, a man shouldn’t be made to feel so unwanted in his own home. I fed you this morning, remember!”

Rockruff ignored him, and Ash chuckled before ducking out of sight again. “Man, I can’t wait for tomorrow! I really hope I meet some cool pokemon. Hey, RotomDex, are there any Alolan variants for water-types?”

“Don’t answer that, Rotom!” ordered Kukui. “We have a test on regional variants next week and you’re not allowed to help him!”

“Aw, come on, Professor Kukui!” Ash whined playfully. “I need all the help I can get!”

“He really does,” Rotom said, still hovering over the railing. When Kukui gave it a dry look, it flew down to hang in the air in front of him, effectively stopping him from chopping vegetables and forcing him to pay attention to it. “It’s true! While completing the set problems today, Ash’s success rate was less than forty-seven percent, and he did not complete them all.”

Kukui gently pushed it out of the way with a stern look. “I appreciate that you want to help, but those aren’t the kinds of statistics Ash needs in his first week at school, Rotom.”

“It’s not wrong though,” Ash pointed out.

Kukui looked up to find Ash climbing back down the ladder, not even pausing for balance as Pikachu leapt from the railing to his head. He hit the ground and turned toward the kitchen, still unconcerned as Pikachu scampered down his back in order to tackle Rockruff, and the two pokemon began play-fighting as he stepped up to the counter. “I didn’t do so great in class today.”

“That is an understatement,” Rotom reported cheerfully, and Kukui slanted yet another look at it before going back to Ash.

“It’s your first week,” he said again. “And there are a lot of very good trainers that never even try to learn this stuff. No one was expecting you to master type mathematics in one class.”

Ash shrugged. He didn’t seem concerned so much as resigned. “I’ve never been that good at classes. Honestly? I barely graduated from normal school.”

“Oh?” he prompted. “And yet you enrolled here.”

“Yeah. I mean… I’ve seen plenty of Pokemon Schools before,” he said. “And I’ve met loads of people that do that math stuff all the time. Even some trainers that refused to battle me at first because they did the calculations and decided they’d win too easily.”

Kukui raised an eyebrow. “I’m sensing that isn’t usually how the story ended.”

“Nope! I’d make ’em battle me anyway!” he said cheerfully, then rubbed the back of his neck with an awkward laugh. “Is it mean of me to say I really enjoyed beating them?”

“Probably better to say you found it ‘satisfying’,” Kukui advised with a wink. “I’m glad to hear it though. It’s important to remember that while type mathematics are all well and good, there’s a lot more that goes into training a pokemon than what you can measure with numbers.”

“And that’s why I like the Alolan Pokemon School so much.”

It seemed like a bit of a non-sequitor, so Kukui put down his knife and leaned over the counter to focus. “I’m afraid I’m not following you there, Ash.”

“It’s different here,” he said with a shrug. “Every other Pokemon School I’ve gone to, all anyone seems to care about is the science. They talk about how important it is to care for your pokemon, but then they don’t use real pokemon in their lessons. Everything is done in classrooms, all shut up and closed off, and they use pictures and diagrams. Sometimes they have pokemon on campus, but they’re always locked away and the students barely see them. No one ever has their own pokemon out of their pokeballs – if they even have pokemon!” he added, and then grimaced, glancing over his shoulder to where Pikachu and Rockruff were playing peek-a-boo around the table. “Any time I went to places like that, even if it was just a Summer Camp or something, they always asked why I didn’t put Pikachu in its pokeball. They were supposed to be learning about how to work with pokemon, but they all thought it was weird to actually live and work with a real live pokemon.”

Kukui nodded. It was something most Alolans noticed when they went to other regions: the divide between human and pokemon that was… if not absent, at least certainly less prominent here, where pokemon were both gods and family members. He was surprised Ash, who came from the region that was probably most infamous for the clear divides it put between human and pokemon, had noticed it.

“But here,” Ash continued, glancing up at Rotom, “you didn’t just let me keep Pikachu around, you gave me a pokedex that carries a real pokemon inside it! Just to help me learn about the region! Almost everyone at school has a pokemon that they keep with them. And every lesson uses real pokemon, even if it’s just to look at! And – and even with what we learned today, you don’t get mad when I say stuff like ‘type isn’t everything’.”

“Well, it isn’t,” he said blankly. “Anyone who’s fought in a Pokemon League can tell you type advantage doesn’t mean anything against a really great team.”

“That is not logical,” Rotom interrupted, lifting a wing in point. “Type advantage is one of the basics of pokemon battling. A good team is one that balances types to ensure that every possible weakness is covered by a strength! Therefore, type advantage means everything in a great team!”

Ash smiled wryly, and met Kukui’s sideways glance with one of his own. “That’s kinda more like what I always expected from a school. But here… learning from you and Principal Oak…” He trailed off for a second, then looked up again with a warm smile. “I didn’t get that calculation stuff today. I might never get it. But you didn't make me feel like that makes me a bad trainer. Or just dumb in general. And Kiawe is so smart, and so strong, but he didn’t get it either. And when he got mad, and said none of it matters, because he believes in the strength of fire and fire-types, with the soul of Akala… you actually said that was fair enough.”

Because it was, in Kukui’s opinion. He’d been in enough battles, seen enough strange things, experienced enough Z-moves, to know that there was more to battling than numbers. If you believed in yourself and your pokemon, you could move mountains.

But he’d also studied enough and travelled far enough to know that it wasn’t how most of the world thought. Belief and trust were not measurable, which to a lot of people meant it was inconsequential.

“For the first time,” Ash continued, one hand rising to rub the back of his neck, “for the first time, even though I don’t always get what you’re talking about, I don’t feel like that means I’m doing it all wrong. And that makes me think I actually can learn, for once. And so, even though I know it’s gonna be hard, and I’m probably not gonna pass the year… I feel like I actually am gonna learn stuff. I’m gonna learn stuff that’s gonna make me a better trainer. So I’m gonna do my best. Even if it’s not good enough, I’m gonna do it anyway, because it’s worth doing. Right?”

Again, Kukui found himself thinking of his trips to other regions. He’d originally left Alola angry and defiant, with a goal to fight ‘real battles’ and prove himself better than the Trials he hadn’t been able to finish. So when he got to Kanto, with its serious, hard-line trainers and strict rules on how battles should be fought… he’d felt like it was just what he'd wanted. It wasn’t until he met the Elite Four, and Lance showed him just how pig-headed he was being, that he realised Kanto was actually a very harsh place.

In Kanto, people lived and worked with pokemon, but they weren’t normally considered family. It was strange to even refer to pokemon as friends. They were partners, or more commonly just pokemon you trained. They had jobs to do, and trainers made them more effective through hard work and dedication. For pokemon trainers, Kanto was a serious, busy place, with clearly defined boundaries and limits.

He wondered how Ash had found that kind of environment. It didn’t seem to make any sense – Ash was so excited and enthusiastic about everything. He saw all pokemon as potential friends, and they all seemed to love him just as much as he did them. He would regularly just stop and take a moment to appreciate the world around him. He took joy in every moment, even when it was hard, and was always looking for new ways to do things.

Which had eventually brought him here, to learn in a way he had never done before.

Kukui wasn’t sure whether to be impressed or just exasperated. So he picked up his knife and went back to the vegetables.

“You know what?” he asked. “I think you’re right. And if you think you can learn, I am more than willing to try and teach you.”

“Neither of you are making any sense,” Rotom noted, and they both looked at it again before exchanging glances.

In the end, Kukui just had to laugh.

Grading Scale: Foreshadowing

After the exciting field trip, including his numerous dips in the ocean, Kukui had expected Ash to be sleeping by the time he got back from the lab that night. But instead, he found the boy downstairs, standing in front of the boxing bag and staring at his fists like he’d never realised he had them before. Kukui smiled as he finished walking down the stairs. “Thinking about getting into martial arts, Ash?”

“Huh?” He blinked up at him, then laughed awkwardly and lowered his fists. “No. It’s not really my style anymore.”

“Anymore?” he prompted as he sat down on the bottom step, and Ash rubbed the back of his neck.

“I used to get into fights a lot when I was a kid. I was a bit of a cry-baby, and everyone knew it. Throwing punches seemed like a good way to prove I wasn’t,” he said, and Kukui had to grin. It was such a typical little boy response – he was a little surprised to hear Ash didn’t still think that was a good way to solve his problems, and even more so by how embarrassed he seemed to admit it. “I’m trying not to do it so much anymore. But sometimes I let my temper get away from me, you know?”

“It’s very good that you can at least recognise it as a failing,” he pointed out, and Ash chuckled again, a soft blush creeping over his cheeks. Kukui settled his chin in his palm, ever-more intrigued by the young man he’d invited into his home. “It wasn’t until I was almost twenty before I realised I needed to work on my temper. I channelled it into my research – understanding the ways pokemon are limited in their battles taught me a lot about self-control.”

“That’s really cool,” Ash said warmly, but his smile faded as he looked back at the bag. “Sometimes I dunno, though. Anger’s a hard one to work out.”

“You think so?”

“Yeah. It’s like Team Rocket,” he said. “I hate them. I hate them so much. They follow me everywhere. They try and steal Pikachu all the time. I can’t stand them!” He clenched his fists again, looking for all the world like a boy on the urge of a very violent explosion, before he let it all out with a breath. His shoulders slumped, and he just seemed tired. “But at the same time, all I really want is for them to be happy. To just… quit Team Rocket and go on a real pokemon journey. Find out who they’re supposed to be and go for it. I’d even help them if I could. And that’s just so crazy, I mean… who thinks like that? After everything Team Rocket’s done – everything they’ve done to me, and Pikachu, and the whole world! They make me so mad! I should hate them! I do hate them! But…”

But you’re a good person, Kukui thought quietly. He’d seen hints of it already – pokemon could sense these things, and even if both Rockruff and the damn Guardian Deity hadn’t provided visible and tangible proof of their affection for him, it only took a few minutes of speaking with Ash to see it. He cared so much about everyone and everything around him. He only wanted the best for everyone.

“Ah!” Ash suddenly spun back to face him, one fist rising like he could block himself. “Sorry, I shouldn’t have said all of that.”

He furrowed his brow. “Why not?”

“Well, I mean, it’s kinda stupid,” he said awkwardly. “You don’t need to hear about that kind of stuff.”

“I’m interested,” he said, and then grinned at Ash’s embarrassed glance. “But I guess you wouldn’t want to Confide in a boring grown up.”

“What are you talking about?” he cried. “You’re not boring at all! The stuff you research is so totally awesome, and everything you teach at the school is so interesting. I just… you’re already doing so much for me, teaching and letting me stay here… You shouldn’t have to hear about my problems.”

His grin faded just a touch. “I invited you to share my home, Ash. You should never have to hide what you think or feel when you’re at home,” he said, and then smiled. “And as for what you said before, I don’t think it’s stupid at all. I think you’re very kind, to be able to think like that about people like Team Rocket. And I can only imagine how frustrating it must be.”

Ash just looked away again, still rubbing the back of his neck. Kukui considered him for a few moments, then asked, “Why do they follow you around? Today they were after the Ride Pokemon, but from what you said the other day…”

“It’s mostly for Pikachu,” he said. “It’s really strong – it has way more power than your normal pikachu. They want that power for their boss. But other times, it’s just a coincidence. I don’t think they came to Alola for us, but since they’re here, they’ll definitely try for it.”

“How long have you been dealing with them?”

He shrugged. “I met them on the first day of my pokemon journey.”

Kukui lifted his head from his palm, shocked. That had apparently been a very long time ago. If they’d really been following him for that long, chasing him down, stealing his pokemon… and Ash still had the compassion to want good things for them… He smiled and shook his head.

“So it’s been a while since you threw a good punch, I take it?” he asked as he stood up again. Ash blinked at him, and he gestured to the bag. “Let’s see your form. There are worse ways to deal with anger than a Power-up Punch aimed at a good Substitute!”

He hesitated, then quirked a smile and nodded. Then he drew his fist back and punched.

It wasn’t the worst Kukui had ever seen. He didn’t make beginner’s mistakes – his thumb was on the outside of his fist, and he kept his wrist at the right angle. But he hadn’t put all his strength into it, and it was slow enough that you would have had to have been looking in the complete other direction not to be able to dodge.

It was also interesting that he had aimed at his own head-height. It was fairly typical for a backyard brawler – mostly looking to wound and defend pride. But he’d expected Ash to aim for safer places, like the gut.

“You can hurt people’s lungs that way,” Ash said, and Kukui did a double-take until he realised he must have spoken aloud. “The cheek just hurts a lot, and it can knock people off balance.”

“True. But the eye or temple are more dangerous places to accidentally hit if you miss,” he said, and then took up a stance himself. “Especially if you put more of yourself into your strikes. All of your weight, all of your speed. Like this.” He lashed out at his own head-height, and the bag jerked, dancing on the chain. “Now you.”

Ash hesitated, then gave it another shot. It was better and faster, making the bag swing, but Kukui could see him still holding back. He barely moved his torso with the punch.

“Come on, Ash. You’re never going to work out that anger if you keep it all bottled up! Hit hard! The bag won’t complain!”

He chuckled a little, then licked his lips, looking from Kukui to the bag and back again. He copied Kukui’s stance, then lifted his left hand in a vague approximation of a Kantonese guard, and—for the first time yet—really swung.

The chain snapped with a loud crack, and the bag crashed into the wall behind. Ash jerked back, looking horrified, and Kukui raised his eyebrows.

“Huh,” he said, blinking at the swinging chain. It must have been pretty badly worn down to snap like that from a kid’s punch. “Guess I should’ve checked it was fit to be used before we did that.”

Kukui stared around the house with mild amusement.

The walls and floor of the laundry room were strangely damp and there was an overpowering smell of detergent everywhere, though he’d noticed the laundry itself was clean and hung up outside. Including all of his lab coats.

The kitchen was also suspiciously clean – cleaner than it had been that morning, which was particularly strange given that the rubbish bin was overflowing with some strange and burned concoction that Kukui suspected wasn’t edible in the slightest. There were two bowls soaking in the sink, obviously having held the mysterious creation.

A peek upstairs showed the loft in the same overly neat order he’d come to associate with Ash. Maybe it was all his time on the road, but when Ash wasn’t home, he always packed everything away as if he wasn’t coming back. The only anomaly was the sheet Kukui had originally draped over the bookcase (to keep off dust, he’d insisted to Burnet, who snorted and pointedly didn’t call him out on his messy housekeeping) was now folded up in a corner of the loft, and the books he’d had on it were perched a little more precariously. Ash wasn’t quite tall enough to reach the top of the bookshelf, even with the chair.

After going up to place the books more securely on the shelf, he went back to the kitchen and picked up the scrawled memo. Unfortunately Ash’s writing wasn’t nearly as neat as he’d left the house, but Kukui could make it out. The kid had gone grocery shopping.

The question of why was answered when he peeked into the fridge.

Granted, it hadn’t exactly been overflowing to begin with – he’d been planning for that to be one of the stops they made at the mall today. But now it was completely empty. Not even the sausages that had been buried in ice at the bottom of the freezer for the last six months.

“Well, Ash,” he murmured as he shut the doors. “You don’t do things by halves, do you?”

Over dinner, Sophocles gushed about their adventure, for good reason. The two of them had apparently saved the shopping mall from lockdown. But for all Sophocles’ excitement, Ash just smiled vaguely and stayed out of the conversation, more interested in his food until Sophocles reached the battle portion of the story.

“Pikachu and Togedemaru made such an awesome team!” he enthused. “It was so cool – there was no way Pikachu could have battled from where it was, but with Togedemaru’s lightning rod, it was like we could just redirect its thunderbolt! So amazing!”

“Pi-ka!” Pikachu agreed, while Togedemaru squealed. Kukui could already see it had taken a bit of a fancy to the electric mouse.

“It wasn’t redirecting,” RotomDex corrected imperiously. “Togedamaru absorbed Pikachu’s electricity and used it to power its –”

“Yeah, we know, Rotom,” Ash laughed. “But that doesn’t change how cool it was!”

Sophocles shook his head, like Ash was missing the point. “It wasn’t that cool; it was all part of my plan. Lightning rod is the most efficient way to battle with Togedemaru, which I of course worked out from the data a long time ago. I had everything under control from the start.”

Kukui had spent too much time around Sophocles to believe that when he heard it, but Ash just grinned and went back to his food. Sophocles continued to brag about defeating Team Rocket—Ash only interjected at the end to wonder ‘what was up with that Bewear’—and then how they apparently found the generator room and fixed everything.

Sophocles was justifiably very impressed with himself. A young kid having quickly resolved a problem the actual mall employees had barely understood was worth bragging about. Kukui was impressed with the less exciting parts of the story too – the Sophocles he knew never would have been able to pull himself together enough to operate under those conditions, let alone take the initiative to do something about it.

And yet, he still found himself focussing on Ash. Who hadn’t raised the topic and didn’t seem all that invested in it. Who was honestly more interested in his food and making sure Pikachu didn’t drink an entire bottle of ketchup. Who, when asked about his day, had admitted to making a mess of the house and asked the professor to show him how the washing machine actually worked, but hadn’t said a word about the lockdown beyond explaining he’d run out of time to get groceries.

Implying that none of this had been anything worth mentioning, as far as he was concerned.

Like it was nothing out of the ordinary.

With those kind of thoughts whirling around Kukui’s head, he found it a little hard to focus on the achievement.

Neither a basic internet search or the Pokemon Professors’ Pokepedia brought up much information on Team Rocket.

There were a few vague references in news articles, but even they had little more than speculation as to the existence of a Team Rocket that operated in the furthest Eastern regions. The articles suggested they were a large criminal organisation that seemed to specialise in pokemon trafficking, but there was nothing concrete, and in every article, Officer Jenny declined to comment.

There was definitely a Rocket Industries, but it was a legitimate organisation that traded on the stock market and invested in various technologies. It was a little hard for Kukui to figure out how they originally made the money they invested, but it all seemed above board. Not that he would have known either way – he had never been one for business.

But even if he had been, he doubted he would have found any reason to think it had anything to do with a couple of thieves chasing around a kid whose pokemon was—while very well trained and capable of incredible Z-moves—not that special or unusual.

Kukui rubbed his jaw, wondering whether it was worth looking into. Honestly, Team Rocket behaved like obnoxious teenagers playing a prank, and in the end the whole thing on the beach had been more of an annoyance than anything. And while it was possible Sophocles and Ash hasn’t known the whole story, even the incident at the mall didn’t seem that bad.

Perhaps he was just worrying over nothing. Maybe Team Rocket were an older and more adventurous version of Team Skull – a pseudo-gang that made life a little more irritating but not that dangerous on the whole.

It would certainly explain the way Ash responded to them – like they were infuriating but ultimately harmless. Half of Alola felt the same complex mix of annoyance and concern for the members of Team Skull. Maybe Team Rocket had just broken a few too many last straws in their time chasing Ash around.

It was probably nothing. Kukui didn’t need to worry about it.

He lowered his hand to the desk, ready to push away and get back to work, but then stopped.

The beach had been nothing particularly special, in the end. Everything had turned out fine.


But if Pikachu hadn’t broken that net, Team Rocket could have taken off with their ride pokemon.

The whole class could have been left stranded on that sand bank.

Six very valuable pokemon stolen. A class full of young teenagers, not to mention himself, left abandoned in the middle of the ocean with no way back or ability to communicate with the shore. With a rising tide.

It had turned out fine.

But it could have been a lot worse. It could have…

It could have become something not even the worst of Team Skull would have been part of.

Ash hadn’t been in the least bit surprised or shocked. Not until the bewear showed up to cut things off. He’d watched Team Rocket fall toward the water, ready to order another attack if they somehow recovered from the twenty-foot drop.

He’d expected to have to battle them to the end.

Kukui’s hand went back to his jaw, and he spent a few seconds just staring sightlessly at the last news article he’d read.

It had turned out fine.

Team Rocket didn’t seem that intelligent. Maybe they just… maybe they just hadn’t realised the consequences of what they were doing. They probably weren’t dangerous. He was almost definitely worrying over nothing.

Because… because if he wasn’t, and Team Rocket really was dangerous, and they really had been chasing Ash around for that long, then surely his mother, or Professor Oak, or… or someone…

He was worrying over nothing, he told himself firmly, and turned off the computer.

“Professor Kukui, it’s nice to meet—” Oak’s assistant winced at a loud crash in the background, then slowly turned his head to peek off-camera. He hesitated a few moments, in which several more crashes and muffled swearing could be heard, before coming back to the screen. “—you. I’m Tracey – we’ve emailed a few times.”

“Ah, yes, thank you for your assistance. I –” He stopped at a crash heavy enough to make the assistant stumble. “Is everything alright over there?”

“Oh, yes. One of our newer trainers recently sent us a snorlax,” he explained. “It’s… well, it’s not really as well trained as we would like. And it doesn’t sleep as much as most snorlax do. It uh… it’s having some trouble adjusting to –” He closed his eyes at another crash. “Adjusting to life at the ranch.”

“Tracey!” Oak shouted from off-screen. “Where is Snorlax?”

“One moment, Professor,” Tracey said, before stepping away to look off-screen. “You mean –”

“Snorlax AshK!”

“Uh… in the field, I would assume.”

“What about Muk?”

“Definitely in the compost heap.”


He visibly hesitated, then said, “Professor Kukui is on the line, Professor. I suspect –”

“What? What?” Oak appeared, looking very ruffled and irritable. He threw a glance at the screen before glaring at Tracey. “What’s he done?”

Kukui wasn’t quite sure how to take the implication he’d done anything. Yes, he was calling just to settle his own nerves, but there was nothing that unusual about calling a Pokemon Professor to enquire about a Trainer. But Tracey only shrugged like it was an acceptable question. “I haven’t asked. It seems a little soon for anything too far out of the ordinary.”

Oak grunted and turned his glare on Kukui. “If he’s still breathing and it hasn’t been more than twelve hours since he switched dimensions, I do not have time for it. And unless the Legendary has actively kidnapped or eaten him, it takes a lower priority than him sorting out his Talonflame and Swellow. I’ve had to replace the windows in my barn twice already since he left!”

Kukui stared. “Wait, by ‘he’, do you mean Ash?”

Another crash made Oak whip around, and then yell loudly, flailing his arms. “Not the transponder!” and then he dashed away. “Tracey! Get me Muk!”

The assistant stared after him for a moment, then walked back to the camera. “Is this about Ash? Did something happen?”

“N- well, yes, but… I just wanted to ask about someone he’s run into a few times over the last couple of days,” he said slowly. “Team Rocket?”

“Jessie and James? And a talking Meowth?” he asked. “They’ve apparently started rhyming a lot recently?”

“Yes. You’re familiar?”

“I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised they’re in Alola now,” he said. “Don’t worry about them too much – they’ll show up once every couple of days to try and steal Pikachu. And no, before you ask, Ash would never actually try and kill them – they know how to land safely and they’re almost as durable as he is. It’ll be fine.”

“Uh…” Kukui began, but another crash and holler from Oak made the assistant wince.

“I really have to go. Good luck, Professor!” he said, and then switched off the screen.

Kukui watched from beside the fish tank as Ash stared down two very mulish-looking flying types through the television. He was doing a very good impression of a disappointed father.

Apparently, while he appreciated their rivalry to become the fastest bird alive, he was not impressed with their attempt to settle it with actual fights at sub-sonic speeds near existing buildings. He was threatening to get a pidgeot to settle the matter if they couldn’t find a more constructive way to battle. Or worse, a charizard. You didn’t have to be a streamlined bird to be an excellent flying type, after all.

While Kukui had always found it mildly annoying when people claimed pokemon didn’t have expressions, he had to admit he’d never seen two birds look quite so ashamed before. The larger one seemed particularly guilty when Ash asked what ‘Noivern’ was thinking to see all this. And when he sighed that maybe staying in Alola had been a bad idea, both birds squawked like children insisting their parents really didn’t need to come home from a holiday. That everything was fine and they would play well together and the house would be absolutely spotless when Mum and Dad got back – happy, relaxed, and not a minute sooner than planned.

Ash gave them the kind of look a boy his age shouldn’t have been able to master. “So you two will get along? No more fighting?”

They bobbed their heads enthusiastically, chirping something incomprehensible to Kukui.

“Well, that’s a relief,” Ash said with a breath, and then gave them his best impossibly broad smile. “Everyone should get along. And you guys are so strong and amazing, I really want you to become great friends, okay? I bet, if you worked together, the two of you could become the fastest flying types the world has ever seen! Just, you know, maybe do your training away from Professor Oak’s barn?”

They agreed, and Ash sent them on their way before Oak returned the screen. He still looked annoyed, but in better shape than he’d been yesterday afternoon. “Thank you. I hope your next flying type doesn’t add to my problems.”

“Nah,” he said, reaching over to pull Rowlet into his arms where Oak could see. “Rowlet seems a lot happier sleeping in my backpack. It’s not really a very good flier.”

He scowled at the little owl. “It doesn’t look much like a flying type. Is that secondary? What’s its primary? Grass? Ground?”

“Grass. It knows this awesome move called Leafage! It’s like a tornado, but with leaves!”

“I see. And which fire-type did you have it humiliate before it decided to adopt you?”

Kukui frowned. He understood the professor had apparently been having a bad few days, but that didn’t make it acceptable to tease a young boy. Worse, Ash just chuckled like he was slightly embarrassed, and started telling him about Team Rocket’s mimikyu.

Oak didn’t seem to need an explanation about who Team Rocket were, or why they were in Alola, but he didn’t seem that concerned, either. Still more annoyed than anything.

Kukui’s nerves didn’t settle at all.

First Lesson: Responsibility

“Wow. That’s a lot of rain.”

Swallowing a mouthful of coffee, Kukui looked over to where Ash was lingering in the doorway, staring out at the weather. “Yes. Luckily, Alola never really gets the monsoon seasons most tropical islands do, but we do have a lot of rain in summer. We’ll have quite a few days like this over the next few months.”

Ash’s eyes widened as he looked back over his shoulder. “Days? This is gonna last for days?”

“One or –”

“Allow me to explain!” Rotom cried, swooping around to hover in Ash’s field of vision. “The Alolan islands are prone to extreme weather changes, which allow for its local fauna and flora to flourish. While the islands commonly experience hot and humid days year round, rain storms are frequent, often lasting up to a week at a time, with rainfall averages around six inches each cycle.”

Ash blinked a few times, then glanced out at the rain one more time before sighing and shutting the door. Kukui raised an eyebrow. “You don’t like the rain?”

“It’s not that I don’t like it,” he said as he wandered back into the house proper. “On the road, rain means you’re stuck. You can’t walk in the rain for long – you’d end up sick. And unless you’re actually training for water-type moves, it makes it too dangerous for pokemon training. So I never know what to do when it rains.”

“Pika…” Pikachu agreed wearily. It was standing on the couch, peeking up and out the window just as its trainer had stared out the door.

Kukui shrugged. “Well, the good news is that you’re not on the road this time. Why don’t you take a day off for once?”

“Huh? Of course I’m taking a day off, it’s the weekend,” he said, and Kukui chuckled.

“No, I mean a proper day off. In all the time you’ve been here, I don’t think I’ve seen you do that yet. Hang out, watch TV. You know – relax.” He paused to knock back the last of his drink before setting the now-empty cup on the sink. “I have to go into the lab and give one of the scientists an update. There’s some snacks in the pantry if you get hungry, so no cooking!”

Ash laughed and nodded. “Sure thing! We learned our lesson last time, right Pikachu? Rotom?”


“I solemnly promise not to allow Ash near the stove again,” Rotom swore, and Kukui grinned.

It was only later, when he got home to find Ash and the pokemon loitering on the front porch along with half the living room furniture, that he realised his mistake in ever leaving this group at home alone. As he stared over the situation, Rotom immediately began rattling off calculations about how unlikely it was that they could have wrecked the house twice in the two times they’d been left alone, and how—statistically speaking—Rotom was absolutely and definitely not to blame for this. Ash just laughed weakly while Pikachu rubbed the back of its head, Rockruff tried to hide behind the upturned table, and Rowlet snored.

But it was still raining, so Kukui squeezed himself up between the kitchen chairs before turning his carefully blank stare on Ash. “What happened?”

“Well, y’see…” He gestured vaguely toward the house. “We were going to do dishes before trying out the TV. Rockruff decided to hang around, and so while I washed, it was lying on my foot, and Rowlet was sleeping,” he said, pointing at each pokemon in turn.

“Pika,” Pikachu added. “Pika pikachu, pika.”

Ash nodded like it had actually contributed to the discussion. “But Rowlet must’ve had a nightmare or something, because it suddenly started yelling, and that startled me, and so I moved my feet, but that just scared Rockruff even worse, and I tripped over it, only I tried to stop myself from falling and grabbed the draining board, but that didn’t stop anything and everything just fell and broke,” he said with a wince.

“Okay…” he said slowly, not seeing how that could have gotten all the living room furniture out here. “You didn’t hurt yourself, did you?”

“What? No, I’m fine. But it did scratch up the floor really badly,” he continued. “But I couldn’t find any sanding paper to fix it.”

“Fix it?” he asked incredulously. “What?”

“Don’t worry, it’s fine!” he said quickly, waving his hands. “We went out and bought stuff to replace everything.”

“Pika pikachu!” Pikachu added, while Rotom’s screen flicked on to a town map.

“I directed Ash to the nearest house wares store, and then to a hardware store, and advised him of the highest quality materials,” it said proudly, before flicking onto an annoyed emoji. “He didn’t buy them.”

“I told Rotom you wouldn’t like fine china,” Ash said, before wincing again. “You wouldn’t, right?”

Kukui was beginning to feel a little out of his depth. “You went out and bought new plates and cups? Just how many things did you break?”

“Just a plate!” he said, then added a little more quietly, “and… your breakfast mug. But Mom always says everything should match, so don’t worry – I bought a whole set to replace them.”

Very out of his depth. “I… see… And what was that about the hardware store?”

“To fix the floor,” he said blankly, as Pikachu gestured with both paws toward the house. “The hardware guys were so great, too. I was just gonna sand the scratches down, but they taught me all this stuff about how to polish and wax the boards so you can’t even tell anything was done to it!”

Kukui thought of the floorboard he’d put a foot through last year, which was still strategically covered with an archiving box. He felt his eye twitch slightly.

“Only, we kind of ran into a bit of trouble with that,” Ash admitted. “I made a mess of it. And then Rockruff ran through it. So we had smudges everywhere. So I did more to even it out, and… well…” He rubbed the back of his neck, looking around the crowded porch. “The guys at the hardware store said you shouldn’t put down furniture until it’s all dry and that could take hours, so…”

For a few seconds, Kukui couldn’t get his mind to process anything beyond the fact that Ash had apparently made over his living room floor because of a few minor scratches. Mostly, he couldn’t figure out whether to be impressed or exasperated. Or embarrassed, because if he’d broken a cup and damaged the floor, he probably would have thrown out the cup and forgotten it by lunchtime. But, in the end, he managed to focus just enough to point out, “I thought you were going to spend the day in front of the TV. When did you have time to do all this?”

Rotom lifted a wing in point. “It is conventional wisdom to do chores before beginning any enjoyable activity. This ensures the necessary tasks are done first and you will not be distracted.”

“I would’ve done it even if you hadn’t told me,” Ash told it mulishly. “I’m not that irresponsible, y’know.”

“Pika,” Pikachu said quietly, and Ash made a face before adding, “Usually.”

Despite existing in a hard plastic casing that couldn’t actually express emotion, Rotom did an excellent job of giving Ash the side-eye. “Existing data does not support this hypothesis.”


Kukui decided not to get involved in that debate, simply because he wasn’t sure which side he could come down on. Instead, he clambered past a pile of pokemon toys to reach the front door, so he could open it and have a look at the result.

It was a clean, polished floor. Not all the way to the edges, and since it was still a little wet you could see where Ash had completely failed to keep a straight line in his painting. He’d also missed a few waxy pawprints on the way to the door, but Kukui glanced down at Rockruff, still peeking out from under the table in shame, and decided he liked that addition. He glanced back up at Ash, who was still watching him warily, and inwardly sighed. What could you do?

“Welp!” he said, and shut the door. “Since we can’t go inside for a while, let’s go out for an early dinner, what do you say?”

“Wh- really?” Ash asked. “You’re not mad?”

“No, but I think we should revisit that chores discussion we had,” he said, climbing back out to grab his umbrella again. “I’m thinking maybe I should handle all the housework from now on, what do you say?”

Ash blinked, obviously shocked by the lack of reaction. Not that Kukui was completely sure what reaction he should have had. He wasn’t even sure how he actually felt. He definitely wasn’t mad. There was something ticking in his chest, uneasy and unhappy, but he had no idea why. It got a little worse when Ash slowly pulled back into himself, moving past shock and into a concerned frown. “That’s not fair. I need to do something to pull my weight, right?”

He nearly pointed out the data Ash was unknowingly providing, or the sheer entertainment value he’d created in Kukui’s life, but managed to stop himself at the last moment. He smiled and shrugged instead. “Well, if you’re really worried about it, you can do the grocery shopping. We’ll do it together a few times, so you see the kind of household stuff I get, and then I’ll leave it up to you. How would that be?”

“Uh… sure, I guess,” he said. “Are you sure? I can still do dishes – I promise this won’t happen again.”

“From existing data, that it is statistically improbable,” said Rotom, and Ash glared at it.

“I keep telling you it was an accident!”

“Okay, you two, let’s make that a Parting Shot and move on to the next round,” Kukui said, flicking open his umbrella. Once again, Ash gave him an oddly surprised look, but didn’t say anything before grabbing Rowlet’s pokeball and returning it. Kukui filed the reaction away for later consideration, along with the rest of Ash’s strange decisions over this rainy day.

He could analyse the kid later, after the wax had dried.

A day after the rain had stopped, Kukui found himself lying awake late at night, listening to the quiet noises he could hear in the basement.

He rubbed his face, debating whether it was worth getting one of his pokemon. He didn’t really think it would be thieves – he didn’t study anything worth stealing, and all his valuable material goods were on the main floor. There was that Team Rocket, but from what little Ash had said about them, it didn’t sound like they would go after his research. It was more likely to be Guzma or one of his idiots. Or…

He squinted up at the darkness of the ceiling, as if he could see through to the loft above.

It wouldn’t be the weirdest thing the kid had done.

He grabbed a pokeball just in case and trudged down toward the basement stairs. It was dark, lit only by the glow of the tank and… ah, yes. Rotom was shining a bright light over Ash’s shoulder, so he and Pikachu could stare at an open book.

“Ah, found it… normal type, uses fe- fero- oh, man… fe-ro-mo-nes? What the heck are fero-moan-es?” he demanded in a rough whisper.

“Scanning,” Rotom reported. “Pheromones. Secreted or excreted chemicals that trigger social responses.”

Ash started to turn and stare at it, but caught sight of Kukui lingering on the stairs before he could finish. He jumped, snapping the book shut and jerking upright. “Professor Kukui! Sorry! I – I didn’t mean –”

“It’s alright, Ash, calm down,” he said, and yawned. “But it’s really late. What are you doing awake at this time of night?”

“Nothing!” he said, while Pikachu echoed him, shifting as if to hide the book from view.

Kukui peered at them for a long few seconds, then wandered over to snag the book out of Ash’s hands. “You know, most kids sneaking into their guardians’ reading material are looking at porn, not…” He paused to look at the title of the book. “…the scientific glossary of pokemon move origins.” He returned his nonplussed gaze to Ash. “I know you’re still young and all, but you really need a hobby.”

Ash pulled back, obviously not sure how to respond to that. “Uh, well, I…”

“Why are you studying at two o’clock in the morning?” he asked wearily. “I don’t mind you reading my books, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“Oh, uh, no, that…” It was kind of hard to tell in the dark, but he was pretty sure Ash was blushing. “I just didn’t want to bother anyone. You’re so busy with school and your work at the lab, I didn’t want you to think you needed to help me with this.”

“Well, now you have me curious. But whatever it is can wait until tomorrow,” he said, and gently kicked at Ash’s hip. “Go on, get up to bed.”

Ash hesitated, then sighed and scooped up Pikachu as he clambered to his feet. “Yeah, okay.”

Kukui followed him back upstairs and waited for him to get up the ladder and settle down. Once he was sure Ash was in bed, he went back to his own, absently cataloguing all the moves that used pheromones even as he drifted off to sleep.

By the time Ash got up the next morning, it had coalesced into an entire lesson. He fully intended to present it to a class one day, but first he had to test it on a willing student. He waited just long enough for Ash to send Pikachu outside for fresh air—and for Rotom to take its educational thunder-stealing self out with it—and begin rummaging for breakfast before pouncing.

“Pheromones,” he began, “are kind of like a smell. Only you don’t realise you’re smelling them. Your body reacts to them unconsciously. It’s a chemical reaction that influences a lot of social behaviours in both people and pokemon.”

Ash stared at him blankly until the memory apparently came back. He almost immediately put down the cereal box to wave his hands awkwardly. “Oh, y- you don’t have to –”

“Nonsense! Talking about moves and how they work is what I’m really interested in, after all!” he said cheerfully. “So, which move were you looking into? Sweet Scent? Charm?”

Ash’s blush was more visible this time. “Attract.”

“Ah, the be-all and end-all of pheromone-based moves,” Kukui laughed. “And the bane of many a pokemon trainer.”

“Yeah… I have a snivy that used to spam it every chance it got,” Ash agreed. “I encouraged it to start with, but now I try to avoid it if we’ve got other options. It can be kind of cheap.”

“Oh, I don’t know. How is it any worse than…” He trailed off, because every move he could think of had an easy antidote. True, professional battlers didn’t use antidotes until after the round was over—if at all—but it was probably the principle of the thing. “Well, if you put the move into a roster, you might as well use it. So if you’ve used it before, why the research?”

“It… well…” Ash shifted awkwardly, then put the cereal away and got out the milk to finish making breakfast. He looked surprisingly embarrassed. “I don’t – I don’t really… get it. How it works.”

Kukui grinned. “I’m making a career out of questions like that, you know! At its most basic, it works on chemicals. A pokemon releases pheromones, causing the opponent to –”

“But only if the two battlers are different genders,” Ash interrupted. “That’s what I don’t get.”

He blinked, and Ash grimaced.

“I don’t normally pay attention to that stuff – I mean, who cares? As long as it’s strong and happy, then it doesn’t matter whether it’s a boy or girl, right?” He carried his bowl over to the table and poked at it with his spoon, apparently to better avoid looking at Kukui. “But Sophocles keeps bringing it up, reminding me that Togedemaru is a girl. At first, I figured he was saying that was why it worked so well with Pikachu, like a brother-sister combo, only yesterday Lana said that probably wasn’t what Togedemaru had in mind. But he must’ve been telling me it’s a girl because it’s important for some reason. And the only time it’s important is when you’re using a move like Attract. So…”

Kukui winced around his smile. Having watched the two pokemon interact, he suspected Sophocles was trying to awkwardly raise the issue of their pokemon potentially breeding. But that was probably a conversation for another day, because Ash was continuing his train of thought.

“It got me thinking, you know? About why it works the way it does. It’s not like a ghost-type move, where it makes sense for it not to work against another type. And that would make sense, because I can totally get why a grass-type wouldn’t be able to distract a water-type or whatever, because a water-type’s gonna be on guard around a type that could badly hurt them, right? But it’s got nothing to do with that. It’s just about whether they’re a girl or a boy.”

Kukui opened his mouth, then stopped. And after another moment, he stared.

He had been about to make a very obvious and—now he was taking a second to think about it—very flawed argument, but Ash had actually raised a very good point. Why wasn’t Attract influenced by type or evolution? He’d never spent a lot of time researching pheromone based moves, preferring attacks to stasis moves, but what little research he’d done into it told him it was a commonly accepted theory that Attract had evolved as an evolutionary assistant. That is, pokemon had originally used it to procreate. And yet if that was the case, then why was it so universal? A stufful couldn’t mate with a dartrix. And yet they could Attract one another.

He twitched with the urge to start taking notes. This was absolutely a paper in the making.

“So there must be something that makes boys and girls different,” Ash continued, frustrated and entirely oblivious to Kukui’s rising academic excitement. “If Attract is all about the fera-moles then it’s gotta be that. But when I ask people about how Attract works, they just laugh at me and say ‘oh Ash’ like I’m being stupid. Iris said that if I didn’t get it, it was because I was a little kid, and that time, Cilan actually agreed with her! Like I’m just supposed to know! Then they made some joke about how I have the ability Oblivious, which I’m pretty sure was an insult, but I don’t even know why! But I didn’t want to ask more questions when they were laughing at me, and the guys here don’t think I’m an idiot yet so I don’t want them to know I don’t know, but if it’s something I’m supposed to know then I should know it and I don’t!”

Kukui stared. While he’d delved into the theory, the conversation had somehow gone sideways, and he no longer understood what they were talking about. He resorted to some of the basic teaching skills he’d learned back in the day – if a student didn’t understand something, go back and find the point where they stopped following the lesson.

He was pretty sure Ash understood the concepts. He apparently couldn’t say the word ‘pheromone’ but knew it was a chemical. He understood that Attract worked on opposing genders, and that it had something to do with pheromones. But something about that was confusing him. Something fundamental.

Which wasn’t surprising. Kukui had noticed that about Ash – whenever he tried to work something out, he assumed he didn’t already understand it because it was complicated. That caused him to overthink things, get stuck on minor details, and ignore the usually simple error he’d initially made. So what was it about Attract that everyone just took for granted, but Ash didn’t? What was Ash overthinking?

‘There must be something that makes boys and girls different.’

He blinked, pulling his head back. Surely not. Surely that couldn’t…

“Ash,” he said slowly, “do you know what makes males and females different?”

He blushed, indignity rising. “Of course I do! They look different! You know, different tails or colours or…” His blush got a lot worse. “And the other stuff. You know… down there on humans. But those aren’t chemicals!”

“Well, technically everything is chemicals,” he said, furrowing his brow. “But you’re right. That’s all…”

He frowned as he tried to find words that apparently refused to come. Now he was overthinking it.

And Ash was right! Attract didn’t have anything to do with the physical attributes – if it did, it would have been banned from battle a hundred years ago purely for decency’s sake. It was about attraction, and that shouldn’t be a difficult concept to –

He stopped himself right there. Not only had he been about to think the most stupid, out of touch, grown-up thing ever… but he was forgetting who he was talking to.

Ash had been travelling for a long time, and normally you could make certain assumptions about a person with that kind of background. Pokemon journeys were usually less about starting a career in the professional pokemon industry and more about kids growing up and finding out who they wanted to be. There were a lot of kids that barely caught more than a couple of pokemon, instead taking the time to learn different skills and meet people.

Socialising was usually the biggest part of a real journey. For the first time, kids were away from their parents. Nurse Joy and the gym leaders weren’t there to tell them how to behave, so the kids experimented. They tried being jerks, tried being kind, tried all sorts of personalities. And then they tried them on different people, to see the kind of reactions they got. Eventually, they tried flirting. And then flirting would become kissing, and so on. Eventually, most kids figured all that out, spent a few more months working out that they weren’t destined for the professional pokemon industry, and then they went back home and settled down for some real life.

In the back of his mind, Kukui had kind of assumed Ash would have gone through all that. Sure he was hyperactive, but he was also a genuinely nice guy, full of the kind of emotional maturity that had to have been learned through experience. And he was so good with the girls. He’d only been at school a week, and already Kukui had seen all three of them giving him curious glances. It seemed logical that he could have only gotten to this point by suffering through at least one or two relationships.

But logic, he was beginning to realise, was not always the best device to use when attempting to make sense of Ash Ketchum.

Ash probably hadn’t even had a normal journey, Kukui reminded himself. Team Rocket was one thing, but even if they hadn’t been apparently hounding his every step, normal kids on normal journeys weren’t so acutely focussed on their dreams. Kukui had been tired and teasing last night, but he was really coming to appreciate the fact that Ash literally had no life outside pokemon training. No hobbies, no outside interests. He was perfectly sociable and able to talk about other things, but it was usually only for someone else’s sake. The only reason you couldn’t call him a workaholic was because until you actually achieved a title, people didn’t usually consider pokemon training a career.

And with that thought, Kukui finally realised what had bothered him about Ash’s actions on the rainy day. It wasn’t that he’d broken a few plates or attacked Kukui’s floor in a misguided attempt to help. That had all been kind of funny in its own way. What had bothered him was that none of it had been the kind of behaviour he expected from a kid Ash’s age.

It was the reminder that—generally speaking—when left to his own devices, Ash didn’t behave like a normal kid.

And when Kukui thought about it… that should have been obvious. He hadn’t grown up here in Alola, and he’d spent the last few years dedicated to the Pokemon Battle Circuit. Ash’s entire worldview was structured around how you behaved on a professional journey, where you only stopped during the day because you had something to do – even if that something was just exploring your environment or getting to know the locals. You didn’t take days off to do nothing. You didn’t wait to see what other people thought of your actions. You kept moving, kept working, and if you got into trouble you found a way out of it, and avoided any expected fallout by simply moving on. People and their reactions to you were just complications that you tried not to focus on.

When he thought about it like that, Kukui wasn’t in the least bit surprised that Ash hadn’t worked out the whole attraction thing yet.


He blinked, then blanched, suddenly realising he’d been silently staring at the kid for a ridiculous amount of time. “Sorry, I was thinking through a problem.”

“A problem? Is everything okay?”

He flicked his hand to dismiss the concern, and then took a moment to rearrange his thoughts into something that wouldn’t sound so much like a failing on Ash’s part. “Now that we’re talking about it, I actually find that you raise a perfectly legitimate question,” he began slowly. “After all, attraction isn’t just about a person’s gender in humans, so why should it be so for pokemon?”

Ash blinked. “Attraction? Like… liking someone?”

And there it was. The integral point that Ash had skipped past in trying to work it all out. “Of course. Where did you think Attract got its name from?”

He opened his mouth, then shut it again, apparently stunned. He blinked a few more times, and then lowered his eyes to the cereal that Kukui suspected had become increasingly soggy. “Oh. So… so when a pokemon gets hit by Attract, they’re distracted because they’re being forced to like the other pokemon. That kind of like?”

“That’s right.”

His brow only furrowed further. “But… but then why does it only work on opposite genders? I mean, that’s not how that works with people. Not all the time.”

Somehow, Kukui wasn’t in the least bit surprised that Ash considered that an obvious fact.

“And there, Ash,” he said, lifting his coffee cup to salute him, “is a research topic in the making. We’ve always said that Attract is unavoidable except through gender, the Oblivious ability, or sheer strength of will, but what if it’s not? What if it’s both more and less powerful than we thought? What if the real reason some pokemon aren’t affected isn’t strength of will, but rather a simple lack of attraction? And while we consider these problems, let us also ask why genderless pokemon are immune. They are well known—and often used—for their ability to breed, and yet it’s a given fact that they will be immune to Attract. That doesn’t make sense, and that makes it an excellent point of enquiry for a researcher.”

He seemed to have lost Ash somewhere along the way, but at least the kid didn’t look embarrassed anymore. “You mean… I’m not stupid for not getting it?”

“No, not at all. You’re just looking at things from a different perspective,” he said, sitting back in his chair. “I don’t think I’d study it myself—far too time and resource intensive—but it would be a fascinating research paper.”

“Uh… I don’t think I get it, but okay!” Ash said. “So I guess what you’re saying is that there’s no real answer?”

“Probably.” He paused, trying to remember how Ash had originally approached the conversation. Something about Togedemaru? “What was the question, again?”

“How does Attract work?”

“Oh. Yes, now that you mention it, there’s no real answer right now,” he said. “I think the best way to work with it in a pokemon battle is to assume that it will work on a pokemon of the opposite gender, but don’t rely on it working all the time.”

Ash chuckled weakly, then shook his head and started eating his cereal. Kukui sipped his coffee, discovered it had gone cold while he was thinking, and grimaced. He got up to fix the problem, but found himself considering Ash again as he closed the microwave.

It was really none of his business. But as a teacher, he could just imagine the sort of problems that could arise in a small, tight-knit class with a friendly kid that didn’t notice attraction when it was staring him in the face. He could already guess which (opposing but related) directions all three girls’ imaginations would go. He cringed at the future awkward conversations and decided to soften the blow by starting them now.

“So, since we’re on the topic,” he said slowly, “has any human pulled a successful Attract on you?”

Ash blushed again, but didn’t answer until he’d finished scarfing down his cereal. And even then, it wasn’t much of an answer. “Um… Well…”

“Ohh?” he prompted, amused. “Ash, do you have a girlfriend?” When Ash only looked more awkward, he made a point of adding, “or boyfriend?”

“Nothing like that,” he insisted, then ducked his head. “There’s this girl. We were travelling together in Kalos. When we said goodbye, she kissed me on the lips, so… I… I don’t know… Some of the stuff that happened when we were together seems kinda weird now. Like I maybe missed some stuff.”

Kukui grinned. “Probably. I know I did, when I was your age.”

Ash peeked at him sideways, then shrugged and got up to take his bowl back to the kitchen. “I dunno. It seems like a lot of hard work, that whole liking someone thing. I have this one friend who falls in love all the time. It makes him really crazy, and he gets really upset whenever it doesn’t work out, which is kind of every time.”

“Oh, yes. Believe me, love is always painful,” he said. “And it is indeed hard work, even after it stops hurting so much, but most people will tell you that it’s worth the hassle.”

“You think so?” he asked, and Kukui paused to take a moment and think of his beautiful Burnet, working hard on her research and out of his reach.


Ash smiled and set about washing his bowl and spoon. As soon as he was done, he started for the door, only to stop after only a few steps to look back at him. “Hey, um, Professor?”

He looked up from thoughts of Burnet. “Hm?”


Kukui blinked, brow furrowing slightly in confusion. “You’re welcome, but what for?”

Ash shifted his weight from one foot to the other, stretching his fingers and looking everywhere but at Kukui until eventually he shrugged. “I dunno…” He hesitated, then ducked his head into his shoulders, embarrassed again. “Just… you know… thanks.”

Once again, something curled in Kukui’s chest. It wasn’t warm, like he’d done something good, or tight, like he’d seen something bad. It was some strange, uncomfortable combination of the two. He made a point to meet Ash’s gaze with nothing but sincerity. “Any time, Ash.”

For a moment, the boy seemed to waver in place, like he wasn’t sure what to do, before he abruptly turned and headed out the door.

Growing up, Kukui thought as he retrieved his now-warm coffee, was never easy. Knowing who and what you wanted to be should have made it simple, but he supposed that it only really changed the kind of challenges you faced.

As part of his journey to become a Pokemon Master, Ash had stayed in Alola to learn some more of the theory around pokemon, develop his skills, and continue his dream. But maybe, just maybe, the more structured environment could teach him a few things he hadn’t picked up out on the road.

“Should be interesting to watch,” Kukui noted softly, and finished his coffee.

Second Lesson: Care

Ash had been strangely distracted all day, but Rotom’s explanation of his stolen lunch and decision to catch Litten explained that. Kukui was a little confused by Ash’s logic – he didn’t really understand how he’d gone from being furious over some stolen food to deciding to catch the pokemon responsible. There didn’t seem to be much connection.

“Stealing food is the absolute worst!” he cried, Pikachu waving its arms and ranting in similar indignation from his shoulder. “Nothing ticks me off more!”

“Why?” he asked with a laugh. “It’s just food. We have plenty.”

“That’s not the point!” he insisted. “You can’t just steal someone’s food – it’s just wrong!”

Kukui shook his head, still amused but deciding it wasn’t worth pursuing. Both Ash and Pikachu were clearly willing to go to bat for this cause for some reason, and Kukui didn’t want to get into an argument over something so ridiculous. He went with the other question instead. “So how does catching Litten get it back for stealing your food?

That stopped Ash in his tracks, to the point that his arms snapped to his side and he stood at full attention for two seconds before abruptly swinging his fists up in front of him. “Once I’ve caught it, I’ll teach it not to steal food! A-and I’ll – I’ll –”

“Pikachu pika,” Pikachu said quietly, and Ash twitched, but didn’t say anything in response.

Kukui couldn’t help but be amused by that, too. Any other trainer, he might have been concerned that he would take advantage of the pokeball bond, or punish it. With Ash, however, he strongly suspected that Litten would be downright spoiled the first few days of its capture. “You don’t actually know, do you?”

He dropped forward, head bowed and arms draped toward the floor. “Not a clue.”

Pikachu sighed and patted his hair. “Pikapi…”

“To be honest, though, I don’t know if it really deserves to be gotten back anyway,” Ash said as he pulled himself upright. “I don’t like how it stole my sandwich, but it doesn’t trust humans, so I guess it’s not that surprising that it tricked me. I still want to catch it, and show it that it doesn’t need to steal, but I’m not that angry anymore.”

Kukui smiled.

Still, the last thing he expected was for Ash to come home the next night holding a bandaged Litten in his bloody arms. He would have been confused even if it hadn’t turned out that Litten itself was responsible, but once he heard that, the only reason he didn’t immediately try and catch the damn cat himself was Ash’s insistence.

“I brought it back here so it would take it easy and stop making its injuries worse,” he said firmly, washing his arms off in the sink to show Kukui it was mostly just dried blood, not damage. “If we tried to catch it now, that would make me a liar.”

“That’s not really what’s important here,” he said, even as he raised his eyebrows in quiet disbelief. Ash’s arms had looked terrible only seconds ago, but now Kukui was having trouble spotting a single scratch deep enough to have bled. “I know you want to help Litten, but your own safety takes precedence.”


“Precedence. More importance.”

“Oh! It’s fine, Professor,” he insisted. “I know how to take care of myself.”

Eating dinner in its usual corner, Pikachu audibly choked, and then broke down in a coughing fit that had Ash ducking out from the water to hurry over.

“Hey, easy buddy! I know it’s good, but you need to remember to chew!”

Kukui watched him go, biting back some half-brained speech about the difference between the ability and need to take care of yourself. He was the kid’s teacher, not his mother. So instead, he turned his attention back to Litten, who was mulishly eating its own bowl of pokechow and glaring at them all.

Kukui had never really had a lot of time for felines – he preferred the easy affection of dogs. But somehow, despite the scratches and Litten’s horrible attitude… Even if Ash had been his kid, he doubted anything he could say would affect that outcome.

He sighed and decided to keep the first aid kit in easy reach.

Surprisingly, Litten was gone in the morning, but Ash wasn’t upset. In fact, he bounded down from the loft in as good a mood as ever, and when Kukui asked, he launched into an enthusiastic tale of an elderly stoutland, and how Litten had protected everyone from a vicious persian.

It always took a lot of willpower not to get distracted by Ash’s ability to inhale food in seconds, and even more over his talent at doing so while talking, but Kukui got the gist, along with the idea that Litten apparently lived with Stoutland, who was getting old enough for Ash to be mildly concerned about its age.

“And so?” Kukui prompted, when the story died off. “What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to get some berries from that lady in the market today,” he said. “A whole bunch of oran berries, and some sitrus berries… maybe leppa berries too!”

He blinked. “Those are just healing berries.”

“They taste the best, too! I bet Stoutland will really like them!”

“Stou-” Kukui stared at him. “Talk about a Reversal; I thought you were trying to catch Litten!”

“Nah,” he said, and smiled gently. “I couldn’t split those two up. And Stoutland definitely doesn’t need a trainer. It used to be really strong!”

Kukui tilted his head curiously, but Ash didn’t say anything until he’d gotten up and taken his cereal bowl back to the kitchen. “That Stoutland… it’s getting pretty old. I don’t think it can move very far anymore. Not enough to get its own food, or even really defend itself. But it used to be really powerful; you can see it in its eyes,” he said quietly. “I think getting old and tired has been hard on it. And needing help, that’s been even harder. Litten’s the same. But that’s why it’s good that they have each other… Litten gets it food, and in return, Stoutland teaches it things. How to be strong, how to fight. It’s an exchange, you know?”

He slowly nodded, hesitant to interrupt despite his confusion. Ash seemed to be thinking something through.

“But I still want to help,” he said, and looked up into the distance. “So I’ll bring them some berries. And maybe they’ll let me watch them train. And maybe, if they start to trust me, I’ll be able to bring Nurse Joy to see Stoutland. They’ll be so mad!” he added with a soft laugh, before drawing back into a quieter smile. “But I think Stoutland needs her, whether it wants to admit it or not.”

Kukui just stared at him silently for a few moments. Personally, he doubted the two pokemon would still be there when Ash went back, but…

“You’re worried about Stoutland?” he asked, and Ash glanced at him, then shrugged.

“I should finish getting ready for school. Don’t go too far while you’re waiting for me, Pikachu,” he added to his partner, who waved back before refocussing on its attempts to get Rowlet out of Ash’s bag. Ash grinned and avoided Kukui’s gaze as he hurried into the bathroom.

Despite himself, Kukui had to squash an irrational spike of jealousy that Nurse Joy was allowed to know something when he wasn’t. But there wasn’t much he could do about it, so he just moved on with his day. He had a lot to get the class through, just in case Oak decided to give them that extra egg of his tomorrow. If it went ahead and he wasn’t careful, a project like that could screw up his entire syllabus…

It was just edging into sunset, and Kukui was just starting to wonder how Ash would be getting home from Lillie’s house when his mobile rang. He still found himself staring out the window as he answered it one-handed. “Kukui here.”

Ah, Professor. This is Hobbes, butler for Ms Lusamine and Mr Mohn’s Melemele estate.

He frowned, restraining the urge to start walking toward the door. A phone call didn’t automatically mean there was a problem. “Yes, Hobbes, I remember. It’s been a while.”

I understand Master Ash is staying with you throughout his visit to the Alola region,” he said. “I wished to let you know that the young master has now completed his visit and is being driven home by our chauffeur.

“Oh, right,” he said with a laugh. Not that he’d been worried or anything. “Thanks for letting me know, Hobbes.”

But of course,” he replied, and then hesitated before adding, “I hope this is not too presumptuous of me, but are you of any relation to the young master?

“To Ash? Me? No, no,” he said. “Just his teacher and boarding host.”

Ah…” He hesitated again. “Well, this is most awkward. Do you happen to know… does the young master have relatives?

Kukui raised an eyebrow, again resisting an urge – this time to pull the phone back and activate the video function just so he could stare at the other man. “I haven’t met her myself, but he originally visited Alola with his mother. She went back to Kanto almost a month ago. Why do you ask? Did something happen?”

Not at all. Please do not be concerned by my hapless attempts at inquiry. I am being most graceless,” he said with a self-recriminating sigh. “If you were his relative, I wished only to express my warmest regards. Master Ash is an exemplary young man, and if today is any indication, he is helping Miss Lillie a great deal. I am most appreciative.

“Oh. Well, thank you. I’ll be sure to pass on the message if I ever speak to Mrs Ketchum,” he said, making a mental note to track her phone number down. It seemed like a bit of an oversight, now he thought about it. “The class is very close, and they’re all doing their best to help Lillie out.”

Yes. I also wished to enquire for another reason. I couldn’t help but notice that Master Ash did not ask about Miss Lillie’s family, or why the Missus is not present at the estate,” he continued. “Even when he heard that Miss Lillie had once lived with the Missus. He did not comment on it at all, beyond asking for clarification as to who she was in a photograph. I was surprised.

“I wouldn’t be,” he said lazily, turning to head into the kitchen. Now he knew Ash was on the way home, he figured he should probably prepare some food for the little black hole. “Ash is from the East; you might not be familiar, but kids grow up pretty fast out there. Family isn’t much of a concern at his age.”

I suppose that must be it,” he agreed, and Kukui looked sideways again. Hobbes almost sounded disappointed.

“Is something wrong?”

Not at all! I just… I had thought, from Master Ash’s behaviour, that perhaps he might be able to empathise with Miss Lillie’s situation,” he said slowly. “And if that were the case, then he may be able to…

Kukui smiled sadly. While they all kind of knew Lillie’s situation—her missing father, absent mother, recently distant brother, whatever happened to make her afraid of pokemon—they all also kind of knew that she was dealing with it by insisting there was nothing wrong. That none of it bothered her, and she was ‘just fine’. As an adult, who could see the behaviour for what it was, it was a little heartbreaking. Maybe Lillie talked to the other kids, but she definitely didn’t want any adult’s help.

He suspected her mother had a lot to do with that.

Whereas Ash simply didn’t tell him or include him in anything because he was a teacher. Which was why Nurse Joy, less of an authority figure and more of a practical component in a trainer’s life, was allowed to be included in his plans and not him. Not because he trusted her more, or anything like that. Kukui had no reason to be jealous or concerned about it, and he wasn’t.

He twitched and tried to ignore the fact he’d just narrowly avoided a mental tantrum by skating past it.

“I know we’ve said this before, Hobbes, but Lillie is a strong young woman. She’s going to make it through this. She just needs time and understanding,” he said. “Even if they don’t really understand her situation, I’m sure Ash and the other kids will be right there for her when she’s ready to talk about these things. As will you and I, if she should come to us.”

Yes, I suppose you’re right,” Hobbes said reluctantly. “Please do forgive the fancy, but I must confess that when I remembered that this was the boy Miss Lillie had said to have met Tapu Koko, I daresay part of me wondered if this was the guardians gifting us just what was needed.

Kukui chuckled. “Nice as that would be, I’m afraid Ash is just your average travelling pokemon trainer.” That was chosen as a rival by a living god. He found himself blinking at the reminder and forced himself to move past it. “But I’ll be sure to let you know if I see any miracles.”

Hobbes returned his weak laugh with one of his own. “It would be much appreciated, Professor. Well, I should get back to work. Thank you for your time. And for this assignment for Miss Lillie. I believe it will be most beneficial.

“I hope so too. Good night, Hobbes.”

Good night, Professor Kukui.

He hung up the phone and stared at it for a few seconds, before lifting his gaze back to the setting sun out the window.

Then he shook his head and started in on dinner.

Ten minutes later, headlights swung past the window as the first sign Ash had returned from Lillie’s estate, so he barely looked up as the door opened. “Welcome back.”

“Pi-ika!” Pikachu greeted, bounding in first only to stop when there was no responding bark. “Pika?”

“Rockruff isn’t here tonight,” he told it absently, before looking up at Ash and Rotom. “How’d it go with Lillie and the egg?”

“Pretty great,” Ash said as he crossed to the loft ladder. “She can already touch it! She’s gonna be a great pokemon trainer, you just wait!”

Rotom, however, flew over to the kitchen with a frown on its screen. “Judging by her continued fear of other pokemon even coming close to her, I do not think she will be able to train pokemon.”

“You don’t know that, Rotom,” Ash argued. “You saw that picture – she used to be able to touch pokemon just fine.”

“Oh, you heard about that then?” asked Kukui, glancing up at the loft as Ash disappeared over the edge. “Has she remembered anything about what caused the fear?”

“Nope. But it must’ve been pretty bad if it made her scared of pokemon,” he said vaguely, before muttering something out of Kukui’s hearing. He was still looking over his shoulder when he came back to the ladder, now sans bag, so Kukui focussed on the original tone rather than what he hadn’t heard, assuming he’d been talking to Rowlet.

“You don’t sound very surprised.”

“It happens sometimes,” he said, in a surprising display of nonchalance for someone that had been violently smacked across the room by an angry exeggutor tail and happily gone in for another look. He finished swinging his way down the ladder and walked around to grab Pikachu’s bowl from the sink without so much as a glance at Kukui. “She just needs some time and a chance to get used to them. She’s just gotta realise that not all pokemon are like the one that hurt her.”

“Hurt her…?” Rotom repeated, while Kukui looked at him curiously.

“You think that’s what it was?”

Ash was quiet for a few moments, apparently focussed on the thoughtless task of filling the bowl with pokechow and setting it down for Pikachu. When he looked back up, it was with his usual broad grin. “I wouldn’t have a clue!”

Rotom face-faulted in the air. “Don’t sound so certain when you don’t know!”

But Kukui narrowed his eyes slightly. Between the ridiculous thoughts Hobbes had just put in his head and the fact that Pikachu—who could only be beaten in speed-gluttony by its trainer—wasn’t eating, still watching Ash quietly… It reminded him of the way Ash had looked after they first dealt with Team Rocket, and the other day, with Litten and Stoutland. It made Kukui wanted to prod at the grin until he got something else.

But Ash had apparently already moved on, walking around to lean on the bench and watch Kukui cook. “Whatever it is, she’ll work it out. She’s stronger than she thinks. We’ve just gotta give her time and help out where we can.”

Now he really wanted to prod at it. No one—let alone a hyperactive kid like Ash—should have been able to say something so insightful while using such a cheerful tone of voice. But actual poking, he decided, would probably cross a line. So he went for metaphorical instead.

“You surprise me again, Ash,” he said, and Ash blinked back.

“I do? Why?”

“Well, a lot of people would say that they can’t help Lillie overcome her fears if they don’t know the root of the problem,” he pointed out, but Ash just scoffed.

“Well, that’s stupid.”

Rotom beeped angrily. “It is an accepted psychological fact, verified by hundreds of the greatest psychiatric minds!”

“That doesn’t make it any less stupid,” Ash retorted. “It’s not like she’s scared because she doesn’t understand something. She knows so much about pokemon, and she loves them a lot. So it’s not like you can just explain away whatever she’s worried about. She’s gotta work through it inside.”

Kukui looked at him from under his brow. “You think it’s that easy?”

“I never said it’d be easy. It’s just what she’s gotta do,” he said, and turned around, leaning back against the counter. “S’why I don’t need to know what made her scared. It won’t change anything. All I can do is help give her time. She’ll get through it.”

He continued watching Ash quietly for a few moments, debating responses. “You don’t think it’s a friend’s responsibility to try and help her?”

“Responsibility?” he asked. “I want to help. But I’m not gonna do that by making her remember stuff she doesn’t want to. I’m not gonna help anything by telling her how to feel, or what to do. She’s the one who’s gotta get through this.” Ash paused, apparently noticing that he’d started raising his voice, because he took a breath and continued in a lower tone. “Lillie’s really brave, and she’s trying. But I realised today, I shouldn’t just… It’s like – it’s like Litten.”


“Yeah. I might want to help, but… sometimes you can help most by taking a step back, and letting them do their own thing,” he said, his tone firm like he was reminding himself of the fact. “I’ll be there when they need me. But chasing them down, keeping an eye on them, trying to force them to do what you think they should do… you should never force someone to think the way you want them to. All that ever does is hurt people.”

Kukui turned his head, watching from the corner of his eye. That heavy feeling in his gut was making itself known again, niggling for him to notice something. But after a second, Ash swung around to face him again, all broad smiles and innocent eyes.

“Don’t you think?”

He hesitated, then nodded slowly. “I suppose it’s true enough.”

And it was. It wasn’t really how most people approached emotional issues, but there was definite logic there. And it wasn’t that different from what he’d told Hobbes: Lillie needed to work through this at her own pace, and she would hopefully come to them if and when she was ready for their help.

But something about the way Ash was explaining it…

He shook his head and continued lightly to change the subject. “So, what about the rest of your afternoon? What did you think of Hobbes?”

Ash immediately perked up again. “Yeah, he’s really cool! Did you know he’s a battler? He has this oricorio, it’s so awesome! Beat me and Rowlet pretty good!”

He chuckled. “You’re impressed that you lost?”

“Of course I am! Oricorio had these dance moves that really knocked us around. I’m not very good when it comes to dancing,” he added with a wince that quickly morphed into a grin. “But it just goes to show that me and Rowlet have a lot of work to do. I’ve been all focussed on getting it trained up with Tackle and Leafage, I totally forgot to get it any practice against real opponents. Gonna have to fix that, right Pikachu?”

“Pika pika!” it shouted around a mouthful of pokechow.

Rotom groaned. “That will be no help at all! The power difference between Pikachu and Rowlet is far too extreme. The battle wouldn’t last long enough to be of any benefit!”

Ash just grinned even wider. “Oh yeah? So I should get a pokemon more on Rowlet’s level, huh? You’d be pretty close, right Rotom?”


“’Course, then you’d have to train with us! Ever been in a battle before?” he teased. “Now that’s something I’d like to see!”

“I am not intended for battle! I am a RotomDex!” it wailed, and flew behind Kukui’s back. “My data is for analysis, not implementation!”

Kukui laughed, twisting around to give it an evil grin. “You won’t get any support here, Rotom. I fully believe in study through active experimentation, after all!”


“Yeah!” Ash cheered, and playfully ducked around the bench as if getting ready to pounce. “I think it’s time to experiment. How do you handle a Tackle, Rotom?”

It beeped in alarm and shot out of the kitchen, around the corner and down toward the basement. “I am not meant for battle!”

“Ah,” Kukui joked. “Now that’s Extreme Speed.”

“And this is Pursuit!” Ash shot back, before taking off at a run.

Kukui just grinned.

Lesson Three: Training trainers

Every other time he’d taught this lesson, it had been simple. Mostly because he was usually dealing with kids that were more interested in the theory than the practical elements of training, or at the very least with kids who’d only ever dealt with people from Alola.

Of course, even if he hadn’t, in hindsight Kukui had accidentally picked the worst possible time to give said lesson.

“Similar to regional variant pokemon, trainers from different regions will often have different battle styles as well. This is often related to how pokemon and the training profession are viewed by the regional culture,” he began, only to stop when he suddenly noticed Kiawe was scowling. “Something wrong, Kiawe?”

“No,” he said, closing his eyes imperiously. “I just can’t figure out why any region would value holding back as a battle style.”

Ash immediately whipped around, fist slamming against his desk. “I told you I wasn’t holding back!”

“Here we go again,” muttered Sophocles.

“Hey, come on now, guys,” Mallow said weakly. “Didn’t you go through this already?”

“That’s right! Surely enough is enough!” cried Lillie.

“I’m not just gonna sit by while he says stuff like that!” Ash snapped, and Kiawe opened one eye to glare at him.

“And you think I’m just gonna put up with you treating me like some kind of rookie?”

Kukui blinked, staring between the two battlers. “Is something going on here that I should know about?”

“Nothing’s going on,” Ash said irritably. “Kiawe’s just being stupid.”

“What did you say?” Kiawe snapped, and Kukui held up both hands.

“Alright, alright, sorry I asked,” he joked, and waited through a few seconds of awkward silence before prompting, “Kiawe, you want to explain what’s wrong?”

“Ash,” he said bluntly, and then clarified, “He says he never holds back in a battle. And yet there’s never been a knock out when Turtonator battles Pikachu. Even when I land a Z-move.”

“So what if Pikachu can survive a Z-move?” Ash shot back. “That doesn’t mean I’m holding back when we battle!”

“Oh yeah? Then why don’t you use the same kind of power in battle with me that you used against Tapu Koko?”

“Because I don’t have a Z-crystal anymore!”

“Don’t be stupid; I’m talking about that Thunderbolt you hit it with! That was –”

“Alright!” Kukui called over the both of them, and they fell obediently silent. He shook his head and held up a hand to signal the end of the discussion. “I’ll see you both after school and we can talk this out. But for the meantime, let’s just focus on the lesson.”

“Fine with me!” Ash snapped at Kiawe, who glared back.

“If you don’t skip out early.”

“What was –!”

“Enough!” Kukui demanded, and pressed a hand to his head as Ash dropped back into his seat. It would be easier if they were being disrespectful to him, not just each other. As it was, while he wanted to send them both out of the classroom, without a mediator that would just escalate the problem. Man, he hated having to actually pull the authority card. “I don’t want to hear anymore bickering. Understand?”

Ash turned back to face front, and Kiawe folded his arms in sullen silence.

“Alright. Now,” He’d completely lost his place. Had he even started the lesson yet? “Regional battle styles. We learn about them so that—should you leave Alola—you don’t accidentally insult an experienced trainer when commenting on their tactics. What is considered an advanced strategy in one region could be considered time-wasting or unnecessary flourish in another. This is particularly true in some of the Eastern regions—”

“Like Kanto?” Sophocles asked with a sneaky grin, which only grew wider at Ash’s sharp glance.

“—such as Sinnoh,” Kukui said darkly. Sophocles rarely started trouble, but he sure loved to stir it up. Luckily, a quelling look was enough to make him quiet down for the moment. Less lucky was that Kukui knew it was just for the moment. His class was usually one of the more mature and well behaved groups in the school, dedicated to learning and structured by Lillie, Mallow, and Kiawe’s guiding personalities. But that just meant that on the rare occasions they did decide to be brats, it was all the more difficult to control.

Leaning back against his desk, Kukui drummed his fingers under the lip, debating the merits of locking this down versus continuing with the lesson. In the end, he decided to risk it. “Sinnoh values performance, and so they are more likely to train pokemon in a wider variety of skills than those from other regions. Double- and triple-battles are common, leading to a higher number of combination attacks, while one-on-one battles will almost always include detailed combo-manoeuvres. These can take some time to set up, and so many trainers from other regions will consider it needlessly flashy and even reckless, despite the amount of thought that needs to go into these strategies.”

Lillie raised her hand. “Is there a special reason they do that?”

“There are a number of theories,” he said. “Some argue that it’s related to the region’s love of what are known as ‘Contests’. These are special pokemon performance competitions which combine pure performance pieces with battles specifically designed to show off a pokemon’s beauty and talent.”

“Sounds like a waste of time,” Kiawe mumbled, and it was only Kukui’s immediate warning glance that kept Ash from twisting around again. Instead, he sunk down in his chair and glowered at the balcony. Kukui watched him warily for a second before continuing as if it hadn’t happened.

“Others have suggested that it is due to the region’s unique connection to Arceus and the Creation Trio.”

“Arceus?” asked Lana, and Kukui winced. Religion was next semester’s problem.

“The short version is that Arceus is believed to have created the Sinnoh region, and some would argue the entire universe,” he said. “The Creation Trio are Palkia, Dialga, and Giratina, who govern Space, Time, and Dimensions respectively. Due to the far-reaching and adaptable nature of these pokemon, some researchers believe Sinnoh pokemon trainers are paying respect to their deities by showcasing the far-reaching and adaptable nature of their pokemon.”

“But Contests didn’t begin in Sinnoh, right Professor?” asked Lillie. “I read that they began in Hoenn.”

“Correct. However, Hoenn believes there is and should be a clear separation between performance and battle. To the point that they will actively discourage battle trainers from participating in Contests, and vice versa, whereas Sinnoh will encourage it. This has caused quite a lot of friction between the two regions in the past,” he added with a slight grimace. Burnet had a lot to say about Hoenn. “Hoenn values a more simplistic style in both battle and performance, preferring beauty or ‘cute’ style for show, or overwhelming strength through battle.” The implications of which he had heard far too much about. Burnet could rant about—apologies, debate the intricacies of—Hoenn’s pokemon training styles for much too long, in his opinion.

So, before Lana and Mallow could catch wind of that problem, he moved on as quickly as he could. “Being a more academically-focussed region, Unova is more reliant on theory and strategy. Type mathematics, abilities, and power levels are deeply analysed in the Unova region, to the point that one of the most highly regarded careers for a pokemon trainer is the Pokemon Connoisseur. These trainers are able to identify a pokemon’s full statistics from sight, smell, and touch, in addition to their unique compatibility with specific trainers.”

“Whoa,” Mallow said, succinctly. “That sounds hard.”

“It is. Reportedly, in order to achieve the highest rank of their profession, a Connoisseur will have over ten years’ experience and have studied theory for at least half of that time again. It is a very difficult profession,” he said, and then shrugged. “But outside the Unova region, their techniques are often seen as lacking, because they don’t take into account other factors, such as emotional or spiritual influence.”

From the corner of his eye, he could see Ash was all but ignoring the lecture, still slouched in his chair and glaring out the window. Which was surprising. Given Ash’s experience with the regions he’d mentioned so far, he’d expected this to at least interest the kid on a personal level.

“Is there a region that does?” asked Lana, and Kukui blinked, jerked back to what he was supposed to be doing. It took him a second to remember what that was before he could answer.

“Alola, as a matter of fact. We’re particularly known for our close relationship with our pokemon, due to our reliance on our Z-crystals and –moves. They only function, after all, because of our strong bonds with our pokemon,” he pointed out, then shrugged and continued. “This is reflected in our battle style, which revolves around the use of Z-moves. Timing is key to the Alolan Battle Style. Isn’t that right, Ash?”

At the sound of his name, Ash visibly flinched and looked around, blinking rapidly. “What?”

Not even listening. Great. “As a visitor, what would you say is the biggest difference between Alolan battle style and that from other regions?”

He stared for a second before answering. “The – the Z-moves?”

“And how does that influence our battle style?” he prompted. When Ash just continued staring at him blankly, he added, “Is there anything you would do differently here to account for people who can use Z-moves?”

“Uhh…” He furrowed his brow, then shrugged. “I… well, you’ve gotta time stuff different. Because… because a Z-move can turn a battle around. But if it doesn’t work, then your pokemon might not have enough strength to keep fighting afterward. So when you use it, you’ve gotta be sure it’s gonna work.”

“You don’t even have a Z-crystal,” Kiawe snapped, and Ash actually snarled.

“And when you’re battling someone who does, then you gotta know how to avoid it or take the hit!” he snapped back, over Kukui’s attempts to interrupt. “So you can come back from it!”

“Which you never bother doing!”

“Because if I did have a Z-crystal, I wouldn’t have been in a good place to use it!” he cried. “Turtonator can keep fighting after using its Z-move, but if Pikachu missed its shot, then you could fire back a flame thrower and there’s no way we’d avoid it!”

Kukui tried again. “Yes, and –”

“You don’t have a Z-move to use right now!” Kiawe shouted. “So why not keep fighting without it?”

And again. “Kia-”

“Because if I get a Z-move and I use it straight away like I want to then I’m gonna mess it up!”

“You make no sense!”

“You –!”

Enough!” Kukui yelled, and lashed his arms out in opposite directions. “Neither of you are welcome in this class until you calm down! Ash, on the balcony! Kiawe, in the hall! Now!”

“I’m not the one –” Kiawe started, but Kukui just jerked his pointing arm.


He didn’t immediately move, before suddenly shoving his chair back and standing up. Ash hadn’t even waited that long, already swinging his backpack over his shoulders.

“Fine.” He glanced over at Pikachu, who had been watching this all play out from the corner, along with Togedemaru, Poppolio and Bounsweet, clustered around the egg and looking highly distressed. But Ash didn’t even have to say anything before Pikachu bounded down and started hurrying over to him.

“Pika pika?” it asked quietly as it jumped up onto his shoulder, and he shook his head.

“Let’s go, buddy.”

Both boys stalked out, and Kukui took a calming breath before turning back to the rest of the class. “And that is why we have these lessons,” he said evenly. “Not explaining your methodologies as a trainer can cause others to assume things about what you’re doing. For example, I suspect Ash is trying to train himself to adapt to the Alolan Battle Style. However, Kiawe is assuming their battles are about training pokemon. So his refusal to finish a battle after he deems himself to have failed it makes it seem like he is ‘taking it easy’ on Kiawe.”

The remaining students exchanged nervous glances, which he could understand. He didn’t think he’d ever yelled at this class before. Eventually, Mallow raised her hand.

“Why wouldn’t Ash just say that’s what he’s doing?”

Because Ash never explained anything, Kukui thought irritably, but as far as his students were concerned, his main response was a philosophical shrug. “His methodology is a little unorthodox, and wouldn’t make sense to most people.”

Lana raised her hand next. “Is that a Kanto thing?”

“No,” he said with an unamused laugh, then sighed again. “The Kanto style is extremely blunt. They value efficiency over anything else, which means that they train pokemon to be very good at one thing and one thing only, be it attack, defence, or strategy. They stick to type strengths. Pikachu is actually an excellent example of this, though a more traditional Kanto trainer would have evolved Pikachu into a raichu early on, and changed their strategy immediately.”

“Changed their strategy?” asked Mallow, and he nodded, trying to hide his impatience. He wanted to get this lecture finished so he could go and deal with Ash and Kiawe, but his well-behaved students needed to be his priority.

“Raichu are slower, but much more powerful. As a species, pikachu are very fast, relying on their ability to hit hard in short bursts while avoiding attacks. A typical Kanto trainer would prioritise power first, as it requires less finesse. However, while Ash hasn’t evolved Pikachu, he has otherwise trained it in a very Kantonese fashion by playing to its strengths. If you remember the first battle we saw him take part in, his first move was Quick Attack, followed by a Thunderbolt. Speed, and then power.”

“But you said Ash doesn’t use Kanto style,” noted Sophocles. “So what does he use?”

“I’m not sure,” he admitted. “I honestly haven’t seen him battle enough to identify it, and as I mentioned, I think he’s trying to adapt, which in these initial stages would pollute his style considerably. Perhaps once he and Kiawe have calmed down, we can discuss it with him. But, in the meantime, I want you all to read up on the varying battle styles,” he said, picking up their textbooks and moving over to hand them out. “Pages one-sixty-two through one-eighty.”

Once they had the books open, Kukui waited a few seconds to make sure they were at least making a good show of pretending to be engaged before heading out to the hallway, where Kiawe was leaning against the wall in a very well put-together sulk. So well put together that it was positively screaming about how forced it was. So Kukui just folded his arms, leaned against the wall sideways, and waited.

In typical fashion, Kiawe did not disappoint. “Do you really think that’s what it is? The training himself thing?”

“I do,” he said.

“Then he should’ve said so,” Kiawe snapped, and Kukui bit back a smile. He’d been far worse than either of them when he was their age.

“He could stand to explain himself more, yes,” he agreed, then tilted his head and noted, “You’re still angry.”

“Of course I am!” he snapped. “He should have said that was what he was doing! He made me think…! He treats everything like it’s a game! Like all of this is for fun, like pokemon are just kids playing games. Tapu Koko chose him, gave him that Z-ring and taught him how to use a Z-move, and he just shrugs it off like it doesn’t matter!” he cried, clenching both teeth and fists. “That Gigavolt Havoc was so powerful, and from that little tiny pikachu. I expected to battle that! When I didn’t… I thought he was toying with me! And all along, he was doing something completely different! He made me look like an idiot!”

“I doubt Ash saw it that way, Kiawe,” Kukui said calmly. “I think it says a lot that he trusts you to help him train, rather than just practice battle techniques. He respects you and Turtonator.”

Kiawe scoffed, and Kukui hesitated. He normally tried to keep his and Ash’s home and school lives separate, but…

“He often mentions you at home, talking about your strength, and the bond you have with Turtonator,” he said. Kiawe glanced up, and he smiled. “Really. He’s learning a lot from the way you battle.”

“That’s what he says, but…” Kiawe struggled to hold on to his anger. “Just how strong is Pikachu? I can’t even tell when he won’t battle me properly.”

“Does it matter?”

“Yes!” he insisted, only to stop and shake his head. “No, of course not. It…!”

“If you knew, according to stats and levels, that Pikachu was stronger than Turtonator, would you still battle it?” he asked, thinking of those scientific trainers Ash had once confessed to beating up on. “What about if you knew it was weaker?”

Kiawe started to argue, but then paused and pulled back with a grimace. He huffed irritably. “I guess it wouldn’t matter. It doesn’t necessarily change anything, and you can learn from every battle, win or lose.”

“That’s right. And speaking of which… are you ready to go back and learn from my class?”

“Yeah… sorry, Professor.”

“Apology accepted. But I wasn’t the only one you disrespected,” he reminded him. “You disrupted your classmates’ learning.”

“Right,” he said. “I’ll… I’ll apologise to them, too.”

“Good. Now, I’m going to talk to Ash. Once class is over, I expect you to do the same. Understand?”

“Yes, Professor.”

“Good. I left a textbook on your desk. Start on page one-sixty-two.” He walked Kiawe back in, paused long enough for the others to make another good show of being focussed, and then carried on out to the balcony.

The decidedly empty balcony.

Kukui closed his eyes for a moment, worked his jaw, and then slammed his fist into the railing. “Damn it.”

As far as the class was concerned, Ash had gone for a walk to cool his head and think about how his actions impacted others. Kukui, however, grew increasingly concerned as the day continued and Ash didn’t reappear. As soon as class was over, he hurried down the hall to Principal Oak’s office, knocking twice but not bothering to wait before opening the door.

“Don’t worry, Ash, Rotom –” Samson stopped, and then blinked. He was sitting at his desk with Rotom hovering over his shoulder, both of them having apparently been focussed on the Kanto egg in front of him. He raised an eyebrow at Kukui. “Professor Kukui. Is something wrong?”

“Uh, not necessarily,” he said slowly, shutting the door behind him. “Has Ash been by today?”

“Not since the two of you dropped off Rotom this morning,” he said.

Rotom beeped. “I last saw Ash during the lunch break, when he and Kiawe battled. I calculated that Ash’s timing has improved by zero point two seven percent, while Turtonator’s flamethrower is continuing its heat increase by an average of zero point zero eight percent per battle!”

Despite himself, Kukui took a moment to appreciate that – it was his field of expertise after all. But he snapped out of it as Samson’s look became increasingly pointed.

“Professor Kukui, why are you asking about the whereabouts of one of your students?” he asked. “Class only ended a few minutes ago.”

“Yyyyes…” he said slowly, debating responses. On the one hand, Ash was (technically – in his home region at least) a legal adult who was perfectly within his rights to go wherever and do whatever he liked. On the other hand… he was a kid, Kukui’s boarder, and more importantly, his student. During the school day, Kukui should have known where he was.


“I sent him out of class for arguing with Kiawe,” he explained. “I told him to go to the balcony. He… kept going.”

Samson closed his eyes with a weary sigh while Rotom beeped rapidly.

“Ash left without me?!” it cried. “But I am supposed to go everywhere with him! How will he know what to do without my guidance and information? What if he meets a new pokemon and I am not able to document it? What –”

Samson calmly reached up, put his hand on the back of Rotom’s casing, and then shoved it into the desk. He then levelled Kukui with a blunt look. “This is what we were talking about with your classroom management, Professor. You need to learn how to handle things like this better.”

“I know, I know,” he said, pushing up his glasses to rub at his eyes. “It’s just Ash! He’s…!”

“Blaming your students, are you?” he asked mildly.

Which in its own way was even more pointed than his look, so Kukui sighed and didn’t bother responding. “Are you finished with RotomDex?”

He wordlessly released it, and it jerked back up into the air with an indignant squeal.

“Thank you. Alright, Rotom,” Kukui said, setting his hands on his hips. “You spend the most time with him. Where does Ash go when he needs a good sulk?”

Rotom just stared at him blankly. “Insufficient data. Sulk?”

“Uhh… be upset. Angry at the world.”

“Insufficient data,” it repeated. “I have not yet seen this event.”

“Neither have I,” he said, and then sighed again. “What about thinking? Is there somewhere special he –”

“Existing data shows a seven percent probability toward extensive thinking. In other words: he doesn’t do that,” Rotom replied bluntly, and Kukui noticed Samson hiding a grin. He rolled his eyes and turned back to the door.

“Well, then I guess we’re doing this the old fashioned way. Come on, Rotom.”

He wasn’t in the market, or on the beach, or the Pokemon Centre. Even when there was an explosion—usually a good sign of a pokemon battle or training—he followed it to find a couple of senior students practicing, but no Ash. Rotom became increasingly distressed, calculating increasingly low odds of them ever being able to find Ash (for a computer, it certainly had a flair for the dramatic – the academic part of Kukui wondered if perhaps it was its more simplistic pokemon mind overriding the data, while his more human side panicked right along with it), but Kukui made a point of keeping calm and quiet.

Worst case scenario, he decided, Ash would probably come home when he was hungry.

“Given Ash’s personal finances and habitual spending, that is at a lower rate of probability than him simply buying food,” Rotom argued as they started heading back to the house. “My models prove that he is likely to stay away. He will buy dinner from the market, and then fall asleep on the beach, and then the tide will come in, and then he will be accidentally eaten by a wailord!”

Despite himself, Kukui stumbled to a halt and slowly turned his head to stare. “…what?”

“It has a statistical chance of happening.”

And that fact alone could have been worth discussing even if Ash hadn’t been missing, until Kukui remembered he was talking to either a pokemon or a computer, and decided he wasn’t that far gone yet. He moved on.

Besides, as his house came into sight, silhouetted against the setting sun, he realised they’d both been panicking for no reason. There was an added outline of a boy and pikachu sitting on the roof. Annoyance—both at himself for overreacting and Ash for this whole experience—surged, but he pushed it down as he continued on, focussing on how he should approach the oncoming conversation instead.

As a teacher, he needed to explain that a student couldn’t just leave the school grounds whenever they felt like it. As a guardian, he needed to explain that Ash couldn’t just take off like that without telling anyone what he was doing. As both, he needed to point out how the whole event had been unacceptable, rude, and disrespectful to himself, Kiawe, and the whole class.

And as… something else, he needed to ask if Ash was okay, and why the whole thing had clearly upset him.

But he wasn’t given a chance to decide on anything, because he hadn’t even stepped foot in the yard when Rotom suddenly shot past him to fly up into Ash’s face.

“You left without me!” it yelled, and Ash jerked back while Pikachu yelped and nearly fell off the roof. Rotom ignored both reactions, instead furiously thrusting a wing into the narrow space between itself and Ash’s nose. “This is not acceptable! I am travelling with you so that you may properly document pokemon, analyse battle strategies, and learn how to become a competent trainer! I went with Principal Oak so that you could better focus on your studies, on the condition that you retrieved me prior to leaving school grounds! What if I had gotten lost? What if I had been stolen? What if you had encountered a new pokemon and been unable to battle it without my superior knowledge and advice? You are my responsibility, but I too am yours! This was irresponsible and childish! This—”

Seeing that both Ash and Pikachu were utterly transfixed by Rotom’s onslaught, Kukui took the opportunity to duck inside the house and clamber up into the loft. As he’d suspected, the skylight was propped open, providing easy access to the roof. He hitched himself up and out, amused to find Rotom still ranting as he carefully picked his way over to take a seat beside Ash.

“—you are not the only one who matters! I am your important companion and voice of reason! I am your insight into the Alola region! I am –”

“You are making excellent points, Rotom,” Kukui interrupted. “But I think I’ll take it from here.”

“I am not finished!”

“Yes, you are,” he said firmly, and Rotom paused a moment, furious emoji turned on him for several seconds, before it flew up and over their heads.

“I am going to put myself on charge. I will continue this when I have a full battery!” it announced furiously, and then zipped down and into the house through the skylight. Kukui rolled his eyes and turned his attention onto Ash, who remained completely still for a few more seconds in clear shock.

But eventually, his eyes slipped to the side, and he slowly turned his head to meet Kukui’s gaze. He paused, then grimaced and lifted a hand to rub the back of his neck. “Sorry about what happened in class. I guess I let my temper run away with me again.”

He hummed, acknowledging the apology but not accepting it yet. “When I told you to go out on the balcony, I expected you to stay there. You can’t just leave campus without telling anyone, Ash. That’s not how school works.”

“Sorry,” he said again, but this time he didn’t sound even remotely apologetic. “I wanted to be by myself for a while.”

Kukui frowned. “Even so. Don’t do it again. Not without telling me.”

He just looked away, and Kukui pressed his lips together in annoyance. “Ash.”

“Is Kiawe still mad?” he asked, obviously choosing to ignore him, and Kukui took a deep breath to avoid getting angry.

Kid or not, Ash was a legal adult. He didn’t have to do anything. He could drop out and go back to Kanto tomorrow and no one could stop him. He was only living with Kukui because it had been offered – he’d been more than prepared to sleep under a tree for a year if he had to. And as the weeks turned into months, it was becoming more and more obvious that Ash was getting less out of school than he was from just living in Alola itself. He had a lot of other options if Kukui pushed him the wrong way.

So he decided to let the sleeping snorlax lie, but made no attempt to hide his annoyed expression.

“Kiawe calmed down after I explained that you’ve been trying to learn how to adapt to Z-move timing,” he said evenly. “You should have told him that earlier, when he first got angry.”

“Why should I?” he snapped. “He didn’t tell me anything. He just got mad and started accusing me of holding back.”

“You called a battle to an end when you didn’t seem to be losing, Ash,” he pointed out. “How would you react if someone did that to you?”

“I’d ask how come!” he cried. “I’d say we weren’t done yet! He didn’t, so I figured he got it! It’s not like this is the first time we’d done this!”

“And I admire your dedication, but you have to understand that not everyone has your background,” he argued. “Most of the students at school aren’t battlers, and the little battling they’ve done has been against other casual battlers. They do it for fun. Kiawe probably thought you were calling it for other reasons until he noticed you kept doing it.”

“I battle for fun too! I have loads of fun battling Kiawe!” he said, and Kukui gave him a blunt look.

“You battled him to train.”

“Only partly!” he objected. “It’s not like real training. Right, Pikachu?”

Pikachu almost sounded amused at the idea. "Pika!"

“I just need to get the timing right,” Ash continued, looking back out at the ocean. “Next time we see Tapu Koko, we’re going to give it a real battle. And if I’m gonna do that, I need to be able to match anything it dishes out. I need to get this right.”

Kukui narrowed his eyes, immediately confused. “Ash, pokemon need a trainer to use Z-moves. Tapu Koko wouldn’t have them.”

“Yeah, but…” He paused, as if seeing the flaw in his argument but somehow unable to get around it in his own head. “Tapu Koko… Tapu Koko wants me to use them. That’s why it gave me the ring, and taught me what it did. So I’ve gotta get it right.”

Kukui grimaced, but there wasn’t really much of an argument he could make when Ash was clearly operating illogically. There would be no point. He took off his glasses to rub at his eyes. “Alright, fine. But next time you decide to practice something specific with someone, let the other person know beforehand, alright? You know Kiawe well enough by now to know he takes this all very seriously – a misunderstanding like this could end a lot worse than it did today.”

“He takes it too seriously, if you ask me,” he muttered, and Kukui rolled his eyes.

“While normally I would agree with you, I have to remind you, Ash,” he said impatiently, “You were challenged by the Guardian Deity of Melemele Island. When Kiawe challenges you, he is doing the same thing as a god has done. A lot of people would take that a little more seriously than your average battle.”

“It never bothered anyone before,” he said grumpily.

“And how," he asked, "would anyone have known you were going to be challenged by the Guardian of an island you’d never been to?”

“That’s –” Ash cut himself off, just scowling for a few seconds, before he abruptly shook his head. “Forget it.”

For a moment, they sat in silence, Kukui watching Ash watch the sunset. He didn’t seem interested in continuing the argument, and Kukui had to admit he wasn’t exactly motivated to do so either. Sometimes things like this happened, and you could either obsess over them or move beyond them. He looked back out across the ocean as well, letting the calming sounds of the wind and tide eat away at his frustration. He hadn't really handled any of this that well himself.

“It’s a late start to the school day tomorrow,” he found himself saying, apropos of nothing much at all. Maybe he should take Ash to meet Hala in the morning. See what the kahuna had to say about it all.

“Maybe I should get some real training in beforehand,” Ash said quietly, making Kukui glance at him and Pikachu groan.

“Pi-ika chu…”

He chuckled quietly and shifted to pet its head. “Hey, it stopped being a vacation for me ages ago! Besides, weren’t you the one getting all excited about battling the other day? It’s about time we got back into shape!”

“Pikapika,” it grumbled.

Kukui hesitated, then shrugged to himself and stood up. There was no point in staying upset. “Well, in the meantime, let’s go get dinner ready. It’s been a long day for all of us.”

But even as they climbed back down and into the house, Ash’s words echoed in his mind, and he found himself remembering Kiawe’s frustrated question from earlier. Not that it should have affected whether someone would engage in a friendly battle with them, but…

If Ash and Pikachu could already effortlessly defeat Team Skull, score a hit on Tapu Koko, and keep easy pace with Kiawe and Turtonator’s Z-move…

Just how strong would they be when they were ‘in shape’?

Lesson Four: Emotional management

Originally, since Ash had won his Grand Trial and regained the Electrium-Z, Kukui had planned to spend his weekend helping the kid train. He’d been all geared up to do it, too – he wanted to see Ash’s style, and maybe even finally get a handle on just how talented he was under all the hyperactivity.

But then Kiawe had showed up and, despite the fact that they’d been at each other’s throats only a few days beforehand, Ash was immediately distracted. A new island to explore, new pokemon to see, and ice cream besides? Apparently training just couldn’t possibly compete with that.

So Kukui had resigned himself to another boring day at the lab, until he remembered that chances were pretty good at least some of his colleagues would be at work. They were Pokemon Scientists – very few of them had lives to speak of.

He smirked and grabbed yesterday’s newspaper on his way out the door.

“Morning, Kukui,” Artocarpus was, typically, the first one to greet him as he walked in. “Didn’t expect to see you today, after all that whining you did last time you came in on a weekend.”

“Oh, leave him alone, Arty,” Cassia said, rolling her chair back so she could see him around the desk partition. “None of us like working weekends, and he has a family now.”

“I don’t have a family,” Kukui said. “I have a boarder. But he’s spending the weekend at a friend’s, so I’m free to get some actual research done.”

The third and last member of their team actually present peered over the top of her computer with a raised eyebrow. “Judging from your expression, I don’t feel like research is what you have in mind.”

“Well… I’ll get to it,” he said defensively, and then grinned and flourished the newspaper. “But first, did anyone happen to see yesterday’s news, by any chance?”

“Oh, now it makes sense,” Acacia said with a soft chuckle. “Kukui, did you really come into work just so you can brag?”

“It’s not bragging,” he said. “I simply think, as a research team dedicated to understanding pokemon battle, my colleagues should be fully apprised of the fact that my newest student defeated the Totem Pokemon of Melemele Island with a pikachu and only recently caught rowlet. And then directed said Totem Pokemon to single-handedly solve the Rattata Crisis –”

“He’s right; it’s not bragging,” Artocarpus deadpanned. “He came in to gloat.”

Kukui’s grin only broadened as he moved over to slap the newspaper down on Artocarpus’s desk. “And just yesterday, he won his Grand Trial without losing a single pokemon to Hala’s two. Despite a Belly Drum-powered All Out Pummelling Z-move, and using a normal-type Z-move himself with that same pikachu.”

“Kukui,” Acacia said, “If this boarder of yours isn’t family, you don’t get the right to play the proud papa. It’s obnoxious.”

“How about the smug teacher?” he asked playfully. “He learned that Z-move from me, after all.”

Cassia laughed while the other two rolled their eyes. “Well, then he has my congratulations. You just get told to be quiet.”

After you tell us about the Grand Trial,” Acacia corrected. “Keeping the bragging to a minimum, if you please. So your boarder used a pikachu. I’m going to guess that the Kahuna used… Riolu?”

“Crabrawler and Hariyama, actually,” he said, smile fading slightly at the memory.

All three of them did a double-take, their attention caught. “Hariyama?”

He nodded slowly. “Yeah, I was a little surprised myself. I would’ve called it overkill if Ash hadn’t stepped up to the challenge,” he said, but then shrugged. “But he’s no rookie. He’s trained over two-dozen pokemon and been in a handful of leagues. It still seems a little extreme against a kid with a rowlet, but he won, so there you are.”

“So did he just use the pikachu?” asked Artocarpus.

“No, he started with Rowlet,” he corrected. “It went to sleep after the battle though, so he switched to Pikachu for Hariyama.”

“Well, that at least makes a little bit of sense,” Cassia said. “It’s an experienced battler, right?”

“Still, that Crabrawler isn’t a joke,” Acacia pointed out. “Your boarder hasn’t been on the island for very long, right? How long has he had this rowlet for?”

“About… five weeks?” he guessed, and then blinked, realising it was four. He felt like Ash had been living with him for months, but it had actually been less than one. He scratched the back of his neck, feeling strangely awkward about the realisation.

Cassia frowned thoughtfully. “What’s his name again? Ash Katter?”

“Ketchum,” Artocarpus corrected, checking the newspaper.

“Call me crazy,” she said, “but is he the one that always shows up in the Key Trainer section of research articles? I’m almost positive he’s the one with the bulbasaur Oak always references as his ranch leader.”

They all fell silent for a second, trying to remember, before Acacia rolled back to her desk and typed in a search query to check. Her eyebrows rose in mild interest. “Look at that. Ketchum. In one, two, three… seven of Oak’s recent papers, two of Rowan’s, one of Elm’s, and… Ivy. Must’ve been slumming it with that one.”

Kukui blinked, then pushed off Artocarpus’s desk to hurry over and look over her shoulder. “Really?”

“Oh, and look here, he’s referenced in Gary Oak’s paper too,” Cassia said, pointing out a minor paper at the bottom of the list. “Seems you have a proper research assistant in your house, Kukui.”

“Do they say why he’s a Key Trainer?” Kukui asked, scanning the search results. Acacia slapped his hand away from her screen and clicked one of the links to bring up the page in question, but it didn’t provide much extra information. “Key Trainer Ash Ketchum, re: Bulbasaur, Tauros (herd)… it just looks like he’s the trainer of Oak’s research subjects.”

“Still, he gets around, huh?” Cassia said mildly. “Those are some big names. Do you even know what I would do to be mentioned in one of Rowan’s research papers?”

“Nothing I’d say in polite company,” Artocarpus drawled, and she mimed throwing something at him in retaliation. Artocarpus snickered but otherwise left it there, while Acacia turned her own smirk on Kukui.

“And now he’s slumming it again,” she teased. “Such a step down.”

“Hey, at least I can get myself a research assistant. Who was your last Key Trainer?” he deadpanned, and she laughed before going back to the search results.

“In all seriousness, though, they’re not just big names. Elm’s paper is that one he did about the G.S. ball—”

“The premier example of a failed research experiment,” Artocarpus joked. “Exciting!”

“—both of these Rowan papers are from that year when he was the golden child, talking about dimensional breaches and the Creation Trio. Even Ivy’s is her biggest paper, that one about the Legendary Birds,” she said, pointing to it. “Either he’s the biggest good luck charm on the planet, or he really knows how to pick ’em. So what’s your amazing paper going to be this year, Kukui?”

He grunted, both because it wasn’t that funny and also because he was preoccupied reading dates. With the exception of Oak, whose papers came out relatively regularly, it seemed like Ash had only been helping professors for the first few years of his journey. But when he thought about it, that made sense – Rowan’s final paper in that incredible year he’d had was almost entirely theoretical and positively smacked of League censorship. It had kind of been a turning point for a lot of Pokemon Professors, with a significant decrease in using active trainers, since that gave the League an excuse to meddle in their research.

“Well, I’m officially not surprised he could keep up with Hariyama,” Cassia said. “Real Pokemon Professors don’t waste special mentions on mediocre trainers’ pokemon. He’d have to have some ability.”

Kukui blinked and frowned at her. “What do you mean ‘real’ Pokemon Professors?”

“She’s right. Elm’s a bit of a soft touch, but from what I hear, Rowan and Oak keep their responsibilities as Pokemon Professors pretty separate from their research papers,” Artocarpus pointed out. “We still don’t want to hear your bragging, but it sounds like your boarder is a little more interesting than we first thought. Well done.”

Still caught on the implication that he wasn’t a real Pokemon Professor, it took Kukui a moment to respond. When he did, he wasn’t any less offended. “You didn’t get that when I told you how he led the Totem Gumshoos into battle with over a hundred rattata?”

“Yeah, but that could’ve just been Proud Papa Kukui talking,” he said with a nasty grin. “This is documented evidence.”

“I am not a ‘proud papa’, he’s my student,” he corrected. “And if that’s what you call a lack of evidence, I am never asking you to peer review my work again.”

“Ooh!” Cassia said, lifting her head. “Does that mean if I call you ‘Proud Papa Kukui’ I don’t ever have to read your work again? All those in favour of a new nickname for the Proud Papa?”

“Yeah, okay, funny, I’m going to get some work done now,” he said, but while his colleagues smirked, he gave the search results one last thoughtful glance before heading into the training room.

He’d have to give those papers another look sometime.

The papers were interesting—there was a reason they’d been some of the biggest ones released in recent years—but not particularly enlightening. He’d read them all before, and it wasn’t like they expressly referenced Ash or gave any insight into how he spent his time. For all Kukui could tell, Ash hadn’t done anything for any of the professors except provide some pokemon for them to look at while they wrote some of the defining papers of the last decade.

If he read between the lines, however, he could perhaps see something in Professor Oak’s work. The man studied the relationships between people and pokemon, and Kukui knew enough about Ash’s team to know that when he mentioned a trainer and his bulbasaur, it was pretty easy to guess who he was talking about. Nothing earth-shattering, but still enough to add to the mystery that was Ash Ketchum.

“Your pokemon greet you by attacking you?” he asked Ash one morning, and the boy actually stopped scarfing cereal for a second to stare at him.


He flicked his device to show what he was reading. “This is one of Professor Oak’s research papers, and I think he’s talking about you here. Are you the trainer whose pokemon will always greet him by showing off their weakest attack with a personal demonstration?”

“Oh! Yeah,” he said, and went back to his cereal. “I didn’t know I was in any of those. That’s so cool of him.”

Kukui waited pointlessly for a moment before prompting, “Why do your pokemon greet you like that?”

“Hm? Oh, well, if it’s their weakest attack then it’s the best way for me to know the least they can do. So, you know, it tells me what they’ve learned while I’ve been away,” he said around a mouthful. Kukui waited again, but apparently Ash considered that to be the only explanation needed. He looked back down at the paper, to where Oak was detailing it as a sign of trust and affection between the trainer and pokemon.

He decided he was perfectly okay with not feeling that level of trust with his pokemon.

Other articles were less confusing, but perhaps, if he was reading between the lines correctly, slightly more concerning. Like the one that discussed the concept of blaming a trainer for a pokemon’s personality faults. It talked about trainers that raised their pokemon with love and affection only to be bitten when the pokemon evolved into a new and more aggressive personality. When that was just metaphorical, Oak pointed out, the general consensus was that such a concept was fine – a firm hand and strict training could usually bring a pokemon back into line. But when it was literal, were they actually telling a traumatised child that their pain was their own fault? It was an accepted practice (in Kanto and Johto, Kukui reminded himself – it became increasingly less common the further west you went) but what kind of impact would that have on a developing mind?

The emotional growth of a young pokemon trainer was apparently something Oak had been very concerned with a few years ago, belying the careless attitude he’d shown Kukui through their phone calls. He’d worried over the emphasis on rivalries that the league promoted, and the harsh letdown that inevitably came when beginning pokemon trainers—who often showed great promise and skill—either failed to make it to the league or were knocked out in the beginning stages. One of the papers Kukui could actually remember ignoring was an essay that mulled over the theory that a trainer should never let their pokemon see them scared, because it led to some trainers developing the habit with people too.

Reading it now, he thought of Lillie. Not because she didn’t show her fears—you’d have to be blind, deaf, and completely inattentive to miss that—but because she always insisted she wasn’t scared. That it was all in her head and she’d be fine if she chose to feel otherwise.

There were probably a lot of people who would agree with her, he realised.

Days later, when their extra-curricular lesson was brought to a screeching halt by Ash sprinting onto the scene with a poisoned Rowlet and a curiously mild look of concern, he found himself thinking of the paper again. Especially when Rowlet was cured, and Ash immediately cheered up, looking for all the world like he’d never known any problems at all.

At least, he did until everyone else had gone home and he was helping Kukui gather their supplies. He kept his voice perfectly light and cheerful, almost absent, as he said, “I’m going to skip dinner tonight, okay?”

Kukui dropped the chair he’d just finished folding. “You what? Ash, are you feeling alright?”

“Of course!” he said with a quick grin. “But I want to take Rowlet and Pikachu to the Pokemon Centre.”

“That is a wise course of action,” Rotom advised, sounding a lot more concerned than Ash did. “You should have done so much earlier.”

Ash just glanced at it, while Kukui frowned. “Rotom, we cured Rowlet’s poisoning. You don’t need to go to the Pokemon Centre for every little scratch.”

“This is not just a scratch!” it insisted. “I calculated Rowlet’s damage percentile to be over eighty-five, while Pikachu suffered sixty-two percent!”

“What?” he asked, turning back to Ash. “What happened?”

“It was no big deal!” he said, but Kukui noticed his eyes had wandered off to the side, and his lips were twitching around his grin. “We just ran into Team Rocket. It was a tough battle, but we made it through. It gave us a lot to think about, right guys?”

“Pikachu,” Pikachu said, almost sounding embarrassed, while Rowlet crooned sleepily.

“But now we have some time, I’d like to get everyone checked out,” Ash continued. “I don’t know how busy it’ll be at the Pokemon Centre, but I wouldn’t want to keep you waiting. So –”

“Don’t worry about that, Ash, I’ll come with you,” he said. When Ash looked hesitant, he gestured vaguely toward Rockruff. “I should probably get this one checked out, anyway. It might be wild but it could probably still do with a Refresh! I’ll buy us dinner while we wait.”

Surprisingly, Ash still didn’t look thrilled with the idea, but he didn’t argue either, and they finished packing everything up and dragging it back to the house in relative silence. Now that he was looking, Kukui could see that Ash’s shoulders were stiff—sitting slightly higher than usual—and his smile was a little fixed. But with everything considered, Kukui could guess why, and so kept quiet.

At the Pokemon Centre, however, he made his move by suggesting Rotom observe Nurse Joy. “I think it would find it extremely beneficial to experience some of your scans up close and personal,” he added to her meaningfully, and she blinked for a second before catching on.

“Oh, of course! I’d be delighted to—” She winked at Kukui and Ash. “—let you experience one of our health scans, RotomDex! Please, come this way!”

Ash stared as she and the four pokemon disappeared into the back, then raised an eyebrow at Kukui. “What was that about?”

He shrugged lazily. “Some Rotoms don’t adapt to possessing a pokedex as well as others. Ours seems well enough, but it doesn’t hurt to get a professional opinion every now and then. Besides, I wanted to talk to you.”

“Without Rotom?” he asked, and Kukui nodded, raising his own eyebrow when Ash immediately began to look wary. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, swinging his arms against his sides as he asked, “Um… what about?”

“Just what happened today,” he said, and then flicked a hand at the dining area. “Come on, let’s get some dinner. Grab us a table while I order.”

By the time he got back, Ash seemed to have worked himself up into a mild panic, sitting ramrod straight in his chair and fiddling with his fingers. Jaw clenched and eyes wide, he watched as Kukui sat down, waited two more seconds, and then exploded.

“Rowlet and Pikachu were okay, I swear, I know how many hits they can take, and I knew they would be okay as long as we didn’t get into any more battles. It was just that I knew Lillie and Mallow would freak out if I left the class and with the poisoning cured it was just bruising, so I knew they’d be okay if we left it for a while. I swear if it had been anything bad I would have come straight here, it’s just that I knew they were mostly okay and I didn’t want to make it worse by stressing people out and –”

“Stop!” Kukui cried, and Ash’s jaw clicked shut. He raised his eyebrows, waiting to make sure that the tide had ebbed for the moment, and then said, “I understand all that, Ash. I’ve been on a pokemon journey too, remember. I don’t think you’re cruel for holding off on healing your pokemon.”

He blinked rapidly for a few seconds, then relaxed. “So… that’s not what you wanted to talk to me about?”

“No. It’s fine. I’m more worried about you,” he said, and Ash blinked again.

“Me? I didn’t get hurt.”

“No. Well…” he added thoughtfully, “There’s a training theory I’ve been thinking about a lot lately – I wanted to run it past you, see if you knew it.”

“Uh… okay?”

“It says that part of the emotional connection between a pokemon and trainer is that if a trainer is worried or panicked, a pokemon can’t be expected to perform to the best of their ability,” he said slowly, watching for a reaction. “So a good trainer never lets their pokemon see them scared.”

Ash didn’t relax, but he did sit back a little in his chair with an understanding smile. “Of course! I’m not always great at it though – dead ghosts freak me out,” he admitted, and Kukui stalled for a second, trying not to get distracted by the casual way Ash had just referred to actual ghosts. At least that’s what he assumed Ash meant by ‘dead’ ghosts. He seemed to think they were real… real enough to be a common encounter. And… what?

No. No, he was not getting distracted. He fixed Ash with a firm look. “So you do try and hide how you’re feeling.”

“I don’t know if I’d put it like that,” he said. “But it’s definitely important that pokemon never think they’re facing something they can’t beat. And part of having a trainer is having someone to look to for direction when you don’t know what to do. So it’d be pretty bad if their trainer looked like they thought something was hopeless, right?”

Kukui tapped his fingers against the table a few times, considering Ash’s expression. He seemed comfortable enough, but his eyes kept drifting off to the side. He let it go for a minute before prompting, “Or if they looked like they’d really screwed up?”

Ash’s smile slipped a bit, and he looked down at the table. “Sure. I mean, if you looked like that, then the pokemon might think it was their fault things had gone wrong. Especially a new pokemon, who’s not used to battling, or…”

“Or a pokemon like Rotom?”

He shrugged again. “Well, in that case it’s more that it’s got no real experience with stuff, so it might start to think something like poisoning is dangerous enough to bench you for good. And it’s not. I mean, once the poisoning is cured, you just gotta get back up and learn how to avoid it for next time.” He was still technically smiling, but his eyes, not quite hidden by the bill of his cap, were growing darker with each word. “Because there will be a next time. And you gotta keep going. That’s what being a Pokemon Trainer’s all about.”

“Maybe,” Kukui agreed. “But there’s no pokemon here now. So you don't have to hide what you're thinking.”

He didn’t answer at first, and when he started to, drawing himself back up with a deep breath and the beginnings of a grin, Kukui made a point of meeting his eyes with a firm look.

“Ash,” he said softly. “Do you think you screwed up today?”

It was almost surprising how well that worked, actually stopping Ash’s attempted misdirection in its tracks. He almost looked shocked by the question, entirely caught off guard by someone wanting a real answer.

Maybe that was why it took a long time for his expression to fall, and even then, he tried to hide it by bowing his head again. “Yeah, I did.”

Kukui nodded slowly, still watching what he could see of Ash’s eyes. They seemed a lot more trustworthy than his mouth. “How?”

“I’ve been slacking off too much,” he said. He began slowly, but as the words continued, he began speaking faster and harder. “Pikachu and I haven’t been training properly, and I haven’t given Rowlet nearly enough battle experience. And I – I knew how strong that Mimikyu is, and I just didn’t…! I didn’t think…!” He clenched his eyes shut, turning his head away like that would block everything out, even as he continued berating himself. “I saw the mareanie, too. I should’ve known it would fight for James, they always do! But I didn’t even look until it was too late and – I almost lost. I almost lost them. I almost…!”

It was… odd. He wasn’t quite crying. He was just… clenched. Every muscle tensed, his jaw locked into a hard line that changed his whole face into something harsh and older. Kukui’s arms twitched, wanting to reach out, even as he knew that would be crossing a line. Besides, it had come on so fast. It was literally less than a minute ago that Ash had been smiling, even if it wasn’t real, and now he looked like…

Even as Kukui watched, the moment seemed to pass as Ash reopened his eyes, sucked in a breath, and then let it out, visibly forcing himself to relax.

“I screwed up, and I lost. But I can’t focus on that. That’s not who I am. That’s not who I am,” he told himself again, and looked up with a smile that was angry and determined but almost genuine. “I just gotta start training again. Team Rocket’s got a strong team here, so I gotta make sure mine is just as good. They’re not going to win. I’ll make sure no one takes Pikachu and the others away from me. Simple as that.”

Kukui hesitated, lines from Professor Oak’s essay rolling through his head. Lines about pokemon trainers being taught from a young age that their emotions could have a negative impact on the ones who relied on them. About how those trainers adapted by avoiding emotions. How they might not even notice that they were abandoning their own needs because someone else needed them to be strong.

Some of them survived. They cut themselves off from the pain by telling themselves it didn’t matter. That was why true Pokemon Masters and Champions often seemed so cold, or disconnected from the world. But some of them…

He found himself thinking of Guzma, who had been so angry and hurting, but had only been able to deal with that by getting stronger through pokemon battles. When that hadn’t worked, he’d lashed out at the whole world. And even Kukui had rolled his eyes and told him to grow up. And then he’d disappeared into Team Skull, and… that was pretty much that.

“So don’t worry, Professor,” Ash continued, before he could figure out how to respond. “I know exactly what I did wrong, and I won’t make the same mistake again. No more slacking off! It’s time for me to get back to training!”

“Ash…” he said, but almost immediately faltered. He’d screwed up with Guzma because he didn’t know how to recognise the problem – this time he just didn’t have the words. “Losing a pokemon battle isn’t… just because you screwed up, that doesn’t –”

“Sorry to make you wait!” a voice interrupted, and he flinched. Looking up, he found a tired young man standing by their table with a tray of food, professionally oblivious to any conversation he may have interrupted. He presented them with the benign smile of overworked hospitality staff everywhere and began setting down their meals. “I have two burgers with the lot, an orange juice, and an extra large coffee with an extra double-shot. You know that stuff’ll keep you up for hours even without a single extra shot,” he said, and Ash laughed.

“Professor Kukui doesn’t believe in sleep! He just passes out on his books!” he said playfully, before turning his attention on the burger. “This looks great! Thanks so much!”

The waiter did a double-take at the honest enthusiasm, then smiled properly. “No problem. Just come up to the counter if you need anything else. Have a good night.”

“Thanks, you too!” he said, before grinning broadly and picking up his burger. “Seriously, Professor, thanks for this. I haven’t had a burger in so long! It looks amazing.” He took a huge bite and then practically melted into it. “Mm… it tastes amazing, too!”

Kukui just stared at him quietly for a few seconds. The tense muscles were gone. The anger, the self-recrimination, the sadness… it was like he’d never known a single bad thought.

And there was merit to it. The cheerful determination, the ability to just accept things and move on, and decide to do better next time. It was admirable. It was exactly what they all said a pokemon battle trainer was supposed to do.

And besides, Ash was his student. And even though they lived together, he was just Kukui’s boarder. There were boundaries. He probably had support networks in the other kids, and back home in Kanto. He probably had people he called and whined at and they sympathised and it was all very healthy. Because as far as Kukui had seen, Ash was a happy, mentally stable (if somewhat odd) pokemon trainer that connected with people on a deep and emotional level. You couldn’t do that when you were secretly tying yourself up in emotional knots. He was fine.

So he took a sip of his coffee and did the only thing he could. “For the record, Ash?”

“Hm?” he asked around a mouthful of food. “Yeah, Professor?”

“If…” He stopped, and then started again. “If you need help… any kind of help. With training, with… talking about… things,” He inwardly throttled himself, wishing he was better at this. “I’m available. Alright?”

Again, it seemed to actually stop Ash for a second, even his enthusiastic chewing coming to a halt as he just stared. He swallowed his mouthful, paused, and then gave a smile that looked a shade too brittle. “Thanks, Professor. But I should be okay. I’m pretty confident in how I train for battle; I just need to get back into it, you know?”

“Yeah,” he said, and let the kid have this one. “Maybe I’ll come down and watch a training session one day. It’s always interesting to see someone else’s techniques.”

“I know, right? I’ve learned so much from other people, even when I can’t do what they do. Like Performers, or people who do Pokemon Contests? Some of the stuff they do is so cool, and it gives you all these ideas! Like combined moves. They do them so well. Have you ever seen a Contest?”

“A couple. It’s not really my thing,” he admitted, and let Ash carry on.

Maybe it was nothing, or maybe it would come up another day. Either way, he just hoped he would be ready for it.

He would do better this time.

Lesson Five: Pokemon Trainer

Watching Ash train was, like so many things around the kid, a very interesting experience.

“Okay,” he said finally, as he finished driving the last stake into the ground. He’d set up sixteen long poles in the sand, four of which were short, while all the others were tied with red or blue ribbons. Pikachu didn’t really seem to understand what was happening either, though it had obediently remained standing on the marker Ash had originally set for it, a field’s length away. Ash stepped back to survey his work, apparently found it acceptable, and then walked back to take up position behind Pikachu. “It’s power and target practice, buddy. Just like old times, only this time they’re made of wood! You remember the old motto?”

Pikachu blinked at him, then at the poles, and then suddenly fell over laughing. Ash grinned and pointed to the two on the far right. “We’re doing single-shot thunderbolts, aiming at the poles that match the words! That’s line one over there, then line two, three, that’s the grand finale in the middle, and then it’s four, five, and the two short ones are six. Got it?”

“Pika!” it said, still giggling. It slowly calmed down, and clambered back to its feet, wiping away tears as it gasped for breath. “Pi- pika- pi- pikachu…”

“I do not understand this,” Rotom noted, and Kukui slowly nodded.

However, despite their confusion, Pikachu seemed to have found meaning in Ash’s instructions. Once it had fully recovered, it dropped back to all fours and lifted its tail at the ready.

“Pika!” it announced, and Ash immediately spun in place, flinging one arm out to point at nothing in particular.

“Prepare for trouble!” he yelled, and Pikachu lashed out a thunderbolt, striking the red pole on the far right dead-centre. Ash smiled slightly. “Make it double! Literally, too!”

The blue pole beside it was next, burning right through the middle to snap it in half.

“Nice job, buddy. Let’s get a bit harder this time – surrender now or prepare to fight, fight, fight!”

This time it was the blue pole in the set second from the left.

“To extend our reach to the stars above!”

Blue yet again, second from the right.


Kukui did a double-take, but Pikachu didn’t pause, lashing out at the short pole, furthest from the left. Ash hummed.

“Don’t forget the mirror coat, Pikachu. Try it again, only go for the ground in front.”

“Pika!” it acknowledged, and sent out another thunderbolt that slammed into the sand in front of the now-charred pole. Both it and the sand went flying from the impact.

“Better. Now let’s pick up the pace. To denounce the evils of truth and love! Jessie!”

Pikachu snapped off two thunderbolts in quick succession, but the second one veered and hit another blue pole, making both Ash and Pikachu grunt. Pikachu followed it up with a third thunderbolt that hit a red pole instead, and then spread its legs, panting slightly from the repeated power drain.

“You okay?” Ash asked warily, but Pikachu just tossed its head with a determined, “Pi-ka!”

“Thunderbolts are not typically used in such a fashion,” Rotom said, completely ignored by everyone. “They require time to charge and aim, even for powerful and fully-evolved electric types!”

But while it had focussed on the attacks, Kukui had begun to notice something about Ash’s call-outs. Team Rocket had a Wobbuffet, didn’t they? And he was pretty sure Ash had referred to the woman as Jessie before…

“Okay, then let’s try it again,” Ash said, and pointed again. “Meowth, that’s right! James! Team Rocket, blast off at the speed of light!”

Three more rapid-fire thunderbolts, and both trainer and pokemon visibly ground their teeth when the second one hit an already burned red pole and the third overshot the mark to slam into the sand behind.

“To unite all peoples within our nation!” Ash called, and Pikachu hit another previously-charred pole, but Ash seemed satisfied with this one, because he swung his arm up like a Performer calling for the end of her routine. “Now it’s time for the grand finale!”

“Pika! Pi… ka…” It leapt up into the air, curling in on itself so its ears and tail touched for a brief instant before it suddenly erupted with a frankly terrifying amount of electricity. “Chuuuuu!”

The lightning bolt slammed into the dirt directly in front of the middle four poles, and that was pretty much all Kukui saw before everything exploded in a wave of sand. Rotom dived down and under his labcoat, overriding Kukui’s startled yelp with its own electronic squeal, while Kukui himself yanked his arms up in a fruitless attempt to shield himself from a veritable shower of gritty sand. Not that it mattered – the wave was almost over before they were finished reacting, and so he let his arms drop, sighed in weary resignation, and looked back up at Ash.

He barely seemed to have noticed the explosion, already looking up and over the water. It took Kukui a second to follow his gaze and find he was watching four poles gracefully spearing their way toward Akala Island.

“How…?” Kukui wondered, eyes dropping back down to Ash and Pikachu, but he continued to go ignored as Ash set a hand on his hip and met Pikachu’s look with a wry grin.

“Looks like Team Rocket’s blasting off again,” he noted, and Pikachu panted out a laugh.

“Pi pikachu!”

“Nice job, buddy,” he said, but then tilted his head. “But we have really gotta work on your quick shots. Remember, we don’t always have time to go all out, and there are a lot of pokemon that can just ignore a Quick Attack.”

“Pika,” it agreed, and shoved itself up onto its hind legs. “Pika pika pikachu. Pika!”

“Nah, we’ll come back to it. I need to find more poles first, and you should recharge a bit,” he said, and then unhooked a pokeball from his back pocket. “Come on out, Rowlet! Let’s test out that silent flying of yours!”

“Is it safe to come out yet?” Rotom asked, still hiding in the small of Kukui’s back.

He hesitated, watching Ash explain his next training session to the two pokemon. Apparently he was going to give Pikachu a blind-fold, and make it try to avoid Rowlet’s tackles. A hard task, given that rowlet were known for their ability to move silently, but Pikachu looked determined.

“Safe or not,” Kukui said slowly, “I want photos of everything.”

Ash had originally been shocked to discover Rockruff was wild, and although he adapted to it coming and going much more easily than Kukui had expected, he also seemed to quietly think it was only a matter of time before Kukui caught it. Which was kind of odd, given that he was the one actually feeding Rockruff these days, and definitely the one Rockruff cuddled up to when it could, and evidently ignoring the fact that the only reason Rockruff didn’t crawl all over him the way it did Kukui was usually because Pikachu was in the way. So when they discovered Rockruff was trying to learn a move, Ash looked at Kukui first.

“This is the kind of thing you study, right?” he asked, as Rotom snapped picture after picture of the magmar soundly defeating yet another pokemon. “How pokemon learn moves and train and stuff?”

“That’s right.”

“So… you’d be mad if I helped out, huh?”

“Pika?” Pikachu gasped, grinning broadly. “Pika pikachu? Pika?”

Barely glancing at the excited pokemon, Kukui tilted his head toward Ash, one corner of his mouth lifting. “Helped out?”

“I think I can help Rockruff learn Rock Throw,” he said. “If you don’t mind.”

“Rockruff’s wild, Ash,” he reminded him. “If you want to work with it, that’s your decision.”

“Really?” he asked, and pumped his fists. “Alright! Now we just have to ask Rockruff!”

“Pi pikachu!” Pikachu cheered.

He wasn’t at all surprised when Rockruff enthusiastically agreed, or even when Ash reassured Rotom he wasn’t doing it out of some twisted scheme to catch it. As much as he loved the little puppy, Ash seemed mostly oblivious to any returning adoration. He just wanted to help.

Besides, even if Ash had been trying to be sneaky, Kukui still wouldn’t have minded, simply because it gave him ample opportunity to be sneaky too. Ash’s training with Pikachu and Rowlet had been unusual – the way he trained Rockruff was fascinating.

“It’s like watching one pokemon train another,” he mumbled as he watched Ash physically act out a responding pounce for Rockruff to mimic. In these sessions, Pikachu wasn’t just Ash’s constant companion, but almost like an extension of him, doing everything he did but with a pokemon’s size and power to give a better example. Rockruff’s eyes flicked between them both, following Ash for the concept and then Pikachu for the proof. “The verbal commands and explanations are just an added bonus.”

“This is not how conventional pokemon trainers work,” Rotom said imperiously. “The accepted method to learn Rock Throw is to verbally instruct the pokemon in the correct movements, and then have them practise them repeatedly. A pokemon has a natural instinct to add power to it, which humans are not expected to understand. This is—”

“—probably a much more effective method to ensure the pokemon understands,” Kukui finished, putting a hand to his chin. He grinned at Rotom’s confused stare. “It’s one thing to learn by memory and rote. Anyone can rattle off a fact if you drum it into them hard enough. But if you teach someone why something is the way it is, they’re a lot more likely to be able to apply it later.”

“I do not understand the difference,” it said blankly. “Surely if you know the information, then you can apply it.”

“It’s the difference between, say, Kiawe and Sophocles,” he explained. “Sophocles knows information about pokemon, and he can rattle it off almost as well as you can. But Kiawe has lived with pokemon since he was a baby, and understands them in a natural, instinctive way. So Sophocles will outstrip him in every written test, but Kiawe will always get much higher marks in a practical lesson.” He nodded toward the training session. “What Ash is doing is teaching Rockruff to feel its power and strength, rather than just trying to copy what it’s seen in battle. It might not learn Rock Throw as fast as it would with another trainer, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t become a better battler for it.”

“Does not compute,” Rotom reported. “Knowing a move is key to defeating opponents in battle.”

Kukui smiled and didn’t answer, instead turning away. “School is going to be starting soon, so I need to get going.”

“Should I tell Ash it’s time to go?” it asked, and he shook his head.

“I think this is a better use of everyone’s time today,” he said, and started planning a whole new lesson.

When Kukui walked in and began class without bothering to acknowledge the once-again empty desk, Mallow was the first to raise her hand and ask, “Is Ash sick today?”

“No, he’s not,” Kukui said as he stepped into place. “But he won’t be joining us for classes for the foreseeable future.”

All five kids blanched, Lillie even slapping her hands over her mouth. “Ash is leaving?!”

“Is he going to challenge the other kahunas?” asked Kiawe. “Is that why he’s been training so much lately?”

“He didn’t even say goodbye,” murmured Lana, and they all exchanged distressed looks.

Kukui, in turn, stared for a few seconds before realising how they could have misinterpreted what he said. Then he laughed and shook his head. “No, no, sorry. Should’ve phrased that better. It’s just for the next few days. He’s training Rockruff.”

“Training Rockruff?”

“Did he catch it?”

“Ash did say it was wild,” Kiawe pointed out, before they all looked back at Kukui. “But even he thought you were gonna catch it eventually.”

“I didn’t think Ash’d do something like that,” Sophocles added, folding his arms behind his head. “Kind of a jerk move.”

Kukui laughed again. “I’m not going to catch Rockruff. I was just studying it. I’m happy with the team I have, for now,” he said vaguely. And besides, it would have been kind of a jerk move to catch a pokemon that seemed so set on a different trainer, even if neither of them were acknowledging it. “And Ash hasn’t either, yet. Rockruff is trying to learn Rock Throw, and Ash offered to help it. Which brings me to our lesson for the next few days: training a pokemon for battle.”

“For battle?” Lillie repeated nervously.

“Now, we’ve all seen a pokemon battle—a lot more recently, thanks to Ash and Kiawe—but we don’t often talk about battle training specifically.”

“Is it different from learning moves?” asked Lana, and he shrugged.

“Not for some trainers, but in this case, yes. As he so regularly points out, Ash is trying to become a Pokemon Master. That means he specialises in battle training, and he seems to have a preference for attack moves over stasis,” he explained. “That means that when he trains pokemon, he trains them to fight. Now, part of that is obviously using moves, but there’s a lot more to it than just that. Your job, over the next few days, is to figure out what that is.”

“You mean like dodging and power levels and stuff?” Sophocles guessed, and Kukui offered up another vague smile.

“Could be. You need to find Ash and Rockruff, observe their training, analyse it, and then write me a report. Kiawe, as a fellow battle trainer, I want you to focus on how his training style differs from others you’ve seen. The rest of you should be looking into what makes battle training different from move training,” he instructed, then paused and added, “If he asks, you’re allowed to help him train, but you are not to ‘correct’ his methods or otherwise interfere. Remember, Rockruff is the one being trained and you should not disrupt its progress by interrupting Ash’s instructions. Understand?”

“Yes,” they all chorused.

“Excellent. We’ll meet back here in the morning to discuss, but your reports are due on my desk two days after Ash declares Rockruff to have learned Rock Throw.”

Everyone but Lillie—who still looked a little nervous about the whole ‘battle’ thing—seemed excited by the impromptu lesson, so Kukui inwardly declared it a success. And a lot more interesting than the cultural studies he’d originally had planned. No one really liked studying the theory behind regional training styles, and it had proved such a volatile topic with this class that he’d been doing it in short, sharp bursts just to keep them on track.

Besides, while he wasn’t expecting them to discover anything earth-shattering, it would be a nice opportunity to get a bunch of more observational data from a variety of perspectives. He wasn’t quite sure yet what the research paper he was gathering information for would be about, but if opportunities like this kept presenting themselves, it was definitely going to be one of his best. Maybe there was actually something to that joke about Ash being a researcher’s good luck charm!

Then he heard his own thoughts and closed his eyes, shaking his head at himself. “You are such an academic creeper, Kukui,” he muttered, but didn’t mind overmuch.

Ash and his three pokemon stumbled into the house a little after sunset, practically inhaled their waiting dinner, and then slumped down in a corner with the brightly coloured balls Kukui always left out for pokemon to play with. Or, well, Ash and Rockruff did. Rowlet went upstairs to no doubt fall asleep in Ash’s backpack, while Pikachu waited just long enough for Ash to settle before collapsing over his leg with a melodramatic, “Pika pikaaaa…!”

Ash ignored it with nothing but a wry smile, instead focussing on making sure Rockruff understood it was supposed to be trying to catch the ball he was batting between his hands.

Kukui was working on writing out a lesson plan to match the lesson he’d cooked up this morning, but he paused to watch for a few moments, trying to figure it out. In the end, he had to ask, “Playing or training?”

“A cool-down,” replied Ash. “We’ve been working pretty hard today, and we’ll keep going tomorrow. Gotta stretch out so Rockruff’s not stiff in the morning.”

He raised his eyebrows, surprised and impressed. “Most trainers wouldn’t bother.”

“Yeah, I heard that pokeballs do all that stuff for you, soothing muscles and whatever. I figure that’s why you can usually use a pokemon again right after you’ve caught it,” he pointed out. “Rockruff and Pikachu don’t have that sort of thing. So we’ve gotta stretch it out.”

Making a note on his papers, since that was probably the most comprehensive answer he’d get out of Ash about what a pokeball did for caught pokemon and therefore a better indicator than their eventual exam, Kukui glanced at him. “Pikachu doesn’t have a pokeball? I didn’t know it was wild… How did you get it to Alola?”

Pikachu paused its attempt to melt over Ash’s knee just long enough to laugh. “Pika. Pikapi ka pika chu pika.”

Ash smiled and picked up the ball to keep it out of Rockruff’s reach as he used the other hand to scratch Pikachu’s head. “Nah. It has a pokeball in my backpack. But it doesn’t like to go inside it,” he explained, then paused and looked up at Kukui. “Huh.”


“I just… I just realised I hadn’t told you that yet,” he said slowly. “It’s kind of weird. I mean, normally I have to explain that right away.”

Kukui gazed back at him quietly for a few seconds, suddenly reminded that Alola was different than most of the regions Ash had gone to – here, if a pokemon was small enough, they were generally left out of their pokeballs at all times. They were part of the family, after all. But in other places, where pokemon were more like… well… sentient tools or pets… it was almost considered rude to have them out of their balls without reason. You could get away with it while walking around or in an open space like a park or beach, but in a house like this…

Rockruff yipped for Ash’s attention, and he blinked before going back to it with a smile. Kukui tried to sound casual as he said, “This is a pokemon friendly house. As far as I’m concerned, you can have everyone out of their pokeball. Who knows? They might provide some interesting research data!”

“Like on Professor Oak’s ranch!” Ash chuckled. “Thanks, Professor. I bet you won’t even notice Rowlet, since it’s always sleeping.”

He smiled and refocussed on his work. “Did the others find you today?”

“You mean Kiawe and the others? Yeah, a few hours ago. Kiawe and Turtonator were a—” He cut himself off with a yawn that quickly extended into an even louder one, ending on a hard blink before he continued, “—big help. Rockruff didn’t really get the whole dodging thing.”

“Hm?” he prompted vaguely.

“I think it’s because of the um… is it the Midnight forme?” he asked Rotom, who had been hovering over Kukui’s shoulder but swung around to acknowledge Ash’s attention.

“You mean this one?”

“Yeah. That lycanroc uses Counter, so it doesn’t dodge a lot. But since it had been watching them to learn moves, I don’t think Rockruff understood that until you’re actually supposed to avoid getting hurt,” he said, and Kukui raised his eyebrows.

“That makes a lot of sense – I hadn’t thought of that,” he said, and noted it down as a discussion point for the other kids. “Of course Rockruff wouldn’t know to dodge, if it’s been mimicking the lyncanroc… Midday is all about attack, while Midnight will purposefully take damage so that it has a more powerful Counter. So a rockruff watching the two of them battle wouldn’t realise dodging is actually part of a proper battle technique. Nice insight, Ash.”

“Nah. It just makes sense. It’s not like anyone would’ve—” He yawned again, then grunted. “Sorry. It’s not like anyone would’ve ever explained the difference.”

Kukui glanced over. Rockruff was still trying to get the ball, but it had dropped to the floor and was now just lazily stretching its paws out toward it. Ash, in turn, had started leaning on one arm to hold himself up, and had clearly abandoned his cool-down work in favour of just rolling the ball absently.

“Is there anything else special about training a wild pokemon?” Kukui asked, hoping to get as much of Ash’s perspective down before he turned in for the night. “Or training in general?”

“Mm… not really,” he said. “I mean, when it’s basic training, then it’s all basic training, right? Learning how to dodge, how to hit, how to—” Another yawn, and he shifted down to prop himself up on his elbow. He let Rockruff have the ball so he could reach out and pet it instead. “Rockruff’s making it pretty easy. It gets the whole… you know… not taking it personally thing. And how you need to keep getting up again after you fall. It’s so determined… it’s so cool. You’re amazing, Rockruff, you know that, right?”

It whined back at him, leaning up his hand. Kukui shook his head and went back to his lesson plan, wondering if the cheerleading was part of Ash’s training style or just his encouraging personality.

“So for you, the basics are about dodging and aim,” he summarised. “And you think you need to get that out of the way before you can really focus on the move itself.”

“Mmhm. It doesn’t matter how strong we get that Rock Throw if Magmar can throw off its aim with one Tail Whip, or knock it out with a couple of Flame Throwers,” he mumbled. “Even if Rockruff doesn’t win the next battle, it’s gonna make it work for it. But you are gonna win. You’re so strong, and you worked so hard today… no way you can lose this time. Tomorrow, we’re gonna get it all perfect. Tomorrow, you’re gonna show ’em all. Right, Rockruff?”

It rumbled back at him, and Pikachu sighed out a similar kind of agreement.

Kukui chuckled. “Tomorrow, huh? You really think Rockruff will have been able to learn all of that and Rock Throw in just two days?” he asked, but Ash’s only response was a vague hum. He lifted his head again, only to find Ash had dropped all the way down, his hand still draped over Rockruff’s back, Pikachu still lazing over his leg, and all three of them asleep.

Something warm curled up under his ribs, not quite amusement or pride, but something deeper. He hesitated, debating whether to make Ash get up and go to bed, or just leave him where he seemed happy and comfortable. He had a blanket around here somewhere, he was pretty sure…

“Rockruff did make remarkable progress today,” Rotom reported, jerking him out of the moment. “I have several data points that map its improvement at an exponential rate! Would you like to review the data, Professor?”

Kukui stared at it blankly for a few seconds, but as Rotom began flashing graphs and information, he held up a hand to make it stop. “Not right now, Rotom,” he said softly, and went back to watching Ash and the pokemon. “Let’s just leave it for now.”

A review of Lesson Five: The Thunderbolt and the Flamethrower

“Um, Professor Kukui? May I talk to you for a moment?”

He lowered his pen and pushed away from the desk so he could turn and face the door. Lillie was hovering in the door to the staff room, shoulders hunched and arms curled around Snowy like it was a stuffed toy. She’d been acting a little oddly these last two days – quieter than usual and awkward, like she wasn’t entirely sure how to act. It made him wonder if she was really as comfortable with Ash and pokemon battling as she had previously claimed to be.

“Of course, Lillie. Come on in,” he said, beckoning her over. “I didn’t expect to see any of you after our catch up this morning. Did you all find Ash?”

“Yes. He was in the same place that Kiawe found him yesterday,” she said as she glanced around. Since it was still fairly early in the afternoon, most of the teachers were with their classes, leaving the staff room empty aside from himself. Once she was confident they were alone, Lillie hurried in, and Kukui leaned over to pull out another teacher’s chair for her to sit on. Not that he expected this to be a long discussion, but he and Hobbes were always hopeful that this would be the one time she opened up to them. And that would only happen if she was comfortable.

“So how is the training going?” he asked as she sat down, lowering Snowy to the floor at their feet. It sat down primly and began grooming its front paws.

“Rockruff used Rock Throw,” she said. “But Ash was still going when we all left. He seemed to think there was more work to do.”

Kukui had to smile, approving. “Well, a good pokemon trainer knows that just because you can do something once, that doesn’t mean you really know it.”

“You think so?”

“Of course,” he said, and sat back in his chair, elbow propped on his desk. “Everything takes practice, Lillie. No one gets anything perfect the first time. Not even pokemon.”

She nodded thoughtfully, eyes lowering to look at Snowy. Kukui gazed at her quietly for a few moments, but when she didn’t say anything, he prompted, “So what did you want to talk to me about? Is it about the assignment?”

“I – I suppose that’s it,” she said slowly. “I’ve been thinking about – about what it means to be a pokemon trainer. And whether I’m really cut out for this school.”

He paused, considering all possible interpretations of his next few words before deciding to change it to a question instead. “May I ask why?”

“Well, I… I don’t really know. Everyone is trying to help me so much, and they’re all so wonderful, but I sometimes wonder… I mean, how can I really learn everything there is to know about pokemon if Snowy’s the only one I can touch?” she asked, voice rising slightly. “I watch Ash, and he – he’s so natural with them. He’s never scared, even when the others are, and he’s always so confident. He and Pikachu… I almost can’t imagine them not being together. I love Snowy so much, but… I don’t… I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to be like that. He’s such a good trainer, so… so I… I must be…”

Kukui hesitated again. There were two ways he could approach this, and neither felt right.

On the one hand, Lillie really had been making amazing progress lately. She was perfectly comfortable with her new vulpix, even when it got over excited and used Powder Snow. Instead of panicking like they’d expected, she would just laugh it off and hug Snowy all the tighter. She didn’t jump away from large pokemon anymore, instead able to keep her stance until they were close enough to touch. He truly believed that it was only a matter of time before she overcame her fear of all pokemon and became just as good a pokemon trainer as Ash had said she’d be.

“She just needs to realise that not all pokemon are like the one that hurt her.”

At his extended silence, Lillie was beginning to look more upset, so he made up his mind to go with option two. “You don’t have to be like Ash to be a good trainer.”


“Lillie, it’s enough that you love and respect pokemon,” he said gently. “You’re so passionate about learning everything there is to know about them. That’s enough. It really is. There are a lot of people—even in the Pokemon Industry—who never have pokemon themselves. Who never even touch them, whether they can or not.”

She looked up at him with wide eyes. “You think so?”

“Of course. Officer Jenny only recently caught her first pokemon with Gumshoos, remember. And Rockruff aside, when was the last time you saw me handle a pokemon?” he pointed out. “Honestly, too many people get caught up in the fun of pokemon to really understand them. That’s why objective knowledge—from people who consider the facts and the science—is so important. It helps give the industry perspective.”

She stared at him silently for a few seconds, before a relieved smile blossomed over her lips and she laughed out a breath. “You really think so? Oh, I’m so glad. I was really worried you didn’t think I belonged in your class.”

“What? Lillie, no, of course not!” he cried. “And I know the others students feel the same way. That’s why they were so comfortable giving you Snowy’s egg, and deciding that you should be its trainer. They would never have done that if they didn’t feel you were an important member of our class.”

“I suppose that’s true,” she said, bouncing her head and shoulders in a small grin. “Thank you, Professor.”

“Of course. And really, Lillie, you shouldn’t judge your abilities as a trainer against Ash – or any other trainer,” he added. “Everyone has their own unique relationship with pokemon, and everyone is their own unique kind of trainer. No one is expecting you to suddenly want to become a Pokemon Master, or even train Snowy for battles. And even if that does become what you want to do, then you still don’t have to be like Ash. To be honest, most battle trainers don’t put as much… personal effort into training pokemon as Ash does.”

“Oh, thank goodness,” she said, touching a hand to her chest. “That really did make me a bit worried.”

“You shouldn’t,” he said with a wry grin. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone train pokemon like Ash.”

“He’s so intense when he's training!” she said, her eyes gaining a slightly starry glaze as she balled her hands into excited little fists. “He gets all pumped up, and when he told Rockruff to attack him, he looked so brave! Like some kind of superhero!”

Kukui almost chuckled, until the words actually parsed and he ended up furrowing his brow instead. “Attack him? What do you mean, he told Rockruff told to attack him?”

“That’s how we saw Rockruff use its attack,” she said. “Ash told it to use Rock Throw on him. He said—” She lowered her voice in what he supposed was an impression of Ash. “—‘come at me with everything you’ve got!’ And then Rockruff used Rock Throw, and Ash didn’t even dodge at all! The rocks were so big, and came so fast, and he just—” She crossed her arms in front of her face. “—he just blocked them like that. It must have hurt a lot, but he was so happy Rockruff hit him! It was so incredible! I don’t think I could do something like that.”

Kukui gazed at her silently for a few seconds.

He’d thought that when Oak’s essay had talked about pokemon attacking their trainer in friendly greeting, he actually meant showcasing an attack. Maybe a near-miss, or in the same way Pikachu had attacked the ground in front of those poles earlier in the week.

But no. This implied that Ash’s pokemon really did physically attack him. With real, fully-powered attacks.

And now he was apparently telling wild pokemon to do the same.

Yes, it was for training, and Rockruff was as tame as a wild pokemon could be, but…

Ash was not his kid. He was not allowed to beat him around the head for being an idiot.

“No, Lillie,” he said with a forced smile. “Even if you were a battle trainer, no one would expect you to do something like that.”

Three days later, as he sat in the front yard with his feet up on the fence, he read five essays and listened to the mildly confusing sounds of Ash trying to teach his newest pokemon how to bite.

“You’re gonna want to do this—rargnn—and you totally should. But you also need to go ‘graaghn’ and then bam! And really you need to focus more on that. The graaghn, not the bam. That’ll happen on its own.”


“Yeah! That’s it!”

Kukui shook his head and went back to Sophocles’ paper. He’d marked Lillie’s paper first, and it set a pretty high bar, outlining a variety of accepted training methodologies, comparing them to Ash’s more active style, and then providing a working definition for ‘battle’ training. Sophocles was trying to do something similar, but had gotten distracted.

To start with, he’d spent the first half of the first page very nearly whining about how they didn’t have enough time to properly gather data and so couldn’t be expected to give a comprehensive report. And then it veered off into Sophocles’ preference for facts and figures. There was a statistical analysis on rockruffs as competitive battlers, and how they were inclined toward physical attacks because as a rock type they were all about aggression. He went on a quick tangent about how this could have negative impacts when fighting water-types, but was highly effective against fire-types. He argued that Rockruff would have been better served learning something more versatile to start with, like Tackle.

It was a solid paper. It hit some good points and made a tangible argument, backed with facts and figures.

It just had barely anything to do with the actual topic, as Kukui wrote in his comment. The assignment was to explore how training for battle was different than training for moves. Not discuss the move itself.

“No, no, you’re putting too much into your teeth. When you Bite, you don’t really need to bite that much. The jaws come from back here. So you gotta build them up. Go grrrmmm!”


“Yeah! Now deeper. Come on! Grrrrmm!”


Kukui rolled his eyes at the sounds and moved on. Lana’s paper was far more focussed than Sophocles’. She talked about how when you trained to learn a move, you focussed completely on the pokemon and their point of focus. She believed it was a much more internal process. Battle training, she argued, was about being able to respond to things quickly and efficiently.

It wasn’t a bad thesis, but unfortunately, she fell down a little in the actual explanation. She started comparing it to fishing, where you had to know when to reel and when to release. Again, it could have been a very good analogy if she’d tied it in with evidence from either her own experience or from watching Ash and Kiawe, but she kept it vague instead. If it had been an in-class essay, it probably would have scored pretty well. As it was, however, he sighed and marked her accordingly, sure she could have done better.

“Wh- ow! Ughh…!”

Kukui looked up and around, then set his papers and pen aside to climb over the fence and look down over the cliff. Ash was standing with his pokemon in front of a splintered piece of driftwood, one hand pressed to his eye while Rockruff and Pikachu stared at him worriedly.

“Ash…?” Kukui prompted. “You okay down there?”

“Yeah… I didn’t guard when I should’ve,” he said, and tilted his head back to look up through one eye. “We’re not bein’ too loud, right? We can go further up the beach if you want.”

“It’s fine.” He glanced at Rockruff, very conscious of how Ash didn’t seem inclined to move his hand but was even less likely to admit to being hurt in front of his pokemon. “Anything you need me to take a look at?”

“Nah, we’re okay,” he said, and went back to Rockruff. “Let’s try it again.”

“Pika pika?” Pikachu asked, and Ash flicked his free hand.

“I’m fine – just got a little grazed. Now come on, Rockruff, try again. But remember, it starts from the back of your throat.”

Kukui hesitated, but slowly went back to his work with nothing more than a shake of his head. Not even Ash would be able to ignore something actually in his eye. He’d check it out after he finished the reports.

Mallow’s paper was good, though it admitted straight-up that she didn’t really see a big difference between training ‘normally’ and for battle. She did a pretty decent job of discussing it though, talking about her own training when compared to what Ash did. They both focussed on how their pokemon responded to others. But where Steenee was a ‘helpful’ pokemon, Ash’s pokemon were ‘aggressive’. She supposed that was probably the difference – in training a pokemon ‘normally’, you focussed on how a pokemon could make the best use of its own abilities, while a battler was more focussed on how to overcome someone else’s strengths.

There was logic to it. Despite her ambivalence, she’d actually made a strong case, and used extensive practical evidence, with clearly presented examples. As a battle trainer himself, he couldn’t help getting a little defensive, but the teacher in him had to admit that wasn’t the point.

It wasn’t a bad report. Well structured and sound. But the fact it had raised his hackles made him pause, drumming his pen against the side of his head as he reread it.

“Alright! Nice job! You almost got it that time!”


“Did you feel how big it was? Like there was so much more?”


“Think you can make it even bigger?”

“Rukk! Rockruff!”

Kukui lifted his head again, letting the sound of Ash’s training distract him for a while. Surprisingly, he was pretty sure he knew what Ash was getting at this time. The true strength of Bite, much like Fire Fang and all of that move family, was not in the jaw itself. It was in a visualisation of power – extending the attack beyond its physical limitations and then bringing that extension into reality.

Most trainers would have focussed on the physical act first – the bite and yank. That ensured that even if their pokemon couldn’t build up their power, they still had a good, strong attack that could be used in battle. Even a literal bite could be dangerous if done right, after all.

But while Ash wasn’t using the words, it was relatively obvious that he was prompting Rockruff to explore the deeper power behind Bite. It was somewhat similar to the way that other trainers might work on evolving Bite into Crunch. It sacrificed the physical strength for the metaphysical.

He wondered if Ash knew that. Was he consciously making a short-term sacrifice for a long-term goal, or just… backward? He wondered how Ash would phrase it if Kukui asked him to explain his process.

Phrasing… Kukui quietly gasped and went back to Mallow’s report. The flaw was not in her report structure, but in her word choice. With words like ‘aggression’ and ‘normal’, in the context she’d used them, she was being unintentionally confrontational, and that damaged her argument overall. He couldn’t really mark her down for it, but it was something she should be careful with. While plenty of fully qualified researchers did the same thing, they were a lot more conscious about it, and it could be very dangerous to accidentally pick a fight in the academic community. You never came out unscathed.

But as he read back over the report, underlining the offending words, he felt his initial anger fade into mild amusement.

Because honestly, Ash’s pokemon? Aggressive?

Yes, they could fight, and battle seemed to be the one thing even Rowlet actually got enthusiastic about. But at the same time, said owl spent most of its time as little more than a feathery doorstop, no matter what you did to it. Pikachu seemed to take an unhealthy amount of pride in being considered adorable, and had tolerated an awful lot of abuse for how little it seemed to reciprocate Togedemaru’s affection. And Ash himself was probably the softest touch in a class recognised throughout the Pokemon School—itself a highly flexible and supportive environment—as being ‘the nice kids’.


He shook his head and set her report aside. If only he could be so critical of his colleagues’ language choices – now that was something he could go to town on.

“Okay, let’s take a break – you do too much of one thing and you’re gonna go crazy,” Ash’s voice drifted up, a little closer than before. “Let’s go for a run, okay? Rowlet, wake up, you’re in on this too!”


“We’re racing! You can fly or run, and it doesn’t matter what path you take. But you’ve gotta go into town, past the Pokemon Centre, into the market past Litten’s friend, down to the beach and back here. No Quick Attack, Pikachu, and for you guys, remember to pace yourself. This is a race, not a sprint! Everyone ready?”

A chorus of pokemon voices answered him, and he called the start. Within seconds, Rowlet was flying up overhead, and it only took a few more before Rockruff came bolting up the path to the beach with Ash and Pikachu behind. Kukui watched quietly as they dashed past, pretty sure that Rockruff was pushing itself too hard. He made a note on his rubric to ask Ash about it later.

But in the meantime, he went back to the report he’d kind of been waiting for: Kiawe.

Despite their rivalry and its occasional escalations into actual conflict, Ash and Kiawe had become surprisingly close. Between the fact that they were the only two battlers in the class and how… enthusiastic they could both get on occasion, they’d found a friendship with each other that the others couldn’t quite match. Ash seemed to appreciate Kiawe’s steadying gruffness, while also responding well to his more… explosive moments, which was something the others had never really been able to do. It had really allowed Kiawe to relax and open up, even if he was still trying (and more frequently failing, these days) to be the ‘grown up’ of the class.

As a teacher, it reassured Kukui more than he’d expected. He’d always been a little worried about Kiawe – his responsibilities on the ranch and serious personality had always kept him a little distant from the other kids. It would have been fine, if he’d been able to dedicate himself to a career or study, but his only goal was to protect Akala. Which, again, could have been fine, if he only knew what that meant.

Personally, Kukui suspected that Kiawe had wanted to inherit his grandfather’s title, but that was unlikely. Olivia was younger than Kukui himself, and a kahuna couldn’t pass on their crown until their death. So that left Kiawe… drifting. He had no tangible goal, no personal connections beyond his family, no path to follow.

He was destined to burn out.

Now, at least, he was taking some joy in life. With Ash playing to both sides of his personality, he was finally able to be himself: a kid in a class, learning new skills and having new experiences. With that, there was a real chance he might be able to find something beyond his island. Something else he could dedicate all that passionate fire to.

“But, for the meantime, let’s see what the Flamethrower has to say about the Thunderbolt,” Kukui muttered to himself, and settled back to work.

The report hand back went well, most of the students accepting their results with grace, except for Sophocles. He waved his barely-passing grade at Ash like he was to blame.

“It’s because you didn’t take long enough! How was I supposed to get enough information to write anything good when you don’t put in any time?”

Ash just laughed at him, which was probably a little harsh considering he hadn’t needed to write anything himself. Mallow, however, jumped up and snatched the paper to read Kukui’s comments, and then snorted.

“Don’t blame Ash just because you can’t answer a question when you’re asked,” she said, dropping the report on his head.

Kiawe, on the other hand, was surprisingly quiet. After class was over, and the others had filed out of the classroom, he approached Kukui’s desk and lay the paper down. “Do I deserve this?”

Kukui looked at it again. Lillie had scored higher, but it was still better than anything Kiawe had gotten on a written assessment before. “Is there some reason why you wouldn’t? Did someone else write it?”

“No, of course not,” he said. “It just doesn’t seem fair. I had a different assignment than everyone else.”

“Yes, but you’re more advanced in this area,” he replied. “It wouldn’t have been fair to give you the same question as them.”

Kiawe frowned, and so Kukui sighed and sat back in his chair. “Alright then. Here and now, answer the question I gave them. How is training for battle different than move training?”

He shrugged. “When you train for a move, you train in something specific. Battle training is broader. You aren’t just learning how to use a move, you’re learning how to do lots of things at once.”

“Correct. And how did Ash do that?”

“Because he wasn’t just focussing on Rock Throw. He spent more time teaching Rockruff about how to dodge and build up its strength and stamina than he did actually practising the move.”

“Exactly. And in that single sentence, you beat out your classmates in your ability to properly answer my question,” he said. “They don’t quite understand the difference between raising a pokemon and training it. Which is fine for the purpose of this report, since there are some trainers who would argue that it’s just semantics. But for you, it would have been too basic a question and that would have damaged your ability to answer it effectively,” he said, and then gestured to Kiawe’s report. “This was a solid report. You have practical examples and explored them to reach a conclusion. You still need to work on the depth of your explanations and your structure, but your report compared battle styles, answered the question, and ultimately showed your understanding of the issue. You earned your grade.”

“I… okay,” he said, and then rubbed the nape of his neck. “I guess I’m just worried that I missed something, I mean… His training worked, right? Rockruff beat that magmar. But I don’t really know why it worked.”

Kukui slowly nodded. It was something he’d noticed in Kiawe’s report, but it wasn’t the flaw Kiawe seemed to think it was. “Then let’s review. You started your report by quoting your grandfather.”

“Yeah. He always used to say that I would find strength in battle not by how often I won, but the journey I took to get there,” he said. “That’s why every pokemon trainer is different, because we all have our different ways of doing things.”

“Good. And in your travels, you’ve seen different training styles. Some people who focus on pure strength, some people who prioritise defence… what do you prioritise?”

Kiawe shrugged again. “I’m a fire-type specialist. The best way for fire-types to fight is by attacking. If you can’t overwhelm your opponent, then you can at least cause a burn and get damage over time.”

Keep burning until you run out of oxygen, Kukui thought absently. It had been a saying that was popular when he was travelling trainer, mocking fire-types. Not very nice, but like all stereotypes, there was some truth to it. You burned out that way.

“Alright,” he said instead. “And what would you say Ash prioritises?”

Here, Kiawe seemed to falter. He hesitated, then stopped completely before looking up again. “My grandfather used to say it was most important to focus on your own strength, more than trying to beat others. And that’s what Ash was doing – getting Rockruff to think about how it did things, and how it could improve in itself.”

“That’s a good start,” he said. “One you didn’t mention in your report, too. There are a lot of trainers that don’t do that, so you could argue that was one thing that made him different to others. Anything else that you can think of?”

“I don’t know. I mean… I thought his thing was speed. When he’s with Pikachu, that’s really what gives him the edge – he keeps moving so it’s hard to keep track. And then Pikachu comes out of nowhere to just blow you away with all that power it has. But Rowlet’s not really that fast, and he kind of had Rockruff taking its time to build up power.”

“All good evidence for an argument against speed being his strategy; well done,” he said. It was nothing he hadn’t already said in his report, but Kukui could see Kiawe’s problem. He always performed better when asked to verbally explain something – hopefully, by talking it out, Kiawe would be able to actually understand the conclusion he’d already reached in his report. Kukui gestured for him to continue. “So if you had to pick one, what is his specialty? Was there anything else Ash encouraged in Rockruff? Any habits or skills that really stuck out to you?”

“There was something he said…” Kiawe said slowly. “He said that you deal with Flame Thrower by dodging it. Not beating it back with power or blocking it, but dodging it. Like… like at one point, he said that the idea is to not get hit. And I mean, you can’t train a pokemon to just dodge everything. It’s too risky. They’ll get hit eventually, right? They have to know how to take damage.”

“Some trainers would argue otherwise,” Kukui said, waving off the tangent. “It’s a strategy called the ‘glass cannon’, where you have a lot of power but not much defence. It’s common with fairy-types, a few poison-types, and pure electic-types.” He could actually imagine Snowy being raised to be a glass cannon, come to think of it. Especially if it was evolved into a ninetails. Dependent, of course, on Lillie actually teaching it to battle. “But from what we’ve seen of Pikachu’s battle-style, that’s not what Ash does.”

“No…” he agreed slowly. “It dodges a lot, but it can take a lot of hits when it has to. I think he was just talking about dodging as a starting point. Because he was always does something after. It’s about… it’s about…”

Kukui waited with a small smile on his face. They were definitely getting there.

“He dodges, and then he moves,” Kiawe said. “He… reacts? Is that a speciality?”

He made a vague noise, because it was, but it wasn’t everything. “You’re describing the Counter strategy, where you encourage your opponent to attack you, and then turn that damage back on them. Or, perhaps, the Misdirection Strategy, which is often used by ghost- and fairy-type trainers. They take advantage of trickery and misdirection to frustrate their opponents, and often cause them to damage themselves, or simply expend a lot of effort for no pay off.”

“Right. My grandfather always told me to watch out for them,” he said, and then pulled back to think again. “It sounds kind of close. Because he… You think he’s saying – I mean, doing one thing, and then he does – he gets them to do something else.”

Kukui’s nodded encouragingly. “Alright, now think about that. Why would you think he was doing something in particular? How can you assume anything about a battle?”

“Because it’s a strategy,” he said blankly, and Kukui nodded.

“Which is?”

“What’s a strategy? It’s a set of moves and actions that –”

“That you can respond to with your own strategy,” he summarised, and then grinned. “Do you play chess, Kiawe?”

He balked, then frowned, obviously caught off-guard by the apparent non-sequitor. “Uh… no?”

“Bad analogy then, but bear with me,” he said with a shrug. “You might know that each chess piece has a name, and they’re only allowed to move in certain ways.”

“Like… a pokemon can only use certain moves?” he asked, scrabbling to make the connection.

“Not my point, but yes. A knight can only move two spaces in one straight direction, followed by one space at a right angle to the original direction. A bishop can move as many spaces as it likes, but only on a diagonal. And so on. Chess players build up strategies based on how the pieces can move, and how they would respond to other people’s strategies. A lot of success comes from reading your opponent, and guessing at the strategy they will play. So what happens, do you think, when you have someone who knows how to move his pieces and respond to threats, but no personal strategy?”

Kiawe frowned. “You’d win, right? If the game is about strategy –”

“Isn’t pokemon battling all about strategy?” he replied, and Kiawe’s brow furrowed deeper as his frustration rose.

“It’s not the same. Pokemon are living beings, not chess pieces.”

“Right again. But they do have defined abilities, defined moves, defined strategies. You expect a pokemon to behave a certain way according to their training,” he reminded him. “So, let’s apply the metaphor. In a chess game, you play strategy versus strategy, until you meet a player without a strategy, but very strong skills and a quick, responsive mind. And so you, in turn, are forced to react to what they do, without being able to see what they’re planning because they’re not planning anything. What happens?”

Kiawe stared at him blankly for a few seconds, before his eyes dropped to the ground and he took the time to really think it through. Kukui watched the hints of fury begin to etch into his face before he abruptly looked up, fists clenched and shoulders hunched. “That’s his strategy? Winging it?”

Kukui had to push down on his urge to laugh, because he could imagine he probably would have been equally offended a few years ago. If that was what Ash was doing—if he was doing it on purpose—then every time it worked, it would be an insult to most of the professional battle circuit. Or a serious wake up call. One of the two.

“I’m not sure. I still haven’t seen him battle enough to tell,” he said instead. “But as we’ve just discussed, he doesn’t seem to be training toward any obvious style. There doesn’t seem to be a clear-cut strategy to anything he does. Instead, he trains his pokemon to be strong in themselves. He ensures they have basic skills down to the point that they become second-nature, and then he builds on their personal strengths while concentrating on their ability to respond to outside threats. It’s not a style I recognise. But it does seem to be what Ash does.”

“But – but that –!”

“And you outlined that in your report,” he said, reaching out to tap his fist against Kiawe’s forgotten paper. The kid faltered, eyes dropping down to stare at it blankly as he remembered why they were actually having this discussion in the first place. Kukui offered a mild grin in return. “You discussed it, and gave examples. Even though you didn’t understand the result, you still documented it and analysed the information provided to you. That is what a good report does, Kiawe. You earned the grade I gave you.”

He continued staring for a few seconds, anger visibly draining out of him. Eventually, he picked up his report, read a few lines of it, and then looked up at Kukui without any expression. “So the problem is more that... Ash confuses me, Professor.”

It wasn’t professional or appropriate, but Kukui found himself quietly nodding in empathetic agreement. But he did manage to stop himself from saying anything until he’d found a better response. “Honestly, that’s pretty common in the scientific world. You can theorise all you like, but at the end of the day, you can’t force your results to fit a hypothesis. Sometimes they don’t make sense until you find more data.” He leaned forward with what he hoped was a wise and knowing look. “It’s a little like forming a friendship that way, isn’t it?”

Kiawe faltered again, before his shoulders slumped and a tiny grin split his lips. In the end, he chuckled and stepped back from the desk. “I guess so. Thanks, Professor.”

“No problem. And well done on your report. I’ll see you tomorrow, alright?”

“Yeah. Bye.”

Kukui watched him go, then sighed to himself and stood up so he could wander over to the balcony. The courtyard below was filled with leaving students, but he could pick out the rest of his class, lingering by the gate as they tended to do. It looked like Ash, Lana, and Mallow were going somewhere together. He smiled, hoping this meant Ash would be taking an afternoon off from training – he’d been working a little too hard since Rowlet’s poisoning.

But any approval faded as his eyes flicked to Rotom, hovering over Ash’s shoulder as always. Even with all its extra data, Rotom hadn’t been able to make any more sense of Ash’s training than the class. It insisted that it shouldn’t have been effective – that Ash was too vague and didn’t focus on anything long enough for his pokemon to properly grasp concepts and ideas. But the more Kukui learned, the more he wondered about that.

Ash trained his pokemon with such passion and fire, in ways that seemed so simple and basic but… weren’t. It was more that he trained his pokemon to react and respond without getting caught up in plans or assumptions. Because when they weren’t reacting, his pokemon moved quickly and hit hard, coming from places you didn’t expect. You couldn't do that if you were too worried about what you'd be doing afterward. Maybe Ash knew what that would be, but he was always ready to change his mind if he needed to.

It wasn’t misdirection. His pokemon didn’t hide their strength, just like Ash didn’t—or rather, didn’t seem able to—lie. It was just that they wore it so comfortably, so constantly, that you didn't notice it. And when it finally hit you—the power of his pokemon’s attacks, the strength Ash had as a trainer—it came on so fast and sudden that you almost didn’t realise what had happened.

A thunderbolt indeed. But on a sunny day, with no cloud in sight.

Kukui drummed his fingers against the railing, bothered as only a scientist could be when presented with incongruous data. But like any good scientist, he wasn’t about to give up. “I’ll figure you out yet,” he swore, pointing at his boarder. “I’ve got a Trace on you.”

Down in the courtyard, Ash just laughed and started leading his friends away.

Lesson Six: Help, and the need for it

Principal Oak stared at the broken fence for a few seconds, then up at Kukui as if waiting for some kind of explanation. For his part, Kukui could only shrug. It wasn’t like he could have stopped the guardian deity from causing it.

Which Oak seemed to understand, because he only paused another few seconds before stepping forward to lean over and gaze down at the hard rock path below. “Now I look at it, it’s quite the drop. Never quite occurred to me before.”

Kukui shook his head. With the fence there, he’d never really worried about the cliff or its height. Now he couldn’t stop thinking about how dangerous it was.

“I heard from the students that Ash dove over the edge.”

“To catch Pikachu, yes,” he said, shifting his weight. He still wasn’t sure how he felt about the whole thing. It was probably the bravest and stupidest thing he’d ever seen. And while he doubted Pikachu would have survived the fall alone, he honestly couldn’t guess at what Ash had been hoping to accomplish by jumping after. Yes, he might have saved Pikachu, but what kind of shape would he have been in after hitting ground?

And yet he hadn’t even hesitated a split second – he’d almost been running before Pikachu hit the fence. Kukui’s heart had leapt into his throat and he’d barely had time to realise before it was all over.

“He was saved by his opponent, I hear,” Oak said slowly. “Tapu Koko, if the rumours are true.”

“They’re true,” Kukui admitted. “It’s the second time it’s challenged Ash.”

“The first being… his second day of school, correct?”

“That’s right.”

“Interesting,” he said, and folded his arms over his chest with a wry grin. “Maybe we should start advertising! Come to the Pokemon School: get a Tapu Kokorriculum!”

Kukui closed his eyes and furrowed his brow, letting the pain of such a horrendous pun further calm his nerves. “Maybe.”

They were silent for a few seconds, and Kukui slowly realised the principal was watching him from the corner of his eye. He raised an eyebrow in return, and Oak lifted the side of his mouth in a crooked smile.

“It must be quite a change for the boy, staying in one place rather than travelling. How is he fitting in?”

“Uh, great,” he said, caught off-guard by the change in subject. “You’d almost think he’d always been in the class. And he loves Alola – fits right in to our way of doing things.”

“Hm… what did Kahuna Hala think of him?”

Kukui faltered again, then settled into the question with a deeper frown. Hala had mostly seemed intrigued, wondering what Tapu Koko was thinking to have taken such an interest in Ash. At the time, Kukui had assumed that was why Hala had occasionally stopped and just looked at him for a few seconds at a time, his expression slightly clouded as if in judgement. But even so, it had seemed odd. And there had been that strange conversation they’d had, when they were all preparing for their impromptu celebration…

“So tell me, Young Ash: what made you want to stay here, in Alola?”

“Because it’s so much fun here! There’s so much to see, and heaps to learn! I want to be a Pokemon Master, and that means I need to battle and learn as much as I can about pokemon from all over the world! Alola’s so different to anywhere else I’ve been, it’s so amazing! I really love it.”

“I see. That’s the reason, is it?”

The way he’d looked at him… Kukui knew that really was why Ash had decided to stay in Alola – he told pretty much everyone the exact same thing when they asked. The answer never changed, never hinted at anything else. But Hala hadn’t been convinced.

“He seemed to like him well enough,” he said eventually. “And he met Ash in battle without holding back, so he was impressed with his skills. Why do you ask?”

“I was just curious to see how our exchange student was finding his way here,” he said blithely, closing his eyes for a moment before reopening them with a broad grin. “You know, I’ve been thinking about our Open House day. What do you think about having Ash give a presentation for our guests? Really show how much we’ve taught him about Alola and our pokemon!”

Kukui raised his eyebrows, once again feeling like he’d lost the conversation somewhere. With the lack of puns and how serious Oak seemed, he’d been expecting it to go somewhere much heavier. “Uh… sure. That sounds like a great idea. And it would be good to give him an assignment the others don’t need to do – he’s one behind on them at the moment.”

“Magikarple! I’m always seaking opportunities for our students to eggsecute their talents! Wynaut take the opportunity when it’s delibird? It’d be tentacruel not to!”

Kukui twitched, and Oak just grinned all the wider. He should have known it was just building up.

Later, he tried to tell himself that Oak’s strange mood and atrocious puns were cause enough for Kukui to all but forget the entire incident. He certainly didn’t have any other explanation for why he calmly went home and didn’t bother speaking to Ash about the fact he’d once again battled a god, let alone worried over his boarder’s apparent willingness to get himself killed for little benefit.

The weird thing was that as the days passed, it really did just filter out of his attention. It wasn’t until he was in the middle of class, literally three days and a completely separate adventure later, writing a type-advantage formula on the board and explaining how a psychic pokemon using a fairy-type move would fair against a steel-type pokemon, that it really registered with him that Ash had perfectly described Tapu Lele after coming home the day before. Which meant he probably really had seen it. Which meant he’d met two legendary pokemon in the space of forty-eight hours.

And last night, Kukui had just laughed, smiled, and told him he was lucky.


His boarder had a personal encounter with a living god – an actual fight with the guardian deity of battle. Then the next day—without even knowing such a thing existed—claimed to have been healed by the guardian deity of life. And Kukui had just laughed, and called him lucky.

The chalk squeaked in protest as he mentally processed that.

He tried to justify it to himself. After all, Ash hadn’t been that invested or all that impressed by Tapu Lele. He’d been more curious about the wimpod.

He battled one god, was personally healed by another, and then got all excited about a common water louse.



“Professor?” Lillie called, and he blinked hard, suddenly realising he’d been gaping at his chalkboard for several minutes. He coughed and tried to focus. Because, well, honestly… what else could he do?

In hindsight, it was only more distressing that he managed it.

Another thing that only occurred to him in random, forgettable moments was that for such a cheerful, hyperactive kid, Ash sometimes got into very odd moods.

Not depression, or anything like that. That might have made a kind of bipolar sense. It was more like he would just go quiet and serious, watching things with dark, thoughtful eyes… while insisting he wasn’t thinking about much at all.

He looked at Rotom’s pictures of Stoutland training Litten like that.

“Something wrong?” Kukui asked as Ash slowly pulled away from the bench. “Let me guess – you want to help Litten learn Fire Fang?”

Ash’s eyes flicked to him a moment before he grinned. “Yeah, kind of! But Litten doesn’t want my help, so I need to stay out of it!” His smile faded slightly as his eyes lowered back down. “Don’t I…”

“Pika pika?” Pikachu asked, hopping a little closer to Ash. He glanced at it, then closed his eyes in a brief but reassuring grin before turning away. Kukui frowned.



He hesitated, not completely sure how he should handle the situation. Because it wasn’t that Ash seemed upset. Kukui didn’t even suspect he was just doing a very good job of hiding it. He just seemed… “You’re worried about Stoutland, aren’t you?”

He didn’t immediately answer, eyes flicking off to the side before coming back. “I wouldn’t say I’m worried. It doesn’t want help.”

Hearing the repetition he could guess Ash hadn’t meant to give, Kukui shifted his weight to one leg and folded his arms. “You keep saying that.”

“Saying what?”

“Litten and Stoutland don’t want your help. You keep saying that,” he said. “It makes me wonder if maybe you’re trying to convince yourself of something.”

Again, Ash just stared at him for a second, before he suddenly laughed and turned around, hooking one foot behind the other ankle while his hand reached up to rub the back of his head. “I guess I am! I’m not very good at keeping my nose out of other people’s business. I’m trying to get better at it.”

Kukui glanced at Rotom, trying to silently tell it to follow Ash’s example and stay out of this, before leaning back over the bench. “Self-improvement is always a good thing, but I don’t know if this is actually something you need to work on, Ash. I haven’t seen you do anything like that so far.”

“It’s more that…” He grimaced, shifting his stance again so he was steady on two feet. “A little while ago, when I was in Kalos, I started thinking like I had to do everything myself. Like it all depended on me.”

He raised his eyebrows slightly. “What depended on you?”

“I dunno. It got the worst in battles, but I think I was doing it with everything,” he said vaguely. “And that’s not fair, I mean… people are strong. They’re strong on their own, even when they need help. Sometimes they just need someone to believe in them. And… I guess I forgot that. I forgot to believe in my friends. My partners. Even when I need to.”

From the corner of his eye, Kukui noticed Pikachu’s ears drop down behind its head, and it hopped a step closer again. “Pikapi…”

“With the people here… Lillie, and Kiawe… Litten…” Ash looked off to the side again, not quite awkward. “I can see myself doing it again, a little. I… I need to not do that. Litten… and Stoutland… if they want to do this on their own… then I have to let them. I have to let them be strong.”

For his part, Kukui could only gaze back at him in silence, quietly floored. It wasn’t unlike what he’d said when talking about Lillie, and just like that time, there was logic to it. A kind of deep, heart-felt logic that spoke of something much bigger than Ash was actually saying. Something bigger than Kukui felt able to comprehend.

“So I will,” Ash said firmly, giving one of his broad, defiant grins. “Simple as that.”

“Fair enough,” Kukui murmured. Even if he didn’t understand… he didn’t feel like there was anything else he could say.

As much as there was something in him that wanted to sweep that moment away as just an out of character moment, things with Litten didn’t get better, and Ash’s mood only got heavier. At least until Litten came to him for help, and for a moment, it seemed like he would bounce back to normal. His call from the Pokemon Centre, while serious, had him sounding much more like himself than he had the night before.

It didn’t last. Kukui hadn’t expected to see Ash again until Stoutland finally passed away, but when Kukui got up in the morning it was to find Ash in the kitchen, Pikachu on his shoulder, quietly making breakfast. They both looked exhausted, and quiet beeps and snores from the loft implied the others were still sleeping, hinting that he’d been home for a while.

“Ash? What are you doing here? ” Kukui asked. “Is Stoutland…?”

“Mm-mm,” he said. “It and Litten left the Pokemon Centre last night. They went home.”

“But… from what you said…” he said slowly, but Ash didn’t meet his gaze, picking up his bowl and heading over to the couch.


“I…” He watched Ash walk over and sit down to begin eating, though he didn’t look all that enthused about it. He was just going through the motions, Kukui realised. Trying not to interfere.

Like so many of these odd moments with Ash, he could see the theory, but that nagging feeling in his gut was back, reminding him that this wasn’t something a normal kid should be doing. Kukui glanced at the kitchen, but decided caffeine could wait for the moment and instead headed over to sit on the other arm of the couch, elbows on his knees as he watched Ash avoid looking at anything.

“Have you ever lost anyone?” he asked gently.

Ash shrugged and shook his head, but it felt more like a non-answer than a denial. All the same, Kukui decided not to pry. “It’s never easy, is it?”

“It… doesn’t seem fair,” he said, and lowered his spoon back into the bowl, eyes dark. “Everything that happens, all the close calls… but sometimes there’s nothing you can do.”

“Yeah,” he breathed, certain now. Ash had seen death before. Enough to process it, in the same sad, twisted way everyone did when it hurt too much. Understanding wasn’t always acceptance. And, he reminded himself quietly, grief could be acknowledged without being dealt with. “Let’s go and find Litten after school today. Together.”

Ash kept staring into his cereal for a long time, but eventually he swallowed and nodded. “Thanks, Professor.”

True to his insistence on ‘letting Litten be strong’, Ash let himself be guided away from the grieving cat, and went back to the motions. He ate dinner, went to bed. The next day, he nibbled his way through some toast, sat in class, listened to the others talk at lunch… he went home via the market and bridge but came home soon after and even made at an attempt at doing homework.

If he kept breaking off to stare out at the rain, well…

Pikachu barely moved from his shoulder, staring at the nothing just like its trainer. Rowlet slept through most of it, but Rockruff watched them both with wide, worried eyes. Kukui picked it up on his way past, empathising more than he was willing to admit.

“Ash, dinner’s ready,” he called. When there was no immediate response, he raised his voice. “Ash. It’s time for dinner. Come on, your pokemon need feeding and you should eat before it gets cold.”

The reminder about his pokemon seemed to get through at least, and he pulled himself away from the window with visible effort.

“Yeah, thanks, Professor,” he said. “I’ll be right there.”

While Ash poured out the pokechow, Kukui set out the human food and watched his boarder from over his glasses. He knew Ash was worried, but this was getting a little out of hand. “How was Litten when you saw it this afternoon?”

He shrugged. “I took it some berries, but it didn’t eat. It wouldn’t look at me.”

Like Ash wouldn’t look at him, Kukui thought but didn’t say. Instead, he waited until Ash had sat down and picked up his plate. “It’s mourning its family. It will get through this, Ash. Everyone does.”

“Not everyone,” he said softly, but didn’t expand on that, poking at his food a few times before apparently forcing himself to eat.

Kukui turned his attention to his own food, debating the best way to deal with this. He was out of his depth and he knew it, but he also knew that no one was great when it came to this sort of thing. Everyone stumbled with grief, even when it wasn’t their own. Not to mention that he wasn’t entirely convinced that was the only thing going on here – Ash was struggling with more than just what Litten was going through.

So he focussed on that. It was hard, but he tried to remember what Ash had said before – about letting Litten be strong on its own. He seemed determined, but why…? Or perhaps, as Ash had once said, the why didn’t matter. It was the how that was hurting. He had all but admitted he was still learning how to take a step back from things.

There were a lot of different ways to help someone be strong.

“Ash,” he said as he put down his empty plate. “I know you’re trying to respect Litten’s wishes, and that you think it doesn’t want your help right now. But I wonder if that’s really the right thing.”

He paused, turning his head slightly to show he was listening but not looking up.

“I understand what you’re trying to do,” he said gently. “Sometimes we make assumptions. Just like you told me once – we try and force others to think, feel, and do things in ways that we think are right, and that’s… You were right; that’s never a good thing. So I understand why you want to respect Litten’s wishes to be left alone. I do. But Ash, the thing is… just because somebody doesn’t think they need help, that doesn’t always mean they don’t. People are strong, yes, but even the strongest people need help sometimes.”

Ash quietly set down his plate, his head bowed and eyes almost shut, but he didn’t say anything. So Kukui dared to press a little harder.

“Those strong people… they get so used to dealing with things on their own that sometimes they don’t even realise they need help. So they won’t ever ask for it,” he said softly. “That’s when we need to help anyway.”

“But I…” Ash actually curled in on himself a little, as if trying to hide from what he didn’t want to hear. His hands were curled into fists on his knees, pulling on the fabric. “I don’t know how…”

Again, Kukui could empathise. He didn’t know for sure what he was doing either. But he knew it needed to be done. “I’m not sure anyone does. But we try, Ash. That’s all we can do. If you want to help—if there’s something you want to do for Litten—then do it. Staying away like this, just worrying from afar, that… it’s not helping either of you.”

Ash didn’t immediately respond, just stayed still and silent for several long seconds that seemed to stretch into hours. But eventually, he swallowed hard, and when he spoke, his voice was only a little shaky. “I – I don’t think it should be alone. I’d like to stay with it, a- at least until I know it’s eaten something. I just… I just want to see it’s okay.”

Kukui nodded quietly, watching for something he wasn’t sure of. “Okay. But not tonight. Not in the rain, not at night. Tonight, you sleep. Litten might need help, but I’m not letting you get sick over it, understand?”

He smiled briefly, glancing up for a split second before going back to his lap. “Yeah, okay.”

Despite Ash’s promise to be back in time for dinner, Kukui had been all but certain he would have to go and get the kid. So it was shocking when he got home from school to find Ash already there, crouched in front of the pokebed with three bowls of pokechow, a lecturing RotomDex, and four happily chattering pokemon.

“—should be fed a healthy diet rich in spices and hot berries,” Rotom was in the middle of arguing. “This will better feed the inner flame, building it up to be hotter. However, as Litten eventually evolves into a fire/dark type, many trainers instead prefer to feed litten a heavier diet rich in red meat and other proteins.”

“Uhh… I don’t know about that stuff,” Ash said blankly. “Isn’t it just the kind of stuff they like that’s better for them?”

“You like ice cream and french fries!” it pointed out, but Ash just stared back.

“So what?”

“Ash,” Kukui interrupted, and they all turned around. The newest addition to the group glared at him, and Kukui stared back, trying not to make assumptions.

“Oh, hey Professor!” Ash said brightly. “Welcome home! How was school?”

“Fine,” he said. “I didn’t expect to see you so soon.”

He grinned and gathered Litten into his arms before standing up. “We got back a little while ago. But look, Professor! Litten decided to join my team! We had a battle and everything! It’s so strong!”

“Really,” he said slowly, and then bent down to meet its gaze a little easier. “Welcome, Litten. I’m glad to see you’re feeling better.”

It blinked, then gave what was unmistakably a crooked feline smile and snuggled a little closer to Ash’s chest. “Mrrow.”

“We’ll get through things together,” Ash said, and then turned as if to show off the food. “Even the simple stuff, like figuring out what kind of pokechow Litten likes. Rotom says I shouldn’t feed all my pokemon the same type, but they all seem to like it no matter what I give them, so I don’t get the problem.”

“It’s not about liking things!” Rotom complained, and Kukui couldn’t help but chuckle a little as he straightened up.

“No, but pokechow is pretty nutritionally balanced, so it really does come down to taste,” he said. “Though I have to say, I was a little surprised when Rowlet liked the same food as Pikachu and Rockruff.”

Ash grinned. “I’m not. Pokechow’s super tasty no matter what kind you get, right guys?” Ash called over his shoulder, and the other three cheered. Kukui did a double-take, surprised to see Rowlet looking so alert when it wasn’t a battle, but Ash’s smile only softened a little when he noticed Kukui’s look. “Everyone’s really happy that Litten joined the team. So we’re all pitching in to make sure it settles in okay.”

“I see,” he said, still staring for a moment before he was able to focus on Ash. He definitely seemed happier. But that was the thing about Ash, wasn’t it? He always bounced back impossibly fast, especially when there were pokemon to see it. Kukui knew it should worry him, but with Ash’s easy smile and obvious enthusiasm…

He felt relief beating down any concerns he might have still had, and wound up smiling with a shake of his head. “Well, I’m glad to see it. You let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.”

“Sure thing, Professor!”

They went back to the food, and Rotom went back to explaining the benefits of different diets, so Kukui shrugged, accepting that he would just be in the way if he stuck around. But he’d barely passed the kitchen when Ash called for him again.

He turned, and the kid finished hurrying over to stand in front of him, an unreadable smile on his face.

“About last night,” he began, stuffing his hands in his pockets. “Sorry about how I was acting. I let myself get carried away again, huh?”

Kukui blinked, and then frowned. “I wouldn’t say that. It’s not an easy problem to deal with.”

“Yeah, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be better at it,” he said. “So I wanted to say thanks. For puttin’ up with me, and sayin’ the stuff you did. It really helped.”

“I’m beginning to feel like I’ve been hit by an Encore, but again,” he said, brow furrowing slightly, “anytime, Ash. It’s not even a hassle.”

Ash closed his eyes in a self-deprecating laugh and shrug. “I better get back. I just wanted to say that – sorry, and thanks. I’ll be better next time.”

He opened his mouth to argue the point, but Ash was already trotting away, and so was the moment. He let his hand drop with a soft sigh and turned away.

It seemed he had other things to focus on anyway.

Lesson Seven: Purposeful omissions

Living on the beach, there were risks Kukui knew he was taking, and he was always prepared. Heavy rain, strong tides, crumbling sandstone – he had plans to cope with anything.

But a giant palossand collapsing over his house and burying it in sand… not so high on his list of anticipated risks.

And yet, somehow, that was exactly what had just happened.

It had taken him a long time to get over his shock, which Ash had quietly spent starting clean up and trying to make himself and Rockruff look as innocent as possible. Kukui spent a few more minutes debating whether this would be the thing that made him snap (because while there was no way anyone could have guessed this would happen, it was Ash’s fault, and most people would be angry about it), but he knew it was mostly a subconscious procrastination tactic to avoid actually cleaning up.

A tactic that was almost immediately followed by another one – this one about how he just could not deal with this without food, and since their kitchen was currently under two feet of sand, that meant another night out. Ash agreed but refused to let him pay, which certainly helped smooth over Kukui’s still quietly boiling temper.

They swung by the lab on the way home, since Kukui was pretty sure they would probably need at least a second vacuum and there was an industrial one in the lab closet.

“So this is where you work when you’re not teaching?” Ash asked as they stepped out of the elevator. In typical fashion, the lights were all still on and several members of his team were present – most of them staring blindly at their computer screens. Ash still looked around in genuine interest.

“Yeah. It’s a good place to collect data in a controlled environment. And it’s good to get some feedback from other professors sometimes,” he added absently. He noticed Artocarpus watching from the corner of his eye and smiled, taking Ash’s shoulder to guide him over. “Hey, Arty. Working late?”

“As ever. What are you doing here?” he asked, swinging his chair around to face them.

“It’s a long story, but mostly I just need to borrow a vacuum. Let me introduce you two,” he began, but Artocarpus cut him off by extending a hand to Ash.

“Professor Artocarpus. You must be Ash Ketchum.”

“Uh, yeah,” he said, and stared at the offer in typical Kantonese fashion before awkwardly taking it to shake. He used the other hand to point at Pikachu on his shoulder. “And this is my partner, Pikachu.”

“Pi-kachu!” it greeted happily, while Rotom flew around to get in the way.

“And I am RotomDex!”

“I know,” Artocarpus said lazily. “I was there when Kukui picked up your casing. How are you finding it?”

“It is most excellent!”

At Ash’s still slightly awkward look, Kukui explained, “Professor Artocarpus studies pokemon that don’t learn moves, or those that sacrifice moves for other abilities.”

“Oh, like Meowth,” Ash said, and Kukui raised an eyebrow. Most meowths had full move-sets, so presumably he was talking about Team Rocket’s Meowth specifically. It could talk, after all… had that stunted its moves? He opened his mouth to ask, but Ash had already turned back to Artocarpus. “That’s kind of like what Professor Kukui is looking into, with how pokemon can only learn four moves at a time.”

“It’s a related question,” Artocarpus confirmed. “All of the professors here work toward a similar goal – it’s what makes us a research team.”

“That’s really cool,” he said warmly. “So what do you count as a move? Like, does Scratch count if all they’re doing is actually scratching? My Litten knows Scratch but it doesn’t cut very deep, so I’m not sure if it counts as a move.”

“That’s one of the parameters I’m trying to define,” Artocarpus said, and Kukui closed his mouth. Obviously he would just be interrupting if he asked now. So he turned away, mildly annoyed when neither of the other two noticed.

“I… guess I’ll go get that vacuum,” he said, for apparently no reason in particular, and headed off. He hadn’t even made it to her workstation before Cassia jumped up and fell into step beside him.

“So that’s your kid, huh?”

“My boarder,” he corrected. He was not encouraging the Papa Kukui thing that had already spread throughout most of the team.

“He’s younger than I expected. Cute, too. Like a rockruff.”

He smirked but didn’t bother responding to that. He wondered what Cassia would think of how Ash had trained said puppy.

“So, anyway,” she said, as if she were changing the subject they weren’t really talking about, “Do you mind if I ask him something?”

He raised an eyebrow. “Ash? Of course not, but what do you have to ask?”

“Well, he was at the Kalos Conference the other month, right?”

He blinked, then nodded awkwardly. Honestly, he’d kind of forgotten – he kept meaning to ask about Ash’s experiences with the League and never got around to it. But Cassia was the one who usually tracked down conference footage for them to study, so it probably wasn’t surprising that was her first concern.

“Since the League claims all their footage was lost in the Crisis, I’ve been trying to find amateur videos or accounts instead,” she said. “I’ve even been trawling through pokevision, so please appreciate my sacrifice.”

Kukui snickered. Pokevision was home to far too few battle footage videos and far too many battle-review vlogs, with inexperienced trainers offering highly flawed opinions of the work done by professionals. And the few battle footage videos you could find were usually pretty shaky and often at bad angles. But when desperate, researchers made do. And Cassia was pretty desperate.

“Maybe I’m getting paranoid, but every time I check my search results, I swear there are less of them. I’m not getting anywhere,” she said. “So I thought, since the website says Ash Ketchum was there, he might be able to give me a personal account. It’s better than nothing, right?”

He paused, an admittedly bitter part of him inclined to wish her good luck getting a straight answer out of the kid. But when it came to battle, he thought she’d probably encounter a different problem. “Well, you can ask,” he said slowly, “but Ash isn’t exactly the best at explaining things. You will likely get a lot of enthusiasm and onomatopoeia and not much else.”

“Onomatopoeia…? What do you mean?”

“What it sounds like. But by all means, give it a shot.”

She gave him a look but didn’t press, and Kukui was allowed to get to the storage cupboard and its industrial vacuum cleaner in peace. By the time they got back to Artocarpus’s desk, it was to find him and Rotom looking aggravated, Ash staring blankly, and both Pikachu and Artocarpus’s delibird happily circling Ash’s feet like he was a maypole.

“But things don’t ‘just happen’. There needs to be some evolutionary causation,” Artocarpus was trying to explain as they came close.

“Uhh…” Ash only looked blanker at the terminology, so Rotom translated.

“A scientific reason.”

“Oh. Well… growing up's a scientific thing, right? So maybe that’s what it is. They’re focussed on growing more than battling.”

“That’s not how pokemon work,” Artocarpus snapped. “If that was the case, then every pokemon with a non-mineral evolution remaining would retain an empty move-slot.”


“When you don’t use an external source to evolve,” Kukui interjected to explain. “Like an evolution stone or the energies of specific areas. Arty is saying that if whatever you were saying is true, then Rockruff, for example, would never know more than three moves until it becomes Lycanroc.”

“Oh! Yeah, I guess that does make sense,” Ash said blankly, and then did a double-take as he noticed the vacuum. “Whoa! That thing is huge!”

“Pikaaa!” Pikachu agreed, stumbling to a stop in order to stare, and Delibird nearly tripped over it, both of them wobbling into Ash and forcing him to grab the desk to stay upright.

Kukui paused to make sure he was okay before responding. “Well, we often have a lot of feathers and fur to clean up in here. It should handle the sand alright though.”

He hesitated again, noticing Artocarpus was still frowning. But Kukui could recognise the look – he often felt the same way after one of Ash’s overly simple explanations hit a chord of scientific logic. It could be incredibly frustrating, especially when you woke up the next day with a new and tangible hypothesis to test.

“Hi there,” Cassia said, interrupting the moment with her usual welcoming smile. “You must be Ash. I’m Professor Cassia.”

“Oh. Hi,” he said. “Nice to meet you.”

“You were in the Kalos League, weren’t you?” she asked. “I was wondering if you might be interested in telling me about it.”

It was mildly curious, the way Ash’s polite smile faded very slightly at the request. But he sounded as cheerful as ever as he said, “Um, sure! What did you want to know?”

“Well, as much as you can tell me, really,” she said. “Do you have a free afternoon this week? I’d really love to be able to interview you properly.”

“This week isn’t so great,” Kukui interjected. “The school’s open house is coming up, so we’ll both be pretty busy.”

“Both?” Ash repeated, looking all the more concerned. “Do you need to be there too, Professor?”

He blinked, then frowned as both Cassia and Artocarpus looked at him sideways with matching smiles that… usually preceded another ‘Papa Kukui’ comment. Because his assumption that he needed to be there had probably sounded more like something a guardian would do than a researcher. He lifted a hand in a move that was perhaps more flail than defence.

“Hey, I study battle too, y’know! In fact, as the Pokemon Professor here, if anyone should be investigating League events, it’s me! Of course I should be there!”

“Uh huh,” Artocarpus drawled, while Ash stared.

“Investigating? Officer Jenny said that was all finished,” he said blankly. “Why are you doing more? Did something happen?”

They stared back at him, suddenly lost, but Ash just gazed back in equal confusion. What did Officer Jenny have to do with the Kalos League Conference? Maybe he was talking about something else. They’d apparently passed each other by somewhere in this conversation.

“Well… uh… I guess we should get going,” Kukui said, deciding to take advantage of the confusion and avoid any more opportunities for him to make a fool of himself. “Lots of cleaning to do after all.”

“Right,” Ash agreed, and Pikachu scrambled up his back in an apparent rush to get them all out of the lab as quickly as possible.

While it may have been an excuse, Kukui soon realised just how honest he’d been in claiming they had lots of cleaning to do. They spent a solid two hours just on the loft, making sure Ash had somewhere to sleep. Luckily, Kukui’s own bedroom and the bathroom had been shielded by closed doors, so aside from what had crept under the gap they were completely sand-free.

But most of the house was still in shambles the next day, so Kukui called in to the school to report he and Ash weren’t coming in. They instead spent the day digging themselves out and vacuuming until they were finally free of sand – or, at least, as much as they usually were, given the location of the house.

“Oh, man,” Ash announced as he turned off the vacuum cleaner one last time. “And to think, I used to complain when Mom and Mr Mime yelled at me for tracking dirt in the house.”

“It certainly puts things in perspective,” agreed Kukui. “I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to make another Sand Attack pun without thinking of all this.”

“No way, I can’t believe it,” he said, throwing a cheeky glance over his shoulder. “I’ve heard you on a pun Sandstorm professor! No little Sand Tomb can Sand Force your puns down!”

Pikachu groaned loudly, while Kukui smiled approvingly. “Nice.”

He grinned and went back to the vacuum, unplugging it and preparing to empty the bag in what had become a very practised movement. “But seriously, I am never complaining about having to wipe my feet again. Remind me to apologise to Mr Mime when we get home.”

“Pikachu,” Pikachu sighed, and Kukui slanted a look at it. It and Rockruff had begun the day digging alongside he and Ash, but hadn’t really been doing much more than playing around, and while Rockruff had been returned after most of the sand was dumped outside, Pikachu had perched on the couch to join Rotom in ‘supervising’.

Still, Kukui could empathise. He’d been using a hand-vacuum on the basement stairs and he was so far beyond done that it wasn’t funny anymore. But at least the house was clean, they’d moved most of the sand back down to the beach, and they hadn’t overfilled the rubbish bin with vacuumed waste. He considered this a success, pokemon supervisors or no.

He collapsed on the couch next to Pikachu, both of them watching wearily as Ash poured his final bag-full into the rubbish bin. “Mr Mime… that’s a psychic pokemon, isn’t it?”

“And fairy-type. But we didn’t know that for ages – I didn’t even know fairy was a type until last year,” he said, and Kukui grunted.

“That’s right. Most regions didn’t acknowledge the fairy-type until recently. It’s a little sad, since it implies none of them ever saw a sylveon.”

“I still don’t get what makes Eevee evolve into Sylveon,” he said as he wandered over to join them on the couch. “I get that Umbreon and Espeon have something to do with love and the time of day, but how is Sylveon any different?”

“It is a different cause entirely!” Rotom objected. “Umbreon and Espeon are related to friendship, while Sylveon is evolved from affection!”

Ash didn’t look any more enlightened by this information, so Kukui shook his head and tried to explain.

“Those are the scientific terms,” he said, waving Rotom off to leave him to this one – he doubted Ash would be able to follow Rotom’s analysis on this topic. “What we call ‘friendship’ in pokemon science is a technical term used to qua- uh, measure something similar to trust. Affection is a little more like ‘happiness’ or simply satisfaction with how a pokemon is treated by their trainer.”

Ash scratched the back of his neck, still confused. “But shouldn’t all pokemon that trust their trainers be happy with them, too?”

“That would be nice, wouldn’t it?” he asked, once again struck by how different Ash was from the trainers he’d once met in Kanto. “But think about it, Ash. In your travels, you must have seen a lot of very well trained, powerful pokemon. And you’ve probably seen some very pampered and spoiled pokemon. Do you really think they all have the same kind of relationship with their trainers?”

Ash paused, then lowered his eyes to the table, obviously thinking it through. “Now you mention it, I’ve seen some pokemon that would do anything for their trainers, even when their trainers are really horrible to them. From what you’re saying, in pokemon science that’d be called friendship?”

“That’s right,” he admitted, and then grimaced. “It does put a slightly darker twist on the word, doesn’t it?”

He frowned but didn’t comment, and Pikachu scampered over to crawl into his lap. He scratched behind its ear to make it chirrup happily, and then looked back up at Kukui. “And there are some people who pretend to love someone, but don’t actually respect them or trust them. But the other person likes the attention anyway, so… that’d be affection?”

Kukui winced again. It was the scientific definition, but Ash was making it sound a lot more toxic than it should have been. “That’s… one way to look at it. It’s usually less insidious than that.”


“Sinister… uh, cruel,” he translated. “The love is usually more genuine – it’s just less based in trust than what a pokemon scientist would call ‘friendship’.”

Ash still didn’t look entirely happy with the explanation, but left it there, instead focussing his attention on Pikachu, who leaned a little harder into his hands and hummed happily. Eventually, Ash smiled too, and looked up at Kukui again with easy eyes. “Figuring out all this stuff must’ve been super hard, huh? I always just figured pokemon evolve when they’re ready!”

“It can be a difficult area to study,” Kukui admitted. “But it’s a big field, currently spearheaded by Professors Rowan and Sycamore. Rowan actually accepts assistants based on their ability to present theories or new analyses on evolutionary patterns.”

“Their what?”

He chuckled. Ash didn’t seem tired physically, but given how poorly he was following language he usually coped with, the kid must have been exhausted. “He’ll take someone as a new assistant if they can tell him something interesting about pokemon evolution.”

“Really?” Ash asked curiously. “I wonder what Gary did.”

“Gary?” he repeated, before the name registered. “Oh, that’s right. You know Gary Oak, don’t you?”

“Yeah. He was my best friend growing up,” he explained. “But he studies fossils and stuff. I always thought it was weird that he signed on to help Professor Rowan.”

“Well, if you look into the past, you can sometimes understand the future,” he said diplomatically. He’d never really understood the appeal of archaeology, even when it led to the reanimation of extinct pokemon. Let the poor things rest and focus on the now, in his opinion. “And those old pokemon often lived before we really had ‘trainers’, so it probably gives an excellent insight into how pokemon live without humans.”

“You think? I dunno, every time I see stuff from the past, humans and pokemon seem pretty close, no matter how far back you go.”

He shrugged. Unlike some professors, he didn’t really care about history. Unless it was related to moves or battle, he wasn’t all that interested.

Besides, this was all getting a bit too detailed for him. He had just spent seven straight hours cleaning. He was mostly interested in how long it would take for his body to physically meld with the couch cushions. And also whether he could justify getting take-out twice in two days just so he didn’t have to cook dinner. Maybe he’d send Ash to Mallow’s family’s cafe – they at least had something resembling healthy food on the menu.

Days later, he berated himself for it, but for now, he just let the conversation sink into tired silence, unconcerned with definitions of friendship, affection, or even what Ash knew about pokemon from ancient history. It was just another mystery to add to the pile.

Meeting Ash’s mother in person was an… interesting experience. And kind of hilarious.

“Mom, seriously, you don’t need to tell this story,” Ash groaned, burying his face in his palm. It had spent a lot of time there so far, and Delia seemed to take a kind of pride in getting it that way.

“It shows how much you’ve grown!” she said cheerfully, before clapping her hands and turning back to Kukui. “He ran all the way to Professor Oak’s laboratory in his pyjamas! And of course the whole town was there to see the new trainers off. Thinking about it, it’s lucky he was that dressed – he used to just sleep in his underwear on hot nights—”


Kukui bit his lip. It would not help to laugh. It would not help at all.

“—so I had to gather everything together and follow after him. He and Pikachu were such a mess when I found them. He must have made Pikachu very cross. It only knew thundershock at that point, but it hit him quite a bit, he was looking very burned.”

“Pikachu…” Pikachu mumbled, looking almost as embarrassed as its trainer, who was starting to look in real danger of bursting a blood vessel.

“Oh, and then when he tried to put Pikachu in its pokeball! It was adorable! Pikachu kept batting it away with its tail, like they were playing catch!” she continued cheerfully. “Until Pikachu hit him in the head with it! Served him right, of course, not listening to his pokemon! And you should have seen the way they left town. Ash had to take my rubber gloves and he had a rope around Pikachu since it refused to walk on its own!”

Pikachu curled into Ash’s hip, obviously humiliated by the memory, while Ash sighed loudly. “Yeah, okay, Mom, I was a lousy trainer on my first day, we get it –”

“But then he called me from Viridian City that night!” she said. “I was so proud of my little boy! Though you were even more of a mess then than you were when you left. You never did tell me what happened. I should ask Misty…”

“No!” he yelped. “No, that’s okay Mom. We just met Misty and there was that little accident with her bike and it was no big deal!”

It was absolutely a big deal, Kukui could tell. But he kept that thought to himself with a sneaky grin. He would let Ash have what little dignity he could around his mother.

“Oh, that’s right! Pikachu used to have such a bad habit with bikes,” Delia said, before smiling pleasantly. “It’s just as well that’s all behind it, isn’t it?”

Ash rolled his eyes, only to catch sight of Rotom in the movement and jerk slightly. He immediately grinned and snatched up his notes. “You know, as much fun as this is, I really should get back to work on my presentation for tomorrow.”

“Pika?” Pikachu stared at him blankly for a few seconds, looked at Delia, and then hurriedly jumped up and onto Ash’s shoulder. “Pika! Pika pi pikachu, Pikapi!”

“Right! So uh, we’ll just, you know, go do that,” he said, and forcefully grabbed Rotom out of the air before hightailing it for the loft.

Kukui snickered. “So it’s true – even the nicest kids can’t handle their parents’ embarrassing stories.”

“It’s a handy trick for getting rid of them,” Delia confided, and when he looked at her, she winked. “Now he’s gone, I can really ask you how he’s doing. He’s been a little preoccupied for a while now, but he really perked up while we were here on vacation. I wanted to see if he was still doing well.”

“Ash?” Kukui glanced up at loft before going back to her. “I think so. He’s a good kid, and usually really happy and energetic. But I think there’s a lot he doesn’t tell me.”

“Mm… he used to have a friend that travelled with him most places. It seems like ever since Brock went off to study, Ash has been keeping more and more to himself,” she said, and then sighed. “Oh well, all things considered, I suppose it’s only to be expected.”

“Puberty is never a fun time for anyone,” Kukui said slowly, but Delia’s blink and following awkward laugh didn’t reassure him much.

“That either. How’s he doing at school? I was a little worried – he’s never really been much for academics.”

“No, and he does struggle a little,” he admitted. “But he really excels in practical lessons, and he’s really become a big part of the class. He’s even been helping my colleagues and me with our research, in his own way.”

“Oh, good. I much prefer it when he’s doing work for a professor,” she said. “You don’t get him into nearly as much trouble.”

“I don’t know about that. Ash sure seems to find it anyway,” he said, and frowned. “Speaking of which, are you at all familiar with Team Rocket?”

“Team Rocket?” she repeated, then huffed and turned to call up at the loft. “Ash Ketchum! You and Team Rocket aren’t making trouble for the professor, are you?”

“No, Mom!” he called back, sounding very much like a teenager insisting he wasn’t throwing wild parties. “I barely even see them here!”

“Because I heard about what you did to Professor Sycamore’s lab!”

He poked his head up over the railing, offended. “That was so not my fault! Any of it!” he cried, then pulled back with a disgruntled look. “How did you hear about that?”

“Well, the professors do talk to each other, dear,” she pointed out. “And you know I have Professor Oak over for dinner once a week.”

Kukui pushed down a wave of envy over the idea of having so many chances to talk to the Pokemon Professor, and then had to make his mental way past the realisation that Ash also apparently knew Professor Sycamore (did the kid collect renowned Pokemon Professors, or what?), to instead focus on the point, “Wait, so you do know about Team Rocket?”

“Of course. But don’t worry, my Ash is very good at handling them,” she said cheerfully, before shooting another sharp look at Ash. “I hope you’re not letting them interrupt everyone’s schoolwork, either.”

“Like I said, I barely even see them here,” he said. “Besides, there’s a bewear that seems to have caught them. I don’t think they’ve got time for me lately.”

“Well, that’s alright then,” she said, before going back to Kukui. “They can be very annoying. And Ashy-boy always falls for their tricks! The amount of times they’ve been wearing disguises and he doesn’t even notice –”

“You don’t notice either!” Ash cried, but she didn’t even look at him.

“Yes, but dear, I don’t battle them nearly every day.”

He groaned and moved back out of view, while Delia smiled like this was the intended outcome. Kukui tried not to gape, not sure whether to be more concerned that she thought Ash dealt with Team Rocket all the time, or that she didn’t seem to think it was a problem.

In fact, it was apparently so minor a problem that she didn’t feel the need to discuss it any further, instead changing the subject. “So, what kind of research does Ash help you with? He tells me you study pokemon moves. That must be a very exciting field!”

He looked down and around at the pokemon surrounding them, but didn’t find any equally perplexed expressions. So he could only look at Delia, begin to realise just where some of Ash’s more concerning habits came from, and try to move on.

Maybe he was just missing something.

The three of them went out for dinner, Ash energetically telling his mother all about the pokemon school and his friends. She seemed happy to hear about it, though she did interrupt at one point to ask if he missed the road.

“Yeah, a little. It gets a little boring seeing the same skyline every day,” he said, before wincing apologetically. “Uh, no offence, Professor.”

“None taken,” he said with a grin. He remembered the lure of the horizon all too well. “Travel gets into your blood.”

“Yeah, kinda,” he said, and went back to his mother. “But I’m learning a lot, and I’m really loving it here. The people are so nice and warm, and everyone lives and works with pokemon so well…” He took another mouthful of food, chewed and swallowed, and then said, “I mean, I really miss battling. You don’t see a lot of battle trainers here, and so I don’t feel like I’m pushing myself a lot. But this region is so great, and I wake up every day just waiting to see what new thing I’ll find out about it!”

“That’s wonderful, honey,” she said warmly. “It sounds like just what you needed.”

Kukui glanced at her, but Ash just grinned and carried on. He wondered if it had anything to do with what she’d alluded to before – whatever it was Ash apparently kept to himself. As dinner continued and turned into the evening, and then breakfast, he debated talking to her about it. She didn’t seem that worried, and she and Ash appeared pretty close for people that apparently didn’t see each other more than a few times a year. So it wasn’t like she was likely to be just shrugging off something she should have been upset about.

But at the same time, she did seem to know there was something going on. Something more than Team Rocket. As paranoid as it made him feel, he was beginning to think she and Ash were purposefully keeping him in the dark about whatever it was.

He was still worrying about it after the Open House had officially come to a close and they were back home, when Ash’s mother went out to watch the sunset with Mr Mime. Ash and Pikachu eventually followed her, and Kukui stepped out to lean in the doorway. He didn’t normally bother with the sunset he could see every day, but it was a nice way to distract himself from his thoughts for a moment.

Everything was silent beyond the wind and waves for a few minutes, until Delia’s soft voice broke the quiet.

“I really am glad you're doing so well. I was worried about you.”

“About me?” Ash asked curiously, and she nodded without looking at him.

“You left so quickly to get to Kalos, and then you came home so soon after the league there,” she said. “And then it was like you didn’t want to go anywhere at all. You didn’t have any plans, or seem interested in any of the leagues… it seemed so unlike you.”

Pikachu had been watching her, but as Ash turned his head back toward the sunset, it instead shifted its attention to him. Neither of them said anything.

“And with how little you told me about the conference, even though you had that gold medal…” she said softly, and Kukui raised an eyebrow. Gold medals were usually only given out to winners, and he was almost positive Ash had said he’d lost the final. But Delia was already continuing on. “I know you’re always fine, Ash, and you know I don’t mean to pry. But a mother is allowed to worry.”

“Mime-mime, mister mime!” Mr Mime added pointedly, but Ash barely shifted to look at it, and Delia’s shoulders rose and fell in a sigh.

“You know I’m proud of you, and everything you do,” she said, “but it’s just so nice that you’re getting the chance to have some fun. I hope it stays like this for you.”

Ash shifted awkwardly for a second. “We always have fun. Right, Pikachu?”

“Pika,” it said quietly.

“You know what I mean,” she chided them gently, and then reached out, curling her arm around Pikachu so she could grab Ash’s shoulder and pull him into a sideways hug. “Is it really so much to ask that the world take care of itself for a few months, so my boy can relax and enjoy himself?”

“Mo-om,” he whined, practically dripping wounded dignity, but he didn’t pull away. After a moment, he even lifted his own arm to wrap around her waist too. “Thanks. Sorry I always make you worry.”

“Miss-mister mime!” Mr Mime objected, and both Ash and Delia’s shoulders lifted with their grins.

“Sorry to you too, Mr Mime,” he said playfully. “Thanks for looking after my mom.”

The small family fell silent again, and Kukui folded his arms over his chest, quietly deciding there was definitely something he hadn’t been told, and almost definitely something he was being kept out of.

But for the first time, he wondered if maybe it would be better for Ash if he let it stay that way.

Generally speaking, Kukui preferred to take his breaks out of the classroom, even when he was working through them. But his whole class had been acting strangely this past week, so he had decided to spend lunch grading papers at his desk while the kids ate their lunch. Ash had been pretty closed-mouthed about the whole thing at home, so spying seemed like the best option.

But nothing seemed out of the ordinary. They’d pushed their desks together so they were eating in a quasi-circle, and were all acting perfectly normal, though Sophocles still looked embarrassed about something.

Ah, who knew? Maybe it was some pre-teen hormonal thing. It was about time they had some emotional drama, after all.

“I don’t think it’s lying,” Ash was saying confidently, when he tuned back into the conversation. “Lying means you’re actually saying something different to what the actual truth is.”

“Yeah. This is just not saying something,” added Lillie. “It’s not your fault if people don’t ask directly.”

“No way, it counts,” Mallow insisted. “Because you’re letting someone believe something that’s not true.”

“And we did ask,” Kiawe added with a playful jab at Sophocles’ shoulder.

He jerked, his lunch nearly going everywhere in his overreaction, before he winced. “Hey, come on…!”

“But if you think that’s lying, then how far does it go?” asked Ash. “I mean, what about the first couple of days? When we didn’t know what was wrong? I really don’t think that was lying.”

“That was absolutely lying!” Mallow cried. “Because we kept asking what was wrong and he said nothing was!”

“I don’t think that was what Ash meant,” Lillie pointed out. “You mean before then, right? When he knew but didn’t tell us?”

“It was kind of lying,” Sophocles admitted awkwardly. “I felt pretty bad about it.”

“So is that the difference?” asked Ash. “Whether you feel bad about it or not?”

Mallow scrunched up her face. “I don’t think so. After all, Lana’s the biggest liar I know and she never feels bad.”

Having been quietly eating her lunch, Lana winked and stuck out her tongue in silent agreement before going back to her food.

“Ughh, this is too complicated,” Ash groaned, pushing away his lunch box so he could bury his head in his desk. “I give up.”

“It’s not complicated. You just don’t get it because you’re an honest person!” Mallow teased, reaching over to shove at his head. “You couldn’t keep a secret if your life depended on it.”

Considering everything he knew about the kid, Kukui looked up from under his hat to check Ash’s reaction. As expected, he only shifted his head so he could see, no guilt or even a hint of a shameful grin on his face.

“You think?”

“Yeah! It’s no wonder Lillie doesn’t get it either, because she’s too sweet to lie,” Mallow continued, before raising her eyebrows at Kiawe. “I’m kind of surprised you get it. You’re the most honest person I know!”

“I can lie!” he insisted, and there was a long beat as even Ash stared at him in silent disbelief. He frowned, pulling back in offended dignity. “I can absolutely lie! Like, uh… well, listen to this: my little sister is not the cutest little girl in all of Alola.”

The silence stretched, though some of their expressions had gone from disbelief to mild disgust. Especially when Kiawe broke into a goofy smile and added, “She’s the cutest little girl in the whole world!”

Ash and Lillie laughed awkwardly, while Mallow and Sophocles groaned and Lana continued chewing her sandwich in judgemental silence.

“I think Ash and Kiawe can totally lie,” Sophocles said, lifting a finger, “They do it all the time in pokemon battles. It’s like when you play card games, right? So your opponent doesn’t know when you’re planning something.”

“What are you talking about?” Ash asked as he pushed himself upright and picked up an apple slice to munch on. “That’s not about lying or telling the truth. It’s just how it is. It’d make for a pretty weird battle if opponents kept yelling strategies across the field at each other.”

“You mean that’s not what you’re doing when you call out attack names?” asked Lillie, making Lana snicker.

“Besides, near as I can tell Ash doesn’t have strategies,” Kiawe added in a deadpan. “If he told everyone his plans, it’d constantly be something like ‘thunderbolt and then I don’t know yet’.”

Lana kept snickering. Ash ignored them both. “If that’s lying then people are lying all the time. I mean, it’s not like people do stuff for no reason. Just because they don’t tell you why they do everything they do, that doesn’t mean they’re lying about it.”

“That’s right!” Lillie agreed, a little more emphatically than the situation really called for. “Just because you have secrets, that doesn’t mean not telling them is the same as a lie.”

It was an interesting way to phrase it, and the kids all noticed, causing them to stare a little. She blushed, and then ducked her head, fiddling awkwardly with her fingers. “I mean… you know… in theory.”

As the silence stretched, Kukui pursed his lips, debating whether he should intervene. The conversation might have started innocently enough, but it was clearly hitting a bit too close to Lillie’s coping mechanism of pretending things were fine when they weren’t. But before he could decide what he’d do about that, Ash groaned loudly again, distracting everyone by throwing up his hands.

“Argh, seriously, this is too complicated! At this rate I’m gonna spend my whole life wondering whether I’m lying or not! Why does it matter, anyway?”

“Exactly,” Lana piped up, closing her eyes imperiously. “Not knowing what’s real or not makes life a lot more fun, anyway.”

“That’s true, isn’t it?” Mallow admitted. “Knowing everything can really take the magic out of things, can’t it?”

“Yeah,” Kiawe agreed. “Like that pool I showed you the other day, Sophocles. You might like to know the chemicals and stuff, but I’m just happy knowing that such a beautiful thing exists. I don’t need to know why.”

“I guess so,” he said, and then grinned at Lillie. “I might like to know stuff, but it’s a lot more fun learning about cool things than it is just getting the information straight out.”

“Like getting to know a friend,” Mallow added. “It’s not the information you find out, it’s the journey you take to get there, and the memories you have after that count.”

Lillie pulled her fists up to her chest, staring around at everyone with shining eyes, and then smiled broadly and bounced her head in an emphatic nod. “Right! Thank you, everyone!”

The group all grinned at each other, basking in the glow of a reaffirmed friendship, before Sophocles happily changed the subject onto the house he was staying in this week. Still watching from beneath his hat, Kukui looked over his students one by one, before finally ending up on Ash.

Lying or hiding something… Maybe the kids were onto something.

He hadn’t been lying when he told Delia he enjoyed having Ash stay with him. The kid was like a breath of fresh air; even when his misadventures complicated life more than any sane person could put up with, it was so incredibly fun that Kukui actually found himself looking forward to the next one. And those harder moments… the times when Ash would go quiet, or screw himself up in knots, or look so very shocked that someone was actually concerned about his feelings… Kukui wouldn’t give them up either. He wasn’t sure what, but even as Ash kept his secrets, Kukui still felt like he was learning something invaluable with each and every moment.

He’d spent so much time lately trying to figure Ash out. Trying to work out what made him tick – what he wasn’t telling people. And it was so frustrating, because every time he tried, no matter who he asked or how, he just ran into a brick wall.

Maybe it was frustration he didn’t need. Maybe he should just accept it all for what it was.

Life had certainly been a lot more fun lately.

Maybe… He smiled and lowered his head back to his marking. Maybe it was time he just went with it, for a while.

An episodic interlude

Ash looked entirely perplexed by the concept of permission slips.

“But… we’re just going to Akala,” he said, staring at the signature line. “It’s literally the next island over. Kiawe flies there every day.”

“Yes, and he has permission from his parents to do so,” Kukui explained, amused in a way he knew he shouldn’t have been.

“We’re only going for a week.”

“It’s still time away. This is to make sure that everyone’s parents know where their children are.”

Ash lifted his eyes to Kukui, looking even blanker. “Do I need to get my mom to sign?”

“No, you’re different,” he said with a grin. “For one thing, by giving permission for you to live with me, your mother essentially signed guardianship to me, so I would only really need to get permission from myself for you to go.”

“Oh… Okay…”

“For another, according to International Law, a fully licensed pokemon trainer such as yourself is bound by the age laws of their home region,” he pointed out. “As long as you remain a fully licensed pokemon trainer, you’re an adult and responsible for your own wellbeing. So really, the only permission you need is your own.”

There was a beat, and Kukui immediately regretted pointing that out. Despite the fact that Ash was probably more than aware of it already, he somehow felt he’d just damaged some future argument he was going to make, so he added, “But that doesn’t mean you can just do whatever you want. Remember, part of going to school is that you’re agreeing to be part of the school group. I need to know where you are and what you’re doing at all times.”

“What? Oh, yeah, sure,” he said vaguely, and Kukui sighed. Now he was definitely going to lose Ash somewhere on Akala. But he seemed to have already lost the argument, because Ash was suddenly frowning, his eyes locked on the middle distance in front of him. After another moment, he looked up and over at the door, then twisted around toward the balcony, like he was expecting someone to come in. Sitting on his shoulder as always, Pikachu leaned around to stare at its trainer.

“Pika pika?”

When Ash didn’t immediately answer, Kukui raised an eyebrow. “Something wrong?”

“N-no…” He paused again, and then slowly turned back to the permission slip, only to almost immediately look up again, brow furrowing further.

“Ash?” Rotom was the one to call this time. “Are you confused about guardianship rules? I can explain them to you in detail if you require!”

“What?” he asked absently, before he blinked and turned back. Then he made a face. “No, I’m fine, thanks, Rotom. I just forgot that it’s different for people here. That’s so weird. Does that mean that if I went somewhere with Kiawe and something happened, I’d be responsible for him? Like, for Officer Jenny and stuff?”

“Technically,” Kukui said with a grin. “I don’t know if anyone would hold you to it, though.”

“So weird,” he said again, and then suddenly flinched so violently that his eyes clenched shut, and he made a slightly choked noise when they opened.

By the time Kukui realised what he was doing, his hand was hovering over Ash’s shoulder and he was halfway leaning down into the kid’s personal space. “Ash? What’s wrong? Does something hurt?”

He glanced up at him, mouth set in a surprisingly hard line, before he silently turned and walked over to the balcony. Pikachu murmured to him quietly, but Ash just muttered back that it shouldn’t worry, focussed on something in the courtyard. Exchanging nervous glances, Kukui and Rotom hurried after him, and followed his gaze down to where Principal Oak was chatting with one of the teachers, a pokemon crouched between them and warily looking around the courtyard.

“See the lucario?” Ash asked Pikachu, who made a noise of understanding.

Kukui glanced at them, mildly confused, but Rotom was already on a roll, “Lucario, the Aura pokemon. Not only does it perceive auras, but it has also gained the power to control them. It employs them in –”

“Uh oh,” Ash said suddenly, and grabbed Kukui by the arm. That was all the warning he got before getting violently yanked out of the way, mere seconds before something blue slammed into the balcony railing in front of them.

“What the he—?!” Kukui yelped, but Ash was already dragging him back into the classroom.

“That was an Aura Sphere!” Rotom cried. “It is a special fighting move, and the signature move of Lucario! It is created –”

“Not now, Rotom!” Ash snapped, as another blast slammed into the wall outside, startlingly close to where they were standing.

“Pikapi!” Pikachu cried, and Ash nodded.

“Yeah. Professor, stay here,” he ordered, before sprinting back out into the hallway. Kukui blinked at the tone—he’d heard Ash use it once or twice before and it still shocked him every time, if only because it brooked no argument and actually made him want to obey—before ignoring it and running after.

“Ash! Hold on, wait up!” he yelled, but Ash didn’t even pause. In fact, when he reached the railing around the far side of the stairs, he vaulted over it with no concern for the heart that jumped into Kukui’s throat. “Ash!”

But when he reached the railing himself, it wasn’t to find his boarder sprawled at the base of the steps with a broken leg – Ash was nowhere in sight. Kukui swore and rushed around, taking the stairs as quickly as he could and running for the courtyard.

By the time he got there, it was to find Ash squaring off against Lucario, Oak’s Komala and Teacher Hanoi’s Pangoro lying crumpled on the ground behind it, and Pikachu snarling between Ash and their opponent.

“Lucario!” Hanoi begged. “You have to stop! Please!”

“Pika!” Pikachu spat, but Lucario ignored them both, already charging up another Aura Sphere.

“Pikachu, we need to calm it down!” Ash ordered, before swinging out his arm. “Thunderbolt, but take it easy!”

“Pi-kachu!” it snapped, and blasted out its attack. Lucario leapt out of the way at the last second, before firing its sphere directly at Ash. Kukui snatched for the pokeballs he didn’t even carry anymore, but Ash just dove out of the way, expertly tumbling back to a fighter’s crouch to refocus on Lucario. Pikachu didn’t wait for another order, already racing forward with a electroball forming on its tail. “Pikapikapikapika…!”

“Cari!” Lucario barked, a shining blue bone extending out from its paws as it raced forward itself.


The electroball was brighter and larger than Kukui had yet seen from Pikachu, and although Lucario’s bone club batted it away, it obviously had to put a lot more energy into the swing than it had expected, and the bone snapped in half before fading into non-existence. Lucario stumbled, staring at the ruins of its attack, and Ash didn’t wait for it to recover.

“Okay, Pikachu, let’s do this!” he yelled, swinging his Z-ring up. As he and Pikachu swung through the motions, Lucario looked up, eyes visibly widening, and it skittered back in fear. While Ash obviously knew better than to pause at this point, he didn’t give his usual half-speech, instead pointing out, “Pikachu and I are partners! Gigavolt Havoc!”

Like most of the Z-moves Ash performed, it wasn’t nearly as impressive as it had been that first time against Tapu Koko, but it was more than enough to slam into the still frozen Lucario and knock it out flat. Even so, Pikachu was almost immediately back into a battle-stance, but Ash rushed past it without waiting.

“Pikapi!” Pikachu snapped, and he tossed a smile over his shoulder as he knelt down.

“It’s okay, buddy, it can’t battle anymore,” he said, before gently levering his arms under Lucario. “Hey. Hey, Lucario, it’s okay. No one’s going to hurt anyone. It’s safe here.”

Lucario gasped as it came back to consciousness, jerking back, but Ash held tight.

“Hey… I promise you, everything’s fine. You don’t have to be scared,” he said gently. “Pikachu, come over and tell it.”

“Pika pikachu,” it said mutinously, but still walked over to clamber up onto Ash’s shoulder, where it glowered down at Lucario. “Pikapi pi pika, pikachu.”

“Be nice,” he said, and Pikachu glared at him.


Movement from the other side of the courtyard snapped Kukui back to himself, and he joined Hanoi and Oak in rushing over to Ash.

“Ash!” he cried. “Are you alright?”

“Oh, my goodness,” Hanoi said as she collapsed to her knees beside him. “I’m so sorry, I have no idea what happened. You’re okay, right? Kukui, I swear, I didn’t –”

“It’s fine,” Ash reassured her, before looking back down at Lucario again. “We’re all okay, right, Lucario?”

Lucario just stared at him for a few seconds, its wide eyes slowly welling up with tears. Ash smiled kindly, lowering his head until Kukui couldn’t see his eyes past the brim of his cap, and gently petted Lucario’s cheek, his fingers just barely missing the strange black appendages behind its ears with each stroke. “I meant it. We’re all safe.”

And with that, it lurched up and into Ash’s chest, where it burst into what were unmistakably loud and painful-sounding sobs.

“It belongs to a friend of mine – Danny Midori. He’s one of Kahuna Hala’s disciples in martial arts,” Teacher Hanoi explained. “But last week, there was an accident during training. Danny was squaring off against another disciple – Anthony Goldeen. It was the same as ever, and everything was fine, except they both misjudged a swing and… well, Danny hasn’t woken up yet.”

Once Lucario had calmed down enough to let go of Ash, they’d moved the conversation into Principal Oak’s office to avoid the small crowd of staff and students that had stayed behind after school and were therefore still around to see it. Lucario was still sniffling a little, but Ash had released all of his pokemon and they were happily checking it out as a distraction, although Pikachu had taken up position in Ash’s lap and didn’t seem interested in forgiving Lucario yet. Ash himself had taken on that serious, hard-line expression he’d had when talking to DJ Leo last week, and seemed entirely focussed on the conversation. Kukui wasn’t sure what to feel about any of it.

“It’s okay – I mean, the doctors are sure he’s going to wake up soon,” Hanoi continued slowly. “But they’re not sure how he’ll be when he does. There’s a bit of damage, and there’s a chance he won’t… well, he might not be himself for a while.”

“Oh, man,” Ash said softly. “That’s terrible.”

She smiled vaguely, acknowledging it as fact but not really responding. “Well, if he isn’t, then everyone kind of agreed it might be a problem for Lucario – they have such close bonds with their trainers, and it’s been with Danny since the year it was hatched. So his family asked if I would take care of Lucario until Danny’s back to… well… at least until he’s back on his feet.”

“I had no idea you were going through this, Teacher Hanoi,” said Oak. “Are you sure you’re in shape to be at work?”

“Absolutely,” she said, shaking her head to dismiss any idea otherwise. “Danny’s a friend, but we haven’t been close in years. I’m just the only trainer they know with experience with fighting-types that isn’t involved in the dojo.”

“Had anyone told Lucario what happened?” asked Ash. “I mean, it does know why it’s got a new trainer, right?”

“It’s hard to tell what a pokemon knows sometimes,” she said awkwardly. “But we did explain that it’s only temporary, and that Danny got hurt.”

Ash frowned and looked over at Lucario. “I don’t think it understands that it was an accident. It seemed pretty upset.”

“Pretty upset?” Kukui repeated quietly, glancing at Ash’s still-damp T-shirt. Not to mention the attack itself.

“Apparently Lucario can sense emotions from up to half a mile away,” Hanoi continued. “I thought bringing it to the school would be a good distraction – all these happy kids, focussed on learning… I thought it would block out everyone’s worries at the dojo.”

“Ah, that’s what you were saying before,” Oak realised. “Just before it attacked.”

“But that’s not what you said, right?” asked Ash. “Lucario heard you talking, and it didn’t think that’s what you brought it here to do.”

Kukui glanced at him again, curious as to why Ash would make such an assumption, while Hanoi and Oak frowned.

“Well… I kind of did,” Hanoi said awkwardly. “I mean, I don’t remember exactly what I said, but it would’ve been close.”

Oak nodded. “It was… ah, that’s right. ‘It would be good for Lucario to be around the children’.”

“Oh, and you misunderstood,” Hanoi remembered, lifting a finger in point. “You mentioned how in the old days, Lucario were often used as guardians. Like a knight protector.”

Ash beamed like that had cleared everything up. “Of course! So Lucario thought you brought it here to protect everyone from some kind of danger!”

“I suppose…”

Kukui, however, was not so impressed with such an argument. “That doesn’t explain why it decided to attack us.”

“It was scared,” Ash argued. “Look at it from Lucario’s point of view – it knows its trainer’s been hurt by someone, so badly that it’s not allowed to be with him. Then it gets taken to a place it doesn’t know, and told to protect it. It probably sensed something and just lashed out.” He lifted a hand to pet Pikachu’s head, and Kukui raised an eyebrow, wondering if it was an intentional movement. Maybe he suspected Lucario had sensed Pikachu’s power level – it was ridiculously strong, and probably the only battle-trained pokemon nearby. If Lucario really could sense auras, it would have known that. Pikachu probably had seemed like the most dangerous creature within its sphere of attention.

There was logic to the thought, and Kukui had to reluctantly agree Ash was probably right. He’d never seen a pokemon cry the way Lucario had earlier – it obviously hadn’t been in its right mind. Which probably also explained why it had seemed to be attacking Ash – he was giving orders to the dangerous opponent, so getting rid of him was probably the most efficient method of stopping Pikachu’s ‘rampage’.

Kukui didn’t like it, but it made a kind of sense.

“That’s all very well and good,” Oak said slowly, “but given what’s happened, I don’t think I can allow Lucario on campus, Teacher Hanoi. We can’t risk it doing something like this again.”

“That’s not fair!” Ash cried. “This was just a misunderstanding – you don’t know it’ll happen again!”

“But we also don’t know that it won’t,” he replied, and Hanoi nodded quietly.

“Before you made it downstairs, both Principal Oak and I attempted to stop Lucario from entering the school. It knocked out both of our pokemon in one move. It’s too powerful to risk it going wild.”

“Yeah, but…” Ash grimaced and looked over at Lucario. “This isn’t Lucario’s fault.”

Kukui slanted a look at his fellow teachers, silently reassuring them he’d deal with that particular misconception later. “Are you going to be alright with it, Hanoi? They might both be part-fighting type, but lucario are nothing like the pangoro you’ve raised.”

“I think so. I’ll keep it at home, and there’s only one trainer in my neighbourhood that uses Z-moves. I’ll just talk to him and make sure he knows not to use his pokemon near my house for a while,” she said with a sigh. “It’s a shame that I’ll have to keep it locked up, but hopefully it won’t be for long.”

Ash’s frown deepened, but he kept silent, obviously aware that he was being overruled. Kukui just sighed and wondered if he could distract the kid with the promise of Akala and Kahuna Olivia.

Somehow, he doubted things would be that easy.

It was a late start to the school day the next morning, but Kukui wasn’t altogether surprised when he got up to find Ash already on his way out the door.

“Training again?” he asked. “You know, Ash, sometimes there can be too much of a good thing.”

“Huh?” Standing with his hand on the door, Pikachu on his backpack, Ash stared at him for a few seconds, then grinned broadly. “Oh! Right! Yeah. Um… but not yet! We’ve still got a lot of work to do. Right, Pikachu?”

Pikachu snapped an equally frozen grin onto its face. “Pika!”

“So we’re gonna go train some more,” Ash continued. “Me and Pikachu.”

“Pika pikachu.”

“Yeah. Now. See you later!”

And then he was zipping out the door, Rotom squealing as it had to rush to follow. Kukui lowered the mug he’d just collected from the cupboard, wearily debating whether he was getting too old to understand kids or if Ash was just that weird.

For all the ‘training’ he had supposedly been doing, Ash was only just on time for class, and he was walked to the door by Teacher Hanoi. Kukui watched from beside his desk, unable to hear what they were saying as she smiled and bowed to him, and Ash did the same in return. He supposed it could have been coincidence—Hanoi had apologised over and over again last night, and was obviously still guilty by the time they left—but somehow Kukui didn’t quite believe that was why the two of them were together.

He didn’t say anything though, just got through class as normal, and when it was over, he wandered down the hall to Hanoi’s classroom. She was collecting papers on her desk, so he knocked on the doorframe as a warning before walking in.

“Hey, Hanoi.”

“Oh, Professor Kukui, alola,” she greeted. “Do we have a staff meeting?”

“No. I just wanted to see if everything was okay,” he said. “I saw you talking to Ash this morning. You’re not still feeling guilty over what happened, are you?”

“I was, but Ash told me not to worry. He’s a good kid,” she said, and paused for a moment before adding, “I went to check on Danny this morning – I guess I was kind of hoping I could find out he could take Lucario back. Ash actually found me there.”

Kukui raised his eyebrows, less surprised than he’d expected himself to be. “Ash was at the hospital?”

“Mm. He said he wanted to meet Lucario’s trainer, even if he wasn’t awake,” she said. “I don’t know why. I’m not sure he knew, either. But he seemed sincere.”

Kukui glanced over his shoulder, back toward his own classroom. The time with Leo, he’d kind of understood Ash’s motivations. He was so passionate about relationships between people and pokemon, of course he’d wanted to make sure Leo at least got the chance to say a proper goodbye to his Dugtrio, and then when Team Rocket had been revealed as responsible, a battle just felt like the right thing to do. But this time… it wasn’t like Lucario was never going to see its trainer again. And even if it had been reacting to Pikachu, that didn’t change the fact Lucario had attacked Ash. If there was ever a time to distance yourself from something…

And then Kukui remembered his promise to himself to just go with Ash’s weird habits, and sighed. “I’m sure it’s fine.”

Hanoi tilted her head, perplexed by what might have seemed a non-sequitor. “Professor Kukui?”

“Never mind. I’m glad you’re feeling better. Have a good afternoon.”

“Yeah, you too!”

He headed out, determined not to worry about it. That thought lasted all of an hour, when he was on his way home and heard voices coming from the path off route three. He paused, glancing over, and frowned as he recognised a lucario’s bark.

“I’m really sorry, Lucario, but I don’t know what you’re asking!”

That was Ash.

Kukui hesitated, looking back on his own path. He’d told himself to just go with it. That didn’t mean he had to completely stay out of whatever Ash was doing, right?

“Luca! Lucario! Lu-lu-rio lucario lu!”

“Pika! Pikachu pi pikachu!”

“Oh, man…!”

Kukui’s reluctant interest promptly took a backseat once he arrived on the scene proper. Lucario had Ash backed up against the cliff wall, snarling into his face while Pikachu perched as far forward on Ash’s shoulder as it could, warding it off with sparking cheeks, and Rotom flitted about in a panic. Kukui’s hands twitched for his pokeballs again, but all he could really do was shout.

“Hey! What’s going on here?”

Ash jerked and looked up, blinking wide eyes. “Professor Kukui!”

“Professor Kukui!” Rotom beeped, and then set off a quick alarm. “You need to help!”

Lucario snarled, but then blinked as Kukui’s presence really seemed to register, before it flinched and stumbled backward. Pikachu snapped at it again, and it hunched in on itself apologetically, even placing its paws together like a child folding their hands. Ash sighed.

“Sorry about this, Professor,” he said, and turned back to Lucario with his hands spread. “Really, Lucario, I get it. And I want to help, but I don’t know how I can.”

“Ash, get over here,” Kukui ordered. “This lucario is clearly not in its right mind. It’s not safe.”

“That’s what I’ve been telling him!” cried Rotom, but Ash glared at them both.

“It’s just upset!”

Kukui gave him a blunt look, unimpressed by both the tone and the response, but Ash didn’t seem interested in pandering to even professional courtesy right now, let alone any pretence about Kukui being some kind of authority over him. He turned back to Lucario. “You do want my help, right? With Danny?”

“Lucario,” it mumbled back.

“I know you guys are close. I can see it, in all those things you showed me,” he said gently.

“What things?” Rotom demanded, but Ash ignored it.

“You care about him a whole lot, right?”

“Luluca,” Lucario said, and then jerked up and forward again. Kukui almost reached out to snatch Ash away, but Pikachu looked at him quickly and he froze. He couldn’t really get on Ash’s case about respecting the danger of pokemon while risking electrocution himself. Besides, Ash barely even reacted to Lucario grabbing his arms and barking, “Lucario! Luca lu-lu-rio lucario lu!”

“I – Lucario, I…” Ash grimaced and reached up to hold Lucario’s shoulders in return. “I can’t do what I think you want me to do. I don’t know how.”


“Easy!” he said. “You gotta calm down. You’re scaring the professor.”

Lucario flinched again, glancing at Kukui, then went back to Ash with another whimper, “Lucario lu-lu-rio.”

“I can’t, Lucario,” he repeated. “I’m sorry.”

Lucario stared at him for another few seconds, then slowly stepped away, eyes clenching shut as it whimpered again, obviously tearing up. Kukui watched it warily for a minute before looking at Rotom for answers. “What’s going on?”

“I do not know!” it wailed. “We were walking home when Ash decided to come down here! And Lucario was here! And then they just sat together for a long time, before Lucario suddenly went crazy!”

“It’s not crazy!” Ash insisted angrily, shifting as if to shield Lucario from them. “It’s just worried about Danny. No one’s telling it anything, but it knows he’s hurt. It just wants someone to help him.”

Kukui scowled back. “How do you know?” he asked, and Ash stared like he was being unreasonable.

“Isn’t it obvious?”

Which, in a way, it was, but still. He rubbed his forehead. “Alright, fine. Let’s… let’s take it back to Teacher Hanoi and –”

“I’m taking it to the hospital.”

“Ash,” he said firmly, but Ash just frowned back at him.

“Danny is Lucario’s partner. They’re as close as me and Pikachu. It’s not right for them to have cut Lucario out like this!”

Kukui wanted to yell. He really, really did. He wanted to point out that Lucario was a pokemon. It wasn’t a human being. It needed a trainer, or to stay in its pokeball, because even if it was just because it was upset, it was still acting like a danger to everyone.

But at the same time…

“And fire!”

Something flashed in the corner of his eye, but Kukui didn’t have time to look before Pikachu shrieked and Lucario yelped, and suddenly Ash’s shoulder was empty. They both jerked to see the two pokemon now in a net that was being yanked up and over their heads.

“What –?!” Ash cried, and three strangely familiar cackles answered him.

“After all of this time, you’d think that he’d know,” a woman said.

“But if the twerp asks, then we’ll put on a show!” a man cried, and Kukui turned to find none other than Team Rocket standing on the cliff above them, striking dramatic poses that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a stage.

“A beauty so radiant the flowers and moon hide in shame; a single flower of evil in this fleeting world!” the woman announced, flinging her arms wide before bringing them down to her hips. “Jessie.”

“The nobly heroic man of our times; a master of darkness fighting back against a tragic world!” the man said, pulling a red rose from behind himself just to hold it near his cheek. “It’s James.”

“It’s one for all and all for one,” the talking Meowth said, doing a quick flip that brought it to the forefront of the trio. “A glittering dark star that always shines bright! Dig it, while Meowth takes flight!”

“Team Rocket,” the two humans snapped out, “let’s fight!”

“That’s right!” Meowth replied, while the wobbuffet popped up from behind them all with a proper salute.


“Team Rocket!” Ash snapped. “Give back Pikachu and Lucario!”

Some vague, absent side of Kukui came to the fore, looking between Ash and Team Rocket and asking, “Do they always introduce themselves like that…?”

“Ugh, looks like even Pokemon Professors can get in on the twerpy act,” Jessie sneered, while James raised an unimpressed eyebrow.

“Complete with quibbling question quotient. But we don’t have time for even the quickest of queries today!”

“That’s right – we gotta grab these guys before Bewear breaks up the bag!” Meowth said, and leapt over to a machine attached to the still hoisting net.

“I wouldn’t bet on it!” Ash snapped, lashing out with his arm. “Pikachu! Iron tail!”

“Pika-chu!” it replied, but although its tail shone and crashed against the net, it hit with a screech of metal, and Team Rocket laughed again.

“Oh, come on now, Twerp! What’s the point in going to school if you’re going to stay as dumb as ever?” Jessie cackled.

“Our nets are specially designed to cope with your electric rat! Shock proof and iron proof, the perfect combination!” James pointed out, and Ash growled, reaching behind himself for a pokeball.

“Well if I can’t break the net, we’ll have to go after the other targets!” he snapped, and pitched not one but two balls with the same hand. “Rowlet – leafage! Litten, I need you to get up to that machine!”

“Not this time, Twerp!” James shouted, flinging his own pokeball. “Mareanie, poison sting!”

“Litten! Dodge it!”

Somehow, Litten managed to bounce in mid-air, just barely avoiding the poison shot, while Rowlet (in one of its surprising displays of higher function) silently sped up into the air and unleashed a hurricane of glowing leaves. Team Rocket yelled in frustration as they had to shield themselves, and Litten took the opportunity to clamber up to the top of the cliff.

Ash clicked his fingers in satisfaction. “Nice work! Now use fire fang!”

“Sludge bomb, Mareanie, let’s go!” James called, and Litten yowled as the attack hit, sending a wave of mud and dust over the edge.

“Litten! Are you okay?” Ash called, but he barely waited for an answer before gesturing to Rowlet. “Quick, use peck!”

“Not on my watch!” Meowth snarled, extending glowing claws, only to flinch and freeze up as Rowlet came shooting toward it. “Uh oh.”

Rowlet slammed into it, and then the machine, so hard and fast that Kukui only really saw the explosion. But it did the job as the machine buckled, the clawed attachments that gripped the net coming apart before breaking off entirely. As soon as there was a gap large enough, Pikachu clambered out and leapt down onto the cliff, but Lucario was still tangled as it fell not only over the short cliff above them, but toward the sharp incline below. Not that Kukui was too worried, given Lucario’s steel type, but Ash dove to grab it anyway. His hand snagged the net, but combined with Lucario’s weight it dragged him to the ground and over the incline, though his other hand snatched at the ground just before he went over proper.

“Ash!” Kukui cried, running over to help, but Ash was already pulling himself back up somehow, teeth clenched as he glared up at Team Rocket.

“Ooh, looks like the twerp’s in trouble!” Jessie crowed.

“I think we can help with that!” James agreed. “Mareanie! Poison sting once more!”

“What?!” Kukui was so shocked that he actually stopped, and the spikes shot past him to crash into the dirt Ash was just barely holding onto. He had a split second to see one actually slice across Ash’s fingers before the kid lost his grip and slid out of view.

“Pikapi!” Pikachu yelled, and Kukui swung around to stare horrified at Team Rocket.

They were grinning at each other excitedly. “Did we just –”

“I think we did! Again!”

“This region is so great for us!”

“Uh, guys?” Meowth said, and both they and Kukui looked at it, before following its gaze down to Pikachu, Litten, and Rowlet. Kukui didn’t blame the trio for flinching – with how those three looked, he was a little surprised they weren’t already running.

“Piiiika…” Pikachu began, while Litten’s mouth and back burst into flame and Rowlet leapt up into the air, feathers flared and leaves glowing hot white.

“We really need to stop counting our torchics before they hatch,” James sighed, before all three lashed out with their attacks. Kukui braced himself against the explosion, but something big and black flashed, and when the dust cleared, it was to find Team Rocket, their meowth, and their wobbuffet all in the arms of a very large, unharmed, and extremely intimidating bewear.

As a whole, Team Rocket looked rather resigned.

“Oh, come on!” Jessie wailed. “The Twerp is gone! We can win this one!”

“Just give us one more minute!” cried James.

Bewear looked down at Kukui, then over at Pikachu and the others, before nodding once and sprinting off into the trees. Kukui blinked dumbly as Team Rocket called, “We’re off with a new blast…!”

For a minute, nobody moved.

It was that kind of weird.

“Pikapi!” Pikachu gasped, and Kukui flinched before running over to the incline’s edge. He couldn’t see Ash anywhere, though there was a line of rubble and broken branches to show his trajectory. He would have landed in the woods behind the Pokemon Centre.

Rotom and Rowlet flew over, Rotom just pausing long enough to meet Kukui’s gaze and say, “I will go straight down and look for him. I will send an alert to your device with coordinates!”

“Thanks, Rotom,” he said, and it bobbed in the air before speeding down after Rowlet. Kukui looked up at Ash’s remaining pokemon and gestured for them to come down. “Let’s go – I know how to get down there.”

Kukui was a very strong believer in the idea that if you looked for the good, it would come to you. But even so, as he ran faster and harder than he had in years, his mind began quietly preparing for the inevitable calls. First to the hospital, and then to Delia Ketchum, and then the police because those thugs needed to be locked up forever and a day, and then he was going to have words with every single person who had ever seen Ash interact with Team Rocket because this should never have –

And then Ash stepped out from behind a tree and Kukui had to spin on one leg not to run him over.

“Hey, whoa, Professor Kukui!” Ash cried as he stumbled and eventually fell to the ground. “Are you okay?”

“Pikapi!” Pikachu cried, and Ash immediately turned to catch it up in a tight hug that was soon joined by an enthusiastic Litten.

Kukui gaped up at him. Ash was laughing happily, looking perfectly fine. Rowlet was even asleep in his open backpack, like it often did on his way home from school. Lucario was standing a few feet back, its paws pressed together and soft smile on its muzzle, and Rotom was hovering over all of them, looking satisfied. Everything seemed… okay?

“Ash? Are you alright?” Kukui asked, and he pulled away from his pokemon with a broad smile.

“Yup! It was a pretty big fall, though. I hit my head and blacked out,” he said, and then turned a proud look on Lucario. “Lucky you were there or I might’ve been in real trouble!”

“Lucario,” it said, with a humble duck of its head.

“Lucario learned heal pulse!” Rotom reported. “It was super effective!”

“Heal pulse,” Kukui repeated quietly. He was beginning to feel a little numb.

“It’s so great!” Ash added, letting go of Pikachu to pump his fist. “I bet you could use it on Danny!”

Lucario jerked and looked up with wide eyes. “Luca?”

“Yeah!” he said excitedly. “Come on! Let’s go to the hospital right now and try it out!”

“Hospital…?” Kukui repeated, but Ash had already lowered Litten to the ground and was holding out a hand for him to take.

“Come on, Professor!”

Very, very numb. But he let himself get dragged up to his feet and wasn’t given time to question before they were off and running again, this time toward town.

It worked.

Kukui stood behind the observation window with a nurse, both of them staring blankly as the fully-healed martial artist half-fell out of bed to hug his crying lucario tightly. On the other side, Ash and Pikachu were grinning at each other while Rotom took picture after picture, and the doctor gaped because this wasn’t possible.

Heal pulse didn’t normally work on humans. Not without special adaption equipment and extensive training and certainly not on brain injuries because the human brain was such a complicated mess and…

“Isn’t it great, Lucario?” he heard Ash say. “I knew you could do it.”

Kukui blinked. At the warm, gentle smile. At the kindness and compassion Ash had shown these last two days. At how he’d refused to stay out of it, even though he’d been in danger. At the end result, with a pokemon and its trainer enjoying the best of happy endings.

Kukui felt his shoulders drop a little, something warm pooling in his chest.

“Good job,” he agreed, not entirely sure who he was talking to.

“There is still something I don’t understand,” Rotom said as they headed home. The time had just slipped away from them, and now it was sunset, casting everything in a beautiful orange light that somehow felt warmer than the afternoon sun had.

“What’s that, Rotom?” Kukui asked, when Ash’s only response was a curious glance.

“This afternoon, how did you know Lucario was waiting for you on that side path?” it asked. “And you seemed to know what it was thinking.”

“I’m more surprised at you, Rotom,” Ash replied blankly. “Come to think of it, I’ve been meaning to ask. You’re still a pokemon inside the pokedex, right? How come you don’t know what pokemon are saying?”

“I no longer communicate as a pokemon does!” it said, sweeping an imperious wing through the air. “My databanks are programmed to accept human speech, and therefore prioritises your language over theirs!”

“That’s kind of sad,” he said, and looked at Pikachu. “I’d give anything to know what Pikachu and the others were really saying.”

“You seem to understand them pretty well already,” Kukui noted. “I’ve seen people that make real money translating pokemon speech that can’t communicate as well as you do with Pikachu.”

“That’s just understanding what it means,” he said. “I’d really like to know what it’s saying.”

“Pika pikachu, Pikapi,” Pikachu replied, pushing its cheek into his, and he chuckled and pushed back in an armless hug. Kukui smiled fondly. Some things didn’t need any translation.

They fell silent for a second before Rotom suddenly squealed. “You did it again!”


“You changed the subject!” it yelled, and swung around to poke its wing in his face. “You always do that! Why do you never answer my questions?”

“What questions?” Ash demanded. “Rotom, you’re not making any sense!”

“I ask you questions and every time you avoid answering!” it cried. “You always just say ‘that’s how it is’ and that is not how it is! Life is not that simple and you are incomprehensible! I demand comprehension!”

“Well, so do I!” he said. “You make things too complicated, RotomDex.”

“You make them too simple!” it snapped back. “But especially this time! How did you know what Lucario was saying?”

“I just said, didn’t I?” he asked. “I don’t know what pokemon are saying, but sometimes you can kind of get an idea of what they mean. It’s not that special, right, Professor?”

Kukui raised an eyebrow. “Well, usually trainers need a close bond with their pokemon to really understand, but you’re right; it’s not that unusual. But I think you might have gotten this one wrong, Ash – I don’t think you’re understanding what Rotom means.”

“And it talks like a human!” Ash responded cheekily. “Which just goes to show that you don’t have to speak a different language to misunderstand sometimes.”

Kukui narrowed his eyes, but couldn’t help smiling back. It was rare enough that Kukui could admit he enjoyed it when Ash decided to be a brat. “Okay. So maybe I should translate then?”

“Aw, come on, Professor, aren’t you a pokemon trainer?” he asked playfully. “You should know better than to just give pokemon what they want! They have to learn or they’re never going to get stronger!”

Rotom beeped in frustration. “You cannot lecture anyone about spoiling pokemon when your pikachu is the most spoiled rat in Alola!”

“Mouse,” Ash corrected. “Pikachu is a mouse.”

“Pika,” Pikachu agreed sagely.

“Rats don’t have fur on their tails. Gary told me that once.”

“You are doing it again!” Rotom screeched.

“Seriously, Rotom, you need to calm down. All that stress is going to overheat your circuits!” he said with a grin, and ducked under Rotom to start jogging backward. “You should burn off your energy in more productive ways! Like running! Let’s make it a race home!”


“Come on, Pikachu! See you there, Professor!”


“Stop avoiding my questions!”

The three of them sped off into the sunset, leaving Kukui alone on the road. He chuckled softly, amused despite his complete understanding of Rotom’s frustration. It was altogether too easy to get swept up in Ash’s joyful disregard for sense and clarity. To the point that Kukui kind of felt like he’d forgotten something himself. Like he’d been intending to do something before everything at the hospital overrode it.

Ah well.

“I better get going too,” he told himself, breaking into a run after the group. “Or else I'll be needing to use Last Resort to get into my own house!”

It probably wasn’t that important.

Lesson Eight: Bonding

For several long seconds, Kukui could only stare.

Kiawe and Mallow exchanged nervous glances, then slowly looked back up at him, silent. Ash’s eyebrow ticked once.

“You guys can let go of me now,” he said pointedly. “I’m home.”

“Just a minute,” Kukui said, not moving from the middle of the doorway. “Now, kids, I’m not judging, and when you’re not at school, it’s not my place to say what you can and can’t do. But the fact you had to walk Ash home and knocked on the door rather than let him open it kind of makes me a little concerned. Rough night in the woods?”

And all jokes aside, he was actually a little worried. While mostly he just seemed annoyed, Ash was pale and a little sweaty, and his eyes were bloodshot. Mallow and Kiawe each had a hand on one of his shoulders, Pikachu was on the ground beside Steenee, and Rotom was hovering in the background with one of its disapproving frowns. If Kukui hadn’t known better he would have added it all up to a really bad hangover.

“I’m fine,” Ash said firmly. “They’re being stupid.”

“Ash walked into three trees this morning,” Mallow explained.

“I tripped over some roots,” he corrected irritably.

“And he walked into a river,” Kiawe added.

“I was walking with the slope and didn’t notice, big deal!” he objected.

“And he nearly headed over a cliff,” Mallow finished. “That was when we decided he shouldn’t walk on his own right now.”

“I just got turned around!” he cried, flailing his arms. Kukui had to dodge one of them and it wound up smacking into the doorframe instead, making Ash hiss in pain and shock.

“It has been a fascinating morning!” Rotom announced, though it didn’t sound particularly happy about it. “I believe this mental and physical dehabilitation—”

“I know what that means!” Ash said. “I’m not going crazy!”

“No, I think that ship’s already sailed,” Kiawe drawled, and Ash pouted at him.

Rotom ignored the interjection with a sweep of its wing. “—is due to the after effects of Morelull’s repeated Strength Sap, followed by Shiinotic’s Sleep Powder. Both have been noted to cause minor degradation in coordination and mental faculties, but the two combined have resulted in a complete loss of direction and self-awareness.”

“Morelull’s Strength Sap?” Kukui repeated blankly, and then grimaced, realising he was still blocking the way. He stepped back and gestured for Kiawe and Mallow to push Ash inside. “So you ran into some morelull, huh? What do you mean by ‘repeated’ Strength Sap?”

“It was so cool, Professor!” Ash enthused, even as Kiawe took over from Mallow to personally manhandle him over to the couch. “There were all these morelull in the forest – it was their evolution time! You should’ve seen it, it was so beautiful! They all had to suck up a lot of energy, and then put it into this tree, and the tree was huge and shiny and it glowed and it was –”

“Yeah, it was cool,” Kiawe interrupted as he finally managed to get Ash to sit. “But that doesn’t make what you did any less dumb.”

“It was totally worth it!”

“It was crazy!” Mallow snapped, and then turned to Kukui with her arms spread wide. “We all got attacked by morelull, but there was this one small one that followed us back to camp and kept going after us. And once we figured out what was attacking us, Ash actually volunteered himself to get sapped! Over and over and over again until it couldn’t take anymore!”

Kukui stared, then looked over at Ash. Suddenly, he looked a lot better—and frankly more alive—than Kukui would have expected from the story alone.

“It was no big deal!” Ash said, waving it off. “You get energy from food, and we had way too much because Lillie and Mallow cooked enough for an army! So I just ate a bunch and it was fine!”

“It was not fine; you’re an idiot,” Kiawe snapped, and then sighed loudly, setting one hand on his hip as he turned back to Kukui. “He didn’t seem any worse for wear though. Not until we all woke up this morning and he started trying to walk off cliffs.”

“It’s seriously not a problem,” Ash insisted. “I just haven’t been looking where I was going, and yeah, I’m a bit clumsy today but that happens sometimes, right? I’ve heard about it from some of my older friends! Some days, your arms and legs feel a bit too long for your body. It’s just a part of growing up.”

Mallow looked slightly blank at that, but Kukui joined Kiawe in giving Ash a deadpan stare. Whatever other pubescent worries Ash had, you only had to look to know growth spurts were not one of them.

“Spatial disorientation is one of the most well-known side-effects of fairy-type attacks,” Rotom reported. “Further expected symptoms are muscle fatigue, increased appetite, headaches, nausea, and long-term memory loss. Wait! Long-term memory loss?! Quick, Ash! Do you remember your home town and mother’s maiden name?!”

“Okay, okay, calm down, Rotom,” Kukui said, holding up his hands. “Let’s take things one step at a time. Ash, are you sure you’re feeling okay?”

Ash grinned and pumped his arms defiantly. “I’m just fine! No need to worry!”

“Pi-pika pikachu,” Pikachu said in an undertone, and Ash balked, then shot it an annoyed glance. The rest of them ignored it.

“Well, I guess that as long as you’re alright…” Kukui said slowly, looking back at Kiawe and Mallow. “Thanks for getting him home. I hope you had some fun this weekend.”

“Sure did!” cried Mallow. “I can’t wait until next time!”

“Seeing that evolution event was pretty amazing,” Kiawe agreed. “And it was cool to camp out in the middle of nature like that.”

“Right?” Ash jumped back to his feet, bringing his fists up in front of him with a determined grin. “It was just like being on the road again. I didn’t realise how much I mi- i- whoa!” His arms pin-wheeled as he apparently struggled to keep his balance, until Kiawe grabbed his shoulder and shoved him back on the couch.

“Don’t stand up if you can’t!” he snapped, but Ash ignored him, raising his fists again.

“Forget that. This weekend was so much fun! I’m so glad we did it,” he said, and then beamed at Kiawe and then Mallow. “And I’m really glad you guys got to come along. I know you’re both super busy, helping out your parents at home and all. I wanted to say thanks for taking the time to come out with us. It was way better with you guys there too.”

They both faltered slightly, even Kiawe losing his annoyed scowl in pleased surprise. They just stared at him for a second, then up at each other, before Mallow lifted her shoulders in a quiet giggle. “I guess it is kind of rare for us to take time out like this.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” Kiawe said slowly. “But… I’m glad we did. I really did have fun this weekend.”

“Me too. It’s nice to just spend some time with friends, huh?”

Ash grinned, and Kukui smiled fondly. He’d always liked this group of kids for how close and friendly they were, but they were really coming together lately. But as much as he hated to break up one of their bonding moments…

“Not that I want to kick you guys out on a whirlwind,” he said, stepping up between Mallow and Kiawe, “but it’s getting pretty late and if you did get hit by morelull, you could all probably do with a rest. Are you okay to get back to Akala, Kiawe? We can call your folks and tell them you’re staying here if you don’t want to risk the flight.”

Kiawe shook his head and started toward the door. “Nah, I’m okay. Thanks though,” he added, and then looked at Mallow. “You want a lift back to the restaurant?”

“Sure, that’d be great! I’ve never flown on a charizard before!”


After ordering Ash to stay put, Kukui walked them out, inexplicably pleased with the outcome of their weekend. He waited for Kiawe to call out Charizard and climb aboard before saying, “So about what Ash did… I’m glad I don’t have to tell you what a dumb move that was.”

“No kidding,” Mallow said as she lifted Steenee for Kiawe to take. “It always works out in the end, but he does some really crazy stunts.”

“Ash is the only one reckless enough to do the things he does, Professor, don’t worry,” Kiawe agreed, before frowning slightly. “But uh, Lillie does get pretty impressed.”

Mallow hummed, but only paused long enough to clamber up behind Kiawe and take Steenee back before pointing out, “But she’s too scared of pokemon to copy him.”

Kukui nodded. “Still, I’ll talk to her anyway. Thanks again, you two.”

They both smiled as Charizard prepared for takeoff. “See you tomorrow, Professor Kukui!”

“Yeah. Be careful on your way home!”

While there wasn’t anything wrong with him per se, Ash was decidedly more uncoordinated and even vaguer than usual all afternoon. He was handling it pretty well, but Kukui still insisted on keeping him in as much sight as possible, just to be safe.

“This is very interesting!” Rotom said after Ash failed to walk out of the bathroom so much as into the doorframe. He just grumbled to himself and corrected his path, but Kukui shot Rotom a disapproving look.

“I’m not sure that’s the best way to phrase it, RotomDex.”

“But it is! Directly after evolving, the shiinotic shared its own energy with Ash in repayment!” Rotom said, flitting around to take photos of Ash. “Such a process would theoretically reverse any ill-effects from the initial draining!”

“Not necessarily,” Kukui argued. “The human body is a complicated thing, Rotom. It’s not like a machine, where you can just recharge the batteries and immediately get it working at one hundred percent efficiency.”

“It doesn’t normally take this long to get over it though,” Ash groused as he walked over to flop back down on the couch with a loud sigh. “But I guess it makes sense. It probably would’ve been fine if it was just me.”

“Just you?” Kukui repeated curiously, before he realised what he meant. “Oh, because it was giving energy back to the others, too.”

“Well, yeah, but no,” he said. “I mean my pokemon.”

He raised his eyebrows, surprised. “I thought you usually included them when you referred to ‘others’.”



They stared at each other for a few seconds, before Ash flailed his hands, frustrated. “Not Pikachu and the others! My other pokemon! Like Greninja!”

“Data update!” Rotom said cheerfully. “Disorientation is making the subject even more nonsensical than usual!”

“Arghhh! I keep telling you I’m fine!” Ash grabbed at his hair, then flung his hands out in front of him. “Shiinotic probably spread around enough energy for the tree, and us, and our pokemon, and you, RotomDex, but no way it would’ve thought about givin’ to more than it could see. It’s wild! It doesn’t know about the bond between trainers and their pokemon, so it wouldn’t think about that!”

“What bond are you talking about?” asked Rotom. “Does that not usually refer to friendship?”

“N- well, yeah, but…” Ash stared at it for a few seconds, then turned to Kukui in an obvious search for help. “I guess I don’t know the words. You know. When you’re a Pokemon Trainer, you – with your pokemon, when you get really close, you have that bond, right?”

Kukui blinked back, making sure to keep his poker face up. He knew as much about bonds as any Pokemon Trainer worth their salt, but he wasn’t entirely sure what that had to do with Shiinotic giving out energy. But if previous experience was anything to go by, Kukui knew he would be better served by letting Ash explore the topic, rather than shutting him down. “Yes, but terminology isn’t helping us here. Why don’t you try explaining it from the beginning, and I’ll help you as you go?”

"Thanks, Professor," he said, tone full of genuine gratitude, before he shifted in his seat, sitting more upright and straight-backed as he focussed on Rotom properly. “Okay, um, so, as a Pokemon Trainer, I work with my pokemon, right? We share everything. Our happiness, our sadness, our triumphs, and our failures. My weaknesses are their weaknesses, and my strength is theirs too.”

Kukui nodded, because it wasn’t an uncommon philosophy. Most gym leaders he’d ever met had a similar speech, and would usually come out with it at the slightest provocation, lecturing new trainers about the importance of taking responsibility for their pokemon’s performance in battle. He would have been more surprised if Ash hadn’t picked it up by this point.

In typical fashion, Pikachu seemed to notice Ash was explaining something and immediately broke off from the shadow-tag it had been playing with Rockruff and Litten to join him. It hopped onto the couch and then clambered up onto Ash’s shoulder, matching his determined smile with one of its own, apparently just to complete the image of a pokemon-trainer team. Ash barely acknowledged it with a glance, but when the other two followed Pikachu over, he leaned down to pick up Litten and set it in his lap.

“When I get really into training—when I’m really working as hard as I can,” he added quickly, like that was an important qualifier, “then it’s like there’s nothing separating us. It’s like I’m right there on the field with them. Sharing our strength, sharing our pain, sharing everything. It’s more than just a bond of friendship – more than just a partnership. It's a real connection of mind and spirit.”

Rockruff lifted its paws onto the table, tilting its head curiously, but Pikachu nodded like a wiseman. “Pika pikachu.”

“And there are some pokemon I have, where we connected so well, that no matter how far apart we are, it’s like we’re always together.” He closed his eyes, a warm smile spreading over his face as he obviously remembered something – or, considering the topic, someone. But after a second, his eyes snapped open again, and he laughed like he was suddenly embarrassed. “And a couple of times it’s been even more than that. We really are connected, and I’m pretty sure they’re kinda mad at me right now.”

“Pika pika,” Pikachu said dryly, and Ash giggled again.

“I do not understand,” Rotom said blankly. “You make it sound as if you have some kind of psychic ability.”

“Not psychic,” he said. “It’s not normally like a special power or anything. It’s just about how well you work with your pokemon. Right, Professor?”

Kukui balked a little, caught off-guard despite himself. As so often happened during these conversations, everything Ash was saying made a kind of sense, and definitely related to principles he knew, but he was applying it in strange ways. Kukui inwardly grimaced and went with the closest approximation he had. “There definitely is some kind of unexplained bond between pokemon and their trainers. It’s the basis of how Z-moves work, after all. You can’t just pick up a Z-crystal, steal someone else’s pokemon, and get a fully-powered Z-move – it probably wouldn’t even work. The strongest Z-moves come from pokemon who have the closest bond with their trainers.”

He hesitated, then added, “There’s also something called Mega-Evolution, which can further evolve a fully evolved pokemon. In all of the published research on mega-evolution, the consensus is that you need a strong connection between a trainer and pokemon, or the evolution becomes unstable. So there is definitely some kind of… link operating there.”

“A link,” Rotom repeated dubiously. “That is not a very precise description.”

“Well, honestly, there hasn’t been a lot of research done the define it,” he said with a shrug. “You have to remember, Rotom, Pokemon Science isn’t that old. It’s only in the last fifty years or so that we stopped describing pokemon moves as ‘magic’.”

“No research? But isn’t it what Professor Oak studies?” asked Ash. “I mean, he’s always talking about how humans and pokemon work together.”

“Yes, but that’s more… cultural,” he replied. “For instance, Professor Oak’s last paper was about the ways pokemon behaviour changes based on their interactions with humans. A pokemon in the wild doesn’t think much like a human. Like Morelull – it was only concerned with syphoning as much energy as it could for the express purpose of evolving and serving its forest. Compare that with Pikachu here, who can stand on a pitcher’s mound, completely mimmicking all the gestures and quirks of Ola’ola, and be emotionally invested in winning the game.”

Pikachu gave an embarrassed laugh, rubbing the back of its head. Kukui smiled in appreciation of yet another proven point.

“Pokemon that live among humans adopt their mannerisms, and even some of their thought processes. But that isn’t a bond, it’s just emotional and mental adaption.”

Ash stared blankly for a second, but obviously decided to just go with what he didn’t understand, because his next point was just, “And I guess Professor Sycamore’s more about the actual evolution stuff and the mega-stones than what keeps the pokemon happy, huh?”

“Mmhm. Most scientists are interested in documenting pokemon abilities. Trainers are a little beside the point, to be honest.”

“I see,” Rotom said thoughtfully. “But what does this have to do with energy?”

Pulling his poker face back on, Kukui gestured for Ash to pick up the thread, since he honestly had no idea. Apparently it worked, because Ash nodded and gave it a shot.

“Well, part of that bond is that pokemon rely on their trainers to keep ’em going no matter how they’re feeling,” he explained. “So you gotta be able to boost them up.”

“Boost them up?” it repeated, and Kukui quietly hummed as he followed the thought through.

From anyone else, it wouldn’t have been a strange concept, though it may have been a little more… metaphorical than he suspected Ash was being. It was essentially an expansion of the theory he’d discussed with Ash when Rowlet was poisoned: part of a trainer’s job was to ensure their pokemon kept going even when things were hard. Normally, that would just be motivation and emotional support. But… when he thought about it…

Back in the days when he’d been an active trainer, travelling around for battle and glory, he won more often than not. But there had been times… he remembered having Kahunas on the ropes, only for their pokemon to get a sudden boost of strength that he still couldn’t explain even now. He remembered league matches in Kanto that went on for entire hours because his opponent’s pokemon just would – not – stay – down.

That last battle against Lance… he’d been so prepared. So ready for anything. But every single one of Lance’s pokemon had just… destroyed him.

When he collapsed to his knees, furious over his loss after so much hard work and training, Lance had looked down his nose at him, coldly imperious.

“I expected better from an Alolan.”

He hadn’t known what that meant. But it had knocked him right back to his Trial Days. To Akala Island, where Kiawe’s grandfather had sighed as he begrudgingly handed over the Firinium-Z.

“You may have won this crystal,” he’d said. “But until you fully understand what it means to battle alongside your pokemon, its true power will remain beyond your reach. We give and take of our pokemon, just as they give and take of us. You, young Kukui of Melemele Island… you do not give, and that will be your downfall.”

And then there was Lance, using the exact same tone as he said, “You’re a good battler. You know all the strategies, all the techniques. I can’t fault anything you did. And your pokemon are strong. You’ve trained them well. But you don’t fight with them, and so they don’t fight for you. I’m actually surprised you made it this far.”

And now, so many years later, Ash somehow sounded exactly the same as he said, “I always believe in my pokemon.” He raised the hand not still petting Litten to lie over his heart, closing his eyes again with another smile. “I like to think they know that, whether they’re with me or not, and whether they’re battling or just having fun. They know I’ll always be there for them. So we’re always connected.”

“Pika pika!” Pikachu agreed enthusiastically, while Litten pushed its head harder into Ash’s hand with a pleased rumble.

“Yeah, you get it, don’t you?” Ash said, smiling at it. “Even though we haven’t battled much together, you can feel it too, right? How we’re stronger now that we’re together?”

“Mrow,” it agreed. Rockruff still looked curiously blank, but Kukui didn’t comment, not wanting to stop Ash from continuing his train of thought.

“But sometimes, when things are hard, belief isn’t enough. But I always want to help my pokemon, no matter what that means,” Ash said, glancing back up at Rotom. “I mean, anything’s easier if you do it together, right? So I put everything I have into helping my pokemon. All my energy, all my strength! If both me and my pokemon do that, working together as one team, there’s no way we can lose!”

“And you do that with… some kind of energy transferral?” Rotom asked. “This doesn’t not seem scientifically plausible.”

Not that Kukui strictly disagreed, but he did feel the need to point out, “Well… a Z-move does draw on the power of a trainer to enhance a pokemon’s abilities, so when you think about it…”

Rotom beeped, its screen flashing with question marks. “I do not understand. There must be some proper research to explain this phenomenon.”

“Not that I’ve ever read,” Kukui said slowly. “Though one of my colleagues at the lab is making overtures toward it.”

“Overtures?” Ash repeated blankly.

“Working towards working on it. She’s curious about the way humans affect pokemon, though her current focus is mostly on trying to measure Z-move output,” he said. And thank goodness for that. Acacia could be a bit of a quack, sometimes – she believed in the stories of human psychics, witches, aura users, and empaths, and every so often her research derailed into comparisons between human and pokemon ‘special abilities’. Like a human could actually do the same thing a pokemon did. He made a mental note not to ever let her talk to Ash – they would only be a bad influence on each other. “But in most of the research that has been done, the connection we’re talking about is usually only noticed in battle. You seem to be implying it’s always there.”

“Sure,” he said. “Why would it only be about battle? It’s not like every pokemon is only interesting in fighting. I mean, didn’t you say that there are some Z-moves that aren’t attacks?”

“Oh, look at that. You listened to my lecture?” he joked, and Ash laughed and shook his head, jerking his thumb toward himself.

“I don’t think this whole bond thing is about battle. I don’t think it ever was. I think it’s just easier to see there. Because, I mean, me and Pikachu didn’t connect when it was about battle for months. It was only when we were goin’ up against Team Rocket that we got anywhere close to how we are now,” he said. “I don’t think we were really on the same wavelength in battle until we took on the Vermillion City gym, and it wasn’t like we were perfect from then on. That took ages. Right, buddy?”

“Pika,” it agreed, and Ash smiled before leaning around to meet Litten’s gaze.

“And me and Litten? I feel like we connected when I met Stoutland. When I saw how much they cared about each other. That has nothing to do with how we battle.”

“Mrrow,” it said quietly, shifting a little closer toward him, while Kukui blinked and Rotom beeped again.

“When we met Stoutland?” it repeated. “But that was when you decided not to catch Litten!”

“You… connected with a pokemon, and didn’t want to catch it?” Kukui asked curiously.

“Sure,” he said again. “It’s not that weird, right? I mean, it’s like making a friend. Just because you’re friends doesn’t mean you have to be together.”

“Making a friend?” Kukui repeated curiously.

“Well, that’s what it feels like to me,” he said. “It’s that same warm feeling. Wanting them to be happy and strong, and to be the best that they can be. Like a friend.”


There was a horrible part of Kukui that couldn’t help thinking that sometimes, Ash really sounded like a greeting card. Even worse was that he genuinely seemed to believe everything he said. So maybe it shouldn’t have been so odd, but still…

“And… even with all that, you’re happy to let them go?”

“Well, yeah,” he said blankly. “I want the best for all my friends. And it’s not like following me around is gonna be the best for everyone. Especially pokemon – a lot of them just aren’t meant for league battles, or even travelling!”

“Very… true…” But not something you often heard from someone who did try to catch pokemon the traditional way sometimes. In fact, here in Alola you usually only got that from Aether Foundation employees, or people who only had one or two pokemon.

Also… the way he approached it… if he put aside the ‘bond’ side of what they were talking about, and applied it as friendship, on as wide a scale as Ash was…

He had to say he was impressed, in the same mildly concerned way he was about all of Ash’s oddly adult ways of looking at the world. “That’s a very mature attitude. Most people your age really struggle with having to say goodbye to the people they care about.”

He shrugged, his gaze drifting off to the side again. “It’s not like it’s easy. But it would really selfish to make someone stay with you just because you want them there,” he said, and closed his eyes, his expression closing off even as he kept speaking. “But even if I can’t be with them, or see them, or even know what they’re doing… I still care about my friends. I still want to be there for them. So we’re always connected.”

“I suppose…” Kukui winced, trying to follow the logic back around to their original conversation. “But if you’re always connected to those pokemon that you’ve left behind, does that mean there’s always a part of your energy that’s devoted to it?”

He looked up, surprised, then made a face. “I don’t think so. It’s really only Greninja that I’m always really connected to, so –”

“Who is Greninja?” Rotom interjected. “You mentioned that name before.”

“Huh? Oh, uh, Greninja’s one of my pokemon,” Ash explained. “It had to stay in Kalos.”

“I do not have any record of this pokemon in my databanks.”

“That’s because it’s not native or related to any Alolan pokemon,” Kukui said quickly, trying not to derail the conversation. “Greninja are unique to Kalos." Then he paused, the logic catching him off-guard. "But if Ash caught it, then I don’t see why it would have had to stay there. It’s not restricted at all.”

“No, it just had a job to do,” he said simply, then grinned. “I think it was working pretty hard this morning. Between you and me, I think that was why my head’s still a bit funny.”

Kukui raised an eyebrow, lost again, but Pikachu’s jaw had dropped, and it stared at Ash for several seconds before suddenly waving its arms furiously.

“Pikapi! Pika pika!”

“What’s wrong?” Ash asked, raising his eyebrows. “Are you worried about me? You don’t need to – I’m fine.”


“No, really, buddy! It’s never a big deal anymore. You’d know if it was, right?”

“Pi… pikachu! Pika pipi pikachu!” it cried, waving even harder. “Pikachu pipika pikachu!”

“I was distracted!” he said with a laugh. “You try walking around a tree when you’re trying to hit a root!”


“Uh, Ash?” Kukui interrupted, and Pikachu glared at him, but went otherwise ignored. “Is there something I should know?”

“Mm, not really,” he said. “It’s all okay now. It’s just what we were talking about before. Greninja needed me this morning, and it would’ve been fine, only with everything that happened with Shiinotic, I wasn’t really up to it.”

He paused, then blinked and straightened up a little. “Hey… this is what you’re always talking about with how you can’t use two Z-moves in a battle!”

Kukui stared. “What?”

“I never thought about it like that!” he said, and pumped his fist again, like he finally understood something. “When you use a Z-move, you put so much of yourself into it. I mean, I always feel so powered up after Pikachu and I do Gigavolt Havoc, but I guess that's just like a really quick version of me and Greninja. If I did that all the time… whoa, that’d be so hard…!”

“Pikapi…” Pikachu sighed, but settled back down with a shake of its head, more exasperated than a pokemon would normally emote.

“But you said that stronger trainers can do multiple Z-moves in a battle, with different pokemon!” Ash continued excitedly. “So if I get stronger, then so could I! Maybe I could even do a Z-move with Greninja! How cool would that be?”

“Pii-kaaa,” Pikachu deadpanned, rolling its eyes, while Kukui began to feel like he was floundering.

“Can you imagine it, Pikachu?” Ash gushed, staring up into the middle distance with starry eyes. “A fully Z-powered Water Shurinkan! Or a Cut! Oh my gosh… Aerial Ace! Professor Kukui! What’s the flying-type Z-move?!”

Kukui gaped back. He… his mind was still somewhere back on the whole ‘giant root’ thing. “Flying type…?”

“Let me explain!” Rotom said happily. “The Flying Type Z-move attack is called ‘Supersonic Skystrike’. It is a devastating attack from above.”

“So cool…! I so want to see it!”

Kukui let him go with a sigh to match Pikachu's. Ash was clearly lost in visions of Z-moves and getting stronger, which meant they had absolutely no chance of getting anything more sensible on the whole ‘bond’ conversation topic, let alone whatever Ash and Pikachu had almost gotten into an argument about.

But it did raise an interesting point. He pulled his phone out of his pocket and fired off a quick message to Acacia. Maybe it was about time someone actually did put some science into the human-pokemon bond.

“What you’re talking about is fairly well documented, if not properly explored outside of its evolution effects,” Acacia said blandly, tossing her sylveon’s pokeball one-handed. “It’s basically the Affection modifier, isn’t it?”

“Maybe…” He looked out onto the training field. Sylveon and Espeon were chasing each other around the course, playing rough in the way only the closest of friends could get away with. “What kind of effects can Affection have on a pokemon?”

“Well, obviously evolution,” she said, gesturing to her pokemon. “I’ve also noticed it has an impact in battle, as well. Some pokemon can even resist poisoning or confusion just because they don’t want their trainers to worry about them. But it’s proving pretty hard to quantify. There are so many variables.”

Kukui folded his arms over his chest, brow furrowed as he considered it. “But that’s all on the pokemon. They overcome it in themselves for the sake of the trainer. The trainer doesn’t give anything in return.”

“Careful, Kukui. Aren’t you the one who told me not to get carried away with ‘fantasy notions’ about humans with powers?” she asked dryly, and he slanted a deadpan look right back at her.

“Pokemon can’t use Z-moves without a human trainer to give them the ability. What is it that the trainer gives their pokemon to enable the move?”

“Affection,” she said bluntly. “Support. Trust. If we’re not allowing the possibility of a human having actual ‘powers’, quote-unquote, then it would have to be an increased level of dopamine or adrenaline in the pokemon, inspired by a trainer’s enthusiasm and emotional support.” She looked at him directly, her mild smile doing absolutely nothing to blunt her facetious tone as she added, “Ignoring, of course, the visible light show coming from the human trainer and connecting with the pokemon performing the move. That doesn’t have quite so much of an explanation.”

And thus, the crux of the matter. “That light… it does imply something else, doesn’t it?”

“Mmhm,” she said, but turned back to her pokemon. “But that, according to the ethics committee, is a spiritual issue and should be left to the kahunas.”

“Is it, though?” he asked. “We quantified Affection and Friendship. Why not this?”

She shrugged. “Until I can prove that it’s more than just a pokemon increasing their power level to perform a Z-move, I don’t have justification to study the human side of things,” she added with a grimace. “I think it’s something to do with Sycamore’s research. Mega-evolution energy is so close to how Z-moves work, after all. They probably want him to figure it out first. Pokemon Professors should get the glory, right, Professor Kukui?”

He huffed out a laugh, but couldn’t really find much amusement in it. He was too distracted by her point. There was a light when you performed a Z-move. And when he thought about it… sometimes in battle, when a trainer was really getting into it, just as Ash had described, you could swear there was a kind of… fire about them. An energy so tangible you could almost see it.

Martial artists talked about it sometimes. Those with lucario called it aura, but others called it ki. Boxers and wrestlers like himself were more likely to just call it getting fired up. But there was always… something. He'd never given it much thought before.

“You said the ethics council told you to leave it to the kahunas?” he asked.

“Mmhm. They said I was talking about spiritual energy, and therefore not something science should meddle with,” she said. “Not without all four kahunas approving it. And since we don’t have four, and Nanu is ignoring pretty much every email sent to him anyway… here I am, instead studying energy levels and battling Aether Foundation every step of the way. Again.”

He ignored that, because to do otherwise would invite another rant he didn’t want to have to listen to. “So it’s possible that the kahunas may know something.”

“I guess. But they probably write it off as magic, so they’re hardly any use, are they?”

He hummed vaguely. It was worth the question, at any rate.

Lesson Nine: Learning through acceptance

There was something a little strange about looking over the view from Hala’s dojo. You could see half the island from the entrance.

As befitting a king, Kukui supposed. But it did kind of make him wonder whether the dojo had replaced the last kahuna’s estate, or if it was just a coincidence. For some reason, his mind drifted further from there – Hala had been Kahuna of Melemele Island since long before Kukui was even born. When had he been chosen? Why? Had he always been a strong leader, or was that something he’d learned after accepting the position? How did the tapu choose their kings? What was it about them that set them apart from anyone else?

Maybe he was just overthinking things again. He’d had that kind of week.

“Ahh, Professor Kukui! I was wondering when we’d see you!”

He turned back around, smiling broadly at the woman standing in the doorway of the house behind. “Kahuna Olivia. Sorry I wasn’t there to greet you when you arrived.”

“Oh, please, who needs pomp and circumstance?” she asked playfully, and started toward him, only to miss the top step and promptly fall flat on her face. Kukui winced, but knew better than to move as she shoved herself up again and hurried the rest of the way over. “Besides, it’s not like you to stand on ceremony. Or should I take the fact I’ve never seen you in a shirt personally?”

He smirked but didn’t otherwise comment on that. He and Olivia had known each other a long time, and only gotten closer since he’d begun bringing classes to her island every year. She and Burnet had gone out bar-hopping with Jenny and Joy the last time Burnet had visited.

“Is everything alright?” he asked instead. “You don’t normally come to Melemele until the night before our trip.”

“Of course, of course!” she said cheerfully. “But when I heard you wanted to talk to me and Hala, I thought I would come early!”

“An entire day early?” he asked. “We could have spoken tomorrow afternoon.”

She smiled. “Well, Hala and I do have a few things to discuss anyway. Come on, let’s get started. But we need to go via the storage room – I feel like mimosas and Hala doesn’t keep wine anywhere sensible. Such an old man.”

He snorted but didn’t comment. If he remembered Hala’s son right, he suspected it was just an old habit that was dying hard. But that was Melemele’s dirty little secret, and he had other things to think about than a bitter man that hadn’t been seen in years.

They collected the bottle and a few beers for Kukui and Hala, then headed into the guest house. Hala was already there, cutting up cheese and fruit, and he opened one eye wider as they entered.

“Professor Kukui, welcome. No Ash today?”

Kukui raised an eyebrow in return. “This weekend the class have swapped their partner pokemon for an assignment – I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s trying to convince Lillie’s vulpix to try battling,” he said, and paused slightly, wondering if that had been a subtle instruction. “Apologies; I wasn’t aware you were expecting him.”

“Not at all. I just assumed that since you wanted to ask us something as kahunas, Young Ash might be involved,” he said lightly, and Kukui shifted his weight back to face him again.

“Ash doesn’t know I’m here; I asked to speak with you in my capacity as the Alolan Pokemon Professor,” he said slowly. “Why would –”

“Ah! No! You’re not talking about this until I know the background!” Olivia cried, and leaned back to grab Kukui’s collar and yank him further into the house. “Come on. Put those in the fridge and get me the orange juice. Then you can tell me about this boy of yours.”

“Don’t you start. I have half the lab calling me a proud parent – he’s my student and my boarder, nothing more,” he groused, but did as directed, keeping two of the bottles that Olivia immediately snatched away to open. “I don’t know what to tell you. He’s a battle trainer from Kanto, taking a break from the league circuit to learn some theory and take the trials.”

“He’s a strong trainer,” Hala added. “Much stronger than he looks.”

Olivia hummed as she took a bottle opener from the drawer and cracked open the two beers, handing them out before turning her attention to her own drink. “Well, I of all people know better than to judge based on appearances. Besides, he’d have to be strong for Tapu Koko to have taken an interest in him.”

“Hala told you about that?” Kukui asked, and she glanced at him sideways.

“It’s not every day a Guardian Deity steals a Z-ring to give to a promising trainer,” she said mildly. “That’s the sort of thing a good kahuna mentions to another.”

She paused as she put the wine into the fridge, then stepped back to pick up her drink, leaning one hip on the bench in thought. “Hala also mentioned he’s met Tapu Koko in battle.”

“I… yes, but I’m not sure I’d call it battle,” he said slowly. “The first time, it seemed purely intended to teach him Gigavolt Havoc. The second was almost like a test, to see how his strength had progressed.”

“How did the boy fair?” asked Hala, and Kukui shrugged.

“He was battling a god,” he said bluntly, but then paused, because… well, even despite that fact… “He did pretty well, surprisingly. Tapu Koko had to shield itself against his attacks both times, and he pushed it back either way. Pikachu was thrown out of the field, but not knocked out.”

“A pikachu, you say,” Olivia murmured, but when Kukui looked at her, she just smiled. “Such a cute pokemon! You don’t see many serious battle trainers with them!”

He hesitated, not entirely sure why he felt like she was deflecting, before he explained, “It was his starter. They’ve been together a long time.”

“And as we just agreed, appearance does not diminish strength,” Hala intoned, and then picked up the platter he’d just finished. “Come, let us sit while we talk.”

They headed over to the couches, Kukui shaking his head slightly at the situation. Two of the three most powerful people in Alola, and he was sitting down to drink beer and ask them a vague question about what they probably considered magic. His life…

“The real question is, am I going to be able to put up with him this week?” asked Olivia. “I’ve had a lot of league trainers visit my island and demand a Grand Trial. I usually want to throw them in the volcano.”

“Please don’t,” Kukui joked. “Professor Oak likes him and I would like to keep my job. He could probably end both of my careers with a single word.”

Hala laughed. “Worry not, Olivia. Young Ash is not like most visiting trainers. He has respect for our traditions, even if he does not always understand them. As for the rest, I would say that you should judge not on our words, but your own experiences. You know your island, and you will know whether he is worthy of challenging you.”

“Well said, Kahuna Hala,” she said, and extended her glass to clink against his bottle. “So you liked him, did you?”

“He is a good trainer, and Totem Gumshoos respected him,” Hala said vaguely.

“Avoiding the question, hmm?”

Hala smiled and lifted his bottle to his lips, drinking rather than answer. Kukui frowned but kept quiet as well – if it had just been Olivia, he might have given in to the urge to defend his boarder, but Hala was his kahuna. There was a certain level of respect required. Besides, he was pretty sure Hala had liked Ash. He was probably being coy for some other reason.

“Well, then I’ll just have to see for myself,” Olivia said brightly. “But I am curious, I’ll admit that! A boy chosen by the guardian of battle! A boy named Ash. A travelling trainer with a pikachu. Such a curiosity on so many levels.”

“You find his name curious?” Kukui asked with a grin.

She shrugged playfully. “I always find it interesting when people are named after things that aren’t traditionally beautiful. Plants I understand, gems I understand, but remains?”

He chuckled. “I think you might be over thinking that one, Olivia.”

“Maybe I am,” she said, and then tilted her head back and tested the name on her tongue. “Ash. I like it. It’s a strong name. But mysterious, in its own way. From the ashes, we shall rise.”

Hala drank some more in a blatant refusal to comment, but Kukui grinned. “As expected from the kahuna of fire and earth. If anyone should find meaning in the name ‘Ash’, it would be you.”

She saluted him with her drink, but Hala only allowed them another moment of amusement before pointedly clearing his throat.

“So, Professor Kukui, what brings you to us? Do you have a question about the trials?”

“Not specifically,” he said, and shifted back in his seat the better to think. “It’s about Z-moves… or maybe Pokemon Trainers in general. I’ve been told that there’s an element to it that science is currently not allowed to investigate without your blessing.”


“You’re going to have to be a little more specific, Kukui,” Olivia said playfully. “There are lots of things science shouldn’t conquer.”

“It’s about energy. When a Pokemon Trainer performs a Z-move, there’s a visible light that connects them with their pokemon. Lately, I’ve been wondering about that,” he explained. “I never gave it much thought before, assuming it was something to do with the Z-ring itself. But it recently occurred to me that it’s a little like the concept of fighting spirit that we talk about in martial arts. It just made me curious.”

The two kahunas just looked at him quietly for a few moments, before exchanging glances. Olivia tilted her glass toward Hala before occupying her mouth with it.

“Fighting energy,” Hala began quietly, but quickly raised his voice and tone as he accepted the topic. “It’s true – a strong martial artist is filled with it, and when it truly infuses their being, it can sometimes be seen by those who have the eye to notice it. An inner fire, the spirit that inspires us all, brought forward and given light by our hearts.”

It took everything Kukui had not to wince at the flowery language, and just nod instead. “I always thought it was more… an image or ideal than something… tangible.”

Again, they just looked at him, and then each other. A smile was playing around the corners of Olivia’s lips, and Hala inclined his head slightly.

“You are a man of science, Professor Kukui. You always have been, even when you were a child. You close your eyes to that which you cannot explain,” he said. “As a child, you thought of pokemon as animals in need of training, and battle as challenges to be won. Your time spent in this dojo, as a student of martial arts, was always about strength to you – mere muscle and mind. I knew this, and knew there was no need to teach you of anything more. You would not have listened.”

He tried, very hard, not to be offended. He chose to focus on key words instead. “But you think I might now?”

“Well, you are asking,” Olivia pointed out. “That’s a pretty good start.”

“Without enhancement, the fighting spirit is something that can only be seen or sensed by those who are willing to understand it,” Hala added. “The Z-ring is one such enhancement – the shimmering stone has been used for hundreds of years as a conduit to bring out a trainer’s spirit and deliver it to their pokemon. Many have mistaken it for a power source, instead. I would have assumed you were one of them.”

“To be honest, I did. But something Ash said recently made me reconsider,” he said. Something flashed in both Olivia and Hala’s eyes at Ash’s name, but they didn’t say anything, so Kukui merely worried over it a little before continuing. “The fact that you consider it the same thing as the fighting energy from martial arts tells me that it’s more than I’ve always assumed.”

“It is. After all, I wouldn’t even call it ‘fighting energy’ specifically,” Olivia said mildly. “Even Z-moves can be used for more than battle.”

“A very good point,” Hala acknowledged. “But for Professor Kukui and simplicity’s sake, let us settle on that for now.”

She hummed, closing her eyes and waving her glass in vague dismissal. Kukui frowned and refocussed on Hala instead.

“The fact that it connects to pokemon using a Z-move says it can be shared with others,” he said slowly. “Just what does that energy do, exactly?”

“It depends on the person,” Hala replied bluntly. “Each person on this earth has a different purpose to fulfil. A different strength to guide them. Our spirits define us and give us strength to do those things. My spirit is led by the whim of Tapu Koko, to fight for my island and defend its people from all which does it harm. You are a man of science and strength, and your spirit guides you to learn so that you may teach others to be strong. Our Young Nurse Joy in her Pokemon Centre is devoted to healing the sick and wounded, and she will fight to her last breath to do so. All of these things can be affected by fighting spirit.”

Kukui’s lips twitched in dissatisfaction. “But bringing it back to pokemon and their trainers… you’re saying this energy can be used for more than just a Z-move.”

“Of course,” said Hala. “A trainer’s strength inspires his pokemon to greater heights. If a trainer shares his strength, his pokemon will hit harder, move faster, and fight for longer than they could alone. It is a small enough advantage, but one that can make all the difference.”

It still sounded a little too metaphorical, to Kukui’s ears. It was just what he’d always thought the pokemon-trainer bond was – a matter of belief and support that worked on the same principle as a placebo, not an actual transfer of energy. But if it really was just a psychosomatic effect, then there wouldn’t be a light, whether you believed or not. So he sighed and tried again.

“I teach something similar in my intermediate battle classes,” he said. “Motivation, coaching… a pokemon will always fight harder if they have something to fight for.”

“Motivation is as good an explanation as any, if you don’t want to see more to it,” Olivia said with a vague shrug. “The mind, the spirit, the magic of our souls… these things are linked, and it is only what we choose to see that we need make sense of.”

Kukui took a breath, trying not to feel frustrated. The conversation didn’t seem to be going anywhere. “But you’re saying it’s more than that. So if we, for the sake of argument, say that motivation is actually due to some kind of energy transferred from a human to a pokemon, then it could, theoretically, be measured. The Z-rings somehow tap into that energy and enhance it, bringing it up to a visible and tangible level. Is that right?”

“Sure,” Olivia said mildly.

“You don’t sound convinced.”

“I’m not convinced you’re convinced,” she corrected. “And I don’t see any point in teaching someone something they don’t truly want to learn.”

He blinked, pulling back a little “I wouldn’t be asking if I didn’t want to know.”

“Your question doesn’t match the answer you actually seem to be looking for. Just like always,” she added with a sigh to match his own.

Now he was really having to work not to be offended. “Excuse me?”

She opened one to look at him, then shrugged and closed it again. “Do you remember that time we talked about psychics?”

“Psychics?” he repeated blankly. What did that have to do with anything? “You mean people who claim to have the ability to read minds?”

“Exactly: ‘claim’. It doesn’t matter to you that there have been proven cases of people reading others’ thoughts, even flying under the power of psycho-kinesis. You still insist that it’s all trickery, that they’re actually using pokemon to achieve the things we’ve seen them do,” she said. “You’re asking us about something that goes beyond what science can currently explain. Something we can only describe in terms you will not accept, because you only want answers that can be defined by physics and chemistry. You won’t be satisfied with what we can give you, so I don’t see the point in trying. Hala and I may know of spiritual energies that you don’t understand, but even if we talked you through everything we know, provided you examples, things you yourself have probably seen recently… you would still find a way out of it. I won’t argue the existence of the moon with you, when you only see the sun’s reflection.”

He stalled again, caught on some ridiculous desire to argue the metaphor. You only saw the moon, after all, because it reflected the sun’s light. So the best way to understand this ‘spiritual energy’ was to discuss it through the lens of science. But that, he reminded himself, was probably arguing the sun, and so he kept his mouth shut.

He sat back again, staring at his beer and trying to accept that they weren’t going to even try to meet him on this. He wasn’t going to get any further than what he’d already vaguely theorised – that either it was all a placebo effect and just in the mind (including Ash’s exhaustion the other day), or there was some kind of energy transfer that they just hadn’t identified. Possibly a kind of electro-magnetic field that stimulated muscles and nerves.

It was possible his colleagues may be able to find proof enough to eventually justify a proper study, but… that could take years. Years of pointless trials, coming at battle from a thousand angles just to prove with data what any good trainer already knew: trainers inspired their pokemon to greater heights. Apparently literally as well as emotionally. It was infuriating.

“Professor Kukui,” Hala called, and he looked up.


“May I ask why you ask?” he asked. “It’s been fifteen years since you first began trying to understand Z-moves and pokemon battle. You say Young Ash mentioned something to change your mind. Might I ask what that was?”

“He didn’t change my mind, exactly,” he said, and then looked back down at his bottle. “But he seems to believe he has a literal connection with his pokemon. Something more than the emotional bond I thought he was talking about.”

“And you didn’t just assume it was the fancy of a young trainer?”

He grimaced in response.

Because, rationally, he should have. Ash wouldn’t have been the first over-excited teenager to claim he and his pokemon understood each other more than normal. Heck, it was practically a rite of passage for a trainer to accidentally get hopped up on a combination of grass pokemon spores and think they could see through their pokemon’s eyes. There shouldn't have been anything to it.


But he couldn’t help thinking of Ash and Pikachu grinning at him, vibrant and full of life. And then, to contrast it, Ash looking so tired and worn down, but waving it off as just part of his connection with his pokemon. Just something any old Pokemon Trainer worth their salt was expected to experience.

And the way he’d trained Rockruff… who didn’t seem to understand the connection Ash was talking about. But had connected with him so well in so many ways...

There was more to it. There had to be.

More to what Ash was saying.

Maybe more to Ash.

“There are many people in this world, each with their own purpose,” Hala said quietly. “The fighting spirit fills each of them in different ways. To seek to understand that spirit is to seek to understand a person.”

Kukui slowly lifted his gaze back to the kahuna, who met it levelly, unsmiling.

“Our young Ash is a unique boy, perhaps more than most,” he said. “Tapu Koko has shown such great interest in him, and even I, who is untrained in such arts, can tell you of his aura. His fighting spirit and determination are immeasurable. There are mysteries about him that we would all benefit from understanding, both as Pokemon Trainers and not. But I suspect that his truths are not for the scientific mind.”

“His truths?” he repeated quietly. “I don’t understand. What do you mean ‘truths’?”

“If you truly wish to understand him, Professor Kukui, then you must be prepared to accept things beyond what your science can explain,” he said. “Until you do that, then he will only ever be a strange boy – an experienced Pokemon Trainer with unorthodox methods that work for reasons you will never hope to understand.”

He narrowed his eyes, immediately backtracking to his sun and moon argument, but Olivia held up a hand to stop him before he could even consider digging himself that hole.

“But if you really do want to understand – if you’re really prepared to try, for Ash’s sake,” she said pointedly, “then I can help you. Your students don’t need to be the only ones studying this week.”

Kukui stared at her quietly for a few moments, considering.

You couldn’t see the moon without the sun’s reflected light. It was both a metaphor and a fact.

But the moon was there. People had been to it. Walked its surface, studied its rocks, even brought moon dust back to the planet. He hadn’t personally been, of course, but he knew it was there, even on moonless nights when it was hidden in the planet’s shadow. Because if it wasn’t, then the tides would change, the planet’s orbit would shift. These were facts he knew because…

Because once, someone had told him so.

They’d told him, and he’d just accepted it. Because gravity was a fact. A fact he’d never personally proven, but couldn’t deny, and so didn’t.

He took a breath, reminding himself of how people learned new concepts.

There were scientific principles that he dumbed down for new students, or kids that were thinking about joining the Pokemon School when they were older. To them, Fire was weak against Rock because it just was, not because of chemical reactions on a molecular level. Even further than that – scientific development, at its very core, was built on just accepting mathematical formulae that others had spent their entire lives defining. If every scientist had to fully comprehend and work out every principle before testing their own theories, they’d all still be inventing tauros-carts and calling them miracles of science.

Gravity was just magic that held them on the planet. The moon was just a reflected light in the sky that grew and disappeared each month.

Sometimes, in order to learn, you just had to accept first.

“Alright, Kahuna Olivia,” he said. “I welcome your tutelage.”

She considered him over the rim of her glass, and then grinned broadly.

Wrapped up in Olivia’s offer and what Hala had meant by Ash’s ‘truths’—not to mention that they never really talked about class assignments at home—Kukui didn’t talk to Ash about how he found caring for Snowy. So he was legitimately surprised when Ash offered Lillie a Pokemon Battle – her and Pikachu versus himself and Snowy.

“Now this should be interesting,” Kukui muttered to himself as he followed the class out to the courtyard. A highly experienced trainer with a low-level one-move pokemon, versus a novice trainer with a high-level, fully-rostered, and extremely competent battle pokemon. Further complicated by how well Ash and Pikachu knew each other’s strategies, and how reluctant Lillie would probably be to hurt her Snowy.

He took up position on the sidelines with the others, Rotom hovering over his shoulder. He was mildly surprised when Ash let out his other pokemon and pointed for them to join the crowd.

“I want you all to watch this one, okay?” he said, and waited for them to acknowledge him and hurry over before looking up at Lillie with a determined smile. “Okay! I’m ready when you are, Lillie!”

“Um…” She fidgeted, glancing at Pikachu in her arms, before nodding once and throwing it forward. “Let’s go, Pikachu!”

“Pika!” it said triumphantly, and landed on the makeshift field with a cutesy hop that didn’t quite match what Kukui knew of it. It was hard to tell with the distance, but Kukui was pretty sure it met Ash’s gaze, and the two of them paused for a second, before Pikachu suddenly grinned and dropped into a more typical battle-stance. “Pi-ka-chu!”

“Alright!” Ash cheered, and did one of his contest-inspired spins that ended with an outstretched arm. “Let’s show them what you’ve learned, Snowy!”

“Kon!” it yapped, and bounded out onto the field.

Ash touched the brim of his hat before flicking his hand out toward the field. “You can make the first move, Lillie!”

“Seriously?” Sophocles asked quietly. “I know he’s taking it easy on her, but just how quick does he want this battle over?”

Kukui smiled and didn’t acknowledge the question, just watching as Lillie shuffled in place before apparently making up her mind.

“Okay! I’m not going to hold back! Pikachu? Quick Attack, let’s go!”

“Snowy, jump straight up and use Powder Snow!” Ash immediately snapped back.

It seemed Pikachu wasn’t holding back either, as it broke into its full Quick Attack almost faster than they could track. But Snowy had followed Ash’s orders the moment they were given, leaping up and blasting out a burst of icy breath. It missed Pikachu by a proverbial mile, but coated the ground where it had been with a thick sheet of ice.

“Oh, look at that!” Mallow gushed. “Snowy’s Powder Snow is a lot bigger than it was last week!”

“Looks like they really were training hard,” Kiawe agreed.

“That’s so amazing, Snowy!” Lillie cheered, but she clenched her fists with a determined smile. “But this is a real battle, and that means we need to give winning everything we’ve got! Pikachu, Thunderbolt!”

“Dodge left, and Powder Snow again!” Ash replied.

The Thunderbolt slammed into the ground just beyond the ice, having been on a perfect trajectory to hit Snowy if it hadn’t dodged. On the other hand, Lillie hadn’t given the order and so Pikachu hadn’t dodged the Powder Snow in time to avoid it, its tail freezing over along with the ground behind it.

Lillie keened apologetically. “Oh, that’s right! I’m sorry! Please dodge Snowy’s attacks, Pikachu!” she said, and then added, “Right! We need to break the ice! Iron Tail!”

Ash grinned, hunching over with his arm extended again. “Run straight forward and keep using Powder Snow!”

As Snowy just barely dodged the attack but countered with its own, ice coated the ground in front of it, nowhere near its opponent. It made the other kids quietly grumble about the expected outcome of the match, but Kukui narrowed his eyes a little.

“What is Ash doing?” demanded Sophocles. “Does he not want to attack Pikachu or something?”

Rotom buzzed imperiously. “I believe he is just prolonging the battle to better showcase Snowy’s increased range and stamina. It would be pointless for a low-level pokemon such as Snowy to try a legitimate attack on Pikachu.”

“Ugh, why do boys have to be so protective?” Mallow demanded, and then waved her arms. “Come on, Snowy! You can do it! Show that Pikachu how strong you are!”

Ash’s grin only widened, and he didn’t wait for Lillie this time. “Great job, Snowy! Now, tail straight out behind you and run! Don’t stop using Powder Snow!”

“Pi – pikachuu?” Pikachu jerked around, its eyes tracking the increasingly large ice path around it, but Lillie didn’t seem to have noticed what it was seeing.

“Y-you can run, but you can’t escape! We’ll catch you!” she said. “Pikachu, use Thunderbolt again!”

“Jump right and slide!” Ash ordered, leading Snowy to pounce onto its original sheet of ice and slip safely under the shot of electricity. Ash clicked his fingers triumphantly and pumped the other fist. “Nice job! Now keep it up! You’re almost there!”

“Almost where?” asked Lana.

Lillie was starting to panic a little. “Um – um – Iron Tail!”

“Flip over it, Snowy! Powder Snow to your left!”

More ice covered the field, and Pikachu skittered a little, struggling to find stable ground as it spun around to keep Snowy in sight. Kukui clenched his fists and quietly said, “Rotom,if you are not recording this, the second class is over, I am taking you to the lab and replacing your hard drive with that of a toaster.”

It spun around to stare at him. “You would not!” it cried, and he turned a carefully blank look on it.

“As Payback for all the data you’ve given me up to this point, I’ll let you decide whether it’s one that toasts from frozen or just has intensity settings.”

It jerked, then flailed wildly. “But I am recording it! Really and truly!”

He didn’t comment, just went back to the battle, where Ash was instructing Snowy to fan out its tail and keep its claws off the ice as it slid gracefully back and forth around the increasingly worried Pikachu. “Jump off that rock and try to get as close to Lillie as you can! Keep up the Powder Snow!”

“Catch it, Pikachu!” Lillie cried. “Quick Attack! Now!”

Pikachu tried to put on its signature speed burst, but the second it did, Ash’s plan paid off. Its paws slipped out from under it and it yelped, crashing face-first into the ice and sliding the rest of the way across the field.

“Oh!” Lillie clutched at the air in front of her mouth. “Oh, Pikachu, I’m sorry! Please get up! You – you – oh! I know what we haven’t tried! Electro-ball!”

It struggled to get back to its feet but kept sliding, unable to balance now that it had stumbled. Ash grinned and snatched a fist in front of him. “Electro-ball needs momentum, and I’m not gonna let you get any! Snowy! Tackle Pikachu!”

“He taught it a move?” asked Mallow, and Kukui gave her a sidelong look but didn’t comment as Snowy did as instructed and rammed itself into Pikachu, earning another startled yelp from the mouse.

“Now bite!” Ash continued. “Right on the tail!”

“Bite, too?” Kiawe muttered. Kukui lifted his eyes toward the sky for a moment before getting distracted by Pikachu’s loud shout as Snowy’s teeth latched on.

“Now let’s take them for a spin!” Ash said, sweeping his arm around. “Run for it, Snowy! Tight circles, as fast as you can!”

“Pi-kaa!” Pikachu squealed, and then shouted even louder as it was dragged around and around until Snowy apparently lost its grip and it went rocketing into one of the clumps of broken rock from its Iron Tail attacks. It hit hard enough to daze it, but not quite knock it out, and Ash nodded once.

“Alright, Snowy, one last time: Powder Snow!”

And with that, Pikachu was frozen, and the match was done.

As Lillie hugged Snowy tightly, enthralled over her pokemon’s narrow win over the far more experienced Pikachu, Kukui stepped up to where Ash was carefully lifting Pikachu into his arms. As he’d suspected, Pikachu wasn’t nearly as badly hurt as it would have been from a normal knock-out, rather just a little dazed and sluggish.

It still scowled at Ash for the betrayal, who grinned back. “Nice work, buddy! You almost had us there.”

“Pika chuu,” it grumbled, and Kukui smirked before slanting a look at Ash.

“Nice work to you too. You made Snowy look very good.”

“Well, it’s a great pokemon!” he said cheerfully. “It’s super strong, when you think about how young it is!”

“Ash!” Lillie called, and they looked up as she twirled around to face him, surrounded by the rest of the class and Ash’s pokemon. She grinned, bouncing Snowy in her arms. “Thank you so much for training Snowy so well! And the battle! This is only the second battle I’ve ever had, but I’ve learned so much from working with Pikachu!”

Ash tilted his head in one of his trademark grins. “You did an awesome job for your second battle. You and Snowy are going to be a really great team!”

She giggled. “Thank you! And thank you, Pikachu! I’m sorry we didn’t win.”

“Pika chu,” it said, waving her off. “Pika pika, pikachu.”

“It’s just glad you had fun,” Ash translated.

The feeling bubbling up in Kukui’s chest was a little warmer than the usual glow of pride he felt when his students did something impressive, but he rolled with it anyway. “Alright class, this has been a great start to our day. I think we should carry on with a little theory work – and apparently you all need to brush up on what moves Alolan vulpix can learn,” he added in a deadpan, before raising an eyebrow at Ash. “Tackle? Bite?”

“What?” he asked with a cheeky grin. “It might not have been Bite, but Snowy can bite.”

Kukui huffed. He probably drove half the league mad with that kind of thinking.

“Thank you for the reminder. In the meantime, everybody back to class and write me out some of the things you learned in taking care of each other’s pokemon. I want to give Pikachu a quick check-up first, so the rest of you go on ahead.”

“Sure thing, Professor!”

The class headed in, all cheering Lillie on for her accomplishment in touching Pikachu and Snowy’s amazing battle. Ash knelt down to talk to his other pokemon, and Kukui turned his attention to Rotom, lowering his voice to make sure the class wouldn’t overhear. “Now, RotomDex. You and I both know Pikachu’s health right now, and Snowy’s too. Lillie doesn’t need to know either one, understand?”

Rotom beeped, offended. “Are you telling me to lie?”

“No, I’m telling you to keep quiet on the battle statistics,” he said. “Percentage wise, I’m betting Snowy’s doing a lot better than Pikachu.”

“Yes, but –”

“And that’s all that she needs to know,” he said. “Not where Pikachu started, and not the health bar rating. Okay?”

For a computer, it did a remarkable job of huffing. “That is not my function! As a pokedex, I am –”

“You provide information when asked,” he corrected bluntly, “to your registered trainer. Lillie and the others are not your registered trainers. Ash is. And he’s not going to ask.”

It flitted around, obviously annoyed despite the lack of emoji. And how strange was it, Kukui thought to himself, that he was starting to recognise emotions from a possessed pokedex. Rotom snapped, “You are being very difficult today, Professor.”

“I’m practising my Copycat,” he muttered, before jerking his head after the class. “Just… keep an eye on them and don’t tell them Pikachu was on half-health before the battle, okay?”

Rotom beeped again, indignant, but merely swung a wing in his face and stated, “I am only doing this because I would like to review the footage—that I fully recorded!—before helping the class with their work!”


He watched it fly off after the others, then turned, just in time to see Ash finish returning his other pokemon and readjusting Pikachu into both arms. He glanced after Rotom, then turned his head toward Kukui, mildly cautious. “Did you… want to talk to me about something?”

“It’s nothing to worry about,” he said, and fished a sitrus berry out of his pocket for Pikachu, who took it with as much dignity as it could apparently muster. “No hard feelings between battle opponents?”

Ash and Pikachu exchanged glances, then smiled, and Ash shook his head. “Nah. It was important that Snowy won,” he said, while Pikachu snuggled in closer to his chest with a pointedly satisfied look before starting in on the berry. Ash curled his arms a little tighter around it before adding, “It’s not like Pikachu threw the battle or anything, but it knew I wasn’t gonna hold back, and it was only Lillie’s second battle. We kinda knew how it was gonna go.”

“Even so, it was an impressive battle,” Kukui noted. “I’ve never seen someone direct a one-move pokemon so well, especially against such a powerful opponent.”

And despite what his colleagues at the lab would say, he knew he wasn’t exaggerating. He sincerely hoped Rotom hadn’t been lying about recording it, because he already wanted to watch it again. He wanted to go over every second, pick apart every detail, truly appreciate the way Ash had been in complete control from beginning to end. To the untrained eye, it probably hadn’t been that thrilling a battle. But as both a researcher and a teacher… Damn.

The way Lillie—an inexperienced trainer—panicked and threw move after move, completely focussed on defeating her opponent. The way Ash—a deceptively skilled battler—had focussed on shifting the battlefield to his advantage. The comparison between pure power and strength versus natural ability and resources. The responsiveness. The simple strategy put into complex action.

Sweet spirits of Alola, he needed Rotom to have recorded it.

“Thanks, but I don’t know how impressive it was,” Ash said with an embarrassed laugh. “I mean, it’s not a lotta strategy to just keep using the same move over and over again. And Pikachu caught on to what I was doin’ pretty early.”

“I did wonder about that,” he said quietly, and then gestured for them to start heading after the others. “I thought, given Pikachu’s intelligence and experience, it might have decided not to follow Lillie’s orders.”

“Nah. Pikachu’s too nice for that,” he said, shifting a hand to scratch Pikachu behind the ear. It cooed in response before going back to its berry, and Ash looked up at Kukui again. “A pokemon battle is supposed to be one team against another. It’d be pretty bad if you stopped listening to your partner halfway through.”

He looked at him sideways, then hummed and shifted his gaze forward again. “What do you think it would’ve done if it had?”

“I dunno. Aimed better?”


Ash chuckled. “Me and Pikachu have been in loads of ice battles. We know that you can’t run on them – s’why I don’t use Pikachu in them if I can help it. So it would’ve stayed in one spot and boxed Snowy in with loads of Thunderbolts until one hit,” he explained. “But I dunno. If Lillie had told it to do that, I would’ve rushed it, so it had to move anyway. It probably would’ve hit back with Iron Tail, but that’d be a risk too. If it missed, it would’ve left it open from behind. And I feel like I coulda done something with Snowy’s tail. Got it up in Pikachu’s face, maybe… Use it like a distraction, or something…”

He trailed off, obviously thinking about it, and Kukui slid his hands into his pockets as he considered the issue himself. If he’d been in Lillie’s place, going up against someone manipulating the field, what would he have done…?

“You know, I think I would’ve done the same thing – lots of thunderbolts. But when you rushed Snowy, I would’ve worn the hit, to put it in better position for the Iron Tail.”

“Yeah, I feel like you and Pikachu think a lot alike, sometimes,” Ash agreed. Kukui glanced at him again, not sure whether to be offended by the comparison or not. Ash apparently didn’t notice. “But me? I would’ve just cracked the field. Pikachu doesn’t need to run to move fast – it just needs stuff to move off of. So all that broken ice and ground would’ve made great jump pads and better cover. But I guess that’s the cool thing about battle – everyone comes at it differently. So you never know what’s gonna happen!”

“Very true,” Kukui agreed, but then shook his head, still impressed.

He’d never been very good at creative battling. Even before he settled into his research career, when he’d still dreamed of becoming a Pokemon Master or Champion, he’d put a lot of faith in strategy and planning. He’d prided himself on the sheer scope and number of strategies he had.

But if this and his Grand Trial were any indication, it seemed creative battling was Ash’s forte. Kukui looked off to the side as the dots connected between this and the notes Kiawe had once made about Ash’s training style. He didn’t focus on the moves; he focussed on a pokemon’s ability to fight. Its strength, its power, its ability to move and think on its feet. Because it wasn’t the strategy that counted, it was the ability to adapt and get the best from each moment on the field.


“Where did you learn that?” he asked curiously. “Did you have a mentor?”

“A mentor? For what?”

Kukui blinked, suddenly realising his thoughts had left the conversation behind, and he had to backtrack to explain. “Your battle style is different than most I’ve seen. How did you learn it?”

“Oh… um…” Ash laughed weakly, looking a little embarrassed again. “Yeah, it’s not a very good style, huh? Inconsistent and unpredictable, my friend Cilan used to say. But it works for me, so, y’know.”

“Pikachu, Pikapi!” Pikachu said, obviously cheering him on, and Ash grinned before going back to Kukui.

“I just kinda picked it up over time. I guess it came outta my not knowing how to battle properly when I started out. I made a lotta dumb moves and had to figure out how to come back from them. And then, you know, with Team Rocket and stuff, sometimes sticking with normal attacks would’ve just messed things up even worse. So I just kinda… do the best with what I’ve got.”

“Well, it seems to have worked out for you,” Kukui said. “I especially admired how you didn’t explicitly tell Snowy it needed to balance on the ice, or what it was doing in using Powder Snow so much – it allowed it to achieve the goal without cluing your opponent into your plan.”

“That too, but… sometimes, I think actually telling pokemon that kinda stuff just confuses ’em. Man, if I’d told my Oshawott even half of the stuff I was gettin’ it to do…” Ash rolled his eyes at the very idea. “It never woulda worked.”

“Well, sometimes that’s how it has to be between a trainer and their pokemon. They trust we know what we’re doing when we give orders in a battle,” he said. “Or, in Pikachu’s case just now… accept they’re going to lose because their trainer doesn’t.”

Pikachu snickered around its sitrus berry, and Ash grinned.

“Yeah. Pikachu’s had a lot of experience with that, though, right buddy? I screwed things up a lot when I was first starting out,” he said wryly, and Pikachu lifted a paw to obviously wave the thought off as ancient history.

“Pika pikachu…”

“Even if that’s the case, it clearly worked out in the end,” Kukui noted. “You both learned from it – accepting there were things you didn’t know, and learning despite that. It’s a hard thing to do. You should both be proud you managed it.”

“Thanks, Professor,” Ash said, and Kukui smiled and nodded once before turning his attention back to the lesson ahead.

If there was any parallel to his own oncoming lessons with Olivia, he didn’t notice.

Lesson Ten: Mistakes and Bad Habits

With the kids settled on the front of the boat, engaged in their usual shenanigans, Kukui clambered up to join Olivia at the wheel. “Everything going okay up here?”

“Couldn’t be better,” she said cheerfully. “No signs of sea-sickness?”

“Not so far. Hopefully this weather holds,” he said, and gestured to the wheel in silent offer. Olivia stepped back, allowing him to take over, and he swung into position. “It sounds like you have an admirer, though. Mallow was quite impressed with you.”

“She’s a sweetheart,” she said as she leaned back against the console. “But I’m not sure I understand why she’s at your school. It sounds like she’s going to become a restaurateur.”

“Probably. It’s definitely her plan,” he agreed. “But for now, she’s just taking the time to learn about more than what she’ll discover in a kitchen. Our school might not be the Pokemon Journey you’ll get in other regions, but it’s not a bad place to figure out who you want to be.”

“You and your Pokemon Journeys,” she teased, and then turned her head to look out over the horizon. “You said she’s the mothering type?”

“Very much so. If she thinks there’s a problem, she always wants to be around to keep an eye on things. It’s not quite a bad habit yet, but it’s definitely a habit.”

“Hmm… maybe I’ll teach her how to guide,” she said softly. “And Kiawe has grown up a little since I last saw him. He might be ready for a lesson, too.”

He nodded. Part of the reason he and Olivia had these field trips was so she could impart some kahuna wisdom on his students. “He’s been doing really well, lately. I think having another practical battler around has helped his confidence.”

“Good. He always did have a bit of a self-image problem,” she said, touching her chin. “Hopefully he’s open to some new experiences now! I wonder what he’ll learn.”

They fell silent for a minute, Kukui multi-tasking between watching the waves and his students. It was mostly just habit, because they seemed perfectly fine – more concerned with how their pokemon were handling the boat. He was about to try and completely focus on driving when Olivia’s surprised hum caught his attention.

“So he can be quiet. I’d wondered.”

He glanced at her, then followed her gaze down to where Ash was standing by the railing, his head tilted slightly back as he breathed in the sun and ocean air. It looked like he was taking one of his moments to appreciate life, so Kukui smiled a little and went back to the controls without comment.

Olivia lingered a little longer, continuing to watch even as she asked, “Is that story he told me true? About Litten and Stoutland?”

“He glossed over it a little,” he said absently. “But he hit all the major points. It was a difficult couple of days after Stoutland passed, but they’ve come together very well.”

“The pokeball connection didn’t work right away?” she guessed, and he shook his head.

“I mean before it joined his team. He didn’t even try to catch it until it had basically already decided to come with him, I think,” he said, glancing down again. Ash had gotten distracted by something on Sophocles’ phone, and all the kids were crowding around them in interest. Kukui smiled fondly. “He has this idea that he needs to learn to take a step back and let other people deal with their own problems. With Litten, he put himself in a real Bind, wanting to help but give it space at the same time.”

“Well, now that’s very interesting,” Olivia noted. “Is he still trying to do that?”

“Not so much with Litten, but I think so. But I don’t know if Mallow is helping – she likes to drag him along when she decides to involve herself in things. Especially with the other girls.”

She looked at him thoughtfully for a few seconds, then turned back to reconsider Ash. “Do you know why he’s doing it? You said he did want to help.”

“Uh… something about not letting people be strong, and wanting to do everything himself,” he said, and then shook his head. “Honestly, it’s probably just an overreaction to someone telling him to quit micromanaging his battles at some point. Kiawe’s not the only one whose reactions can be a little on the extreme side.”

But Olivia had leaned her head back with a curious smile, apparently intrigued by something he’d said. Whatever it was, she didn’t get time to explain before a sudden shift in focus made them look down at the kids, who had all turned their attention in the same direction over the waves. Sophocles had even pulled out a pair of binoculars to see, and Ash and Kiawe were leaning over the railing excitedly.

Olivia smiled. “I think they’ve found something.”

“Alright,” Kukui said, “we’ll make a slight detour. Turning portside!”

The slight detour quickly turned into an hour-long pokemon watching lesson, Lana spotting and pointing out countless water pokemon (and turning a few pranks, which eventually culminated in a claim to have seen Lugia. Kukui knew he shouldn’t find his students’ bad habits so amusing, but the boys’ faces had him snickering to himself anyway) while Lillie inched further and further back to the safety of the cabin wall. The kids kept her engaged though, Sophocles hanging back to watch with her while the others gave her the space she needed.

But then Olivia and Ash wound up in the water somehow, and together they found an injured wailmer being stalked by a bruxish. It was a pretty dangerous event, but saving Wailmer became the kind of team bonding activity Kukui wished he could have planned, with each of the kids pitching in and helping out as best they could.

He couldn’t have asked for a better start to their field trip.

Dinner was a typically loud affair, the kids all a little hyped up now that they were officially staying away from home and Olivia happily asking them questions just to heighten their enthusiasm.

“I heard you mention Lugia earlier,” she said, leaning over the table to grin mischievously at Lana. “So you’ve heard about the great Beast of the Sea, have you?”

“Lana’s a big fan,” Mallow said with a grin. “She’s always talking about Lugia and Kyogre.”

“They’re the best,” Lana insisted, while Sophocles rolled his eyes.

“Which means we get to hear all about it,” he deadpanned.

“Really?” Olivia asked, and waggled her eyebrows. “I wonder what other legends you know!”

“Are there more legendary water pokemon?” asked Lana.

“Oh, yes,” she said, lowering her voice to deepen the mystery. “You know Lugia, the Beast of the Sea, but have you heard about the Prince of the Sea?”

“The Prince of the Sea?” Ash repeated, lowering his fork as he looked at her directly. “Do you mean Manaphy?”

Olivia turned her head to meet his gaze, and Kukui glanced up, surprised when she didn’t immediately say anything. She continued looking at him silently for a full two seconds, before suddenly winking like they had shared some kind of joke.

“So you do know it, Ash! You know a lot about Legendary Pokemon, don’t you?”

He blinked, then laughed and rubbed the back of his neck. “I dunno about that…”

He wasn’t sure why, but something flipped in Kukui’s gut, uncomfortable with the exchange. But the conversation was already continuing.

“I’ve never heard of Manaphy,” said Lillie. “Is it a water-type?”

“It is!” Olivia said as she turned back to the other students. “The legends say Manaphy is a mythical pokemon that lives in a magical temple under the ocean. The temple drifts on the currents, so no human can ever uncover its secret: the mystical Crown of the Sea!”

“The Beast of the Sea, the Prince of the Sea, the Crown of the Sea,” Sophocles deadpanned. “Talk about a trend.”

Kiawe grinned, but the girls were too fascinated to get distracted by their amusement.

“The Crown of the Sea?”

“Yes! A powerful artefact! Whoever possesses it will become King of the Sea, with mastery over the oceans!” Olivia said, spreading her hands dramatically, before sitting up with a laugh. “Or so the story goes. Is that the same one you know, Ash?”

Kukui looked down at him, but Ash just shrugged and went back to his salad, surprisingly uninterested. “I don’t know about mastery, but yeah. Pretty much.”

“It sounds so cool!” gushed Mallow. “A magic temple under the ocean? Just like Pokelantis!”

Lana had begun to look a little starry-eyed, gazing up at the ceiling with clenched fists. “I want to see them all,” she said. “One day, when Poppolio and I can travel in a balloon, we’ll find the Temple of the Sea and meet Manaphy. And I’ll find the Crown, and become King of the Sea.”

It was only because he was still half-watching Ash that he noticed the kid quickly look at her, shoulders tense and jaw tight. But it only lasted a second before he relaxed, giving her a tiny smile before returning to his food. Kukui raised an eyebrow, not entirely sure what to make of it – Lana was always talking about travelling around the world in her balloon, and Ash was usually her biggest supporter; there was no reason for him to suddenly get worried about it.

But his strange reaction had apparently gone unnoticed, everyone instead focussing on Lillie as she leaned over to take the lead in the conversation.

“The stories of Legendary Pokemon are so interesting!” she said excitedly. “They tell us so much about how ancient people used to understand how the world worked! It might all be fairy stories now, but Legendary Pokemon were really the first kind of science!”

Olivia sat up a little straighter, her eyes flicking over to meet Kukui’s for a moment. “You think so? Even though they’re all about magic?”

“Of course!” Lillie said. “For instance, the story of Lugia is basically a metaphor for a large current that we now know runs throughout all the oceans of the world!”

“A global current?” Kiawe asked curiously, and she nodded.

“That’s right. It connects every single ocean, and a few years ago, when it was affected by seismic activity under the ocean, it caused a huge storm that covered the entire world!”

“You mean those big waves that nearly buried Melemele Island? And when it started snowing on Poni Island?” asked Lana. “I remember that… but what does that have to do with Lugia?”

When Lillie wasn’t immediately overridden by a computerised interjection, Kukui frowned, suddenly noticing a distinct lack of Rotom in the cafeteria. He looked up and around, wondering where it had disappeared to, while Lillie explained.

“Well, some people used to believe that the oceans were made by Moltres, Arcticuno, and Zapdos,” she began. “They used to say that the three Legendary Birds kept the ocean in harmony, but if that harmony ever broke, then Lugia would appear and stop the fighting. That’s why they called it the Beast of the Sea! And, if Lugia ever failed to stop them, then the three Birds would make the sea rise up and destroy the world.”

“Like the current and that storm,” Mallow realised. “Wow, that’s incredible!”

“It gets even more interesting, though,” Olivia added, hunching over the table again with an excited grin. “Do you know what I heard?”


“I heard that it’s not just a story. During that time, there were sightings of all four Legendaries,” she said. “They were fighting all throughout the storm!”


“No way!” Mallow gasped. “So that big storm really could have been the end of the world?”

“Thank goodness Lugia won,” murmured Lana, but Sophocles scoffed.

“Yeah right! That’s just a story, isn’t it? It was just a big storm!” he said. “If the Birds were there at all, then they probably started fighting because they were spooked by all that crazy weather!”

“I dunno, Sophocles,” Kiawe said slowly, “that’s a pretty big coincidence, if it’s true.”

“Oh, come on! You don’t really think three birds could destroy the whole world, do you?” he asked. “I mean, sure, they’re Legendaries. They probably could cause a really bad storm, but not across the whole world! I’m not even sure seismic activity could cause a storm, let alone one that big. It was probably just a – a – a freak weather incident! A coincidence of bad weather!”

“As good an explanation as any, if you don’t want to believe the stories,” Olivia said, glancing at Kukui with a pointed smile. “But if you open up your mind and just believe, then maybe there’s no such thing as accidents. Maybe there’s more to this world than we can even begin to imagine.”

Kukui gazed back at her quietly for a few seconds, then nodded to show he’d caught the hint. Her eyes flicked back to Ash, then onto the rest of the group, and she smiled broadly.

“It’s things like that that make this world such an interesting place to live. Maybe those legends are just stories. Maybe they’re just something people made up to explain the things they didn’t understand. Or maybe they’re true, and the world is an amazing, magical place. Nobody really knows,” she said. “As Pokemon Trainers, you get to walk that amazing line between stories and science. You get to live those things we know and the things we believe. My sincerest wish for each of you is that you always keep an open mind, and you learn and see things you never thought possible. Discover everything you can, and choose for yourself what you want to believe.”

Down the table, both Mallow and Lana had begun to blush, their eyes wide with awe and imagination, while Lillie, Kiawe, and Sophocles had expressions ranging from thoughtful to sceptical. Kukui glanced down at Ash again, but he was looking at his empty plate with one of those curiously heavy expressions he got sometimes, completely unreadable.

Olivia paused another moment, then grinned and picked up her fork. “But even if you choose not to believe, legends are still pretty fun to talk about, right?” she asked cheerfully, and then shovelled a positively massive forkful of salad into her mouth, officially ending the ‘lesson’.

After dinner, they found Rotom hurrying through the Recuperation Wards of the Pokemon Centre, taking pictures of all the pokemon it hadn’t seen before. None of the pokemon looked particularly pleased with the attention, and their trainers were even less so, forcing Ash to snatch it out of the air and physically carry it out with him to the training field.

“How would you like it if someone kept trying to take pictures of you when you were sick?”

“I am a RotomDex! I don’t get sick!”

“What are you talking about? Everybody gets sick sometimes!”

“I am not ‘everybody’!”


Mallow shut the door on their argument, closing her eyes imperiously. “I think we should leave them to it.”

“Sure, but what are we gonna do in the meantime?” asked Kiawe. “It’s too early to go to sleep.”

“I couldn’t sleep anyway!” Sophocles cheered. “I’m too excited! I’ve never stayed in a Pokemon Centre before!”

“Neither have I,” Lillie added, and one by one the kids admitted this was a new experience for all of them. Kukui and Olivia exchanged smirks as they watched realisation dawn on each child’s face. It took less than a minute for them to decide that this called for a full exploration of the hostel sections of the Centre.

“Make sure you don’t bother any of the guests!” Kukui called after them as they rushed out of the cafeteria. They shouted back promises to be good, and he sighed, amused, before glancing back at the door. He quickly decided it was probably a good idea to just leave well enough alone for the moment – Ash had more patience with Rotom than he did, lately.

He wandered into the hostel kitchen instead, intent on coffee. Olivia trailed behind but ended up at the windows, peeking out at the training field. “Will Ash be upset that they left him behind?”

“No. He goes off on his own more than any of them,” he said. “Besides, he’s practically lived in Pokemon Centres for the last few years. I doubt they hold a lot of lustre for him anymore.”

“And yet he still fell for Nurse Joy's trick. Strange kid.” She leaned against the window frame, folding her arms over her stomach. “He was pretty good today, with Wailmer. You said he's from the East – has he shown any interest in becoming a Pokemon Ranger?”

“A Ranger?” he repeated. He had to look away as his coffee finished being poured, but once he had it he walked over to join her at the window. It seemed Ash and Rotom had already finished their argument, and were heading down to the battlefield. Pikachu and Rockruff had hurried ahead, already play fighting, while Rowlet was perched on Ash’s head and Litten seemed content to trot along at his feet. Kukui smiled at the image before remembering Olivia’s question. “No, he’s pretty set on becoming a Pokemon Master.”

“Now there’s a dream that doesn’t seem suited to the dreamer,” she said with a smile, but he shook his head.

“Sometimes I wonder. He’s got a lot of bad habits that the best Pokemon Masters would call good qualities,” he said, and then closed his eyes and shrugged. “Besides, I doubt he’d make it as a Ranger. He’s too involved with his pokemon. The styler would just end up depressing him.”

“Maybe Aether Foundation then,” she said, and he tilted his head, considering.

There was a part of him that really warmed to the idea, but even he could admit it wasn’t an unselfish thought. He actually doubted Ash would be happy working for the conservationist society – he was too in love with nature and the world outside.

Kukui took a long sip of coffee to fully disregard the notion. “Even if he does give up on becoming a Pokemon Master, I think it’s a long way off. He might have enrolled in the Pokemon School, but it’s really just a temporary thing. I hope he’ll stick around long enough to help me build the Alola Pokemon League, but I don’t think we’ll have him much longer than that,” he said. “He’s a traveller. You don’t know how excited he was about this trip – he was actually singing this morning. I’m pretty sure it was just because it’s giving him a chance to see a new horizon.”

Olivia smiled but didn’t comment, and they went back to watching Ash. Surprisingly, he wasn’t setting up to train, instead sitting down with Rotom, Litten, and Rowlet on the stairs, just watching Rockruff and Pikachu play. After a few minutes, Olivia spoke again without looking away.

“What do you think about Legendary Pokemon, Kukui?”

“Legendary Pokemon?” he repeated curiously, and she nodded.

“You tend to have a bit more mental leeway when it’s pokemon. So tell me – what do you think caused that storm we were discussing? Was it a current? Or the end of the world?”

He blinked at her, then smiled wryly. “You know there was a research paper written about that storm. Professor Ivy wrote it.”

“Ah, a scientific explanation…?”

“Not as much as you might think,” he said with a grin. “She pointed out that meteorological science can’t explain what happened. Meanwhile, we know for certain that the Birds were fighting at the time, and there was documented proof of pokemon all over the world trying to converge on their location. That much energy from that many pokemon… space and time have warped under that kind of pressure before. The global atmosphere is nothing compared to that.”

“So you do think it was the Legendaries,” she said. “How intriguing.”

“What you call intrigue, I call a scientific evidence,” he said. “Legendary Pokemon are a documented phenomenon, even if we’ve never gotten a chance to study them. They have powers we can’t even begin to understand.”

“How very open-minded of you,” she drawled, and then smirked at him from the corner of her eye. “So if you believe the Birds could have destroyed the world—”

“I didn’t say that.”

“—I wonder if you believe the rest of Lugia’s story. The bit about the chosen one conquering the three Birds to tame Lugia,” she said softly. “It’s generally assumed that was a human.”

“I haven’t heard that bit,” he admitted, lifting his coffee again. “But I also haven’t heard of any Pokemon Trainers catching Moltres, Arcticuno, or Zapdos recently, either. Let alone Lugia.”

She rolled her head in silent acquiescence, looking back out at Ash again. “We kahuna hear a lot of stories that don’t go to others. I was surprised Ash knew of Manaphy, for example.”

“It's sure a new one on me,” he said. “Tell me, how exactly does a temple drift on the currents under the ocean?”

“I have no idea. I also don’t know how a fashion accessory—no matter how beautiful a crown might be—could command the sea,” she pointed out. “I know stories, not facts, after all.”

He huffed, playfully gesturing out the window. “Maybe we should ask Ash. He seemed to know a different story than you.”

“I was curious to hear what he had to say about it. It’s a shame he went so quiet,” she said, and Kukui chuckled.

“Maybe you can make that the trial he needs to undertake before his Grand Trial – telling you everything he knows about legendary jewellery and its associated pokemon.”

“Hah,” Her smile faded as she looked out at the kid again. “I’m still not sure whether I’m going to give him a trial, yet. I need to see more of him before I decide whether he’s worthy.”

He shrugged again. “I think you saw a lot of who he is already today,” he said. “Just add on a battle and some motivational speaking and you’ll have pretty much the whole picture.”

“We’ll see what the week brings,” she said philosophically, and then pushed off the window to start walking away. “For tonight, I think I’ll head home – I’ll see you in the morn-ing!” she ended on a screech as her heel slipped out from under her, sending her crashing to the floor.

Kukui looked down at her silently for a second, then smirked. How could you deny a setup like that? “Have a nice tr–”

Do not!”

The night was pleasantly warm and quiet, the humidity perfectly balanced against the light wind coming in from the sea. He glanced around, trying to appreciate it as he walked down the steps, but he was almost immediately distracted by Ash’s surprised greeting, “Hey, Professor Kukui. What’s up?”

“Nothing much. Taking a time out?” he asked as he sat down beside him, and Ash shrugged.

“Yeah, kind of. I have some stuff to work out before I go to bed,” he said, and then used his head to gesture down to where Rockruff and Pikachu were still playing. “And Rockruff needed to burn off some excitement. I’m starting to think this is just making it worse, though.” He paused, then raised his voice. “I think you two have played tackle long enough! Keep it to shadow tag from now on, okay?”

Rockruff growled back, but Pikachu waved cheerfully. “Pika pika!”

“I’m serious!” Ash called. “It’s time to quiet down!”

Kukui chuckled, amused at the tone. “Now it sounds like you’re going to give them a time out.”

“I will if they don’t calm down soon,” he grumbled. “They’ve been playing really rough lately.”

He was pretty sure it was unintentional, but Kukui still grinned at the pun. “Well, I don’t know about Pikachu, but for Rockruff, it’s a real sign of trust. It was never so exuberant before you came along.”

“If you say so,” Ash said, but his embarrassed smile slipped away as he looked down at Litten, curled up by his hip and apparently ignoring anything going on around it. He petted it a few times before looking up again, expression settling back into the heavy look he’d worn earlier. Kukui considered it for a few seconds before deciding it was worth intruding on his thoughts.

“Are you worried about Rockruff or something else?”

“I’m not worried,” he said, waving it off with his spare hand. “I’m just thinking about what happened today, with Wailmer. And some other stuff.”

“Anything you want to talk about?” he offered, but he regretted it even before Ash shook his head. Ash never wanted to talk about anything that was bothering him.

“Nah, it’s okay. I’m probably just overthinkin’ it.”

“If you’re sure,” he said despite himself, and they went back to watching Pikachu and Rockruff. They hadn’t calmed down much. Pikachu seemed to be taking Ash’s instructions seriously, but Rockruff was still clearly aiming for Pikachu’s body instead of its shadow. Kukui winced. “That is a very hyped up canine.”

“Yeah,” Ash agreed, and rolled to his feet, over onto the grass. He searched the area around a bush for a few seconds before giving in and reaching in to just snap off a branch, stripping it of leaves and twigs as he turned and walked down to the field itself. “Alright, alright, it’s time for a new game. Pikachu, take a rest,” he instructed, and Pikachu glanced up at him for a moment before obediently peeling off from Rockruff to clamber up his back instead. Rockruff, on the other hand, growled at the interruption, hunching forward into a quasi-playful challenge until Ash pointed the stripped branch at it. He flicked it once, twice, and then, once he was sure Rockruff was following it, threw it across the field. Rockruff went tearing after it with an excited yap.

Kukui smiled, settling his chin in his hand. It was surprisingly nice to just sit back and watch Ash with his pokemon. It always made something warm and calming bubble up in his chest.

Unfortunately, the pleasant moment was almost immediately spoiled as Rotom flew over to hover near Kukui’s shoulder. “What kind of training is this?” it asked. “I don’t understand the purpose. Is it some kind of agility practice?”

“No, it’s a game,” he explained. “It’s called Fetch.”

“Fetch?” it repeated, and did a quick search before lighting up with an understanding exclamation point. “Fetch is a game often played between young humans and their pet pokemon! It is for fun!”

“Mostly, but in this case, I think it’s more than that,” Kukui said, reluctantly switching mental gears to something more analytical. “Fetch burns off energy while requiring focus. The pokemon has to watch to see where the stick goes, and they tend to want to retrieve it quickly. More importantly, the pokemon can’t chase the stick if it doesn’t give it back to the human to throw it again. Depending on how the human plays—” He paused to watch as Ash folded his arms, refusing to even try to take the branch out of Rockruff’s tightly clenched jaws. “—it can either encourage aggression, if the human has to fight to get the stick back, or cooperation, if they tell the pokemon to give it back.”

“I see,” Rotom said, and bounced in the air. “Data update! Fetch is a training tool for social interaction!”

He decided not to get into a discussion about the thin line between social instruction and pretty much any and all games for children, instead watching Ash explain Rockruff was going to have to drop the branch if it wanted him to throw it again. The puppy had been increasingly belligerent this past week. It wasn’t quite aggressive – just very easily riled and much slower to calm. And it hadn’t been that long since Ash began training it, so Kukui wasn’t quite sure whether the attitude was a sign of evolution or just a personality quirk. He was impressed with the patient way Ash was handling it, either way.

Eventually, Rockruff lowered the stick to the ground, and Ash snatched it up to immediately throw – maybe a little too soon to properly make a point, but close enough. Rockruff barked happily as it ran off again.

Kukui pushed himself up again and walked down to join him on the field, Rotom trailing behind. He didn’t say anything, or do anything but smile wryly when Rockruff came trotting back. It offered him the branch for a tug of war, but he just leaned back with his hands in his pockets. “Don’t look at me. I’m not part of this.”

It growled, prancing forward in irritable invitation, but Kukui just turned his head away, and eventually it surrendered and went back to Ash. He extended his hand but didn’t try to take the stick until it was dropped—however mulishly—on the ground between them. Only then did he throw it, and he waited until Rockruff had run after it before glancing up at Kukui.


“No problem,” he said.“You’ve done this before?”

“Not really. I mean, Fetch, yeah, but not like this. It seemed like a good idea though,” he said, and frowned before glancing up again. “Should I be doin’ something else?”

He blinked, surprised by the sudden lack of confidence. “There’s nothing better that I can think of right now. Why?”

“Just thought I’d check,” he said, and they paused as Rockruff returned, made a token show of wanting to fight, and then dropped the stick to have it thrown again. Once it had gone racing off after it, Ash continued, “Sometimes I do stuff with pokemon that makes sense to me, but then people tell me it’s really weird or stupid. I don’t really care what anybody thinks, as long as it works, but it’s kinda different here. You don’t think I’m stupid for doin’ stuff differently, so… you know, figured I’d ask if there was a better way.”

Kukui clenched his jaw and didn’t answer. While he agreed Ash had a very unique and occasionally incomprehensible training style, he was a little annoyed by how often and casually Ash referred to people disregarding it as foolish. It worked, obviously. Did that not count for anything with the people he’d known before?

They stood in silence for a few more minutes, Ash throwing the stick and letting Rockruff slowly calm down as it relaxed into the routine. Rockruff even began willingly handing the stick over, jaws to hand, and after a few rounds of that, Ash would meet it with a head scratch. More reward for a calmer attitude. Kukui found himself a little amused at the irony. It might have been something Ash came up with on the fly, but it also couldn’t have been more textbook if Rotom itself had been directing him.

Pikachu eventually hopped down from his shoulder, bored, and headed back to sit with Litten and the snoozing Rowlet. The shift made Ash look around, and then again when Rotom followed it, snapping pictures of Pikachu and comparing it to the still energetic Rockruff. The change had obviously broken whatever mental holding pattern Ash had worked himself into, because he only hesitated another second before explaining.

“I guess that’s what I’ve been thinking about. I always do things that seem right to me at the time, but, you know, maybe they’re not really the right thing. They work, so it’s okay, but maybe there’s a better way,” he said. “Other people probably know more than me, right? So maybe some of the stuff I’ve done that worked out, I could’ve done better. Or maybe other people would have done them better. Or, at least, maybe things would’ve been better off if I’d just listened and done what people told me to do, instead.”

He knelt down to accept the branch from Rockruff, scratching it behind the ears with a far-off look. When he stood up, he took a second to just stare at the stick, then shook himself and threw it. “I guess I’ve still got a lot to learn.”

“Don’t we all,” Kukui muttered, thinking of his recent conversations with the kahuna, before he frowned and raised an eyebrow. “I appreciate the sentiment, Ash, but what exactly brought all this on?”

“I dunno. Maybe working with Olivia today,” he said. “She’s so cool, you know? How she can calm down a pokemon just by being around them. I mean, I like to think I’m pretty good with pokemon, making them feel safe and all, but compared to her…” He shook his head again. “She’s amazing.”

“It is pretty special,” Kukui agreed. “But her abilities shouldn’t devalue your skills.”

Ash did a very small double-take, then grinned and shook his head. “Thanks, but that’s not really what I’m thinkin’ about. It’s more about… knowing the best way to use those skills, you know?”

“No,” he said blankly. “I’m not following, Ash, sorry.”

“I’m probably not makin’ any sense,” he said, and paused to collect and throw the stick before trying again. “It’s like with what happened today. I mean, Olivia’s a kahuna, so it was important to do what she said, but I was thinkin’ that if it had just been me helping Wailmer out, I would’ve done things differently.”

“How so?”

“Well… like when we saw Bruxish,” he said slowly. “If I could do what Olivia can, I – I guess I was just surprised she didn’t try talking to it, you know? I mean… she just knew that Bruxish had attacked Wailmer for getting into its territory, and that it was gonna attack us for helping it. I had no idea. I would’ve thought it was just watchin’, or something. Maybe even checking to make sure Wailmer was okay. Pokemon do that for each other sometimes, so, y’know, I guess that’s what I would’ve thought. Pretty stupid, probably, but…”

Kukui stared at him, thinking back to when Olivia had noticed Bruxish and ordered Ash out of the water. Come to think of it, Bruxish hadn’t been doing anything to imply it was dangerous. Kukui had made an assumption based on what he knew of Bruxish’s territorial attitude and Olivia’s pronouncement. It was only after they broke the rock formation that had Wailmer trapped… which had also thrown rocks at Bruxish… come to think of it, that had probably startled it, whether it had planned to attack or not…

He pursed his lips and jerked his head, conceding the point. He could see why Ash might have seen things differently.

But even if Ash could have heard his thought process, he wasn’t paying attention as he waited for Rockruff to return the branch. “And you know, even when she said Bruxish was dangerous, I mean… I didn’t really want to leave Wailmer. Seems kinda dumb now – I mean, I know it was trapped with psychic power and it was really hard to hold it up even with everyone together, so it’s not like I could’ve done anything, but it was so scared, you know? I wanted to stay with it,” he said. This time, when Rockruff brought the stick back, he knelt down properly to take it, but then set it aside so he could scratch behind Rockruff’s ears with both hands, gazing into the puppy’s eyes like they held answers to questions he wasn’t voicing. “I couldn’t’ve done anything, and when we broke the rocks, I just would’ve been in danger too. I didn’t even think about that. I never think about that. But Olivia did. She saved Wailmer and kept everyone safe at the same time. It was so amazing.”

Without really thinking about it, Kukui knelt down too, the better to see Ash’s expression. He couldn’t pick any one emotion from the furrowed brows or small smile. It was too complicated, his mind clearly somewhere far beyond what he was talking about.

“I keep thinking about that. About how if Olivia hadn’t been there, then I would’ve done it differently,” Ash said softly. “And maybe I would’ve saved Wailmer. Maybe everything would’ve been okay. But she did it better. And then – then I started thinking about some other stuff I’ve done before. And yeah, it worked out, and everything’s fine now, but… but maybe…”

He looked up and over his shoulder, back at the steps and his other pokemon, then back to Rockruff. It had finally calmed down, and was happily nuzzling into his hands. With only another short moment to hesitate, Ash reached forward to gather it up into his arms, smoothing his hand over its head to keep it quiet and calm even as he raised his voice back to a more confident tone. “It doesn’t matter. I mean, you can’t worry about what could’ve happened, or what you should’ve done. Thinking like that isn’t my style. It’s better to just keep looking forward!” he said, but the enthusiasm quickly faded as he looked back down at Rockruff, his brow furrowing again.

Kukui waited, but after a minute it became obvious Ash wasn’t going to continue. He hesitated at first, caught between the urge to press for more and the part of himself that had decided to stay out of whatever it was Ash wasn’t telling him – the part of him that wanted Ash’s time in Alola to be the break Delia had implied he needed. But it was so rare for Ash to say as much as he already had. So rare for Ash to show this side of himself, to explain some of the darker thoughts he’d hinted at before.

That alone made it worth the risk.

“It’s good that you don’t linger on the past,” Kukui said gently. “We learn from our mistakes, and we grow, but there are always things we might have done differently if we knew then what we know now. It’s completely natural for you to think about that.”

“Yeah, I guess,” Ash said. “And, I mean, I’ve learned so much! Not just here with you and the others, but across my whole journey! I’m always learning new things, and getting stronger. I’m so much stronger than I used to be.”

Tilting his head, Kukui tried to see the train of thought. Ash sounded so determined. So sure of himself. And yet also kind of… not. Like he was trying to convince someone. Maybe even himself. So Kukui pushed a little harder. “But…?”

Ash didn’t look at him, entirely focussed on smoothing the fur around the stones on Rockruff’s neck. “But sometimes… it feels like no matter how much I learn, or how strong I get, all I’m doing is just… making new mistakes.”

“Oh, Ash,” Kukui sighed, and then flinched, already wishing he hadn’t.

Maybe it was the tone, or just the words themselves, but Ash quickly looked up, caught his gaze for a single panicked second, and then abruptly ducked his head away with a grin. “It’s okay! Like you said, even when we mess up, what’s important is that we learn how not to do it again! You gotta keep moving on, find new ways to do things, meet the next challenge more prepared than you were last time!”

And with that, he rocked to his feet and pumped the fist not still holding Rockruff to his chest. “The next challenge, yeah! That’s what I’ve gotta focus on! Our next class, my next battle with Kiawe, and getting Olivia to grant me a Grand Trial! And then, when I’ve done that, I can face Gladion or Tapu Koko again! You’ll help me out too, won’t you, Rockruff?”

Still in a happy daze from the way Ash had been petting it, Rockruff’s bark was a little lazy. Ash grinned at it anyway. “Wow… Looks like we finally tired you out! Come on, I think it’s bed time. And then we can meet the new day at full power! Yeah!”

“Ash –” Kukui began, but too little, too late. Ash just swung around on his heel to walk backwards, smiling broadly and not quite meeting his gaze.

“Thanks again for helping out with Rockruff, Professor. I’ll see you in the morning, okay? I can’t wait to find out what our first lesson on Akala is going to be!” And then he turned around again, hurrying up the stairs to snatch up Rowlet and let Pikachu scamper up his side again. “You guys ready for bed? We’ve got a big day ahead of us tomorrow.”

As Ash hurried the rest of the way up the steps, Litten close at his heels, Rotom spared a second to look at Kukui in emoji-obvious confusion before speeding after them. “What were you and Professor Kukui talking about?”

“Just about what happened with Wailmer and Bruxish. Come on, I haven’t set up your charging dock yet.”

“What?! I thought you were going to do that when you unpacked!”

“Sorry! I guess I forgot!”

As the door shut behind them, Kukui slowly got to his feet, letting out a long breath to keep himself from scowling. Maybe he was making something out of nothing, but he was getting really sick of that kid running away every time he so much as hinted at having more going on in his head than pokemon and battle.

Sure, a good Pokemon Master only concerned themselves with those two things. Emotions were a complication you didn’t need. And hey, Kukui reminded himself as he started heading up the stairs as well, he had spent most of his teenage years trying to reach the same goal. Who was he to judge, just because Ash was better at it than he’d ever been?

He didn’t slam the door shut behind himself, but it was a pretty close thing.

Lesson Eleven: Interim Review

Watching Lillie repeatedly creep toward and then sprint away from Stoutland was a bit of a tiring exercise, but inspiring in its own way.

“She doesn’t give up,” Olivia noted quietly. “She’s a strong young woman, for all her fear.”

“She is,” Kukui agreed. “I’m sure she can do this.”

Out in the field, Stoutland stood up, and Lillie shrieked, practically flying away to hide behind a hay bale. Kukui had to laugh. “Eventually.”

They watched her quail for a few moments, before she apparently came to some thought in her head and pumped her clenched fists in front of her face. After another moment, she began crawling out on hands and knees, watching Stoutland cautiously but moving ever forward.

“Well, I suppose while we wait, we might as well continue with your lessons,” Olivia said cheerfully, and turned on her hip to face him. “Are you ready?”

“I suppose. I’m still not entirely sure what you’re planning to teach me, though,” he admitted. “From the sound of it, a lot of your theories about that energy seem to be about perception and faith. I’m not sure how you can teach that.”

“You are a little old for it, it’s true,” she said teasingly, before losing her humour to a more concerned frown. “And it’s why I’m still not sure this will do any good. I can tell you everything, but until you’re willing to see it, it will all just be a story.”

He braced his weight heavily on the fence post, considering, and then took a deep breath and nodded. “I can’t promise anything, but I want to learn. I’ll do my best, Kahuna Olivia.”

“I suppose that’s all we can ask,” she said. She closed her eyes and lifted a hand to gently touch her sternum, lowering her head in what almost seemed a prayer. “This is what matters. You need to focus on how it feels there.”

“The centre,” he acknowledged. It was the basis of martial arts as well – work from your core, not your arms.

“I want you to think about the world around us. Not here, not Akala, but the world. Think about it as one large, living, breathing organism. Everything on this earth is connected. Everything works together in harmony. We live, we fight, we love, we die, and then we live again,” she said, and Kukui shifted his weight back, quietly bracing himself against the flowery language. He wouldn’t learn anything if he wasn’t willing to accept the terminology. “For now, let’s not think about that in terms of spirit. Think about your body. What it is, what it’s made of.”

He hesitated. “In the literal or metaphorical sense?”

“Literal,” she said, opening one eye to playfully glare at him before closing it again. “One day, when you die, your body will decay. It will become ashes, and return to the earth. And just like the ash that comes from the great Wela Volcano, your remains will give this earth life. You will feed the grass, the trees… and those trees will breathe life into the air, which will then pass to the people and pokemon who live. You are here, and you are yourself, but once you have ceased, you do not cease to be.”

“Alright,” he said slowly. It was a little more… dramatic than he would normally think about these things, but he could follow the argument through. It was a lot more fact-based than he’d expected her to start with.

Her eye opened again, and then so did the other, and she scowled at him. “No, don’t accept. That’s not enough. Think. I want you to really think about it. Imagine it. Think past yourself and think about what you are. What you were, once. What you will be in time. You –”

Another shriek from the field made them both look around, see Lillie retreat a few metres, and then stamp her feet in frustration and mutter furiously at herself. It was enough of a distraction to break the slight tension that had already risen, and Kukui let himself relax, trying to take some inspiration from his student. If she could try so hard, then he could at least make an attempt.

“Alright… I am… blood. Bones. Organs. Electrical synapses,” he said, before a flash of memory made him blink. “Chemicals. Everything is chemicals.”

“Everything?” Olivia repeated curiously, and he nodded absently.

“Everything. Humans, pokemon, even the world around us. It’s all a mess of chemicals. Atoms.”

“We are all made of stars,” she quoted with a grin, and leaned back against the fence again. “I suppose that’s one way to look at it. We can work with that as a base.”

“That’s a chemistry pun, you know.”

“It really doesn’t have to be,” she said, but she was chuckling all the same. She paused, considering her next words before speaking, “So if everything is chemicals… if everything, at its core, is ultimately the same thing… what makes you different from the world? Why are you not a rock?”

He snorted. “That’s easy. Different chemical makeups result in different outcomes. Is this a metaphor about the ways we grow making us into different people?”

“It… well, yes, but no. You’re being difficult,” she said. “Lose the chemical aspect. Go with atoms, or whatever.”

“Well, then, different atomic structures –”


“Alright, alright,” He stretched back on his hips, then said, “I am not a rock because… sentience. I think, therefore I am. Right?”

“Oh, don’t be pretentious,” she said, and grinned at his blunt look. “Fine. To play the same game – you’re implying the rock doesn’t think, so therefore it shouldn’t exist. So why does it?”

He grunted, but her grin only widened, so he rolled his eyes and nodded. “Okay, fine. No philosophy. It’s still sentience. The rock doesn’t think, it doesn’t move. It’s just a rock.”

She tilted her head, still unimpressed. “And you showed so much open-mindedness last night. The answer, Professor Kukui, is that there is no difference. A rock is similar to a rock-type pokemon. A rock-type pokemon is similar to a ground-type, which is similar to a normal-type, which is similar to a human. The difference is the same as what makes you different to me, Kukui. What makes you different from Lillie, or Ash, or Burnet, or anyone. We are all the same, and we all unique.”

He stared at her for a few seconds, completely lost. He could kind of understand how you could compare a rock to a rock-type pokemon… sometimes you needed to look very closely to decide whether you were looking at a graveller or a boulder. But a rock and a human? And what was her point anyway? How did this relate to –

Kukui stopped himself, scrubbing at the hair under his hat. Acceptance was the first step to learning. “Okay… sure. Why not?”

But that was, unsurprisingly, the wrong answer, because Olivia shook her head and turned away from him, dropping her chin onto the back of her hand. He waited for a few seconds, then rolled his eyes up to the sky and tried again from the start.

Everything was chemicals. Everything was atoms. We are all made of stars. In the beginning, in the end, alive or not, everything was ultimately made of the same stuff. He could work with that. So, if you argued that, then sure. He was—however abstractly—the same as a rock. Fine. He shoved down the part of him that screamed about chemical makeups and atomic structures and the whatever it was that allowed pokemon to use special powers and –

He stalled there, running the words over in his head again.

Special powers.

Ki. Aura. Fighting energy.

That’s what this was about.

He calmed down and went back again.

He accepted, in abstract, that everything was the same. That ultimately, he was the same as a rock, which was the same as a pokemon, which was the same as a human. The differences were—in abstract—superficial. When you were that close, then humans were so intrinsically similar to one another to be completely identical. They were all the same.

But if you looked at things on the other end of the equation… even things that seemed identical weren’t. Everyone’s DNA was ever so slightly different. Even humans had slight variations in structure. Slight changes in their chemicals. They looked the same on the surface, but if you looked close enough…

Everything was the same.

Everything was different.

It was just what you were focussing on that made the difference or similarity. What you considered important.

He slowly raised his eyes to Lillie, who was turned away from Stoutland and rolling her hands through the air as she apparently talked herself through some train of logic meant to inspire her confidence. He had another flash of memory, and felt his breathing slow.

She’s just gotta realise that not all pokemon are like the one that hurt her.

In some… strange, illogical part of Lillie’s mind, all pokemon were the same. They were all the same as whatever it was that had broken her.

It didn’t matter whether they had special powers or not. They were all pokemon. They were all the same. Except for Snowy, and now Pikachu. Somehow, in her mind, she’d separated them. They were different.

Just like somehow, in Kukui’s mind, humans were different from pokemon.

Part of him knew it was a strange comparison, but at the same time, in the context he was trying to make himself work within… it made perfect sense.

“If I’m going to have any chance of understanding any of this,” he said quietly, “I’m going to have to change my perspective. I can’t just focus on people and pokemon. I need to think broader, and in different ways. That’s what you’re trying to tell me.”

Olivia rocked her head around, looking at him appraisingly for a few seconds, and then jerked up with a broad grin. “Well, look at you go! Such flexible thinking… Maybe there’s hope for you yet!”

He opened his mouth to respond, but was cut off by another screech from the field, and they both whipped around to check what had happened. Lillie was crouched a few feet from Stoutland, her arms over her head but one hand conspicuously higher than the other. Stoutland was staring at her blankly.

“It touched my hand!” she wailed. “I wasn’t expecting it to turn its head like that!”

Kukui sighed and set a hand on his hip. “I’d like to think there’s hope for us all, Olivia.”

“However far off it may seem,” she concurred.

Olivia continued pressing him into finding new ways to admit what he personally considered the same thing—that there was something more to life than what you could see, hear, and touch—until lunch. That was when Ash and Kiawe were back in close proximity, and Kukui didn’t have time for metaphysical debates. He had bickering kids to deal with.

“Don’t get ahead of yourself!” Ash said loudly, flailing a pointing finger. “You might’ve had a good start but just you wait! I’m gonna find something amazing!”

“Oh, you think so, huh?” Kiawe leaned over to bring his head down to Ash’s height, apparently just to emphasise how much taller he was. “It’ll have to be something pretty cool, since I’m just gonna top my high score all over again!”

“It’ll be nothing compared to what I’m gonna find!” Sophocles interjected. “When my calculations pay off, I’ll leave all of you in the dust!”

“Who cares about calculations?” Mallow demanded, and triumphantly folded her arms. “Stoutland and I were just getting warmed up with what we found before! After lunch, we’re gonna follow our noses and find the best ingredients ever!”

“Ingredients don’t win prizes!” Kiawe teased, and Mallow balked before lifting her nose in the air.

“I meant that metaphorically!”

“Sure you did…” He then turned his smirk back on Ash. “Oh well. At least you won’t be the worst of us.”

“Hey!” Ash snapped, flailing again. “I’m at my best when I’m under pressure! I’ll come from behind and win it all with something super, super, super amazing!”

“Okay!” Kukui shouted, and they all broke off to look at him, proving the argument was more animated than actually heated. He put a hand on his hip and gestured over to the picnic area, which was finally finished being set up with their lunch. “Pizza, anyone?”

As expected, food was enough to occupy even the biggest mouths (except for RotomDex’s metaphorical one, but it seemed happy to flit around the stoutlands rather than the humans) and all was peaceful for the remaining break. Once they were finished, they all rushed off, even Lana and Mallow fired up to get the most points, and Olivia shook her head in amusement.

“I don’t think my lesson about trusting your partner is going quite how I intended.”

“Does it ever?” Kukui asked blandly. “This is the third year we’ve done this, Olivia. I don’t think we’ve ever gotten through this class without it becoming a competition.”

“True, but I didn’t think Kiawe would get so fired up!” she said, giggling. “I know you said as much, but he sure has changed since he undertook my trial. He’s having so much fun!”

“He really is,” he agreed. “He’s really been Shell-Smashing his way past all the insecurity that was keeping him back. It’s been great to see – I was a little worried about him.”

“For good reason,” she said, and gazed after the kids thoughtfully for a few moments. “You said you think it’s been since Ash arrived that he’s opened up like that?”

“I’d like to think the other kids are helping, but Ash definitely pushes him,” he said, and then smirked. “Of course, Ash pushes us all. New blood is often the Ember that kick-starts a Flame Wheel of change!”

“Cut back on the puns, please. You’re going to hurt yourself.”

“Cut is a pun.”

She laughed despite herself, shaking her head. “All that aside… I wonder how much of it really is just new blood. I wonder how much of it is Ash.”

“Well, that’s really looking at –” He paused, then smirked. “Looking at a single instance from two perspectives.”

“Well done,” she teased, but her humour quickly faded and she turned back toward Lillie’s paddock, watching the girl begin her nervous creep back toward Stoutland. Even as Kukui watched, Olivia’s expression clouded until she was frowning, her eyes caught somewhere in the distance.

He stepped up beside her, concerned by the sudden change in mood. “Is there a problem?”

“That’s the question,” she said softly. “The question Hala and I have yet to figure out.”

“Hala – wait. You think Ash is a problem?” he demanded. “Is this about what Hala was saying? About Ash’s… what was it… his truth?”

She didn’t answer, and Kukui felt something very much like irritation spike.

“He’s a kid, Olivia. He came to Alola on vacation, he stayed here because he wanted to learn, and he’s taking the Trials because he’s a typical battle trainer that wants to get stronger and take on every challenge he catches wind of,” he snapped. “Believe me, I live with him. I know when he’s lying. If he had some secret plan, I’d know about it by now.”

“You don’t have to be planning something for it to happen,” she said, and he scoffed. She glared at him sideways. “He was chosen by Tapu Koko, Kukui. The Guardian of Conflict. Even you have to admit that.”

“Because he has potential,” he shot back. “The legends say Tapu Koko is always looking for a good fight and for some reason it thinks Ash can give it one. That doesn’t have to mean anything.”

“No, it doesn’t. But it’s still interesting, isn’t it?” she snapped. “A boy chosen by Tapu Koko should appear and immediately become a centre point for everyone he meets. I’ve only been around them two days, and even I can see how your class revolves around him. Not to mention what he’s done for you.”

“For me?” he repeated, pointedly even. Olivia was his friend, Hala his kahuna, and he liked and respected them both. But this was crossing a line.

Olivia seemed to recognise the tension, because she lowered her voice and tone as she said, “Didn’t you say he was the one who made you wonder about fighting energy? The one who inspired you to consider things in ways you haven’t before?”

He couldn’t deny that. But it didn’t…

I daresay part of me wondered if this was the guardians gifting us just what was needed.

He frowned at the memory, shoving his fists into his pockets as if he could punch off the ridiculous thoughts.

“A boy chosen by the guardians, inspiring the others around him to new heights,” murmured Olivia. “It doesn’t have to imply a problem, but it’s an interesting coincidence, isn’t it? That he should appear here now, and meet so many people that could benefit from his company.”

“He can’t just be a nice kid?” he asked, a little more gruffly than he intended. “Tapu Koko recognised his potential as a battler, sure, but that has nothing to do with Ash being a good friend.”

“Often true,” she said. “To some, a Pokemon Battle is just a matter of strength and strategy. You can be a horrible person, and still be a strong trainer. But that doesn’t make you a good trainer.”

Which was true. He’d learned that lesson. Heck, he’d taught that lesson. Lately it felt like he was getting a constant revision of that lesson.

Hala and Olivia had both implied it was key to the question he’d asked them.

“Shift your perspective,” Olivia coached him. “Where is the difference between being a good friend and a good trainer? You yourself can’t get through an hour without using the name of a pokemon move in regular conversation. It may be a very bad and unfunny pun, but there’s a reason it works.”

“Puns make life more interesting,” he grumbled, but he couldn’t deny it.

“Humans are not all trainers, and even trainers are not all battlers,” she said, and they both looked out toward Lillie again. “But we live in this world with pokemon, and everything is connected. We may fight, or we may become friends, but the lessons we learn can apply to both. Don’t you think?”

He let out a long breath and shifted to brace himself against the fence, stretching out as the thought processed. Hadn’t he talked about it himself? About how in other regions, a Pokemon Journey was less about becoming a trainer, and more about finding yourself? So didn’t that mean that the kind of trainer you became probably said a lot about you as a person? It wasn’t a new concept.

But… but to put it in this context. To…

“Okay, say you’re right,” he said. “Tapu Koko chose Ash, that something… brought him here to be important to the kids. What would be the point? Why would some higher power take an interest in a bunch of students?”

“And their professor,” she added, and he slanted a sideways look at her but didn’t otherwise acknowledge it. She shrugged. “One thing has nothing to do with the other!”

He half-collapsed over the fence, then shoved himself back up to glare at her. “Then what are you –!”

“The point was that Ash has something special in him,” she said bluntly. “Something that goes beyond battle. Something greater than just any other trainer. He’s a Pokemon Trainer, and a battler, but the skills and abilities he has in that space affect more than how he trains pokemon.”

She reached out and poked his chest again. “Consider it a practical example of what we were talking about this morning. Our connection to this world is more than you see. Ash is Chosen. But that doesn’t just mean he’s a strong battler. It doesn’t just mean he needs to gather Z-crystals and find ways to defeat Tapu Koko. He means something to this world. Why, and what it means for Alola, Hala and I aren’t sure yet. But that’s not your problem, it’s ours.

“For now, for you, the important thing to consider is how Ash uses that special ability he has. All of his strength, all of his energy. All of that fighting energy you originally asked us about. It’s so easy to assume that he puts all of it into battles. Into Pokemon Training. But look at how he is with his friends. With that stoutland he’s working with today, and Wailmer yesterday. Think about what you’ve learned already, about how everything is connected. Think about that fighting energy again. Think about how you really believe Ash uses his.”

Kukui had to fight the urge to kick something. He wasn’t following her train of thought. It felt like she was jumping around from one argument to the next, trying to thread disconnected thoughts together into some coherent sentence in a language he didn’t understand. Everything was connected? Yes, he understood the theory, that was fine. Difference was in the eye of the beholder, he could deal with that for now. Ash was special? Okay, that was its own problem, but fine. Somehow that was important because everything was ultimately the same thing? What?

Olivia was a kahuna, he reminded himself furiously. They had wisdom to impart, but that didn’t make them good teachers. Case in point, the activity today – it was theoretically about learning to work with unfamiliar pokemon and trust experts to know their fields. But with how Olivia presented it, every time, it was just a competition to see who could get the most points.

On the other hand, while he wasn’t the best teacher in the world, he did have training and skills in the field. He could structure a lesson plan. He could take information provided to him and find a way to teach it. He nodded to himself and tried to apply the day to a lesson plan.

First problem: he had no idea what the objective of the lesson was.

“Oh, for the love of…” He sighed and stretched out his arms, shifting his weight back and forth. This was going to take a while.

Alright. She’d spent most of the morning talking about how everything was perspective. The lesson seemed to be about accepting that while you could put everything into boxes and define everything by particular criteria, there were also a lot of other criteria that you could apply and define things by as well. Things that appeared mutually exclusive by one set of definitions were mutually dependent by others.

And then, just now… Ash was her proof of concept.

Ash… who was chosen and challenged by the Guardian of Conflict. Who was always ready for a challenge or a fight… but who also put a ridiculous amount of energy into helping others. Who was so dedicated to supporting his pokemon that he didn’t just train alongside them, but actively put himself in harm’s way just to see them succeed. Who had all but wrecked himself trying to help Litten in the best way he could. Who never hesitated to help the other kids in anything they needed, even if it seemed to directly contrast his way of doing things.

A fighter, as proven by his rivalry with Tapu Koko. A helper, as proven by his actions.

He put all his energy… all of his self… into both.

Because he was both. A fighter who fought to help others.

Kukui smiled, finally understanding. Olivia was getting distracted by the potential consequences and meaning, because that was really her job as a kahuna. Tapu Koko had elevated Ash to a higher scale of importance, so she had to worry about what someone like that would end up fighting. But the actual point was simple.

Fighting energy was not just about battle. The light that he saw in a Z-move wasn’t just about battle.

If he was going to have any chance of understanding that energy, he needed to shift his perspective. He needed to understand that while a Z-move could be used in battle, it didn’t have to be. It didn’t have to be about fighting. It was about more than that.

“Forgetting Ash for the second,” he said, because that just made him angry. “What you’re saying is that… the things that make us what we are… don’t necessarily define us. And the things that we do aren’t the things that define us. We are more than that. We need to look beyond those things to see the truth. Is that what you’re getting at?”

She made a face, like he had gone in a different direction than she’d intended, but come out with something she couldn’t really argue. “Yes…?”

Kukui looked back out at Lillie, and nodded to himself. He could work with that. He even felt like he could teach it. It was as much of a start as he needed.

When all was said and done, it had been a highly successful day, and with a full day of free time to look forward to in the morning (he highly suspected the kids would follow Kiawe back to the ranch and spend the day messing around there), Kukui settled down on his hostel balcony with a sneaky six-pack of full-strength berry juice and tried to clear his head. Lillie had managed to ride Stoutland, Lana had found a Z-ore, Ash and Kiawe had gotten through a competition without actually getting into a fight, and he’d personally navigated a philosophical science argument. The day could have gone much worse.

He’d gotten through an entire bottle, turning the lessons he’d learned and taught over in his head, when he heard the door below him open and shut. Having just cracked open his second berry juice, he paused nervously, listening hard.

Sure enough, it was Lillie’s voice he heard drifting up, “What did you want to talk to me about?”

“Wanna practise?” That was Ash. Kukui grimaced and shifted his chair a little further back in the shadows, away from easy seeing distance below.

“Practise? Practise what?”

“Touching pokemon!” he said cheerfully, and from the sound of it he ran a few steps downward before stopping again. “You did so great with Stoutland today! I bet Rowlet, Rockruff, and Litten would really love for you to meet them properly. What do you think?”

“Uh – oh, um…”

“Come on,” he wheedled. “The only way to be sure you know how to do something is to keep doing it! So let’s make sure! It’ll be so great, right?”

“Pika pika!” Pikachu cheered, while Snowy barked its agreement.

“And besides,” Ash added with an awkward laugh, “I figured it’d be easier to test out on my pokemon than Kiawe’s. He’s pretty excited about taking you on a flight around Akala Island.”

“O-oh… yeah…” she agreed. “A-and Lana was talking about Lapras too.”

“Lapras are great,” Ash assured her. “They’re super sweet and gentle. But it can be kinda hard to ride them if you’re not okay with their shell. Even with those saddles they have here. So how about it? Want to give my pokemon a shot?”

“Um… sure. Okay. Let’s do it!”

Kukui hesitantly peeked out over the edge, intrigued. The kids walked down the grassy slope toward the battlefield, but stopped on the edge and sat down. In a no-longer surprising show of wisdom, Ash went with Rowlet first, and settled it on the ground between them.

“Okay, Rowlet, I need you to stay awake and not have any weird nightmares, okay?” Ash instructed firmly. It cooed at him vaguely, and he held up a finger. “I’m serious! This is super important. Ready, Lillie?”

She balled up her fists and nodded firmly. “Ready! Here I… go…”

It took about six tries. And even then, she was only able to awkwardly pet it, but she still gasped excitedly at the feeling. “It really is soft! With the leaves, I thought its feathers would be smooth like grass, but it’s amazing! Just like I remember Clefairy’s fur!”

“Right?” Ash cheered, pumping his arms. “It’s so nice, isn’t it? And when you get up close, it smells just like the sun!”

“The sun?” she repeated curiously. “Olivia said that before. What does the sun smell like?”

“Uh – oh, I guess that is kinda a weird thing to say,” he said with a laugh. “But you know. Like on a warm day, when the sun is coming down on you, and you spread out your arms and all it feels like is ‘ahhhh’ and ‘mmm’.”

Kukui raised an eyebrow, and then smirked and sat back, content to listen unseen.

“You know, back in Kanto, they didn’t know about the fairy type before. We always used to think that Clefairy was a normal type,” Ash continued. “And we thought that the reason they were so different from other normal types is because they came from the moon.”

“Oh, I’ve heard of that,” Lillie said. “It was because when astronauts went to the moon, they found whole colonies of clefairies!”

“Pokemon sure are amazing, huh? To be able to live on the moon… can you imagine it?” Ash kept talking, but his voice got lower, out of Kukui’s hearing. Judging by Lillie’s giggle, it was just something silly or romantic, and he quickly raised his voice again. “Do you wanna try touching Rockruff?”

“Um… if it’s okay, I might just stick with Rowlet for now. Nothing against Rockruff, but it can be a little… excitable?”

“That’s okay. It sure looks like Rowlet doesn’t mind staying out a while longer!”

They laughed and fell quiet for a minute, before Lillie said, “Thanks, Ash. This was a really nice idea.”

If there was any response, Kukui couldn’t hear it, and he rolled his eyes, amused for all the wrong reasons. He knew what he was listening to was just a quiet moment between friends, but if Ash had been at all interested, the dumb kid would’ve been absolutely nailing the whole dating thing. All they needed was some romantic music or maybe some star-gazing to top it off.

With that, he realised he was eavesdropping, and should probably head back inside before someone caught him at that—or worse, realised he was drinking full-strength juice on the job. He quietly gathered everything up and crept back inside, smiling at kids who knew so much more than their teachers.

“So this is how you make a Z-ring,” he said, folding his arms over the back of the chair he straddled.

“Everyone makes them their own way,” Olivia pointed out. She was hunched over a grinder of some kind, working the ore into the familiar watch-like shape of the ring face. “I’ve never understood how Hala makes his so uniform. Like they come from a machine. They don’t fit the Fighting type at all.”

“The body is a machine. All parts, joints, and gears,” he said playfully. “You just need to change your perspective, Olivia.”

She giggled and didn’t comment, focussed on her work. After a few seconds, she paused to inspect the curve of the face, and peeked at him before going back to work. “So I saw Ash and Lana going off alone together this morning! What’s going on there?”

He smirked. “Nothing much. Ash doesn’t seem to have room in his head for girls – he’s too busy looking for the next challenge. They all seem to have room in their heads for him, though.”

“A nice, strong trainer with a good listening face and no less than four cuddly pokemon that he lets climb all over him?” she asked dryly. “I can’t imagine why.”

“It’d be painful to watch if it wasn’t so funny.”

Funny? It’s so romantic and beautiful!” she cried, looking up with wide, sparkling eyes. “Young love in bloom, with three beautiful, wonderful young women finding their hearts stolen by a trainer touched by the gods? It’s like something out of a novel!”

“Oh no, I’ve been teaching this age group for too long. Young love is a pain,” he said bluntly. “It’s messy and hard and the boy in question wouldn’t know a pick-up line if Mallow wrote one on a sign and beat him over the head with it. And it would be Mallow, by the way. Lillie won’t realise until someone else snatches him up and Lana’s revelling in denial.”

“No!” Olivia insisted, and clenched her fist. “Lana has the strength of the ocean in her! She’ll break against the rocks and drag him out with the tide!”

“Didn’t we have enough metaphors yesterday?” he groaned. “And don’t sound so enthusiastic about it. This could ruin my entire class dynamic.”

“Where’s your sense of wonder? It’s such a beautiful image!” she cried. “So sweet and tender! Oh my gosh! What if they held hands? How cute would that be?!”

“I’m not sure what bothers me more. That you’re imagining relationships between my students or that you honestly think hand holding is the height of romance at their age,” he said, and she pointed at him in mock-outrage.

“Let me hold onto my nostalgic innocence, Kukui. Lana and Ash will hold hands, and he’ll kiss her cheek, and it will be adorable. And absolutely heartbreaking if he leaves Alola…! Ah! Young love!”

Kukui rolled his eyes and didn’t comment. As her years of being kahuna progressed and her number of dates decreased, Olivia had become a lot more prone to fantasies of romance. But after the third bottle of juice hit his system last night, he’d realised he hadn’t actually emailed Burnet in months, let alone spoken to her. He didn’t even know how her research was going. Clearly he wasn’t a champion of love himself. So neither of them were probably in a good place to talk.

She got back to work, and he watched her silently for a few minutes, mildly entranced by the spin of the grinder. But when she next paused to check the progress, they wound up catching each other’s gaze and she set her hand on her hip with a hum. “While I’m doing this, it’s probably time for your next lesson.”

“Oh?” he prompted, steeling himself for more frustration.

“Well, we’ve talked about how everything is connected, and how you need to look at the world in a different way. So go do it.”

“Excuse me?”

“Go take a walk. Go out to the Ruins of Life and surround yourself with nature,” she suggested. “Listen to the world around you, and think about your place in it.”

“My place in it?” he repeated, raising an eyebrow. “I had my Pokemon Journey a few years ago now, Olivia. I know what I’m doing with my life.”

“Then it won’t be that hard for you to think about,” she said, and pointed the ore at him. “I feel like I’m repeating myself, Professor. It’s not enough to know something. You need to think about it in different ways if you’re really going to understand.”

“You know,” he said as he pushed himself upright, “I can’t help but feel a bit like a child being told to go outside and play while Mommy works.”

“If you scrape your knee, I’m not kissing it better,” she said cheerfully, and he waved lazily on his way out the door.

The Ruins of Life were as peaceful, sombre, and beautiful as he remembered, and he spent longer than he’d intended sitting on the edge of the battlefield, gazing out over the ocean.

He didn’t come to any startling conclusions, other than the admittedly grumpy thought that Burnet was just as much to blame for them falling out of touch as he was, and a reminder that as much as he loved teaching and studying, he missed seeing battle.

It wasn’t just that he was a battle nerd. Yes, he loved the science of it – knowing how things worked, the strategies, the variables. But he also missed the energy. He missed the enthusiasm you felt when you entered a packed stadium. The rivalries of the competitors, the sportsmanship you saw from both trainers and fans.

Most of what he remembered from Kanto was the harsh lessons he’d learned. But when he thought back… At the time, it had been all about the adrenaline. The triumph of victory and the pain of defeat. How much he’d learned, and how much he’d seen.

He couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt so strongly.

That was what he’d forgotten. That was the other side of the coin he hadn’t realised he missed.

Olivia was right.

He was happy with the life he had, and the career he’d made. And he’d never really lost sight of his goal to build an Alolan Pokemon League. But it had all become something he did because it was what he did. He knew his reasons, and he still believed in them, but he hadn’t felt them in a long time.

He needed something to fire up his passion again.

When he told her, back at the Pokemon Centre and after the excitement of Lana receiving her Z-ring and revealing the crystal to go with it, Olivia nodded. “That passion is related to your fighting spirit. It’s like a fire. The more you feed it, the brighter it burns. But if you only ever give it enough to keep it burning, you end up with coal and embers. Eventually, it’s just charcoal.”

“So fighting spirit can grow and wane with our emotions?” he asked, and she grinned.

“Exactly! Those with the strongest energy will always have that passion – that drive to achieve their goals. But just as Wela Volcano can bring life and destruction, so too can that spirit burn with the warmth of a cooking fire, or rain fire and destruction like a terrible meteor.”

He smiled around his wince. Hopefully he’d get through one of these lessons without a metaphor eventually.

Olivia gestured across the room to where Ash was sitting with the others, quiet but smiling as they grilled Lana for a full and honest retelling of the day’s events. “I know it upsets you, but that’s why I have to wonder about Ash. He has such a powerful fighting spirit, and so much of it is dedicated to the challenge. I worry that as someone chosen by the Guardian of Conflict, he can only bring destruction, whatever his good intentions.”

He paused, weighing that against the fragmented lessons she’d tried to give him so far. “But you yourself said our strength as battlers can be used in other ways.”

“And the more I watch him, the more I’m inclined to believe it,” she said softly, and looked over her shoulder at the window, toward the volcano above. “But should it erupt, our great guardian would cause horrific pain and suffering. In the long term, that will lead to new life and purer soil. But that doesn’t mean I don’t guard against the danger every day.”

“That’s… why we have trials,” Kukui said slowly, remembering a conversation he’d once had with Kiawe. “To ensure the trainers have the strength and responsibility to use the Z-crystals correctly.”

But… Tapu Koko had given Ash the Electrium-Z without any trial. And… yes, it had shattered, and yes, Ash had worked hard to earn another one the right way, but…

That first time. That first amazing and horrific Z-move.

It had ripped up the ground from where Pikachu stood. An electric attack had damaged the earth itself. It shouldn’t have had any affect at all. And while it hadn’t damaged Tapu Koko, or even pushed it back the way the next one had, sometimes Kukui suspected that was only because Pikachu hadn’t scored a direct hit.

For the first time, Kukui started to appreciate why Ash concerned Hala and Olivia so much.

“Yes. But with strength and skill, even the worst person can overcome a difficult trial,” she continued, oblivious to his realisation. “And so it falls to the kahuna to judge a person’s spirit. To see if they are worthy of the power we’ll grant them. It’s a sacred duty, passed down from the Totem Pokemon. Which is what makes it so surprising that Ash—and now Lana—received crystals from the Totem Pokemon. You don’t hear of that happening very much anymore.”

He nodded, glancing over at his students again. He couldn’t imagine Ash as dangerous. But even he had to admit there were times when Ash was talking advanced strategy in that deceptively vague way of his, or when he trained Pikachu alone, that sometimes Kukui wondered if any of them had really seen what the kid was capable of.

“The Z-crystals tap into our spirit and pass it to others,” Olivia said softly. “If I were to give a Z-crystal to someone with a dangerous spirit, then I would be responsible for the damage they caused with it.”

The mess left behind after Totem Gumshoos chased off the rattatta. The broken fence Pikachu had been thrown through in its battle with Tapu Koko. The torn up battlefields that were just par for the course in a powerful match. Ash, diving over cliffs with no concern for how he’d end up. How easily it all went forgotten in the heat of the moment…

“Pokemon aren’t worried about the things humans are. They don’t think about collateral damage,” Kukui said softly, and then took a breath, blinking hard. “It’s a little scary when you think about it like that.”

“Yes,” she agreed soberly. “We tell our children that the spirit and the things we learn in battle can teach us how to connect and understand one another. Some of them can think of that as trust, or motivation as you put it, and that’s fine. It works just as well to explain it, if that’s all they need to see it as. But as a kahuna… as a protector of my island and people… I need to understand it in a different way. And it’s that way that you seem to be looking to understand.”

“It…” He shifted uncomfortably. This felt like it was going a bit beyond what he’d originally asked about. But maybe that was the point. You couldn’t measure something if you weren’t willing to appreciate the outcome. “I guess I’m trying.”

“Which is more than you did a month ago. And there’s no shame in failing something this hard,” she assured him, only to catch his annoyed glance and grin. “Alright, alright. Tell you what. Your homework tonight is to meditate on your own fighting spirit. The passion that drives you. And tomorrow, when you come to the festival, try and see that same feeling in the other festival goers. Try and see why they’ve come to receive Wela Volcano’s blessing.”

He grimaced. “You’ve been taking days to judge Ash and you expect me to figure it out with people I’ve never even spoken to?”

Her grin only widened. “There’s no shame in –”

“Thank you, Kahuna Olivia. I will try,” he drawled, and she winked. They both knew he’d come too far to give up now.

Lesson Twelve: Mundane Magic

Kiawe wasn’t at dinner.

Kukui frowned at the empty seat at the end of the table, then leaned back to see the door to the Centre foyer. They’d all told him Turtonator would be fine – that just being knocked out wasn’t really enough to actually hurt a pokemon. But like all trainers seeing their pokemon fall for the first time, Kiawe refused to leave the waiting bay.

“He sure is a strong trainer, huh?”

Kukui blinked and turned his head back to focus on Ash. He’d finished dinner already, and was now just sitting with his arms loosely folded over the table, watching the door along with him. Kukui tilted his head. “You mean Kiawe?”

“To have gone this long without something like this happening?” he asked. “Even if it’s only since he got his Z-ring, that’s pretty impressive.”

Kukui took a moment to consider that statement in context – the number of trainers Ash had seen and battled, not to mention how many losses he must have faced himself. He smiled and shifted forward to lean on the table as well. “You’re right. Defeat is something that comes to us all. It’s about knowing how to come back from it that’s important.”

“Yeah. It can pretty hard, knowing how to learn from your mistakes!” he said with a laugh, and let his eyes slide off to the side with a sympathetic smile. “I’m still working on it, but the first time’s always the hardest.”

Across the table, Sophocles was looking a little nervous, shovelling food in his mouth like it was a coping mechanism. “Just how powerful is that crown, though?” he asked around a mouthful. “To dodge a Z-move and knock out a strong pokemon like Turtonator? I never would’ve thought a wild pokemon could do something like that!”

“I don’t know if it’s really the crown,” Kukui said. He’d tried his hardest, and maybe even seen hints of the energy Olivia talked about in people and pokemon as they came down from receiving the volcano’s blessing. But even when pokemon reared back and let out a blast of power, the crown they’d worn had still just looked like a hunk of rock to him. “But it’s not so unbelievable. Trainers teach them how to increase their strength and use strategy, but pokemon can develop incredible power on their own.”

Ash nodded. “And for some people, it’s really hard to fight when you don’t have an opponent telling you what they’re doing,” he added. “Some trainers even make that part of their battle style – they don’t give their commands out loud, so the other trainers don’t know what’s coming.”

Mallow looked up with wide eyes. “They don’t give commands out loud? But how does the pokemon know what to do?”

Kukui shrugged vaguely. “It depends on the trainer. Some trainers have hand movements or facial expressions. Coordinators will often have code words, such as uh, ‘pretty sparkle’ meaning ‘Ice Shard’, or something similar. Others just have particular strategies memorised, so the trainer only needs to say a single code phrase to map out their expectations for the entire battle.”

“They’re pretty easy to get around once you figure it out, though,” Ash pointed out, only to scrunch up his nose and hunch forward over his plate. “Psychics are the worst. They could be having a full conversation with their pokemon in the middle of battle and you’d never know! It’s so distracting!”

“Psychics?” the girls all repeated, Mallow even openly staring.

“You mean like people with the ability to read minds? They really exist?”

Kukui pulled back slightly, but Ash didn’t notice, just nodding once. “Yeah. Most of the ones I know are super good pokemon trainers, too.”

“With… psychic pokemon, no doubt,” Kukui said delicately. “To help the illusion?”

“Most, yeah, but not all of them,” he said, and straightened up with a frown. “Some of ’em won’t even hint at bein’ psychic until you’re in the middle of battle. And then you spend half the time tryin’ to figure out why they aren’t telling their pokemon what to do. And when they finally explain it, you end up spending way too long tryin’ to figure out whether they’re the kind of psychic that can read your mind, see the future, or just use telepathy. And by the time you know that, they’ve usually already used whatever power they have to beat you.”

“That’s incredible!” gasped Mallow. “I didn’t even know human psychics were really real!”

“I suppose it makes a little sense,” Lillie said slowly. “There are psychic pokemon, after all…”

“Yeah, but humans aren’t pokemon!” Sophocles pointed out. “Pokemon can do all kinds of things humans can’t! It’s gotta be a trick, right?”

“Well, I mean, it’s kind of a trick, since it’s something you don’t expect,” Ash pointed out, either ignoring or missing the point. “But that’s how you beat it in a pokemon battle. Whether they’re using psychic powers, or code words, or whatever, it’s all just supposed to keep you off balance. But if you stop caring about what the other trainer’s saying or not saying, and just pay attention to them and their pokemon as your opponent, you can battle right no matter what trick they’re usin’.”

Everyone was staring at him, even Lana managing to look openly flummoxed by the concept. It wasn’t really what he was saying that was confusing. He actually had a good point; one Kukui often tried to press upon his more battle-focussed students – there were a whole class of trainers who took advantage of spectacle in order to put their opponent off their guard. Up until recently, that had been what Kukui always assumed it was when a trainer claimed to be psychic – that they were really using subtle gestures and expressions to simulate telepathic communication, or a hidden psychic pokemon to levitate objects, so that their opponent was distracted and wouldn’t focus on the battle. It wasn’t a strange idea.

What was strange was how… convinced Ash was. So convinced that he considered human psychic ability to be just another possible ability some trainers might have; no stranger than a mega-stone or a Z-ring. He talked about it the same way a runner might consider a rival’s robotic leg, or a particularly determined wrestler accepted those in a higher weight class.

“I mean, I’d be lyin’ if I said it didn’t still surprise me every time I saw it,” Ash continued lightly, “but that’s the same as all pokemon battle. So what if the trainer can do something special? It’s still not as cool as everything a pokemon can do. And I could spend all day just watching pokemon battle! But if you want to win, you can’t focus on how cool stuff is. And I always want to win!”

“But…” Sophocles peered at him through narrowed eyes. “But humans with real powers? Like a pokemon?”

“Doesn’t make them any better at workin’ with pokemon,” he argued stubbornly. “And that’s all battle really is!”

“That’s… a good point,” Kukui had to admit, and the other kids exchanged blank stares for a few seconds until Mallow abruptly shrugged.

“You know, I don’t know why we’re even surprised anymore.”

“I guess it’s kind of impressive, how focussed you are!” Lana agreed, and Ash pumped his fist, once again either missing or ignoring the point.

“Of course I am!”

Kukui smiled and let the conversation slide back into their usual chatter. But he himself rolled his fork through his fingers as Ash’s words echoed in his head. Like so many things he came out with, it was a curiously straight-forward way of looking at something complicated.

He couldn’t help thinking there might be some merit to it.

With the crown returned, the Akala Fire Festival was almost immediately back in full swing, and Olivia insisted they begin by giving the kids Wela’s blessing as thanks for their help in retrieving the stolen crown. In turn, Kiawe told Ash to go first, claiming he couldn’t have done anything without Ash’s support.

One the ceremony was done, they headed back down the mountain to enjoy the more commercial aspects of the festival. Specifically, Mallow and Sophocles all but sprinted to the food stalls, Lana itched to try her hand at the side show games, and Lillie lingered over jewellery stalls. Ash rushed between them all, chattering and gasping over every little thing, but Kiawe hung back with Kukui, holding Marowak’s pokeball close to his chest and smiling at nothing much in particular.

“It’s a good feeling, isn’t it?” Kukui said quietly. “Catching a new pokemon, gaining new friends…?”

“Yeah,” Kiawe agreed. “I look after Charizard for my grandfather, and Turtonator’s my partner. I never thought I would need anyone else. But this feels right.”

“I think you and Marowak will work well together,” he said. And he did, not just because they’d apparently met and formed an understanding in battle. Marowak had the same wild enthusiasm that Kiawe was increasingly allowing to show; in a sadly cheesy moment, Kukui almost felt like catching Marowak was a sign Kiawe was becoming more comfortable with that side of himself. Growing into it, exploring it, finding the value in his passion, not just his skill. It was reassuring.

Kiawe smiled at the pokeball, then turned to look up at the volcano, towering over them. “We’ll get stronger together. All of us. We’ll become as strong as Wela Volcano.”

“As strong as a volcano, huh?” he asked, glancing up at it as well. “That’s a pretty big dream. But that’s the best way to be, Kiawe: dream big, and chase the impossible. You’ll never get anywhere if you don’t try.”

“Y-” Kiawe blinked, then looked around at him blankly. After a second, he pulled back, and Kukui raised an eyebrow in return.


“N-nothing,” he said. “It’s just… Ash uh… he said something pretty similar last night.”

He pulled back a little himself, suddenly awkward. “Ash did?”

“Kind of. Well, you know Ash – he said a lot,” he added with a laugh. “But for a second there, you kind of sounded a lot like him.”

“Oh… well, I suppose that’s what happens when you spend a lot of time with someone,” he said, even as he resisted the urge to rub his neck and cringe. Kiawe couldn’t know, and definitely hadn’t intended it, but for some reason it reminded him of his colleagues’ ‘Papa Kukui’ comments. “And it’s true. If you don’t set the bar higher , you’ll never get any stronger than you already are. So dream big, and never give up.”

“Right,” Kiawe agreed, and tightened his grip on the pokeball. “I’ll grow and become just as much of a strong and powerful protector as my grandfather. As Wela Volcano. I know I can do it.”

“That’s the spirit!” he cheered.

He still worried over what Kiawe would do on a practical level, but as long as he kept dreaming, Kukui knew his student would be okay in the long run. He looked up and around for the others, nodding to see each of them engaged in their own interests, but his smile faded as he failed to see a red hat darting between the crowds.

He sighed, flicking his coat back to put his hands on his hips. Ash had apparently wandered off again.

He didn’t reappear after an hour, and Kukui almost started to get worried, until he went up to ask Olivia if she’d seen him only to find Ash sitting off to the side, quietly watching her work. Rotom was happily taking pictures of all the pokemon receiving their honour, while Pikachu and Litten were each draped over one of Ash’s knees, napping in the noon sun. It looked like they’d been there a while.

Kukui’s eyebrow ticked, and he dropped down beside Ash with a blunt look. “Do you remember that conversation we had about how being part of a school group means I need to know where you are at all times?”

He blinked. “Yeah?”

Kukui stared back at him for a few seconds before deciding he really didn’t get it. “I thought you were down with the rest of us in the stalls. When I couldn’t see you, I thought you’d gotten lost.”

“Oh. Sorry. I was here,” he said, and Kukui rolled his eyes. He was pretty sure this was a battle he’d never really had a chance of winning.

“Doing what?”

“Just watching. It’s kind of cool seeing Olivia do this stuff,” he said, nodding toward the line. “Kahunas do a lot more for people and pokemon than just give trials. I kinda forget.”

“They’re very important people,” he agreed, and sat back to watch for a moment as well. Even with the explanation, he wasn’t sure what had captured Ash’s interest. People directed their pokemon to stand before Olivia, she blessed them, put the crown on the pokemon’s head, they usually did some kind of display of power and strength, and then Olivia took the crown back and the next person stepped up. He supposed Ash could be pokemon-watching, but that didn’t really seem to be his focus.

The thought reminded Kukui of what he’d been supposed to be doing yesterday, and he grimaced, trying to do as she’d instructed. If he watched closely, he actually could see a physical change in maybe four of every five pokemon that wore the crown. Fire burned hotter, manes fluffed up with energy, muscles bulged. But he wasn’t convinced it was anything mystical – it mostly looked like they were just getting fired up.

Pun only intended in hindsight, he thought to himself with a grin.

And when he looked at the trainers…

Some of them didn’t get it. They’d heard the rumours – they’d come to Alola because they heard the blessing would make their pokemon stronger, but now they were here, they couldn’t understand how it worked. Some were just bored by the long line, and had long since lost whatever interest originally inspired them to be here. Others practically vibrated with excitement, enthralled by the idea of the moment.

“You know,” Ash said suddenly, pulling Kukui’s attention back. “When I first came here and heard about the kahunas and the grand trials, I didn’t really get it. I thought it was just like the gym challenge back home, and the kahunas were kind of like gym leaders. And then, when I first met Hala, he kind of reminded me a little of Alder, so I thought maybe they were more like Champions. But then I took the trial, and I realised it’s not like that at all.”

“No,” Kukui agreed. “The trials make strong trainers, but we don’t have a League here yet. It’s not the same.”

“It’s so different,” he murmured. He went quiet again for a minute before continuing. “Everything is different here. I knew I wouldn’t be travelling as much, but I still thought it would be the same otherwise. Nothing fires me up more than the chance to battle a really strong gym leader! And I thought it would be just like that. But it’s not.”

Kukui frowned, glancing at him warily. “Do you regret staying?”

“What? No way!” he cried. “Different doesn’t mean bad. It just means something new to experience. I still love it here, really!”

“Well, we’re glad you approve,” he teased gently, but he couldn’t help the concern still tightening his gut. He wasn’t sure where Ash was going with this, and he’d sounded almost painfully homesick just now.

They watched a trainer step up to Olivia and release a pokemon Kukui didn’t recognise. It was a little red monkey, its fur rising up to a flame-like clump on its head. The crown slipped over it to balance on its large ears, and the monkey roared, beating its chest and letting out a small burst of flame that made both Olivia and its trainer laugh.

Ash grinned fondly. “Way to go, Pansear!”

“A pansear, huh?” he murmured. He’d heard of them, but never seen one himself. It was smaller than he’d expected.

Once Olivia had taken back the crown, the trainer returned Pansear and thanked Olivia before moving on, looking a little perplexed by the whole experience. Kukui pegged him as Unovan, and so had to give him credit for even trying to understand. The ceremony probably didn’t make a lot of sense to someone who was used to judging things on statistics and data.

Heck, it barely made sense to him, and he’d been raised around this kind of spiritualism.

“What do you make of this ceremony, Ash?” he asked, glancing back at his student. “Do you think that crown really makes pokemon stronger?”

“Well, Olivia says it does,” he said slowly. “So I guess it must, right?”

“That’s not really an answer,” he pointed out, and Ash grinned.

“I think that if you believe in something enough, it has to come true!” he said, pumping his fist. “So if you believe the crown makes you more powerful, then it really does. But if you don’t, then it probably won’t.”

“Belief, huh?” He turned back to the crowd, and watched a Talonflame call out to the sky, crown nestled around its neck like a charm. He hummed. “Do you think that’s all it is? Or is there something more at work here?”

“Something more?” Ash repeated. “You mean like magic?”

He winced, but didn’t have a better word for it. “The kahuna believe that there’s more to this world than the things science can explain. I’ve been trying to understand what they mean.”

“Oh, so that’s why you’ve been in such a weird mood lately!”

Kukui jerked around to look at him, but Ash just grinned again.

“You were all frustrated and stuff. Now I get it,” he said, and nodded once. “In fact, I totally get it. It’s kinda what I’ve been thinkin’ about today.”

“It is?” he asked. “I thought you were thinking about the gyms.”

“Well, kinda. I mean,” He paused when his absent shifting made Pikachu grumble and prod at his leg, before they both settled down and he could continue. “Lately I’ve been thinkin’ about how different people do stuff differently. Like Olivia with the Wailmer, and how Alola’s not like anywhere else I’ve ever been. Watching Lana battle the Totem Wishi-washi was so amazing, but I totally couldn’t have done what she did. She’s strong in a way I don’t think I’m ever gonna be. And last night, with Kiawe? He said he’d never even thought about fighting with something like Shell Smash. He’s always just been able to take hits and then blast out with power. And I was kinda surprised, you know? He’s so cool, and so strong. He knows so much I don’t. But that whole thing about having to change the way you fight to take on different kinds of opponents? That’s kinda one of the first lessons you learn in a gym challenge. It took me ages to figure it out, but Kiawe’s way smarter than I am. I couldn’t believe he never thought about it before.”

Kukui smiled, nodding slowly. “It’s something a gym trainer has to learn the first time they fight a normal- or ghost-type gym. Here, you might learn that lesson taking the Ula’ula trial, but most young trainers don’t get to that one. I’m not sure Kiawe even intends to even take on Hala’s trial.”

“Which is so weird to me,” Ash confessed. “Don’t tell Kiawe, but it kinda feels like giving up before you even start. I mean, I get why you might give up a challenge when you realise it’s not for you, or if you really can’t beat it. But to me, there are four islands, four Grand Trials. I’ve gotta beat them all!”

“Mm. I was much the same when I was your age,” Kukui admitted.

“But that made me think of Alder again. When I was in Unova, he asked me what I’d do if I beat the League. When I become a Pokemon Master, he asked, what am I gonna do then?” Ash turned back to the ceremony, tracking the pokemon as it stepped up in front of Olivia. “I mean, it’s really got nothin’ to do with any of this, and I know the answer, but still. I keep thinkin’ about it lately.”

Kukui opened his mouth, but then stopped and paused, the name registering. “Wait… Alder… do you mean Champion Alder?”

“Yeah. I think he asks every trainer he meets what they’re gonna do if they achieve their dreams,” he said. “But I already know. Even if I win all the Leagues, and become a Pokemon Master, and all of that, I’m still going to keep going. I’m going to keep working hard and get even stronger! I’m never gonna stop! But not everyone’s like me. So that’s what I’ve been thinking about.”

Ash watched a charmeleon receive Olivia’s blessing, and then tilted his head up to look at the volcano. “Back home, you take on the gym challenge to compete in the League. You compete in the League to win, and beat the Elite Four, and maybe even the Champion. It’s something to accomplish. Even if you never get past the first of the Elite Four, you still get a trophy – something to show off, you know?” he said. “Here, even if you beat all four Grand Trials… there’s nothing after that. You don’t win a title, or even a medal. You get a new Z-move from each kahuna, and you get stronger, but it’s not like you’re trying to become the strongest person in the region. You’re just trying to get stronger, in your own way, for your own reasons.

“So… I guess when I think about it like that… no wonder some people only ever take one trial. I mean… if not for Tapu Koko, Hala would’ve given me the Fighting-type crystal, and none of the pokemon I have here use fighting-type moves. So it would’ve really just been a trophy. And that’s not why you take the trials. People here don’t do it for the trophy. They’re not doing it for the challenge. They’re doing it to get stronger in themselves.” He closed his eyes, breathing in deeply the way Kukui couldn’t quite manage so close to the volcano. “As strong as Wela Volcano. As powerful as the ocean. As caring as the forest. As smart as the city. As cool as the ice. Things like that. That’s what the people here want to be. That’s what the trials show people how to be. It’s so different. It’s so amazing.”

Kukui stared at him, quietly floored.

He’d never heard someone explain the Island Challenge so… In fact, the whole mentality of pokemon training in Alola. It was…

He felt strangely lacking, all of a sudden.

Oblivious, Ash opened his eyes again, then looked back at Olivia, or maybe beyond her. “I want to be the very best. The strongest Pokemon Master the world’s ever seen. So I’ve gotta keep getting stronger. But going around the Leagues, sometimes I think I forget why. I get so focussed on winning – on getting the badges, and beating my opponents. That’s why… I dunno, being here, doing the trials… it’s still a challenge, and I still want to beat it, but it… it’s making me think about things in a different way. It’s making me think about why I wanna be strong. About the person I really want to be. Maybe even… maybe even the person I’m meant to be.”

He trailed off, and Kukui tilted his head. That was enough of a distinction that he felt like he had to prompt, “Is that different?”

“Sometimes,” he said quietly, and then flinched as he heard himself. He furrowed his brow, and then quickly glanced up at Kukui, obviously wanting to take it back or do his usual tactic of fleeing the hint of emotion. But Pikachu and Litten were still sleeping, and it would have been awkward to pick them both up along with his backpack, so he was stuck. Kukui did him the favour of looking away instead, and after a few seconds, Ash relaxed a little. He coughed and looked back at Olivia. “I think that’s what’s different and great about Alola. There’s so much love and support here. It means everyone can be strong in their own way. And you can see it in them. You can see the power in each and every person.”

“You think so?” he asked, just to keep the kid talking, so he wouldn’t try hiding away again. And then the words actually filtered, and he realised he actually did want to know. “What does power look like to you?”

Ash glanced at him again, then scoffed playfully. “Aw, come on. You know…!”

“Haven’t we been talking about how different people see things in different ways?” he pointed out, nudging him with his elbow. “I can tell you all about power with statistics and numbers. Tell me how you see it.”

“How I see it?” he asked. “You mean like, if I’m trying, or just like, normally?”

“Is there a difference?”

“Well, yeah, I mean…” He gestured vaguely at nothing. “You know what people with special powers are like. They’re all like… ‘open your mind’ and ‘see beyond your vision’ and… stuff. I'm no good at that.”

Kukui snorted. If the last few days had taught him anything, it was that he did, too. “So I assume that’s not what you meant by being able to ‘see’ power?”

“No way. Like, even the ones I should be able to understand make it way too complicated. This one girl I know in Kanto, she kept trying to tell me to listen with my heart. So I thought she was talking about feelings and stuff, but she could use it to talk to people in her head. So crazy!” he cried, flailing his arm again. It jostled Litten, who meowed in objection, so Ash cringed and calmed down. “But I guess it’s hard to explain stuff like that. I mean, when I try really hard I can kind of get an idea of where people are without looking, but maybe that’s just smell and sounds and stuff. I dunno.”

“But that’s not power or strength, that’s just presence,” Kukui pointed out, relaxing into the conversation a bit more. “And you said there was a normal way to see it?”

“Well, yeah, I mean, like… like when you look at someone’s eyes,” he said. “You know? How you can look at someone and just see how much they care about something?”

Kukui paused, because… yes. He could understand that. You could see people’s emotions in their eyes. Love, determination… He looked over at the current trainer nudging her pokemon forward to receive Olivia’s blessing. It was a torracat, obviously just edging into the surly, dominant personality that so defined its species, but the trainer watched it with an unmistakably fond edge in her eyes. As the crown was lowered into place on Torracat’s head, the trainer barely moved, but Kukui almost felt the pride swelling up in her. It wasn’t anything really visible, just… a sense.

“But that’s just emotion,” he found himself saying. “It’s not a special power, is it?”

“Um… I dunno,” Ash said. “I never really notice the difference. Power comes from the heart, right? And so do our feelings. So really, it’s the same thing, isn’t it?”

Kukui looked at him blankly for a few seconds. Eventually, he decided it was worth the question. “Do you think the power we’re talking about is the same power that’s used in a Z-move? That light you can see, when trainers connect with their pokemon?”

“Yeah? I mean, isn’t that why you have to be able to work with your pokemon for a Z-move to work right?” he asked, like Kukui had questioned something he’d said in class. “It’s that same kinda feeling. Like your body goes all arghhh—” He clenched his fists up and then shoved them out in front of him, despite the mumbled objections from his pokemon. “—bam! At least, that’s how a Z-move feels for me. And when you feel really, really strongly about something, it’s the same way, right? You’ve just gotta do something about how you feel. And if you don’t, you feel all funny and unhappy, and that’s what it feels like to me when I mess up a Z-move. It’s the same for all kinds of power. Psychics, aura, magic… It’s all emotions made… more. So it doesn’t work unless you really want it to work. It works because you care too much for it not to work. Right…?”

Kukui stared at him again, then blinked and looked back up at the trainers.

It had been a long time since he’d used Z-moves properly. And even he could admit that he’d always fallen more on the Friendship side of being close to his pokemon than the Affection. They were partners, and maybe friends, but it wasn’t the same thing Ash had with his pokemon. But… he supposed…

A warm feeling. Determination. Strength. Pride. A need for it to work. He remembered these things.

He watched the next pokemon step up for the blessing. This time, he let himself relax, not watching for any great flare of magic or metaphorical sparkles, but rather the emotions and actions. The pride. The determination. He saw muscles flex and fur bristle, and the fire that erupted was big and beautiful and so impressive. A spectacle that could have been magic or could have been mundane, but ultimately had the same result. So did it really matter which it was?

Maybe that was why he’d never been able to see it before. Because to him… it was all in the mind. But, and he had to admit he was sounding a little cheesy now, if ‘power’ truly came from the heart…

It didn’t matter whether it was just in the pokemon’s head that the crown had given them strength. The fact was, it felt stronger while wearing it. And as Olivia removed the crown and smiled at the beaming little pokemon, Kukui knew it would remember this moment. That feeling. It would carry that memory with it, and remember it when it needed to. It would be stronger for having done this.

So if that was a kind of magic… that simple, short moment…

They had quantified Friendship and Affection. As much as it was measurable, they were still based in an emotional concepts, weren’t they?

Who was he to say this was any different?

Finally, he kind of understood what Olivia had been trying to get him to see. The power that came from inside. He got it now.

And then, he slowly turned back to look at Ash.

For whatever reason, Ash had been chosen by Tapu Koko. He was a good friend and a strong fighter. A kid who felt so strongly about seemingly everything. A traveller that believed true power came from what you believed – what you wanted to be true. If that was how it worked, then… If Kukui was understanding how this whole power thing worked, and that really was the source of a Z-moves power, then no wonder his were so ridiculously strong.

The kid could probably level mountains if he thought it was important enough.

But here he was, taking the trials seriously for what they truly were. Using them to understand why he wanted power. Why he needed it, and what he would use it for.

“Um… Professor?” Ash prompted, as the silence stretched. “You’re doing that thing again.”

He blinked, then smiled. This was becoming a habit. “Just thinking through a problem,” he assured him. “And I think you’re absolutely right, Ash.”

“Um… okay?”

Kukui laughed, and without thinking about it, reached up to clasp Ash on the shoulder, gently shaking him once. The kid balked for a second, then smiled awkwardly and ducked his head away, and they both turned back to the ceremony.

“Give Ash his trial.”

Olivia lowered her water bottle to look at him, a smile playing around her lips. The festival had finally drawn to a close in the late afternoon, and he had ambushed her in the middle of rehydrating after a long day in the thick air of the volcano’s heat. The kids had taken it upon themselves to help the stall owners close up shop (Kukui suspected they were aiming to be given any leftover food as thanks), so Kukui had only waited long enough to make sure they actually were helping and not just making a nuisance of themselves before going in search of the kahuna.

“I understand now why you’re worried,” he said firmly. “I know why you might think he’s dangerous, but he isn’t. He understands just as well as you do. He’s ready for this trial, Olivia. More than that – he deserves it.”

She just looked at him for a few moments, then inclined her head and focussed on putting the cap back on her bottle. “I was thinking about putting him through it tomorrow, actually.”

He blinked. “You… what?”

“During the curry search,” she said. “I’m going to make his map take him to Totem Lurantis’s lair.”

“Uh – w- why?”

“Kiawe told me about how Ash helped him train last night,” she explained. “And I get the impression he was involved in Lana’s trial as well. He did well with Wailmer, and even without that, if he isn’t a nice person, he’s certainly got me fooled. And I saw you with him today. He helped you understand what I’ve been telling you, didn’t he?”

“Yes, but…”

“He’s proven he’s worthy of meeting my Totem, at the very least. Lurantis will decide if he can meet me on the battlefield,” she said. “Besides, I’m still determined to teach Mallow the value of guidance. I think watching his trial will be a good lesson for her, too.”

Kukui scratched his neck, feeling lost and off-balance. He’d expected to have to argue at least a little bit. Olivia just gave him a benign smile and reached over to pat his cheek.

“But that was very impressive, Kukui,” she said, and started heading down the steps. “I hope Ash appreciates what a Proud Papa he’s got.”

He croaked an objection that she wasn’t waiting around to listen to, and then slumped over.

He’d been doomed from the start.

Lesson (Unlucky) Thirteen: the value of just being there

“Professor Kukui, check it out!”

Having been in the middle of staring at Nurse Joy, trying very hard to see some kind of special healing energy or at the very least something other than a pretty young woman obviously zoning out a little from boredom, Kukui did not blanch and nearly fall off the bench he was sitting on. He may have startled slightly, but any other reaction was immediately covered by the flurry of movement that was Ash bursting into the Pokemon Centre, Pikachu on his shoulder, Litten in one arm, the other reaching out to flail at Kukui.

“This whole morning was a Trial! Getting those ingredients! I battled Totem Lurantis! And there was a Castform there too! I didn’t know Castform lived in Alola! But Litten and I used Breakneck Blitz and Rowlet was so cool – it totally saved Litten from getting knocked out! And so we won and Totem Lurantis gave me a Grassium-Z and then Olivia appeared and said it had been a Trial and tomorrow we can have a Grand Trial! I’m gonna battle Olivia at the Ruins of Life! It’s gonna be so amazing! But this Grassium-Z is so cool, I had no idea I was even doing a Trial, I totally didn’t expect it! Look how cool this is, my third Z-crystal! This means I can use Bloom Doom! I know you showed me the pose before but I can’t remember it so can you show me again? I wanna use it in my Grand Trial tomorrow!”

Finally, the tide ebbed, and Kukui was given room to blink. He stared at Ash blankly, letting most of the rant pass back through his head at a slower pace, until he reached the bit about Bloom Doom. Then he grinned, ducking his head to better see the crystal. “Totem Lurantis gave you a Z-crystal? Congratulations, Ash! This is becoming a habit – I’d never heard of that happening before you started taking the trials.”

“Heh. I guess they all changed their minds, since they’re giving them out all the time, now!” he said cheerfully, and then clenched his fist around the crystal and leaned a little closer. “So will you show me again? Please? Please, please, please, please?””

“Okay, okay!” he laughed, holding up his hands in defense. “We can go over it after lunch today.”

“Alright! Thank you!” he yelled, and then grabbed Litten in both hands and held it out in front of him, swinging around with a cheer. “This is gonna be so cool!”

“Liii-tte-e-en!” it complained, while Pikachu just held on tighter and laughed.

By that point, Olivia, Mallow, and Rotom had come in as well, the two women looking all too amused by Ash’s antics while Rotom huffed disapproval.

“Welcome back,” Kukui greeted them. “You’re the first team back – was the Trial the only hard part of getting the ingredients?”

“No, we had a lot of trouble getting through Diglett Cave and past some Fomantis,” Mallow said, but she was still smiling proudly. “But we did pretty okay.”

Okay?” Olivia repeated, scandalised, before swooping down to catch Mallow up in a tight hug. “They did marvellously! Mallow played her role perfectly! Such wonderful guide! I’m so proud!”

“Yeah, Mallow made everything super easy, Professor!” Ash agreed, pausing his spinning to grin at Mallow. “I never would’ve made it anywhere without her help!”

She smiled awkwardly, but didn’t say anything as Ash spun away again, abruptly focussing on Nurse Joy and rushing off to get his pokemon healed up. Kukui narrowed his eyes, glancing over Mallow’s soft look.

He was getting the distinct impression Olivia’s lesson hadn’t quite hit its mark.

Apparently to further push said lesson, Olivia wouldn’t let Mallow take the lead in the cooking class, though she claimed it was actually more about her pride not allowing a new student to outshine her mastery of Akala Curry.

Knowing subtlety was usually lost on all of his students, Kukui rolled his eyes and beckoned Mallow to follow him out to the foyer, where Ash was still waiting for his pokemon. Sometimes you just needed to take the direct approach.

In contrast to the barely-hidden panic Kiawe had shown in the same situation only a few days before, Ash seemed more bored than concerned, flipping through a tourist magazine with eyelids at half-mast. He’d told Kukui and Olivia he was only even bothering to wait because he didn’t want to get elbow-deep in cooking just to leave when his pokemon were ready to be picked up. But he immediately perked up when he noticed them, tossing the magazine aside and sitting up straight.

“Oh, hey Professor! Hey, Mallow!” he greeted cheerfully. “You aren’t cooking either?”

“No, I think everyone would just cramp Mallow’s style if she had to share a kitchen,” he said, dropping down beside his boarder. “But I’ll get you the recipe, Mallow, and you can show us how it’s done once we’re back on Melemele, what do you say?”

She smiled weakly as she sat down, her hands laced around her knees and gaze on the floor. Ash blinked before asking, “Is everything okay, Mallow? You look kinda down.”

“I’m okay,” she said with a shrug. “I was just really looking forward to this lesson. And I mean… between this, and this morning… I’m just feeling a little useless, you know?”

“Useless? What are you talking about? You were totally amazing this morning!” he cried. “Telling me where we needed to go, and reminding me what we needed to get…! I would’ve been so lost without you!”

“Come on, Ash, you don’t have to say that,” she said. “I didn’t do anything.”

“I might not have been there,” Kukui interjected, “but I really think you’re not giving yourself enough credit there, Mallow.”

“Professor –”

“No, really,” he said. “I don’t think you realise just how hard it can be to take a step back and let people do things on their own, while also supporting them in what they choose to do. From what Olivia told me, you did that perfectly today. That’s no easy task you accomplished.”

It was a little bit of a lie – Olivia hadn’t really had time to tell him anything, really. But he was pretty confident it was true, especially when Ash nodded emphatically.

“I’m super bad at it. I always want to get in there and do everything myself,” he said. “But you were so cool about it. Even when I was stupid in the Diglett Caves, or with the Fomantis? Even though I messed up, I didn’t feel like you were laughin’ at me or gettin’ mad! You made it so easy to just concentrate on what I needed to do, you know?”

“But I didn’t do anything,” Mallow argued, and Kukui shook his head.

“It’s not about what you did or didn’t do, Mallow. It’s about being there either way.”


“It can be a hard thing to realise, but people are capable of working through a lot of hard things on their own,” he explained. “Yes, Ash could have taken on the Trial and completed it without anyone else being there. Just like he could have taken on Hala’s Trial on his own. But who knows how long it would have taken him to think of looking up the information on Rattata’s natural enemies –”

“Hey!” Ash objected, but he was smiling even through his wince. “I kinda feel like you’re makin’ fun of me, Professor!”

He grinned and nudged him with his elbow before going back to Mallow. “These are very simple things, but they can get a lot worse,” he said, and didn’t mention Lillie, who was making amazing strides only with the support of her friends, or Litten, who had only been able to move past its grief because Ash gave it time. “We are all capable of getting through very difficult situations on our own. But having friends beside us, distracting us from our failures or keeping us grounded just with their presence… that makes those difficult situations just that little bit easier. And sometimes, that’s all you need.”

“Right!” Ash agreed firmly. “No matter how bad things get, or how much it looks like I can’t win, as long as I’ve got friends beside me, like you and Pikachu, then I know it’s still worth trying. I know I can keep going.”

“That’s what Olivia’s trying to show you, Mallow,” Kukui continued. “You care so much about everyone, and I know you want to help them. But that doesn’t mean you need to tell everyone what to do, or how to do it. Just being there for them – just being a friend. Your friendship means a lot to the class. More than I think you realise.”

Mallow stared at them quietly for a few seconds, before her eyes switched solely to Ash. “You really think so? You’re not just saying all this to make me feel better?”

“Nope!” he said cheerfully. “I love hanging out with you, even if all we’re doing is watching Lana train or somethin’! You’re so nice and kind and warm. You make everyone feel safe, just by being you. Can’t get better than that, right?”

She blushed bright red, then ducked her head into her shoulders and grinned at the floor. Kukui rolled his eyes, hoping their message hadn’t just gotten lost in a wave of pre-pubescent hormones, and then nudged Ash again with a wry grin.

“But if you really want to take a more active role in helping today, Ash here could use it. He was asking me to show him the Grass-type Z-move. I bet you remember it, right, Mallow?”

“Oh yeah!” Ash cried, and almost lunged off the bench to look at her with wide eyes. “You can show me how to use Bloom Doom! Please, Mallow? I bet you’ve got it down perfect, right?”

As Mallow’s blush started working its way down her neck, despite her excited grin, Kukui smirked and settled back, content in a job well done.

It was a little frustrating, trying to see ‘energy’. Kukui had to put his mind in a certain frame, and often had to imagine it before he could see anything, which honestly made him wonder how much of it was real and how much was just his mind tricking his eyes into seeing something that wasn’t really there. But he was starting to get it. He was a little amazed by how diverse it could be.

At first, he’d kind of assumed the energy would have specific types, like pokemon moves. And those types, he’d thought, would have corresponding colours. It was how it seemed during Z-moves, at least. Green for grass, orange for rock, et cetera. But people… people didn’t always seem to match those things.

Watching Mallow work with Ash, he’d expected green. They were working on the grass-type Z-move, and Kukui was pretty sure Mallow couldn’t have been anything but a grass-type trainer if her life depended on it. And while they were working on the move, Ash did indeed glow green, even when he completely failed to get the pose right.

(Neither Kukui or Mallow could figure out why he was having so much trouble with it. It was one of the simplest poses in the entire repertoire. But Ash just seemed incapable of keeping his feet together and lifting his arms in a V. It was inexplicable.)

But Mallow’s energy, on the rare occasions Kukui managed to catch sight of it, were more like a soft pink. It reminded him of fairy floss, actually. Soft and immaterial, somehow warm, but—even more strangely—sticky, too. It clung to Ash when she touched him.

And yet the next day, when Ash stood on the battlefield and greeted Olivia as an opponent, his energy flared bright blue, practically exploding out of him like a wildfire. But then Kukui blinked and lost sight of it – not that he minded too much, all truth told.

Ash’s battles were more fun to watch as a battle nerd, not a scientist.

And oh, man, did Ash deliver. It was incredible. His pokemon had so much stamina – so much determination to just keep going through attack after attack. And then, the way Ash turned Olivia’s Z-move around, using it to clear the field and give him the upper hand…

Kukui fully planned to suck it up and just deal with the Papa Kukui comments it would get him. He had to show off Rotom’s video of this at the lab.

But then… then it all fell apart.

“Rowlet!” Ash yelled, already running onto the field. Kukui grit his teeth as he saw the telltale signs of a knockout, and realised he had to call it.

“Rowlet is unable to battle,” he spat, and they all stalled, waiting to see how Ash would react.

Rockruff had attacked its teammate.

Yes, it had immediately snapped out of its anger and was now staring in horror, but that didn’t change the fact that it had happened. And of all times for Rockruff to have lost control…

In the middle of a battle. A Grand Trial, no less. Immediately following Rowlet’s perfectly performed Z-move, when it was still weak and they should have been ready to claim the victory. There might be no coming back from something like this.

For several long seconds, the Ruins of Life were completely silent.

Even if Ash knew this was just a symptom of Rockruff’s impending evolution… to attack a teammate... in such an important battle... even Alolan trainers had released pokemon for far less. And Rockruff seemed to know it, creeping toward Ash with its head and tail lowered, ready and willing to accept any punishment.

But it didn’t come.

Without so much as a blink, Ash got down on hands and knees, and then lifted his backside into the air, wiggling it from side-to-side. He giggled at Rockruff’s blank stare. “Hey, Rockruff. D’you remember this?”

The way they’d first trained together. When Ash had worked through every movement with Rockruff, showing it how to battle, how to fight. Rockruff stared at him, and so did Kukui, because he wasn’t even looking for it, but he could swear he could feel energy building up between them. A flare of brown, clashing blue and orange into something beyond them both.

Ash grinned with determination. “Let’s beat Lycanroc!” he said firmly. “I’ll battle along with ya!”

Rockruff continued staring at him for a few more seconds, then shifted its stance down to match him with a determined bark. They both looked over at Olivia and Lycanroc, perfectly matched and ready. And then…

And then the two of them beat Lycanroc and won the Grand Trial. Together.

As they walked back to the Pokemon Centre, the kids all crowded around Ash and chattering about battle techniques and moves and how they were all going to spend the whole afternoon practising, Olivia and Kukui hung back and watched.

The warm, tight feeling was back in Kukui’s chest, deeper than pride and threatening to burst. He was vaguely aware of a stupid smile on his face, but Olivia wasn’t drawing attention to it so neither did he, trying to convince himself it was the smug look of a teacher seeing his student do well and nothing more.

“What he did with Rockruff,” Olivia said suddenly, her voice too low to be picked up by the kids. “Have you ever seen him do something like that before?”

Kukui blinked, startled out of his glow for a second before he could refocus. He shrugged. “Not to that extent. He quite often throws his body into it when he orders attacks, though – I think it’s a habit he picked up from watching too many Contests.”

“That wasn’t a performance, Kukui,” she reminded him, and he had to give her that.

If he’d had to compare it to anything, the entire last two minutes of the battle had seemed more like a parade of Z-moves, one after the other. Every movement Ash made had purpose behind it, strength and power like he was the one actually battling Lycanroc and Rockruff was nothing but a conduit. Even when they won, Ash had been hunched in a defensive pose, like he was bracing himself against a follow-up attack. It wasn’t until Rockruff finally collapsed that Ash snapped out of it.

“He has said before that he feels connected to his pokemon,” he said slowly. “Especially in battle. It’s a little more literal than I expected, but… What about you? Have you ever seen anything like that before?”

“No. But I’ve never met anyone like Ash before,” she said, and then narrowed her eyes. “I think we’ve danced around this long enough.”

He raised an eyebrow, not sure what that was supposed to mean, but she was already hurrying forward to slap her hand against Ash’s shoulder.

“Hey, Ash!” she said, all false brightness and no room for argument. “I know you’re going to be busy this afternoon, looking after your pokemon, but do you think we could have a talk tomorrow? Just you and me?”

Ash blinked at her, then nodded cheerfully. “Sure thing, Olivia! What about?”

“Oh, you know, this and that! I’ll come and get you after breakfast and we can go for a walk around the Ruins, what do you say?”

Kukui narrowed his eyes, but even as the rest of the afternoon continued, Olivia didn’t give him a chance to ask about it. She made sure they were always around the kids, close enough to be heard even if they weren’t part of the conversation.

Apparently, whatever they needed to talk about wasn’t for him to know.

So even though he was more angry, worried, and concerned, part of him was darkly satisfied when they woke up the next morning to find Ash gone.

Rockruff had run away.

Kukui inwardly sighed as they struggled through the thick underbrush behind the Pokemon Centre ranch. Given how badly Rockruff’s aggression had flared yesterday, he and Olivia had been well aware this was coming. Every rockruff had this phase before they became lycanroc. They ran off for a few days and then came back after they’d evolved, calm and strong, usually more loyal to their beloved trainer than ever.

But just as it could have timed being overwhelmed a little better, this… this really could have waited. Just one more day. They would have been back on Melemele and Rockruff could have taken its sweet time to come to terms with all that anger and aggression. It wouldn’t have been a problem beyond the low-key panic that had caused Ash to disappear in the middle of the night to try and find his wayward pokemon.

As it was, they were already delaying their trip home to look for it, and Kukui’s permission slips wouldn’t last more than a day’s extension. They didn’t really have time for Rockruff to go on a week-long journey of self-discovery.

Worse, if they couldn’t find Rockruff, Kukui was pretty sure Ash would refuse to leave Akala. And while that was theoretically fine… Kukui was positive Olivia wouldn’t mind putting the kid up for a few days, and even if she didn’t, Pokemon Centres existed to give qualified trainers a place to crash. Nurse Joy wouldn’t mind if he stuck around after the school trip left.

The problem was that Kukui wasn’t entirely convinced Ash would bother coming back to Melemele in that situation. More likely, it would be the kick-start he needed to start exploring the islands in the same way he would have travelled any other region.

It was selfish of him, but Kukui could admit to himself that he wasn’t ready for that.

“You know, Ash,” Olivia said gently, “even if we find Rockruff, we might not be able to convince it to come back. It might just be like you went through last night – it might just run away again.”

“I won’t let it. Not again. It’s hurt; I gotta get it to Nurse Joy,” he said firmly, and she winced.

“I understand that. And I know you’re scared. I would be too if I saw Lycanroc hurt like you saw Rockruff. And we will find it – that’s why we’re out here with you,” she pointed out, but then added, “I’m just saying that eventually, you’re going to have to let it go, so that it can grow on its own. It will come back to you, I promise.”

Ash didn’t respond to that, and Olivia hesitated before skipping a few steps forward, where she could lean over and look at his expression.

“I know it’s scary, but this is a natural part of Rockruff’s evolution. It needs to think over what happened yesterday. It needs to come to terms with its anger and guilt. The way it deals with that is what will lead it to accepting its evolution.”

He turned his head to look at her, and she explained, “The two formes of lycanroc have very different personalities. Midday Lycanroc is a calmer creature. It deals with anger by rejecting it – by keeping a level head even in the most difficult moments. Midnight Lycanroc embraces its darkness, and that becomes its strength. Rockruff needs to discover how it will manage its emotions before it can become either one.”

Ash hesitated, his lip curling slightly. “You mean… Rockruff left to deal with its anger all alone?”


Kukui was pretty sure Olivia had been trying to reassure him, but if anything, Ash just looked more upset. But he quickly looked away again, fists clenched by his hips.

Olivia let the silence carry for a minute before she continued. “You know… Professor Kukui told me you’re working on letting other people be strong on their own. Part of that is letting them work through things like this on their own terms. Letting them get angry and finding ways to deal with it.”

“He told me that doesn’t mean I can’t be there for them,” he shot back, and Kukui winced. There were some similarities between what had happened with Litten and what was going on now, but he had a feeling Ash was taking it out of context just to be difficult.

“I don’t think Rockruff believes you aren’t there for it, Ash,” Olivia argued. “That’s why I’m sure it will come back. It just needs time.”

“Maybe. And if it really wants to leave, I’ll let it. But only once I know it’s not hurt anymore,” he said firmly, only to immediately lose some of his assurance as he added, “But I don’t know. Anger’s… anger’s such a hard thing. I’ve seen so many people hurt because of anger. Even when they think they can handle it. And pokemon especially… they get so mad, and they don’t have anyone to help them through it. They just… lash out. And then humans get scared and angry, and… I don’t want that for Rockruff.”

Olivia gazed at him quietly for a few seconds, her expression just a bit too hard, and her tone was surprisingly flat as she said, “I promise you, Ash. This, with Rockruff, won’t be like what you’ve seen before. Everything will be fine.”

“Maybe. We need to find it first,” he pointed out, and she nodded slowly.

They went back to the search, leaving Kukui feeling a bit like he’d missed part of the conversation somehow.

If he’d been scared to wake up and find Ash missing, watching him stand off against Tapu Lele and end up collapsing from its Draining Kiss was enough to send Kukui’s heart right into his throat.

But then Tapu Lele healed Rockruff, and it evolved into an amazing new forme that none of them had ever seen before, and Ash was fine and it was…

He rubbed his face as Ash hugged his new lycanroc one last time before returning it. At the risk of sounding dramatic, sometimes Kukui couldn’t help but feel like dealing with Ash and his adventures was a rollercoaster he wasn’t properly belted into. He felt exhilarated and exhausted and scared and proud and…

This was not what he’d signed up for when inviting the kid to live with him.

He didn’t regret it for a second, but it absolutely was not something he’d been ready for.

“Ash,” Olivia said, once Ash had returned everyone else and hooked their pokeballs into place on his belt. “Ash, I need to do something.”

Kukui pulled his hand down just enough to look at her. She was still crying, her fists bunched up under her chin as she stared at Ash with streaming eyes. He blinked back in confusion.

“Um… what is it, Olivi- ack!” he yelped as she threw her arms around him in a bone-crushing hug, only to immediately shove him back out at arm’s length and hold him there. He stared back at her, as terrified as Kukui had ever seen him, while Olivia proceeded to gush.

“I’m so sorry I ever doubted you!” she cried. “I’m so sorry I didn’t see your bond with your pokemon for what it was! I can’t believe I ever thought you could be here to hurt anyone! I didn’t know!”

“O- Olivia?!” he stammered. Still on the ground by his feet, Pikachu was staring up at them in equal shock and amazement, and flinched back when Olivia looked down at it.


“I’d heard – I’d heard so many stories!” she sobbed. “I had dreams, and we’d heard stories, and rumours, and we all thought – but then, I met you, and I wasn’t sure! I didn’t know what to think! But it's really you and you’re so strong and so good and –”

Ash and Pikachu were both looking increasingly panicked as she went on, and Kukui couldn’t blame them. Olivia was making even less sense the longer she babbled.

“Even yesterday! I saw what you did and I knew what it meant but I didn’t realise anything and now I understand!” She abruptly pulled back and swiped at her eyes, then pressed her hands together in front of her mouth before staring at Ash again. “The green flash is a sign of good luck! I thought – I thought that you were – even if you meant well, I thought you being here was – but you’re not! You’re the green flash!”

“Uhh…” Ash gaped at her. “I don’t…”

“Olivia,” Kukui interjected firmly. “Calm down, you aren’t making any sense.”

“You don’t – you don’t understand,” she said, and then pulled back, spreading her hands as she tried to get her breathing under control. “As kahuna, we – we see things. We hear about them in our dreams, on the wind… we don’t always understand, but we know. And these last few years… so much has happened. We’ve felt it so often. Imbalance in the world. Something shifting, only to shift back. One day, a few weeks before I became kahuna, I dreamed an entire day – an entire ordinary day, only to wake up back at the start of it and know I hadn’t really been dreaming. That was the first time I knew something was wrong.”

Slowly, Ash began to lose his panicked expression, instead pulling back into something carefully blank and serious. Pikachu scampered up his back, but didn’t just hang off his shoulder as usual, instead leaning over to rest its front paws on his chest, watching Olivia warily.

“A few months later… the Three Legendary Birds began to fight, and a storm covered the world. And I knew… I knew it had begun. I learned about the Shamounti Prophecy long ago. I knew what it was. I thought the world would turn to ash, like it had promised.”

“Oh! I know this story!” Rotom suddenly chirped. “The Legendary Birds are –”

“Rotom, no!” Kukui hissed, and lashed out to snatch it against his chest, but it was too late. Ash had remembered they were there and was now staring at them, his eyes wide and increasingly worried, while Pikachu didn’t seem to know where to focus its attention, caught between staring at Kukui and scowling at Olivia. They only settled when Olivia lifted her hand to cup Ash’s jaw, forcing him back to her.

“But I suppose the world did exactly what the prophecy said,” she said. “I should have remembered. The great beast shall rise to quell the fighting, but alone, its song shall fail. The world didn’t end, but only because Lugia wasn’t alone.”

“I…” Ash’s eyes flicked over to Kukui, then back to her. “That was – I…”

“Pikachu…” Pikachu warned, and scrambled around Ash’s shoulders to get in the way of Olivia’s hand, forcing her to pull back. She otherwise barely reacted.

“They never are alone, are they?” she murmured. “They never have to get through the pain and anger on their own. You find them somehow. Their own personal green flash, the good luck that helps them find their way.”

Kukui’s hand was pressed tight against Rotom’s speaker, as if that could actually stop it from talking, but he couldn’t help stumbling forward a step, caught between the urge to stay back and intervene. Ash looked so...

“That’s what it’s been, these last few years. Isn’t it?” Olivia asked. “Every time. Every shift I’ve felt. They aren’t just stories and rumours, are they? Not just dreams and bad feelings.”

“Pika chu,” Pikachu said, and its cheeks sparked, warding her off. “Pikapi ka pikachu!”

She didn’t even blink. “When you appeared here, we were worried that you would bring that same kind of chaos to Alola. Intentional or not, we thought that was what you would do. And when I saw it… the things you can do, the strength you have, I… I was scared. I hope you can understand,” she said. “I knew you didn’t mean any of it, but the way you fight, I was scared of what it meant for my island. But now I understand. Alone, anyone can fail. And you make sure we aren’t alone, no matter how bad things get.”

Her voice was soft, and almost warmer than anything Kukui had heard from her before, but it was obviously doing nothing to calm Ash down. He was staring at her like a stantler blinded by Flash. His head was shaking very slightly, but he was otherwise motionless, barely even breathing. He seemed to know what she was talking about, but had no idea what to do about it. It didn’t look like he even wanted to know what to do about it.

And then, Kukui had the strangest memory, of Delia reaching out to pull Ash into her side.

“Is it really so much to ask that the world take care of itself for a few months?” Her tone had been so light, almost teasing, but it hadn’t been a joke. She’d been so happy to see how Ash was doing here. The few times Kukui had seen Ash talk to her on the phone since, she always looked so pleased to hear he was enjoying himself.

Like he needed the break.

Alola was supposed to be that break.

Whatever Olivia was talking about would not give Ash that break.

Kukui set his jaw and stepped forward, forcing his lips into something resembling a smile. “Well, I’m glad we’ve got that sorted out,” he said loudly. “It’s been a long day. How about we all head back?”

Ash jerked around to look at him, but when Olivia looked up as well, Kukui met her gaze in a quiet challenge.

“Tapu Lele’s healing aside, I’m sure Lycanroc could do with another check up from Nurse Joy, we could all use a hot meal, and Ash has been up for a good twenty hours now! I think it’s time for bed, don’t you?” It probably wasn’t as casual as he wanted it to look, but he still reached out and held Ash’s shoulder, next to Pikachu. He squeezed lightly and gave it a gentle tug, guiding Ash a few steps back and away. “Come on. The others are probably worried sick.”

“O-oh, yeah!” Ash said, the muscles in his shoulders finally unclenching. “I should say thank you to everyone for all their help! I can’t wait for them to see Lycanroc!”

“Yeah! Let’s not keep them waiting.” He glanced up at Olivia. “We’re done here, right? No sense getting Imprisoned up here when we could be getting a good Rest back at the Centre.”

She met his gaze, and then nodded once, and gestured for him to lead the way. Kukui kept one hand clenched around Rotom’s speaker, the other curled over Ash’s shoulder, supporting and guiding the best way he could for now.

He might not understand just yet, might not be able to do anything even if he did. But he could do this much.

“Thanks, Professor.” It was little more than a breath, and so Kukui didn’t even look around, just tightened his grip in silent acknowledgement as they kept walking.

He would do this much.

Lesson Fourteen: Balance

Given the time of morning, it was a little surprising to find the lab already bustling when Kukui got in, everyone busy working on their various projects. Most of them called out to him as he walked through the desks, welcoming him back from his trip, and he tipped them salutes and waves but didn’t stop. He’d been mostly ignoring his emails while he was in Akala – he wasn’t looking forward to opening his inbox.

It was something he kind of hated about being the Pokemon Professor of Alola. Technically speaking, it made him responsible for all pokemon science in the region. That technically made him everyone’s boss. The fact that he spent less actual time at the lab than anyone else was irrelevant beyond the fact that it was usually his second-in-command that made decisions and did the grunt work in leading the team. He still got all the emails and was expected to read them, just in case he wanted to veto something or pass on communication from or to the International Pokemon League.

Most of it, he was reminded as he skim-read the subjects, was just white noise: updates on projects, new directions for research, bills, sponsorships, outreach requests… He got the easy ones out of the way first, checking to make sure the money had already been dealt with, and had just started on the outreach requests when someone leaned over the partition around his desk.

“Alola, Kukui!” Cassia greeted brightly. “You know what we never did?”

“Alola. There are lots of things we haven’t done,” he said, barely glancing away from his screen. “What in particular are you worried about?”

“I never got a chance to talk to Ash,” she said, and Kukui’s finger slowed to a halt on his mouse. She didn’t notice. “But now you’re back from Akala, which usually means you’re settling into research mode for the year, and that means your students should have a bit more free time outside school hours, am I right? How about we set up that interview?”

He hesitated. While Cassia’s interest solely lay in the events of a sporting tournament, their last day on Akala had made Kukui a bit more… protective wasn’t the right word. Cautious, maybe. Whatever it was, he was reluctant to put Ash in any kind of situation similar to the one he’d been in with Olivia. He obviously had history he wasn’t ready to talk about yet, and Kukui wasn’t sure what that history involved. Given his odd reaction to being asked about the League last time… as curious as Kukui was, he found himself fishing for reasons to object.

“Normally you’d be right,” he said slowly, “but the school’s twentieth anniversary is this year. In a little over a month we’re taking everyone on that study trip, remember.”

“Yeah, but you said you haven’t even started organising it yet,” she argued. “Ash won’t get involved for ages.”

Well, there went his one plausible excuse. He inwardly cursed and outwardly shrugged. “It’s really not my decision either way, Cassia. I can’t tell him what to do outside of school. Follow standard procedure for contacting a source – invitation, outline, the whole thing. He’ll say yes or no if he wants to.”

Or you could just bring him by the lab one afternoon,” she said hopefully. “Save me the paperwork?”

Ah. A much better problem: his colleague’s laziness. He leaned back in his chair and smirked at her, trying not to feel triumphant. “Or, in the interests of actually getting any research published, you could follow procedure for requesting an interview with a source. Acacia toes the ethics line enough without you throwing more Mud Sport on our good name.”

She stared at him for a few seconds, apparently realised he was serious, and then pushed off the partition with a groan. “Or I could follow procedure, fine,” she said, and pointed at him savagely as she started walking away. “Just for that, I’m going to make the whole interview confidential, and you will never know anything about the Kalos League. All those cool mega-evolutions and foreign pokemon and complex strategies, all for you never to know…!”

“That’s okay, I’ll just ask him all about it over dinner!” he called back, and she pretended to throw something at him before turning back to her desk. He sniggered and went back to his emails.

Ash’s problem with Continental Crush, Kukui decided as Ash turned away again, was actually kind of fascinating from a scientific standpoint. On first glance, it appeared to be related to Lycanroc’s lack of familiarity with Rock Throw’s more advanced power levels, but the more he watched, the more he suspected there was something else going on. Ash wasn’t being as consistently flashy when calling attacks as he normally was. Some of that could be chalked up to frustration, and it shouldn’t have mattered, but the new perspective Olivia had given him was making him think it was important. Something about how the energy was flowing between them…

“Why don’t you two take a break?” he suggested, heading out to join the other half of the class by the lake. “Let Lycanroc rest up a bit. And Ash, you’ve been using Z-ring energy just as much as it has. You could do with some time too.”

“I feel fine, Professor!” he complained, and Kukui turned on his heel to give him a blunt look.

“I will assign so much biology homework if you push me on this, Ash. Power Point and berry supplement calculations for days.”

Kiawe flinched and then glared at Ash. “I’m not helping you with Lycanroc for the next hour.”


“I like training with you, but I draw the line at doing math just because you can’t take a break.”


Kukui hid his smirk by turning away again. “Why don’t you give Marowak some training? It could use the experience.”

Leaving the battlers behind, Kukui found the rest of his class had found more mundane uses for pokemon moves. Or, rather, one of their pokemon’s moves. Under Lana’s cheerful instruction, Popplio’s Aqua Jet zoomed back forth in huge, lazy circles, dragging a water-skiing Steenee through the use of a tied on rope. In defiance of the lesson, Togedemaru was lazing in the water, buoyant in that odd, physics-defying way only steel types could be, while Snowy was, as ever, in Lillie’s arms and showing no inclination to move. Kukui raised an eyebrow, unimpressed but not surprised.

“Working hard, I see,” he said dryly. “Lillie, Sophocles, your pokemon aren’t stuffed animals – they need exercise to grow stronger.”

Lillie winced, suitably chastised, but Sophocles grinned and gestured to Togedemaru. “We are exercising! See? Togedemaru is swimming!”

“I think it works harder chasing Pikachu around the classroom,” he shot back. “I know you aren’t training them to be battle pokemon, but today’s lesson is about pokemon moves. You could at least make an attempt to practise them. Mallow,” he added pointedly.

She grinned even wider than Sophocles, and actually dared to throw in a cheeky wink. “We’re learning about balance! That’s an important thing to keep in mind when you’re using moves, right?”

“That’s right!” Sophocles agreed, and flailed at Togedemaru in the water. “Look how perfectly balanced Togedemaru is! That takes very fine muscle control! We’re working so hard, Professor; your lack of support is really hurting Togedemaru’s feelings!”

“Toge…!” Togedemaru chirped happily.

Kukui had to at least give them points for creativity. He set a hand on his hip, the better to aid his professionally unimpressed stare. “Alright then, let’s discuss this ‘balance training’ you’re all working so hard on. Why is balance important?”

All four of them stared at him blankly, and then exchanged glances. In typical fashion, it was Mallow who decided to give it a shot in the dark. “Because… if you fall over… you leave yourself open?”

“Good start,” he admitted. “And?”

“And… um… Sophocles, you were telling us about this before! Go on, tell Professor Kukui!”

“What?” he yelped, and gaped at Kukui’s deadpan expression for a moment before scrabbling for an answer. “Well, it… uh… it um… it’s about aim! Yeah, um, because you’re moving around a lot in battle, and you need to be able to um, keep uh… when you dodge, and you recover, and you need to be able to shoot things straight even when you… haven’t been?”

He was still mildly annoyed, but Kukui couldn’t help but be a little impressed that they’d stumbled their way to a correct guess. And it was kind of amusing to see even Lillie cringing as they waited for his response. The word ‘busted’ kept springing to mind.

“I’m glad you’re all giving such an important aspect of battle the respect it deserves,” he said flatly, and then turned his attention to Lana. “You’re doing well. Popplio really seems to have the power of Aqua Jet under good control.”

“Mm,” she agreed, folding one arm behind her back to hold the other elbow. “We can make it go pretty much any speed we like now!”

“That’s a great start, so now I think you should move onto—” He shot the other three a sideways glance. “—balance control.”

“Balance?” Lana repeated blankly, while Sophocles and Mallow suddenly found something fascinating in the sky and Lillie inspected Snowy’s head fur.

“That’s right. Remember, when Popplio is going up against an opponent, they won’t just stand still and take a hit. Popplio needs to be able to follow if they dodge, preferably without losing its Aqua Jet.”

“Oh… I suppose,” she said. “But what does that have to do with balance?”

“Lillie?” Kukui asked dryly. “Since I imagine you know just as much as Sophocles and Mallow, you can explain it to Lana, can’t you?”

She actually squeaked. He let her stew for a full three seconds before going back to Lana.

“Try it yourself – spin quickly, like this,” he said, and then kicked off with one leg, spinning on the ball of his other foot fast enough that he had to catch himself with the first and still slid a bit before coming to a stop.

All four of them stared at him, but Mallow eventually shrugged and stepped back a little to give it a try. She yelped as her weight tipped into the spin and she staggered after it, having to grab Lillie’s waist to avoid falling. Lana blinked, then tried it herself, but slower, more like a Coordinator would when calling for a flashy move. Kukui shook his head.

“Faster. You have to throw your whole body into it or it defeats the purpose of the experiment.”

Sophocles and Lillie exchanged confused glances, but Lana just nodded seriously and tried again. This time, her feet got tangled up in her sandals before she’d even really begun, and she actually fell over.

“Lana!” Lillie gasped, and Sophocles winced.

“You okay?”

She didn’t answer, or acknowledge the hand Mallow reached out to help, just set her jaw and kicked off her shoes. She got back to her feet and tried yet again, properly this time, and just like Mallow, ended up tipping into the spin and unable to stop until she’d almost gone around a second time, hunched at a ninety degree angle with her arms spread wide. She blinked at the ground. “Oh.”

“See how vulnerable you are right now?” Kukui asked. “And when they’re attacking, pokemon move much faster than we do, with a much higher level of force. In battle, Popplio needs balance in order to recover from quick turns, or it puts itself in a worse position than it would have been without turning at all. Always remember, a good battle move isn’t a powerful attack, but an effective move.”

“I see,” she said, and looked out at the lake, where Popplio and Steenee were now paddling around, having more fun than working hard, even by this group’s standards. She clenched her fists and hurried off around to catch its attention again. “Popplio! Come over here, I want to try something!”

“Ah! Lana, wait up! I’ll come with you!” Mallow called, but she paused long enough to grab Lana’s sandals before running after her. The rest of them watched as the two girls hurried over to the section of shore closest to their pokemon and began explaining a new strategy.

After a few seconds, Lillie hummed and looked up at Kukui again. “Professor?”

“Yes, Lillie?”

“I know battling can be a lot of fun, but I don’t really want to do it that much,” she said quietly, and hugged Snowy to her chest. “I don’t really like the idea of Snowy getting hurt.”

“I understand. And there’s nothing wrong with that,” he said. “But even pokemon that never battle will learn moves, and part of being a trainer—even one that doesn’t compete in any events—is helping your pokemon learn to control and understand their abilities.”

“But if you don’t train them, won’t they just never get stronger?” asked Sophocles. “I mean, if a human doesn’t use a muscle, doesn’t it atrophy and go away?”

“To an extent. But muscles don’t disappear, and neither does power. Besides, the metaphor doesn’t work as well as it seems like it would, since power isn’t necessarily related to strength. A pokemon can be physically weak but still have incredible mental or spiritual abilities,” he said slowly. He was vaguely aware that his usual explanation of the problem could upset parts of Lillie she didn’t like to admit to, and had to search for a slightly different angle. As was happening so often lately, a conversation with Ash sprang to mind, and he considered for a split second before adapting it. “Whether you train it or not, a pokemon has inherit abilities that can and will develop over time. Snowy’s ice, for example, or Togedemaru’s electricity. Even if you never asked them to use those abilities, the power itself will remain. It is simply part of what they are as a vulpix and togedemaru.”

“That’s how Snowy knew Powder Snow from the moment it hatched,” Lillie said, and he nodded.

“And just as it had never been trained, it still instinctively used that move when it felt threatened—or mildly annoyed, in that case,” he added, and Lillie winced while Snowy yipped, inexplicably pleased with itself. Kukui grimaced and continued, “—which is a natural reaction. Whether human or pokemon, all sentient creatures have defensive reflexes. When we’re nervous, upset, angry… if ever we can’t control ourselves or our emotions, we lash out. And for a pokemon, who has power over ice or electricity, that can be very dangerous.”

Lillie and Sophocles exchanged glances, then looked at their pokemon.

“As trainers, you’ve formed a bond with your partners,” Kukui continued. “You’ve agreed to help them grow, whether that’s as a fighter or a friend, or both. And part of that is helping them gain control over their abilities. I understand you don’t want to train Snowy to battle, and I honestly don’t think Togedemaru is really suited to that kind of…” He glanced down at it, and couldn’t help grinning at the little pokemon’s vague expression. “…lifestyle. But they still need to understand their abilities. And remember, there are plenty of moves that aren’t aggressive or even have anything to do with battle. Snowy can learn a lot of defensive skills – Baby-doll Eyes, Captivate, Mist, Safeguard… These can be incredibly powerful moves that will only keep Snowy safe.”

“I suppose,” Lillie said softly, while Sophocles still looked doubtful.

“I dunno… I think Togedemaru is pretty good with the moves it has now,” he said, but cringed at Kukui’s arched eyebrow. “Isn’t it?”

“You need to take some responsibility, Sophocles,” he warned. “Togedemaru loses control of itself on a regular basis. One day, it might not just stop at bouncing around – it’s already begun grinding spikes into Pikachu. Pikachu may be strong enough to deal with that, but others aren’t. And if it adds even a little electricity when it’s excited and running into people…”

“I uh… I guess I didn’t think of that,” he admitted, rubbing the back of his head. “I mean, I understand Togedemaru’s power more than anyone. But other people don’t, and… maybe… Togedemaru could kind of… stand to know a little more?”

“Maybe,” he deadpanned, and then flicked his hand, gesturing for them to head off. “Go on, both of you. Stop standing on the sidelines and get some work done.”

“Yes, Professor…”

He watched them go, then hummed to himself and turned back to Ash and Kiawe. As instructed, Kiawe had brought out Marowak, but the session had gone downhill from there, with Marowak waving its bone club and ranting at an entirely bemused Litten. Kiawe had his head in his hands while Ash watched in amused sympathy, no help at all.

And to think he usually preferred practical lessons, Kukui sighed to himself, and headed back to intervene.

Despite Ash successfully driving Team Rocket off with a perfectly executed Z-move, Kukui’s day did not particularly improve.

Once the kids were gone, he had to pack up his notes and head into a meeting with Principal Oak, giving him a quick rundown on everything that had happened in Akala. He left out his own studies, and when Oak started smirking during his explanation of Ash’s trial, he restructured their adventures into dot-points. Olivia and the lab were bad enough – he did not need those kind of looks at school, too.

Unfortunately, dot-points or not, he still had to admit Ash had run off in the middle of the night, and Oak’s smirk vanished into something justifiably unimpressed.

“You seem to be making a habit of losing that boy during teaching hours,” he pointed out, and Kukui winced.

“We’re working on it. He isn’t used to school etiquette – he’s used to being able to go anywhere he likes at any time.” The argument was pretty weak, all things considered, but it was all Kukui had. “It’s not like I could have locked the dorm room to keep him in.”

“Have you actually spoken to him? Told him it isn’t acceptable?”

“Several times now, but…”

Soon, Kukui found himself have a coaching session on class management, despite all his arguments that it was more an issue of Ash’s disregard for the rules than his failure to manage his students correctly. It didn’t take that long, really, but it was annoying when he knew he wasn’t really at fault, and coaching sessions always dragged. The sun setting over the ocean as he dragged himself through his front gate only made his mood worse.

“Whoa, Professor Kukui,” Ash greeted him as he slunk through the door. “You look wiped out.”

A less mature person would have informed Ash that it was all his fault. As it was, Kukui just sighed wearily and peeled off his backpack. “It’s been a long day. How was your afternoon? Anything exciting happen?”

“We went shopping!” Rotom informed him cheerily. “The Pokemart was having a sale! But Ash did not take advantage of the greatest cost savings!”

Kukui grunted vaguely, less interested than he might normally have pretended to be. It was apparently pokemon dinner time, with Ash lining up bowls along the bench while his team crowded around his ankles. It made getting past him to the bedroom a little more difficult than normal, but Kukui just took a breath and let it out, too tired to get aggravated.

Rotom, however, followed him in to continue complaining. “I told Ash that he would be best served buying the jumbo bags of pokechow. They only come in two varieties, one of which would have been ideal, but Ash refused! I told him the protein-base of one would help Lycanroc and Litten grow, and that Rowlet would benefit as well, but he would not listen to me!”

“It’s his money to spend, Rotom,” Kukui said wearily as he placed his bag on his desk. He stared at the wall, remembering only a few months ago when a day like this could have ended with a beer and a packet of potato chips. As it was, he took another breath and headed back out to start on dinner.

“It is not an efficient use of spending! Ash does not have a steady stream of income right now! He should be maintaining thrifty spending habits!” Rotom insisted. It flew past Kukui’s head to instead get in Ash’s way as he juggled all four full bowls into his hands. “Your bank balance may be acceptable now but it will not last!”

Ash ducked under it and set down the bowls, his pokemon immediately shoving their way past to get at them. Once he was content they were behaving, he straightened up and set one hand on his hip, levelling Rotom with a blank look. “Yeah, but even if I cared about stuff like that, don’t you think it’d be pretty boring eating the same thing every day? I’d rather everyone enjoy what they eat!”

“Variety is the spice of life. And pokechow,” Kukui absently joked, grabbing the pokechow box Ash had left out on his way past the counter. He put it away and then turned to the fridge, trying to muster up some motivation to cook. “Did you have a snack after school?”

“Huh? Oh, yeah, we got malasadas,” Ash said. “There’s one for you in the corner, but I don’t know if it’s still good – we didn’t know when you’d be home.”

Kukui glanced at him, then over at the small paper bag he hadn’t properly noticed before. Weirdly, seeing it soothed his general irritation at life for a second, before he went back to gathering ingredients.

“By my calculations, it should be almost room-temperature, but still soft!” Rotom announced, spinning around in mid-air before zooming off to scoop up the television remote. “And now, it is time for my evening meal! Alola News!”

The sound of the television—currently on a commercial, no less—bit through any patience the offered malasada might have restored, but Kukui just took another breath and tried to work through it. When he finished putting ingredients out to start cooking, he looked up to find Ash leaning over the counter with his arms folded, his brow furrowed slightly as he watched him.

Kukui couldn’t quite keep his tone even as he asked, “Something wrong, Ash?”

“I was gonna ask you that,” he said slowly. “You seem kinda…”

“Frustrated?” he suggested, and forced a smile. “It’s nothing. I’ve just had quite a few difficult conversations today.”

“That’s no good. Y’wanna talk about it?”

He had to quash an unkind urge to snort. A kid who could practically be the poster-boy for repressed negativity offering to play sounding board to a full grown adult. He settled with a wry smirk and focussed on sorting ingredients. “Most of it was just teacher-stuff, Ash.”

“Yeah, Sophocles said you were kind of mad at him today,” he said, and the hesitated before adding, “If it helps, I think you were right. Even pokemon that don’t know how to fight should still know their own powers. ‘A weapon you hold but don’t know how to use is your enemy’s weapon’. A ninja told me that.”

Despite both himself and how serious Ash sounded, Kukui still found himself glancing up, vaguely amused. “A ninja did?”

“Yup! Well, actually, he said that ‘a leek you won’t cook is someone else’s ingredient’, but he was talking about a farfetch’d that didn’t want to fight with its leek and it all got kinda weird, but my friend Brock said that was what he probably meant,” he said, blinking wide eyes. “Then the ninja hit him over the head with a wooden sword for not listening. Which was weird too. Most of the ninjas I know don’t use wooden swords. Now I remember it, I don’t really think he was a very good ninja.”

Kukui could only stare at him blankly for a few more seconds. “You’ve met a lot of ninjas to know?”

“Yeah, I seem to run into them a lot. Well, ninjas and directors. And school teachers. And farmers. Loads of farmers. Probably not surprising when I spend so much time walking through farmland,” he added, then scrunched up his nose. “The robots are always weird though.”

“Robot… farmers…?” he repeated slowly.

“Huh? Oh, yeah, one or two. But it’s hard not to remember the ninjas. Especially that guy.”

He found his voice a little strangled as he pointed out, “At least you remembered his lesson, I suppose.”

“Yeah… I like your lessons way better though,” Ash said honestly, his tone so sincere that Kukui was stuck for a few seconds, part of him stubbornly refusing to let go of his irritation. But it was really hard when Ash was still talking, completely ridiculous and utterly serious. “There’s a lot less onions, too. I still don’t get how he used them as smoke bombs…”

Kukui kept staring at him for a few moments, because that was how long it took for the mental image to properly form. A ninja, strung with bandoliers holding three different kinds of onions, wielding a bokken and, for some reason in his head, brandishing a ladle. He lasted all of two more seconds before his head dropped and he had to slap a hand to his mouth to keep back embarrassingly high-pitched sniggers.

It was more stupid than funny, and later he decided it was just the release of tension, but it took him almost a minute to calm down again, and when he looked up, it was to find Ash watching him, chin in his palm and a soft smile on his lips. Kukui paused, then realised he’d probably just been played and had to huff, impressed despite himself.

“An onion-throwing ninja, huh?”

“Well…” Ash said, smile hitching up into a cheeky grin for a second, “I have met a lot of crazy ninjas, and at least a couple of farfetch’d that didn’t want to risk their leeks in a fight. But maaaaaybe not at the same time. Gotcha to smile though, right?”

He chuckled. Even the television sounded a little less obnoxious after that. “Alright, alright. Nicely done, Ash.”

“Well, I figured if it works for me, it’d at least do something for you,” he said. “There’s so much crazy, super cool stuff in this world. Maybe not an onion-throwing ninja, but there are guys that run around in samurai armour, robot farmers, real-life superheroes with masks and capes, and pokemon that can turn crazy politicians into lickylicky! Whenever I remember the fun stuff like that, the annoying conversations and the bad stuff that happens… they don’t seem so bad. Don’t you think?”

Kukui paused, considering that for what it was worth, then nodded and picked up his knife to go back to cooking. “I see your point. Everything balances out if you remember it.”

“Besides,” he added brightly, closing his eyes in another grin. “Loads of people really have told me that weapon thing and a couple of them really were ninjas! I never thought it was too big of a deal when you’re talking about pokemon that don’t battle, but I can see what you meant. It kinda makes sense.”

“I’m glad you approve,” he drawled. “Next time, I’ll let you tell the others about the value of participating in practical lessons and I’ll come up with the silly story, how about that?”

Ash giggled. “Sure thing, Professor!”

He shook his head, but decided he may as well bite the bullet, since they were talking. “On a more serious note, you actually can do something to help me out though, Ash. Part of my meeting with Principal Oak today was about how you disappeared during the field trip,” he explained. “It reflects badly on me as your teacher when I don’t know where you are during school time. I know you can take care of yourself, so I know I don’t need to worry about you—” The fact he probably would anyway was beside the point. “—but I need you to remember that you’re not the only one it affects when you run off like that.”

He blinked at him, then winced but nodded once. “Sure. Sorry, Professor. I uh… I can’t promise it won’t happen again, but I’ll try and be better about it.”

"You'll 'try'," he sighed, rolling his eyes up to the ceiling. “I guess that’s all I can ask for now.”

Ash cringed guiltily, and asked, “How about the other stuff? It kinda seems like you’re worried about more than that.”

“Well, Principal Oak and the class were the worst of it,” he assured him. “Everything else is just stuff I’m going to have to deal with on my own time. But thanks for worrying.”

“It’s just like you said, Professor: when you’re at home, you shouldn’t have to hide how you’re feeling!” he said cheerfully. “I’m always here to listen!”

He barked out a laugh. “Oh-ho, now you’re throwing my words back at me! That doesn’t seem fair!”

“Really? It seems plenty fair to me!” Ash shot back, somehow both playful and pointed at the same time. “If you’re gonna be there to listen to me complain about stuff, then I’m gonna be there to listen to you. It’s about sharing the load!” He tilted his head on his hand, shifting his gaze over to the pokemon still scarfing down dinner. His smile faded a little, and he looked away again, only to immediately go back to smiling at Kukui. “You’re doin’ so much for me. Teaching me, letting me stay here with you, cooking and cleaning and even bein’ there when I mess up or get all weird,” he said. “Can’t I at least be here when you need someone to talk to?”

Kukui hesitated, then put down his knife and took a few steps back until he could lean against the far counter, just watching Ash thoughtfully for a few seconds. It was a frustratingly good point, if you ignored the fact that he was a grown adult and Ash was a kid, legal terms be damned. But somehow he didn’t think that argument would work, in the same way that pointing out the hypocrisy in Ash of all people trying to get anyone to open up wouldn’t help either.

So instead he closed his eyes, smiled, and shrugged helplessly. “I think you’re selling yourself a little short there, Ash. But I’ll take the Helping Hand as it’s intended. In the meantime, why don’t you talk me through how you fixed your Continental Crush problem?”

“Huh?” He lifted his head off his palm, blinking again, and Kukui grinned.

“You might be able to balance the bad things in life by remembering the crazy ones, but these last few months, I’ve found a much better mechanism,” he said. “Believe it or not, listening to your stories and theories has been enlightening, and it’s remarkably…” He paused, trying to find the right word for it. All that was coming to mind was a vague sense of stability. Things made a bit more sense in his head, somehow. Which was crazy to even suggest, given how stressful and confusing living with Ash could be sometimes, but… that was what it was. “Talking to you about things like this can really clear my head. So go ahead. Clear it out.”

Ash just stared at him for a few seconds, then awkwardly flicked his eyes off to the side before coming back again. “Uh… okay, I guess if you’re sure…” He shifted his gaze back to the pokemon. “It’s kinda funny you ask, with what we were just talkin’ about. Sharing the load and all? Because I realised that was kind of the problem.”


“Yeah. I mean, you were right – Lycanroc not knowing how to handle its energy and all. But I really wasn’t helping. I mean, back in the Grand Trial, when we fought together? I think maybe it was relying a bit too much on me. And maybe I wasn’t giving it enough credit. It’s kind of a bad habit I have, trying to take everything on myself,” he said with a quick grimace. “But that’s not what makes a Z-move work. A Z-move is all about a trainer and a pokemon working together as a team. Each of them putting their energy in together, neither one doing more than the other. Right?”

“That’s right,” he agreed, pushing off the counter to get back to cooking. “So you got the move to work by remembering to share the load, huh?”

“Yup. We’ve still got a long ways to go before it’s really as good as it can be, but it’s pretty okay for now,” he said, and then folded his arms back over the bench with an even wider grin. “We’ve just gotta keep workin’ on getting to know each other, and trusting each other. That’s how we’ll really become strong!”

And get through everything that could bring you down, Kukui agreed, letting the last of his annoyance slide away.

It was much easier to be in a better mood the next day. After the day of practical lessons, so soon after their trip to Akala, even Ash and Kiawe were happy to buckle down to some theory work. Berry effects didn’t make for the most interesting lesson in the world, particularly when they were just working through calculations, but it was a nice, quiet lesson even after Mallow ran off to work early.

Quiet enough that Kukui actually got the chance to go back to his horrific inbox and clear out a few more emails while the kids were working, which gave him the mental fortitude to actually risk going into the lab to finish the job after school. Only another hundred and thirty-seven to go!

“Oh, hey Kukui,” was Artocarpus’s welcome as he strode into the lab. “I thought Cassia said you were planning that study trip for the school?”

“Ah, yeah, I’ll get to that,” he said, waving it off. “I have an even better job to get through right now: emails!”

“Always fun,” he drawled. “Hey, when are you bringing your kid around again? I want to tell him why his idea about evolution as growth is stupid.”

“He’s not my kid, and I doubt he even remembers the conversation, Arty,” he said. “Not everyone cares about move set limitations like you and I.”

“They should!”

He snorted but didn’t even slow down on his way to his desk. The reminder of his colleagues’ interest in Ash made him glance over at Cassia, but she was staring balefully at her computer, apparently halfway through some kind of contract. He continued over to his desk in peace and settled in for his own thrilling adventure in digital communication.

It still wasn’t interesting. He’d cleared out the sponsorship and outreach requests in a fit of motivation earlier on, which left him with just the lab updates. Starting with… Artocarpus apparently switching focus for his paper. Instead of defining small move sets as a lack, he was instead trying to prove they were proof of evolutionary success. His proof of concept was that Delibird only needed the move Present because it was effective enough without any other abilities.

Kukui raised an eyebrow and then immediately fired off his three-word counterargument: ‘Smeargle and Sketch.’

He heard Artocarpus yell something wordless in response and smirked. He knew there would probably be a rebuttal soon enough (probably something about young smeargle searching out trainers when they were ready to learn more moves or something equally flimsy) but the point remained that it would be a pretty hard sell.

But that was how thesis statements always started. It would probably change again in a few weeks.

Which reminded him of his own research project, still little more than the half-formed bundle of notes it had been two months ago. He kind of wanted to scrap it, maybe start a new one. From what Acacia had said, Z-move energy was probably still off-limits without Kahuna approval, and she was right – even if the impossible happened and Nanu actually bothered to respond, they still needed a fourth Kahuna, and Tapu Fini hadn’t even been seen in years. But now that he had learned a little bit about it, it was that energy that had really piqued his interest. The strength that came from the bond between pokemon and their trainers… whether it was actual energy transfer or motivation or something else… it was all fascinating.

Or maybe he could look into the way humans trained pokemon. The differing methodologies that led to such different strengths and skills. How creativity could expand even a very simple move set, and extreme focus could truly refine a broad one. That one grabbed at him, but he knew it was too broad a topic. He needed something small and simple that he could really dig his teeth into.

He kept vaguely tossing ideas around his head as he continued filing and responding to emails, not really paying as much attention as he probably should have. He vaguely noted an email chain between Acacia and the Ethics Committee again, but mostly all he remembered was needing to remind her that insulting them probably wasn’t getting her very far in project approval. He clicked off acknowledgement of about seven research updates but couldn’t have told anyone what they were a minute later, and read a dozen more but still only had the vaguest idea of what had happened in his absence.

But at least the job got done, he reminded himself as he headed home. It was something to feel accomplished with. Even more satisfying was that he somehow timed it perfectly with Ash’s own return, and the kid had brought him takeaway dinner from Mallow’s family restaurant and a huge coconut filled with sparkling golden juice that Rotom reported came from a legendary oranguru in the forest.

“Thanks. I wasn’t sure what I’d do for dinner,” Kukui said as he took both off Ash’s hands and led the way inside. “How was your afternoon?”

“Um… well… You know that feeling where you should’ve learned some really big lesson, only you don’t know enough about what’s going on and so everything’s just weird?” he asked as Kukui tried the juice. He wanted to focus on what Ash was saying, but the juice turned out to be a lot stronger than he’d anticipated and he instead found himself having to blink his way past a head spin. Ash didn’t seem to mind though, focussed on the perfectly-timed dance he and Pikachu always performed in getting his backpack off without Pikachu having to leave its perch on his shoulders. “I’m pretty sure something super important happened to Mallow and her dad but I’ve got no idea what it was.”

“You’d be amazed how often that happens to me with you kids,” Kukui said, glancing between him and the juice. “Did you drink any of this?”

“Huh? Oh, no, not that one. Oranguru and Mallow’s dad made us some, but I asked Oranguru for yours afterward,” he said absently, and climbed up just enough of the ladder to put his backpack away before heading back down and across to the couch. He flopped down on it with a huff, and Pikachu dropped into his lap only to immediately begin demanding head pats. In typical fashion, he obliged even as he refocussed on Kukui. “It used a different pile of berries for yours – is it okay?”

“Oh, it’s great,” he said. And it was. He’d just been a little terrified for a second there that Ash was drunk and hiding it really well. “Just checking. So everything turned out alright with the TV show?”

“Seemed to. Mallow left before they finished, apparently. Because of whatever happened between her and her dad,” he said. “But they seemed okay by the time we all left, so I guess it doesn’t matter.”

“I suppose,” he said, and grabbed a fork from the kitchen before heading over to sit down on the other arm of the couch. “You don’t seem very happy about it, though.”

“No, I am. It’s great that everything’s great!” he insisted, then made a face. “It’s just that this is the second time in two days that I feel like I missed something, you know? I’m used to it with Team Rocket, but now Mallow, too?”

Kukui would have smirked, but he’d just opened the container and was a little busy appreciating the smell of delicious food he hadn’t cooked himself. But he did manage to shoot Ash a playful glance. “You don’t have to be involved in everything. Remember that lesson we gave Mallow?”

Pikachu chuckled. “Pikapi ka pikachuu.”

“Like you’re any better,” Ash told it, and it froze, then giggled again, lifting a hand to shamefully rub the back of its head. Ash just sighed and slumped a little further down on the couch. “It just feels so weird…! I don’t like being on the outside!”

His pout was kind of hilarious, but Kukui was pretty sure Ash wouldn’t appreciate that observation, so he just busied his mouth with food and let him sulk.

It was probably good for him, anyway.

Lesson Fifteen: Data Gaps

Principal Oak did a quick check of the numbers, looking between the website, his calculator, and Kukui’s spreadsheet before glancing back up at the screen. “Do you know, I think it might be achievable.”

“It seems like a huge imposition, though,” Kukui said, even as his insides jolted with hope and excitement. “Six kids, two adults, all our pokemon… the sheer monetary sacrifice…”

On the screen, Delia and Professor Oak exchanged glances, and then broad grins, before Delia bounced forward in a distractingly familiar way. “Oh, don’t worry about that! I’m used to cooking for crowds, and it’s only for two days!”

“And it’s hardly anything for me at all,” Professor Oak insisted. “Your pokemon will barely be a dent on the Ranch, there aren’t any trainers expected for weeks, and the barn could do with worse than having a group of teenagers sleep in it overnight!”

“Without the cost of food and board…” Principal Oak reminded Kukui, “the airfares are almost reasonable, even for such a short trip.”

“There’s still the question of the gyms,” Kukui reluctantly argued. “If I remember Kanto correctly, the gym leaders aren’t going to give a school group a tour for free. They’re barely charitable to League trainers.”

Delia and the Professor actually laughed at that one. “Things have changed in Kanto since your Journey, Kukui,” Oak informed him. “And even if they hadn’t, we have connections.”

“Connections?” he repeated blankly. It still struck him, every time, to realise that the great Professor Oak was just as quirky as his cousin, if in a different way. It kind of made him wonder how he himself must seem to people who hadn’t gotten to know him.

“That’s right!” Delia said cheerfully. “In fact, Professor Oak, if you wouldn’t mind me borrowing your phone, I’ll call the Cerulean Gym right now!”

He handed his mobile over with a knowing smirk, and Delia quickly dialled a number from memory. She barely had to wait before breaking into an excited grin. “Misty! It’s Delia, dear, how are you?”

Kukui blinked, the better to squash the urge to dance.

He was getting a school-funded trip to Kanto.

Kukui wasn’t too proud to admit that he was still buzzing with excitement that night. He hadn’t been inside a real gym for years, and it had been even longer since he’d gone to Kanto. The nostalgia alone would have been enough to have him on cloud nine, even without the chance to gather research about building an Alolan League, speak to the Professor Oak in person, explore the Pokemon Professor’s actual lab, probably see a real live gym battle again, and… and… and…!

“I’m home.”

“We have returned!”

His brain ground to a halt as Ash, Rotom, and Pikachu rounded the entrance.

He’d have a chance to properly talk to Delia.

Two days was absolutely not going to be enough time.

“Welcome back,” he greeted, trying to keep a straight face. Whether he managed it or not was irrelevant, as Ash immediately focussed on Lycanroc bounding over from where it and Litten had been curled up asleep.

“Hey, Lycanroc! Were you good today?” he asked, and laughed awkwardly as Lycanroc shoved its ruff spikes into his chest. “Hey, come on…!”

“Pi-kachu!” Pikachu cheered, leaping over onto its back. Lycanroc pranced around like it could catch it, leaving Ash free to let out a relieved breath and wave at Litten.

“Hey there. Did you have a good day?”

“Mrrow,” it replied, and Ash grinned before getting back to his feet.

“Let me put my bag away and then I’ll get everyone’s dinner together.”


Pokemon properly greeted and amused, Ash was finally able to focus on Kukui as he walked toward the loft. “Hey, Professor. Whatever you’re cooking smells great!”

“I’m trying my hand at ramen. I was a little inspired today,” he said, but his attempt at mystery went unnoticed, as Ash just made a vague noise and concentrated on climbing the ladder. It was Rotom to fly over and peer at his broth.

“You appear to be using a traditional Sinnoh recipe. That is highly unusual in contemporary cuisine!” it reported. “How appropriate, to first cook ramen in a historically accurate way!”

“It was the easiest recipe I could find,” he admitted, and then looked up at the loft. “How was your afternoon? You went out with Mallow and Lana, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, Lana wanted to try out her Z-move,” Ash explained. “Popplio didn’t do very well, though. It got all dizzy and knocked itself out.”

“I’m not surprised. Popplio hasn’t quite mastered quick turns with Aqua Jet, and Hydro Vortex is really just a super-powered Aqua Jet moving in a whirlpool pattern. Still, I’m sure they’ll manage in time,” he said. “How did Lana take it?”

“She’s pretty worried. I don’t think she’s seen Popplio knocked out since the day she caught it,” he said as he reappeared sans bag but now with Rowlet perched on one arm. He still somehow managed to clamber down the ladder like it was nothing. “Mallow and I are gonna go visit her before school tomorrow. I’m sure it’s fine, but you know what Mallow’s like.”

“Yes, and I know what you’re like too,” he teased. “But it’s probably not a bad idea in this case. Z-moves don’t have to be battle-oriented, but you certainly have more experience with training your pokemon. Lana could probably use some advice.”

“Yeah, I don’t know,” he said, folding his arms behind his head. “I’m not really a very good teacher. Besides, I kinda think Lana’s one of those people that has to do stuff on her own for it to mean anything, you know?”

“Very true. She can be very determined when she wants to be!”

“No kidding. But it’ll be cool to see her train,” Ash paused, then shrugged and set about collecting pokemon food bowls. “Maybe I’ll even learn something to help my water-types back home!”

“Maybe,” Kukui agreed with a grin. That was another thing he’d get to do in Kanto – see all of Ash’s pokemon. Argh, a weekend really wasn’t going to be enough time! He needed a month!

For the rest of the week, helping Lana and Popplio to perfect Hydro Vortex became a bit of a class project, with Ash and Mallow at the lead. Every afternoon, the two of them—sometimes with other classmates in tow—would hurry off with Lana after school, chattering about bubbles.

“Lana’s got herself a ‘Master’,” Ash explained one night. “This really nice lady that works as an entertainer on the foreshore. But I’m not sure either of them really know what they’re doing!”

“You mean with training?” Kukui prompted. “You don’t think it’s effective?”

“I think everyone has their own way of training!” he said cheerfully, only to wince a little guiltily. “But I have to admit what they’re doin’ is kind of, uh… limited? And I don’t really get what it has to do with Hydro Vortex. But I guess I don’t really know how a water type Z-move works, so I shouldn’t talk, right?”

He shrugged, scooping up another mouthful of curry that he ended up speaking around. “That’s debatable. You’ve had a few water-types over the years, haven’t you? Have any of them known Aqua Jet, or Whirlpool?”


“It’s the same basic theory,” he said as he dug around his plate for more sauce. “But as you said, there’s probably merit in letting Lana learn in her own way.”

“They’re trying to build up Popplio’s strength by focussing on the strength of its balloons,” Ash said slowly. “And I guess I can see that – Popplio’s probably only as strong as its balloons. But Lana’s literally not doin’ anything but getting Popplio to make bubbles and throw them against Brionne’s. I don’t get how that helps make it stronger. I mean, yeah, if you do the same thing over and over you’re gonna get better at it, but they’re not even stoppin’ to see where they went wrong, they just do it again. Maybe it’s making the stuff that Popplio uses to make balloons stronger, like the muscles and stuff? Or maybe it’s just a determination thing? You know, like when you really believe and want to be able to do something, eventually you can, and then if you do that enough then you don’t even have to believe because it’s just what it is?”

Kukui frowned around his fork, trying to see the logic himself. Ash probably had a reasonable guess with his first point – Popplio’s evolutionary line was very tightly linked to the bubble move-family, so it was a reasonable gauge of their power, testing the balloons to see strength. But Hydro Vortex was the generic water-type Z-move, not specific to the evolutionary line. Catering solely to the line’s special ability would be a little… stifling for more generic moves.

“You have a broader perspective,” Kukui said finally. “Your personal training style takes more into account. If you’ll forgive the assumption, I think this master of Lana’s has never needed to consider her brionne outside the tasks she specifically uses it for. So it makes sense that you don’t see her training as adequate.”

Ash flinched. “I – I’m not saying – I mean, I’m sure it’s great and – It’s not that I don’t –”

“I didn’t say you were insulting it,” he said, waving him down. “Just that you would train your pokemon in a more extensive way. And as it happens, so would I, and Kiawe, and probably most trainers taking the Island Challenge.”

It took a moment, but Ash quickly relaxed as he realised Kukui didn’t think he was being a jerk for having a negative opinion. He still shrugged and pointed out, “But I guess it’s important to remember that everyone trains their pokemon in their own way, for their own reasons.”

“That is a fact,” he agreed, even as he refocussed on his curry. “Though between you and me, I think it sounds like a really boring way to train.”

“It really is,” Ash said guiltily, before perking up. “Super pretty, though!”

“And that’s something to someone,” he said, and Ash grinned. The shared opinion would be their secret to keep. What Lana didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her.

While Ash was busy with training, Kukui’s attention was almost solely focussed on the upcoming trip to Kanto.

Most of his afternoons were spent in meetings with Principal Oak, or calling Kanto and the airline to sort out all the finer details of their trip. They had to have everything organised before they sent permission slips home to the parents, and for some reason the League had decided to get involved, making it more difficult than it needed to be.

“And I have yet another ‘request’,” Tracey said, slumping down in his chair. As Professor Oak’s assistant, he’d been volunteered to sort out the paperwork, and he was clearly getting just as frustrated as Kukui was feeling about it all. “The League has asked for a statement signed by both Officer Jenny and Nurse Joy to confirm that Ash is actually enrolled in the Pokemon School as a student, and anything he does in the Cerulean Gym is in that capacity.”

Kukui felt his eyelid twitch, and took a few seconds to sort out his thoughts before pointing out, “Officer Jenny and Nurse Joy have nothing to do with the school. Or the Cerulean Gym.”

“No,” he agreed. “But they are representatives of the League.”

“So am I,” he snapped before he could stop himself. Granted, it got him little more than a title and a newsletter once every three months, but it was a fact.

“But you’re a part of the school and so not a third party,” Tracey said. Luckily, he didn’t seem to be taking Kukui’s tone personally, instead directing it entirely at the intended target. The League was being ridiculous. “If it’s any consolation, they aren’t taking Misty or Professor Oak’s word for it, either. It’s about objectivity, apparently.”

“Why do they even care?” he asked incredulously. “Even if he was challenging it to make another attempt at the Conference, he’d just be one of a thousand competitors.”

Tracey hummed, rolling his eyes up toward the ceiling. “The story they gave us was that he needs to know he can’t challenge any Kanto gyms until he’s reregistered as a contender for the Kanto League. And if we want to push the matter, Lance is more than happy to take our call.”

Lance?” Kukui repeated. “Champion Lance? Why is he involved in this?”

“I think they mostly intended it more as a ‘these are the rules’ sort of statement than anything,” he said mildly.

Hell of a namedrop if that was all it was, Kukui couldn’t help thinking. But Tracey was still staring at the ceiling, so it was hard to judge what he actually thought about it. Kukui narrowed his eyes and said, “I’m almost tempted to push the issue, just in case they follow through. I haven’t spoken to a champion since Lance himself kicked me out of the Elite Four challenge.”

“Well, it also could have been a passive-aggressive hint that he wants a phone call,” Tracey pointed out. “I think Lance is still a little annoyed that Ash stayed with Cynthia that one Summer.”

“He – wait, what?” Kukui asked, and then hunched a little closer to the screen as if that would help his hearing. “Say that all again?”

“Hmm?” Tracey’s eyes finally dropped back down, then blinked, and he laughed. “Oh, it’s nothing. Lance dropped by Pallet after Ash won the Battle Frontier and gave his phone number to Mrs Ketchum with an open invitation for Ash to call. But he phrased it as ‘if Ash ever needed him’, so I don’t think it’s even ever crossed Ash’s mind to take him up on the offer. ”

“No… wait,” he said, holding up a hand to stall him. He wasn’t sure which part to be more shocked over. So he went with the strangest fact first. “Ash won the Battle Frontier? He’s a Brain?!”

“No, he turned it down. Didn’t he tell you?”

Kukui didn’t bother responding to that. “And when you say ‘Cynthia’, do you mean –”

“Champion Cynthia, yes. He met her in Sinnoh, obviously, but he was in Unova when she invited him to spend the Summer at her villa. We’re not sure, because all we’ve ever gotten is an assistant calling Mrs Ketchum to make sure she hadn’t lost Lance’s phone number, but it sounds like Lance got jealous,” he said with a grin. “You should’ve seen Mrs Ketchum. She was so mad. She really doesn’t like the idea of Ash becoming a G-Man.”

Kukui stared a little. Again, he wasn’t sure which point to focus on, so in the end he had to ask, “Is there a Champion or Pokemon Professor Ash doesn’t know personally?”

“Sure. From all the regions he’s never been to,” he said lightly, but his smile showed he was all too aware of Kukui’s amazement. “It’s a habit, Professor. Ash gets to know everyone. And he thinks everyone’s like him, and everyone has gotten to know people like that, so why would he brag about it? They might be some of the most powerful people in the world, but it’s not like it’s unusual for a Pokemon Trainer to meet people in the industry, right?”

“I… well, for a Pokemon Trainer that reaches Conferences, I suppose…” he said slowly. “But for them to…”

“Well,” Tracey continued, his knowing smirk only getting wider. “It’s also not that unusual for Pokemon Trainers to help people deal with their problems, calm down or catch rampaging pokemon, stop criminals, battle other trainers… So what if the person he’s helping out happens to be royalty, the pokemon he’s dealing with is a legendary, the criminal is part of a regional syndicate, or the trainer is a Champion?” he asked, falsely innocent. “Everyone on a Pokemon Journey does stuff like that, don’t they?”

Kukui blinked twice.

“Look, Professor, I travelled with Ash for a few months,” Tracey continued, his smile gaining just the slightest touch of sympathy. “I first met him in the Orange Islands and decided to follow him so I could meet Professor Oak. And we did a lot of things that in hindsight seem pretty incredible. But at the time, none of them seemed that strange at all. All of those things I mentioned really did happen, from dealing with legendary pokemon to running errands for actual crown-wearing royalty. But they weren’t that surprising most of the time. They were just things happened, issues that needed to be dealt with. Sure, meeting someone famous or powerful was kind of cool, but even members of the Elite Four and movie stars are just people living their lives, and if you think about them like that…?” He shrugged helplessly. “Ash likes to help people, no matter who they are, or what their problem is. That includes people that others might normally think were too important to need help. I think that makes a pretty big difference.”

“I… suppose it would,” he said. He was suddenly caught by the memory of how they’d literally just stumbled across DJ Leo. Yes, it turned out that Leo was Kukui’s old school friend, but even so… they had randomly met and engaged a celebrity in casual conversation. And when they heard he was having some personal problem, Ash’s first response was go and make sure he was okay, like he would for any friend. And then help him out, like he would for anyone. Which led to Ash literally saving a celebrity’s career.

It sounded insane for a normal kid to go through, but at the time, Kukui had found the whole thing a little amusing, but entirely sensible.


“And… Ash doesn’t think that’s different from what anyone else does?” he asked slowly, and Tracey hummed.

“We’re not sure anymore,” he said. “It can be kind of hard to tell. I think it’s our own fault, personally – we all used to get on his case for whining and bragging, so now he doesn't do anything that could be construed as either of them. In our defence, he could get pretty obnoxious. But it was a hard lesson learned over a long time, and Ash doesn’t do anything by halves.”

Kukui gazed back at him quietly, judging that against the boy he knew. It seemed like a stretch. Ash could whine and brag with the best of them, but it was all hot air – when things got serious, he got quiet. His usual response to legitimate praise was a smile and a nod, while real concern was met with an uncomfortable look.

But then, Kukui could remember the person he’d been when he started his pokemon journey. Heck, he remembered the person he’d been when he finished his pokemon journey. He liked to think they were very different people to who he was now.

He sighed and rubbed his chin. It spoke of issues he still wasn’t sure Ash would thank him to worry over. “All of that aside… what do you think the goal is in making things so difficult?”

“Honestly? I really do think it’s for legitimate reasons – they’re just being a bit stricter about it because of Ash,” he said bluntly. “Gym challenges have never really been safe in Kanto, even for spectators, and battles are getting a lot more dangerous now that the rules are more complex. You wouldn’t want to set a precedent of a non-registered trainer going in and being able to challenge a Gym Leader. Lieutenant Surge would make mince-meat out of an amateur just to prove a point.”

“But why be strict on Ash? If he’s really a Frontier Brain candidate then he has the credentials to handle himself!” he pointed out, and Tracey shrugged again.

“Yes, but that’s just all the more reason to put their foot down. If someone with that much talent and experience still can’t officially challenge a gym outside the rules of the League, then no one can. And it stops anyone from saying he’s just using the school as a cover to quietly start a new challenge. Given his history, you can imagine why people might have trouble believing he’s really a student.”

Kukui continued staring at him for a few seconds, and to his credit, Tracey did actually manage to keep a straight face for all of them. Then he glanced off to the side, winced, and admitted, “We’ve uh… had a few people accuse us of lying about that, actually. It’s kind of less believable than him going on a secret mission for Lance’s G-Men or the Rangers.”

And with that, something in Kukui’s brain snapped. Either he surrendered to the fact he knew nothing and moved on, or he stopped this whole conversation right there and went to demand Ash explain not only why he’d given up the chance to be a Frontier Brain, but also his relationship with every Champion and Pokemon Professor he’d ever met, why anyone would legitimately suspect he was on a ‘secret mission’, and what the hell he was doing at a school in Alola when he should apparently be off guarding the empress of the seven kingdoms or something.

Somehow, he felt like the answer would be a panicked look and him never seeing Ash again.

“Okay, fine,” he said, throwing up his hands. “I’ll get the statement. In the meantime, let’s run through the itinerary again. I want a few more hours in Pallet if we can get them.”

The walk home from school after his call with Tracey was spent debating whether he should ask Ash about… well, everything. On the one hand, he suspected Ash had good reasons for keeping his secrets, and—moreover—that he deserved to be able to keep them. On the other hand…

But any personal turmoil he had took a back seat when he turned the last corner to home only to see a familiar figure exiting his front gate. “Cassia?”

Either he’d caught her eye or she’d heard him, because she looked up as she put her laptop case in the back of her car and waved. “Evening, Kukui! How’s your trip planning going?”

He didn’t bother answering as he hurried the last hundred metres down the road to join her. “You weren’t looking for me, were you? You could have just called if something was wrong…”

“Who said anything was wrong?” she asked. “I ran into Ash on the beach this afternoon and gave him a lift home so I could formally request that interview. Remember? The one you made me jump through hoops for?”

He remembered. He’d just kind of hoped she wouldn’t get around to following procedure. “So you have everything you need then?”

“He has officially signed the research agreement contract,” she said triumphantly. “And since he’s a Kanto Pokemon Trainer, that’s literally all I need. As a side note, I love Kantonese ethics laws, and think every region should adopt them.”

He ignored that, glancing over at the house. “You’re not doing the interview tonight?”

“No, I’m not prepared. It was only chance that I met him today – if the contract wasn’t electronic I probably wouldn’t have even had that,” she pointed out, and then grinned nastily. “Besides, it’s a confidential interview, Professor Kukui! You wanted me to do this by the book; I’m doing it by the book. No other researchers in the interview space without prior agreement from the source.”

“I’m pretty sure Ash won’t mind me being in my own house,” he deadpanned, and she dipped into a playful curtsey.

“By. The. Book.” She opened her car door and swung around it to drop into the seat. “I’ll be sure to think of you as I listen to all the exciting stories of mega-evolved pokemon battling it out under the direction of skilled trainers using advanced strategies. I won’t tell you about them, since it’s all confidential, but I’ll think of you.”

He snorted despite himself. “I’m so glad you’re not holding a grudge about me demanding professional integrity from my researchers.”

“Alola, Professor Kukui,” she said playfully, pulling her legs into the car.

And with that, she slammed the door shut and drove off. He watched her go, and then sighed and rolled his eyes. Sometimes, he could swear his students were more mature than his colleagues. But it was all an empty threat – either Ash wouldn’t given her enough detail to be of any use, or she’d get too excited to keep all that information to herself. Personally, he was banking on the former – on the rare occasions Ash did choose to describe the things he’d seen and done, he wasn’t exactly great with the details.


“—don’t know what she wants to know about,” Ash was saying as Kukui stepped into the house, cautious and not entirely sure why.

“Professor Cassia stated her intent,” Rotom replied blankly. “She wishes for you to give her a detailed insider’s account of the Kalos pokemon league.”

“Yeah, but I just don’t get –” He abruptly stopped talking at the sound of the door, and poked his head around the wall to smile. “Welcome home, Professor. You’ll never believe what Lana, Mallow, and I are doing tomorrow!”

“Lana and Mallow?” he repeated curiously. What were they doing as part of the interview?

“You know Lana’s master that I told you about? Well, her boyfriend is a treasure hunter! We’re going out with him tomorrow to try and find an old sunken ship off the coast! It’s gonna be so cool! I haven’t gone treasure hunting in ages!”

“You’ve been treasure hunting before?” he asked, and Ash nodded.

“You don’t often get a lot of treasure, but you always see a bunch of really cool pokemon, and exploring is so much fun!”

“Pika pika!” Pikachu added from somewhere around the corner.

“I see. Well, I hope it’s a good day for you,” he said, and stepped into the house proper, one arm rising to point needlessly back at the door. “Ash, about Professor Cassia just now –”

“Oh, yeah.” Ash didn’t exactly look uncomfortable, but there was something awkward about the way he shifted his hands to brace between his knees, arms straight and shoulders hunched. He was still smiling though, his eyebrows raised and easy. “She asked me if we could talk about the Kalos League after school next week. She explained all about it, don’t worry. I like helping out scientists where I can.”

“You… don’t mind?” he asked, and Ash blinked wide eyes.

“Why would I? It’s just kinda weird – people don’t normally talk about the Leagues once they’re done, y’know?”

“Oh… well, alright. Thank you for that, Ash, I’m sure you’ll really help her out,” he said, and turned away to get started on the evening. He was probably worrying over nothing.

It really did turn out to be nothing. Or so he assumed, anyway – he still didn’t really have time to get into the lab much. Now, he spent most of his time chasing down the two gym leaders Oak had arranged to be their guides. In typical gym leader fashion, the one from Cerulean was almost always rushing off to do something, while the (apparently former) leader of Pewter regularly took study trips without any pre-planning. His family would often just wake up to find him gone for the day.

“He’s as bad as our parents used to be,” the current gym leader informed him with a resigned smile. “Not that we’ll tell him that.”

Still, despite his inability to get a hold of the two of them, everything else was progressing smoothly. Kukui would be ready to send the permission slips out on time next week, and then it would be all done until the actual trip, and he could spend all of his time until then organising his own itinerary.

He had no idea how he was going to fit exploring Professor Oak’s lab, diplomatically demanding answers from Delia, researching how to build a pokemon league, meeting Ash’s pokemon, and actually doing his job as a teacher into less than thirty-seven hours. But he was determined.

Either way, it was a problem for next week. This week, he needed to write and get his permission slips approved.

“Accommodation, food, safety,” he muttered, checking off the facts he needed to include. “Pokemon visas, medical… oh, damn, forgot the sleeping arrangements…”

He had a feeling Sophocles’ parents were going to worry over the fact the boys and girls would be spending the night together unsupervised. He briefly entertained the idea of fudging it, claiming they would be under adult supervision. It wouldn’t even be a lie. The gym leaders might not have been that much older than Kiawe but they were adults by Kantonese law! It counted, right?

“We’re home!”

He looked up at the ceiling, startled by the shout. Time had apparently gotten away from him. “I’m downstairs!” he called back, glancing around for a clock. His eyebrows rose in surprise – Ash was home a little earlier than previous nights. Kukui was still late if he wanted to cook dinner, but they had frozen pizza in the freezer. It was fine.

He grimaced at his own thoughts and pushed away from the desk. Not the healthiest or most filling of meals, but needs must.

Ash and Rotom were obviously continuing an argument as he walked up the stairs. “—it’s just an ability. It’s not the only thing that matters in a battle.”

“But it makes a pokemon not only stronger, but faster, too! More powerful in every way!” Rotom insisted. “If a pokemon is mega-evolved, it will almost definitely have the speed to attack first, and will likely have the strength to knock an opponent out in one blow!”

“A mega-evolved pokemon isn’t that much stronger than a Totem Pokemon,” Ash pointed out. He was getting Pikachu and Rowlet’s bowls from the cupboard, not even bothering to look at Rotom despite the mild heat in their tones. “And loads of people beat Totem Pokemon without a mega-evolution or even a Z-move.”

“That is not a fair comparison!” said Rotom. “Mega-evolution is a powerful force aided by the bond between a pokemon and trainer. By default, it is more powerful than any pokemon could be on their own!”

“And I’ve fought mega-evolved pokemon that were terrified of their trainers,” he said. “They may as well have been fighting alone, but they were still as strong as normal ones!”

“Terrified or not, that’s still a bond,” Kukui pointed out, and both Ash and Rotom flinched, obviously not having noticed him arrive. He stepped up beside Rotom and leaned on the bench. “According to Professor Sycamore’s research, mega-evolution needs a strong bond between trainer and pokemon. No one ever said that bond needed to be a happy one.”

Ash stared at him blankly, and Kukui grimaced. “Granted, I’ve never seen it personally, but I’ve never actually seen any mega-evolution, myself. Sycamore’s research isn’t specific, though – maybe ‘bond’ is just another scientific term, just as possibly toxic as Friendship or Affection can be.”

“It… I don’t know,” Ash said, and hesitated another second before going back to getting the pokechow. “But it was different anyway. Near as I can tell, most people can only mega-evolve one pokemon at a time. This guy could do lots at once. He used this magic staff thingy to do it, and it seemed to hurt the pokemon pretty badly. It was lousy from start to finish.”

“I wish I had been able to see it!” Rotom said. “I would be very interested in recording data on mega-evolution! It would be fascinating to compare positively-bonded mega-evolution against negatively-charged ones!”

Ash gave it a dirty look. “It wasn’t fascinating. It hurt them.”

“Pokemon are often hurt in battle,” it replied smartly, and Ash balked, physically pulling away like Rotom had attacked him.

“That’s… not…”

“Pikachu pika pika,” Pikachu said, and they all looked around. It had been waiting patiently outside the kitchen, but it quickly ran over to scamper up Ash’s side and push its head into his jaw before turning a determined glare on Rotom. “Pikapi kapi pikachu pika pika.”

“I do not understand,” Rotom said blankly, and Kukui shrugged.

“I can’t speak for Pikachu, but as a wrestler myself?” he interjected. “There’s a difference between getting hurt in a fight you see value in, and getting hurt purely for someone else’s gain. A good trainer wouldn’t make a pokemon battle if they weren’t interested in fighting.”

“That may be true,” Rotom agreed. “But surely by agreeing to battle, the pokemon agrees to any associated pain, regardless of the source or reason.”

Kukui frowned, unconsciously shifting his weight away. “Not at all. There are lines and limits to everything, especially when you’re dealing with dangerous things like battle and pain,” he said. “You can’t just look at things from a yes/no, black and white perspective.”

“I do not understand,” it said again, and he sighed.

“You’re looking at it like a computer, RotomDex. Real life is a lot more complicated than binary options.”

“Pikapi ka kapikapika pikachu,” Pikachu said stubbornly. It pushed back into Ash’s cheek again, and then settled down close to his neck. “Pikachu pika pika.”

“Thanks, buddy,” Ash said quietly, reaching up to hold it in place for a moment before finally going back to the pokechow.

“Issues of ethics aside,” Kukui continued slowly, “I’ll admit mega-evolution through differing bonds is a fascinating concept. And it would be interesting to compare it to a Totem Pokemon, or the power of a Z-move. I wonder if it’s the same kind of energy.”

“Mega-evolution and Z-moves?” asked Ash. “Um… I don’t think so.”

“You don't? Why not?”

“It doesn’t feel the same. Close, but not the same,” he said, and scrunched his nose up, obviously trying to remember. “Kinda like how a pizza and a pide kind of taste the same, but are totally different at the same time.”

Which was a truly unusual metaphor, but Kukui could kind of follow it. It also reminded him he’d been intending to cook frozen pizza. He ducked around Rotom to head for the oven. “I didn’t know you had a key stone, Ash. Which pokemon can you mega-evolve?”

“Huh? Oh, I can’t,” he said. “I don’t have any mega evolution stuff. I just know about the energy from watching other people and… and some stuff that happened. What me and Greninja do is different again. Like a calzone!”

Kukui raised an eyebrow as he turned the oven on for preheating. “Call me crazy, but I’m getting the strangest feeling you might be hungry, Ash.”

“Starving,” he confirmed, and Kukui snorted.

“Well, let’s see what we can do about that.”

As he got out the pizza and tried to hunt down ingredients for a quick salad, Ash finished pouring the pokechow and put it out for the two pokemon that had spent their day out of their balls, though he had to prod Rowlet awake for it. Kukui had just paused cutting up a carrot, abruptly realising that Ash had mentioned something odd about himself and a Greninja before, when Rotom suddenly demanded attention again.

“There are no official and verified scales of measurement for either Z-moves or attacks performed by mega-evolved pokemon!” it announced. “Therefore the two cannot be analysed for recommendations! This is a deficit in my knowledge! How am I supposed to advise Ash on how to combat mega-evolved pokemon if there is no comparative data available?!”

“It’s not exactly likely to happen, Rotom,” Kukui said, frowning. He should have followed up that comment about Greninja when he had the chance. It would seem strange now. “Mega-evolution isn’t very common outside Kalos.”

“Besides, like I was saying before,” Ash added, “being mega-evolved doesn’t straight away mean you’re gonna win a match.”

“But it is statistically improbable that you will lose!” Rotom insisted. “The increase in power-level—”

“—is nothing if you can’t land a hit,” Ash reminded it.

“Perhaps, but a mega-evolved pokemon has a far greater speed rating—”

“All that means is you need to react better!”

“—and a much greater pool of health and stamina to—”

“Everything falls down if you hit it long and hard enough!”

“You are being illogical!” Rotom screeched, and Kukui raised his eyebrow again.

“How so?” he asked. “Ash has personal experience with mega-evolution. In fact, for him to have made it to the finals of the Kalos League, he would have had to have personally beaten at least a few mega-evolved pokemon. I know the gym rosters there – most of the Gym Leaders have mega-evolutions and use them readily. Proven evidence always overrides calculated predictions.”

Ash stared blankly, obviously lost, but Rotom flailed. “But the evidence is not proven! I have not seen it! It has not been recorded! It cannot be verified!”

“No, but Ash is a reliable source,” he argued. “I highly doubt he’s mistaken about whether the opponents he beat were mega-evolved or not. It’s pretty easy to tell.”

“But the data says –”

“The data is inconclusive!” he said, annoyed and exasperated. “Not even that – it’s incomplete! It can’t be contradicted. All we have is a few recordings of data increase in specific pokemon that have mega-evolved – we don’t even have enough data to form a guide for a single kind of mega-stone. And the only official data on Z-moves is what you’ve gathered yourself. Meanwhile, you have a reliable source providing you anecdotal evidence that provides context for your limited data. You can’t ignore it just because it doesn’t fit your hypothesis. That’s like arguing…” He trailed off, his gaze going unfocussed as he recognised his own hypocrisy. “That’s like arguing… that the moon doesn’t exist… because all you can see… is the reflection of the sun…”

Psychics. Aura. Energy. What he himself had been learning all month. All things he'd previously blown off as ridiculous, and all things one of his colleagues had been actively studying for years.

He’d called Acacia a quack. To her face.

He closed his eyes, resisting the urge to slap himself. There were many apologies in his future.


Ash and his pokemon were all staring at him worriedly, so he coughed awkwardly to avoid the subject. “Why are you even worrying about this, Rotom?” he asked, glancing over at it. It was giving him its version of a blank stare, though he wasn’t sure that was because he’d just gone on a rant or because it was awaiting the end of his thought. “Is this about what Ash and Professor Cassia have been discussing?”

“Yes,” it said. “The data is confusing. Ash has been identifying the pokemon he saw during the League, and I have been comparing them to data based on the pokemon he claims to have used. I do not understand how he could have defeated such strong opponents so easily. Poor technique on behalf of the other trainers may provide some explanation, but mega-evolution should have overcome these issues.”

“I kinda feel insulted,” Ash grumbled, and Kukui smiled but didn’t comment.

“Professor Cassia agrees that Ash’s information does not match her expectations, which is why the interview has continued over several days,” Rotom continued. “And yet what little evidence she can find online does corroborate his version of events, implying Ash is telling the truth.”

“I wouldn’t lie about it,” Ash pointed out, offended.

“And so I am proposing that there is a fault in the data!” Rotom said triumphantly. “An unknown quantity! Either the mega-evolution of his opponents was somehow incomplete, or Ash was using a special ability!”

“And I didn’t! Not all the time,” Ash objected. “I even beat mega-evolved pokemon with Hawlucha! Hawlucha doesn’t have any special powers at all!”

“And so it defeating a mega-evolved pokemon is statistically impossible!” Rotom cried. “Therefore, there must be a fault in the provided data!”

Like a psychic pokemon, hiding just out of sight, to make it look like a stage magician was levitating a cup, Kukui thought to himself, and pushed his glasses up to pinch the bridge of his nose. The self-reflection was almost painful.

“Well, Rotom,” he said, pulling his hand down his face. “As I have recently been so regularly reminded, if the provided data doesn’t make sense, and you aren’t content with incongruous results, then you need more data.” His eyes flickered over to Ash. “The question is whether you think the difficulty in gathering that data is worth the result.”

“Of course it is!” Rotom cried, bouncing in the air. “Knowledge is always worth the journey it took to find it!”

From a computer that didn’t understand pain or limits…? Kukui grimaced and didn't respond.

“Well, I don’t know what you expect to find out,” Ash said, pumping his fist, “but if it means that much to you, I’ll help in any way I can! But uh, you kinda have to believe me when I tell you what I’ve seen, you know?”

“I always believe you, Ash! As long as you're making sense!”

“We’re not gonna get anywhere, are we?”

Kukui shrugged. Painful and frustrating as it had been, he’d gotten past his preconceptions, and it was ever so slowly bringing him closer to understanding the mystery that was Ash Ketchum. It was always possible Rotom would do the same with its problem.

Who knew? At the rate Kukui was going, he was starting to think they might end up with the same answer.

But in the meantime, he probably owed Acacia some chocolates.

“I’m sorry I used bad science?”

Kukui smiled as he casually leaned one elbow on Acacia’s prototype, the other hand braced on his hip. “Also for not acknowledging your theories or giving you credit for good science. But that didn’t look quite so punchy on the card.”

She raised an eyebrow, then shrugged and set the card aside so she could open the box of chocolates. She offered it to him before taking one herself. “You’re forgiven until the next time you do it. What’s this about specifically?”

“I spent a lot of time talking with Olivia while we were on Akala Island. She taught me how to see energy outside of Z-moves,” he explained. “It would seem your theories on human energy are true. And if humans can have power so similar to that used by pokemon, it’s not inconceivable that some of the other things you’ve suggested are also true. To dismiss them out of hand just because they don’t make sense to me is bad science.”

She leaned her head back, considering him with narrowed eyes for a moment, then shrugged. “Yes, it is. But it’s also fairly common. I didn’t take it personally except when you were being obnoxious. And even then, that’s half your personality, so I moved on for the most part,” she said lightly, and he twitched but ultimately decided he deserved that. Besides, she had already turned away, going back to the coding on her prototype.

“How’s this thing going, by the way?” he asked, looking down at it, and she shrugged.

“Not bad. I can isolate multiple readings now, so I can compare energies of different types,” she said. “I’m not doing as well with Artocarpus’s project, but I think that’s more because I don’t have a clear representative sample.”

“Artocarpus?” he asked, squinting as he tried to remember if he knew about this. “What did he want?”

“He wants me to prove that evolution energy is its own kind of energy, separate and distinct from anything a pokemon might use to attack or defend,” she said. “Honestly, I’m mostly just taking advantage of him – I didn’t really have a practical application for this thing.”

He made a vague noise, leaning over to see more of the machine. It was essentially a power reader, similar to some of the devices Nurse Joy used to measure health in ghost-type pokemon. But where those machines measured life energy, Acacia was trying to measure all kinds of energy, and separate them into types. It was an interesting concept, but she’d never really had a purpose behind it – she had some vague idea about providing accurate measures to better define typings, but mostly it was just to see if she could do it.

“To really get a sample of evolutionary energy, you’d need a pokemon that was evolving,” Kukui pointed out, before smirking. “Or a rare candy. Hook that up to your machine!”

She rolled her eyes, only to suddenly stop and look up at him. “You’ve had stupider ideas.”

“Excuse me?”

“Well, all energy has to come from chemicals, and there’s something in rare candy that increases a pokemon's power level. It’s a catalyst agent. So in theory it would have the same energy reading,” she said. “I’d just need to amplify it.”

He stared blankly. “You want to get an energy reading… from candy?”

“Don’t start in on your bad science again!” she said with a smirk. “It’s not impossible until it’s proven!”

“It’s… it’s candy. It’s not even alive.”

Rocks have energy, Kukui. Rock-types just have more of it. Ergo, all things have energy, including candy, which can be read. It’s just too small to notice without assistance.”

He twitched, memories of Olivia’s metaphors and lectures echoing in his head. “Right…”

But she was already gone, holding up one of the chocolates he’d given her and peering at it like it held the mysteries of the universe. He raised his eyebrows and quietly moved away.

He had his own and far more sensible work to be getting on with.

Lesson Sixteen: What you can handle

Kukui tilted his head, curious and amused. This didn’t seem like something he’d ever expected to find Ash doing.

He was sitting in the middle of the floor, surrounded by what looked like miniaturised car parts, including a variety of tires. He also had what looked a bit like a toddler’s slide, though it seemed more for Pikachu, who was happily climbing up and sliding down it while Ash snapped wheels onto axels and took them off again.

“I give up,” Kukui announced, and walked over to crouch beside him. “I have no idea what you’re doing.”

Ash laughed and showed him the tires. “Sophocles, Kiawe, and me are entering a race! You put Chargabug in this car thing, and then they race around a track!” he explained. “I’m just gonna be running alongside, makin’ sure Chargabug doesn’t get into trouble, but I figured it’d be cool if I could understand the different tires and stuff. I’ve never done anything like this before; it’s super fun!”

Kukui smiled quietly, turning the part over in his hands and remembering building box racers with his friends. Back then, he hadn’t understood physics at all—none of them had—but they’d had so much fun working out how to make the cart run fast over different kinds of terrain. It had been a competition. Deadly serious at the time, of course, but in hindsight a lot friendlier than pokemon battles ever were. Boys always acted like these things were about the competition, but it was really about the time spent in the lead up that mattered. Building the cart, training, working together…

Yeah, he was pretty sure he knew why this appealed to Ash.

“So that’s what you and the others have been doing after class,” he said as he handed it back. “I thought it was unusual for Kiawe to stick around so long.”

“Yeah, he’s really into it! He only agreed to be involved if we aim for the top!” he said, and pumped his fists excitedly. “So we’re going all in! No holding back! We’re gonna win this thing!”

He grinned. It was nice to see Ash all fired up like this – he’d been frustrated after Akala, exhausted by Lana’s training, and in a weird, awkward mood while talking to Cassia. When they’d announced the Kanto trip, Ash had been disappointed to discover they weren’t going anywhere he considered special, so it hadn’t excited him until he’d heard they’d be meeting a ‘special guest’, and even that hadn’t lasted. This was the first thing in a while that really seemed to have caught his passion.

So Kukui clapped him on the shoulder and thrust the other fist forward. “That’s the spirit! Go for it like a Swift attack! Accelerock toward the finish line!”

“Yeah!” he cheered, then paused a second before winking. “We’ll speed through like a Silver Wind!”

Pikachu paused its play just long enough to give them both a withering look, but Kukui laughed. “Shift Gear and go for it!”

“Flame Charge for the goal!”

“Strike fast as a Thunderbolt, and you’re sure to Rock Smash the win!” he said triumphantly, and Ash bit his lip, determined and thinking fast, then grinned broadly.

“I’ve got it! We’ll Work Up into a Charge and uh, Dive over the finish line!”

“Not bad, not bad at all,” he said, touching his chin in mock-thoughtfulness. “But you’ll work pretty hard to out-pun me, Ash. Chargabug will Endeavour to make a Quick Attack toward Extreme Speed, so Lock On to the finish line and Wring Out ever last bit of Secret Power you have and Dragon Rush—” His sentence was starting to lose any semblance of meaning, but Ash was already sniggering, so Kukui felt it was absolutely his duty to keep going. “—through every Sludge Wave and Hurricane you come into Close Combat with, and don’t Hold Back until you Lunge into Inferno Overdrive and Smack Down into the Spotlight!”

Ash applauded him, and Kukui bowed, feeling a little bit like a Champion.

With Ash busy most afternoons and all the preparation done for the Kanto trip, Kukui was able to focus on his own plans for Pallet. They weren’t going particularly well – there was just too much he needed to do and not enough time to do it in. Even if he pulled an all-nighter (never a good idea when you needed to supervise six rowdy teenagers, let alone on a field trip to do something as active as battling) to raid Professor Oak’s files, or dragged Ash away from the rest of the kids to go on a search for his pokemon, he just couldn’t figure out how he was going to fit all of that and research how to manage the Alola League construction and have a good, honest talk with Delia.

Even thinking about it gave him a headache, to the point that he was becoming irrationally angry about it. In the end, he gave up and headed into the lab for a mental break.

But, apparently to spite his bad mood, he’d barely taken two steps through the door when Cassia pounced on him. “Do you have the tapes from the Lily of the Valley?”

“Alola to you, too,” he said blankly. “And what?”

“The Lily of the Valley.”

“Yes, that is what you said, and no, it still doesn’t mean anything to me.”

“The Sinnoh League Conference,” she said impatiently. “The Lily of the Valley Sinnoh League Conference. From a couple of years ago.”

He continued staring at her. He’d had three coffees already today, but clearly it wasn’t enough to prepare him for this. “I wouldn’t, but the lab probably does. Why would I?”

“It was one of Ash’s conferences,” she said. “Are you or are you not Proud Papa Kukui? Why do you not have his conference tapes?”

“I don’t even know where to begin with that,” he replied, and she threw up her hands before rushing off again. Kukui watched her until she’d disappeared behind her desk, then looked over at Artocarpus, who had been watching this play out from under his eyebrows. “Did that make more sense to you than me?”

He shrugged vaguely, not even moving his head. “The Lily of the Valley conference videos have been taken off the League website.”

“Of course they have. Why would they keep old videos that long?”

Artocarpus didn’t immediately answer, looking at him almost appraisingly, but eventually explained, “It was the conference with that guy who with the darkrai and latios.”

Kukui quirked an eyebrow, nonplussed. While legendaries weren’t exactly common in the League, every few years you’d get an idiot that wasn’t just dumb enough to actually catch a legendary, but also arrogant enough to use it in a sporting match. They tended to blow through the competition—in extremely boring battles—and then get beaten down by the resident champion’s strongest team, only to quickly disappear from the public eye once they came to really appreciate the fact they’d used a force of nature for fun and profit. Legendaries were impressive, but entering conferences with them wasn’t exactly encouraged.

After a moment, he realised Artocarpus was still watching him appraisingly, and raised an eyebrow in silent question. He shrugged again and turned back to his computer.

“To keep this in perspective, Acacia’s started handcuffing vitamins.”

That took a few seconds to process. “What?”

“She says it makes power readings easier,” he said lightly.

Kukui stared at him for a minute, then decided it was high time he had a few words with his second-in-command. The lab was not supposed to get this weird when he wasn’t in it.

Acacia’s experiments actually made a lot of sense—by her standards—once his second-in-command explained it. As much as Kukui had been joking around, she believed there actually was something to his suggestion that Rare Candy had evolution energy, and if that was the case, then she figured it was worth testing to see whether other vitamins and food items did too. She’d dug out her old power amplifier in order to get reliable readings, and the amplifier had a cuff for a connector – designed to fit snugly around her pokemon’s flanks. She was just too lazy to modify it.

If anything, it was all the other scientists that were acting strangely. Cassia still refused to tell him anything about her interview with Ash, citing confidentiality that apparently didn’t extend to pretty much anyone else on the team, with everyone generally playing along for reasons he couldn’t quite understand. Apparently, they figured he would know it all anyway, since he was not only living with Ash but technically part of the Pokemon League. Which seemed to be the centre of some conspiracy Cassia was cooking up. She was convinced they were keeping something that happened in Kalos a secret.

“About the League? I don’t think so,” Ash said when Kukui asked him about it. “I get why they wouldn’t want to talk about what happened after, but the League was pretty normal.”

“After…?” Kukui repeated, before realisation hit. “Oh, you mean the Kalos Crisis?”

“Yeah. All of the Gym Leaders teamed up with Diantha and Steven Stone to deal with it,” he explained. “It was a pretty big deal. I don’t think they want people to know just how bad it could’ve gone.”

“Diantha and Steven Stone? Two champions, and all eight Gym Leaders?” he asked, raising his eyebrows. “That’s a powerful team.”

Surprisingly, Ash actually looked at him as he nodded, silently acknowledging just how serious it had been. Kukui stared back, and for a moment, the silence between them stretched.

If there had ever been a time to ask, this was it. Ash was practically inviting him to ask what he knew. How he knew. And that… that could lead to a much longer conversation.

“Excuse me, mister!”

“Oh, sorry about that!” Ash jumped back, letting a little boy squeeze past him to grab a melon from the stand, and Kukui winced.

It might have been the time, but the grocery store was definitely not the place to talk about things like that.

“But that was the Crisis, not the League,” he said instead. “There’s no reason that would have anything to do with them not releasing League footage.”

“Nope,” Ash agreed, and went back to choosing his own melon. “I mean, Professor Cassia said it’s only in the last couple of years that they’ve let trainers use mega-evolution at the League, but it’s not like it’s some big secret or anything. I think they really must’ve just lost the videos. The stadium got hit pretty bad. Me and Alain had to go through the underground tunnels just to get out.”

“Did you tell her that?”

“Not really,” he admitted. “She didn’t even ask about the Crisis. She just wanted to know all about the League.”

He sighed, accepting the melon Ash handed him and tucking it under his arm. “Maybe I should point it out, then. Of all organisations, the League doesn’t need more conspiracy theories levelled against them.”

Especially not when he had half his lab reminding him he was technically part of it. He was pretty sure they were just messing around, playing on Cassia’s ludicrous theory, but they kept insinuating he was privy to secrets the rest of them didn’t know.

It was driving him just a little bit nuts, and thinning what little remained of his patience.

So he gave up on them and went back to his Pallet plans, only to immediately get hit with more difficulties. He called Tracey to beg for help in trying to get a head start in the research he would need to do, only to discover the assistant wouldn’t even be in Kanto when they got there.

“I have to take a package to Professor Birch,” he explained. “I’m heading out in two days, and probably won’t be back for about a month.”

“A month?!” he cried. “It’s a package! Send it by post!”

“To and from Pokemon Professors? Team Rocket would snatch it before it got to Viridian City!” he said with a laugh. “No, these kind of deliveries need Pokemon Trainers to carry them, and Professor Oak wouldn’t waste money on a Courier when I can go.”

“But… don’t you want to see Ash?” he asked, maybe a little desperately, but Tracey just snorted.

“With Misty and Brock around? That’s a fourth wheel no one wants to be.”

Kukui didn’t know what that meant, but he didn’t really care. All it meant was that without the itinerary changing at all, he had even less time in Pallet than he’d thought.

He pushed his hands up under his hat and tried not to hate everything.

His bad mood was childish and he knew it. He was getting an all-expenses-paid trip to another region with the chance to see the famous Professor Oak’s ranch, his notes, and even a personally guided tour of a gym. Yes, it would be a whirlwind trip when he could spend a week doing nothing but exploring Oak’s files, but this was the experience of a lifetime.

Ash obviously noticed his bad mood, and varied between trying to cheer him up and just staying out of his way. Which was particularly annoying, because it meant Ash didn’t tell him when the day of the Chargabug Race came around, and he only found out after Kiawe dropped Ash off at the lab, explaining Ash had managed to get himself hurt. Apparently, while the first aid team at the race had cleared him of injury, they’d insisted he be monitored overnight for signs of a concussion.

It was pretty telling that Ash couldn’t come up with a reasonable counterargument to Kiawe’s accusation that he wouldn’t have told Kukui about it.

“I just need to get my bag,” Kukui said as they stepped back into the lab. “Then we can go home, and you can explain to me why you thought diving between two armoured chargabug was a good idea.”

Ash cringed slightly, but it was Rotom to point out, “In his defence, since the two chargabug hit a soft surface—i.e., Ash—instead of making a hard impact on each other, they both emerged from the crash entirely unscathed! If one considers the value of all three participants in the accident equal, then one injured party is mathematically an improvement on two! Not to mention that it also ensured the Chargabug Racers were undamaged, saving thousands in repair work!”

Kukui decided not to argue the value of human safety, if only because the implications would probably tick off Ash and Pikachu. He instead pointed to his desk. “Just sit there and try not to sacrifice a limb for the sake of the stapler, okay? I’ll be five minutes.”

“You know, you really don’t have to keep an eye on me,” Ash tried—for the fourth time—to argue. “I’m totally fine, and even if I wasn’t, I’ve got Pikachu and Rotom to take care of me.”

“Pikapika!” Pikachu added, thumping its chest with a paw.

“Pikachu’s seen me through real concussions before. We know how to handle this.”

“That makes me feel so much better,” Kukui deadpanned, heading for the lockers. He knew Ash was inexplicably but perfectly fine, and that wasn’t the point. He wasn’t entirely sure what the point was, but he knew that wasn’t it.

But, perhaps unsurprisingly, Ash hadn’t sat down by the time he got back. He was, in point of fact, missing from the office entirely. But the experimental chamber door was cracked open, and he could hear Rotom’s auto-tuned voice filtering out.

“But how do you isolate the varying power sources?” it was asking as Kukui pushed the door a little further open. It, Ash, Artocarpus, and Acacia were all gathered around Acacia’s prototype, Pikachu standing in the sensor with the power amplifier perched on its head.

“Well, that’s what I’m having a bit of trouble with,” Acacia explained. “You see, with this dial, I can shift the frequency to different power sources, but they’re too jumbled up. I can’t identify any one source well enough to distinguish it from the others.”

“I don’t get it,” Ash said, his brow furrowing as he glanced back at Pikachu. “Pikachu’s just an electric type. What other kind of power could it have?”

“Well, from what you said last week, it should at least have Steel and Normal power sources as well,” she said vaguely. “Not to mention that there’s a fair amount of Friendship and Affection between you two. They’re each their own kind of power.”

Ash grimaced, scratching his cheek awkwardly, but didn’t comment on what he didn’t understand. Intrigued, Kukui moved into the room himself, walking over to peer at the prototype’s screen. He knew how it was supposed to work, but he’d never actually seen it in action. Curiously, there were multiple bars of colour going up and down, which Acacia gestured to absently.

“In theory, each of these are a different kind of energy,” she explained. “Electrical, Fairy, Steel, et cetera. But within them all are additional elements, like trainer impact, level modifiers, vitamin effects. I haven’t been able to pull them out because I haven’t been able to cleanly identify… well, anything, really. Even the basic types have overlaps which pollute the data.”

“I thought you were making progress there,” Kukui interjected, and she looked at him for a second before shrugging.

“I may have spoken too soon about that.”

He grunted sympathetically. It was part of the fun of being a scientist, sometimes – thinking you’d really gotten somewhere only for a new data set to provide evidence that everything you’d found before was a fluke. “So what do you think you need to identify them? Obviously you’ve been testing vitamins this week, but what else?”

“Larger examples,” Artocarpus said bluntly. “Amplify the test.”

Kukui raised an eyebrow. “Easier said than done in some cases. How do you amplify Friendship?”

He opened his mouth, paused, and then closed it again, shrugging instead. Acacia hesitated as well, absently fiddling with a dial on her prototype. The bars of colour shifted wildly, and Pikachu quietly whined, reaching up toward the power amplifier.

“Oh, sorry, buddy,” Ash said, jerking around toward it. “Lemme take that off.”

The bars fluctuated even harder and faster as the cuff was lifted off and set aside, all three scientists absently watching until it settled. Kukui shrugged.

“If you can’t amplify, then your best chance is always to expand your test sample,” he pointed out. “Get a wide array of pokemon and test each of them for power levels. You should start to see consistencies across the types. Then break it down and separate out the inconsistencies to get pure typings. All the waste can be compared, and you should be able to identify commonalities.”

“That’s a lot of work and resources,” Artocarpus said mildly, and Acacia grunted.

“Not to mention the variables involved with that many pokemon, from that many different trainers… Each and every trainer could have a different kind of influence.”

“So use limited trainers,” Kukui argued. “Find people with extensive teams.”

“Because there are so many of them in Alola,” Acacia said scathingly.

Irritation spiked again, because although he knew she was right—Alola barely had many trainers with full teams, let alone anyone with more than that—it did feel a bit like she was just looking for problems with his suggestions. “There is one right here. Yes, my pokemon are all a bit out of shape, but I have them.”

“And me,” Ash piped up. “Most of the pokemon I have with me aren’t very strong yet, but they can all battle well enough to go up against Totem Pokemon! They wouldn’t mind helping out!”

Acacia and Artocarpus exchanged glances, Acacia’s fingers still twitching on her prototype. Artocarpus slowly pointed out, “You could transfer in your other pokemon, too. You have so many, don’t you?”

Ash grimaced, rubbing the back of his neck. “I guess I could. I don’t usually bring my pokemon from other regions to new ones when it’s not for like a conference or something. ’Cept for Pikachu, of course!”

“That’s your decision, of course,” said Acacia. “But it would definitely help me out. And I’m sure the others would probably benefit, too.”

“The others?”

“Sure. We could have a mock-battle, see how different attacks work. And it would be so interesting to meet some of them – I’ve never done any research into Hoenn pokemon, I would love to meet the starters from there!”

Something jolted in Kukui’s chest, his eyes widening. If Ash transferred in his pokemon, then – then Kukui could meet them here. He could really give them the time and attention Ash deserved with his pokemon. He wouldn’t have to rush through it in Kanto. It would be more time for him to do all the other things he needed.

“It would be interesting to meet them all, Ash,” he said slowly.

Ash looked up at him, then down at Pikachu, shifting awkwardly. “Um… I guess I could talk to them while we’re in Kanto. See if anyone was interested...”

“That would be good. And you’re not going for a few more days yet, right?” Artocarpus pointed out. “Why don’t we start off with the pokemon you do have here, so you can see the process?”

He hesitated again, but Kukui held up a hand regardless. “Not today, though. Ash knocked himself out this morning – I’d rather he was at home for the rest of the day.”

He didn’t miss Artocarpus’s annoyed glance, or the roll of Acacia’s eyes, and his own eyes narrowed slightly in response. But they didn’t argue, with Acacia only suggesting to Ash, “Well, then, how about tomorrow?”

“Take a day off, would you?” Kukui tried to laugh, but he was still feeling mildly annoyed and Acacia’s insistence was starting to bother him. “It’s the weekend, Acacia. Science can wait.”

Artocarpus was a lot less subtle about his irritation this time, but he kept silent. A few seconds passed in silence, all of them fully aware of the tension in the room, before Ash broke it with a nervous laugh.

“Hey, uh, I don’t mind either way, you know? Tomorrow sounds fine. How about after lunch?”

“If that’s okay with you, Professor Kukui,” Artocarpus said coolly, and he tried not to bite back that it wasn’t even Artocarpus’s experiment. As it was, they just scowled at each other while Acacia quietly made arrangements with Ash.

When they were finally able to leave the building, Kukui found himself glaring at the path ahead, completely sure that the whole thing had been about their crazy theory he was keeping something from them. After a minute, Ash peeked up at him sideways.

“Your friends can be kind of weird, Professor,” he said quietly. “I didn’t want to say anything before, but that was even weirder than the last time I talked to them.”

“I’m more inclined to agree with you than I’d like, Ash,” he replied evenly. This was not helping his mood at all.

While things were generally fine for the rest of the afternoon, there was something strange about Ash’s mood the next morning. When Kukui emerged from his bedroom, it was to find Ash standing in the kitchen as he ate toast, one hand braced on the bench and his eyes caught blindly on the middle distance. Pikachu was munching on pokechow in the corner, looking half-asleep but apparently determined to not drop face-first into the bowl, while Rotom watched news in its own little corner. It was unusual for a Sunday morning, which usually began with Ash sleeping late and then bringing out all his pokemon for a full day.

Ash just moved out of the way when Kukui came around for coffee, stuffing the rest of the toast in his mouth like he just hadn’t been bothered to stop and eat properly. His eyes flicked around restlessly as he chewed, only settling once Kukui had started the water boiling and had fixed him with a perplexed stare.

“You’re up early,” he noted, and Ash blinked, then dropped his fist in his palm like he’d come to some kind of realisation.

“I know you said you can’t be there when Professor Cassia asks me stuff,” he said quickly, “but what if I told you stuff and you told her it wasn’t worth askin’?”

The words made sense. The sentence did not. Kukui blinked blearily. “What?”

“That’d be okay, right? I mean, your lab still gets all the information it needs without things getting all weird,” he said. “It’s not like any of it’s a secret, or whatever, and none of it’s really that important, right? So as long as you know it’s no big deal then you can tell her and it’ll all be fine.”

He had not been awake long enough for such rapid-fire speech. “I thought you were done with the interviews.”

“None of it’s like, special or anything. Not really,” he said, as if Kukui hadn’t even spoken. “I mean, some of my pokemon, they take a long time to evolve, or they don’t at all, and others it’s like they just go zshroom and they’re fully evolved. And I mean, sometimes they need to go and I let them but I keep their pokeballs, and I know that’s kinda selfish, but they don’t seem to mind and some of them come back. They just need to go be the best that they can be and that’s not always something they can be with me. And I know I told you that before, but maybe if you told the others they wouldn’t worry about it.”

Kukui rubbed his face with one hand, trying to connect the logic. He couldn’t even follow Ash’s train of thought, let alone understand what exactly he was worried about. “I appreciate the thought, Ash, but I’m afraid I’m not really aware of what anyone wants to ask you. And as I said, there’s the issue of objectivity if I interfered.”

Ash stopped, pressing his lips together, then abruptly curled his hands behind his head. “Well – okay. It’ll be fine. It’ll be fine! I’m gonna spend the morning training around Clawmark Hill, okay? You ready, Pikachu?”

“Pika?” it asked dazedly, but perked up as it saw Ash clambering up to grab his backpack from the loft. It flinched and quickly shoved the rest of the rest of its breakfast in its mouth and was ready to jump into position before Ash was back down.

Kukui could only watch him go, Rotom racing out after with only a quick squawk of protest, once again feeling a little like he was missing something.

It was a pretty telling start to how the rest of his day would go.

He spent most of it doing chores, which was mostly fine. But every few hours, his brain would flick back to Ash’s awkward rambling, and everything that was happening at the lab, and he just wound up getting angry. To the point that he went down into the training room and tried to work some of the anger out through his muscles.

Instead, he found himself obsessing over the thought that maybe… maybe Ash didn’t really want to help as much as he said he did. Or rather, he didn’t want to do what they were asking him to do.

He kept thinking about what Tracey had told him, and what Olivia had implied.

Ash helped everyone. It was just what he did.

Kukui had never seen him refuse anyone. The closest he got was when he decided to be a little brat or tease his friends. And that normally ended with a lot of whining, laughter, and then Ash doing something nice for them anyway.

Every time he came close to complaining—legitimately complaining—he would all but scold himself and either turn it around into something uplifting or just physically run away from the very idea. Whining was fine, because that was mostly a game. But actually being upset about something…

Kukui hated it. He hated it a lot.

He hated that he didn’t know what Ash was upset about. He hated that Ash tried to hide it from everyone, and apparently thought he was good at it. He hated that everyone he’d spoken to about it seemed to encourage Ash not talking about it. He hated that Pikachu knew and couldn’t tell him. He hated that wanting Ash to be safe and childish and carefree meant Kukui couldn’t bring himself to ask.

He hated that he was probably going to go to Kanto and meet people who probably knew and could tell him and that… that when it came down to it, he probably still wouldn’t ask them. Because he didn’t want to be told behind Ash’s back like it was some dirty secret. He wanted Ash to tell him. He wanted Ash to make that decision. To trust him.

He hated that Ash didn’t trust him.

He hated that sometimes, he suspected Ash didn’t trust anyone but his pokemon.

With that thought, Kukui hit his punching bag so hard it slammed into the wall, and then he grabbed it and leaned into it, letting his mind go quietly blank instead.

“Professor Kukui, may I ask you something about my programming?”

“Your programming?” he repeated, lowering his plate to focus. He, Ash, and the pokemon were eating dinner, which usually meant Rotom would stay out of their way for a while. But that wasn’t what made the question so surprising. “I suppose so, Rotom, but you should remember I wasn’t the one who built your casing.”

“Yes. But I do not believe this problem is unique to me. What is ‘confidential information’?”

He chewed slowly, considering. Ash had come home late, but only because he apparently stopped by the Pokemon Centre on the way home. His pokemon all seemed fine, but he was a little quiet, and Pikachu had been clingy all evening. Given what they’d been doing this afternoon, he found himself suspicious.

“It’s what it sounds like, Rotom. There are some kinds of information that shouldn’t be released to everyone. So it’s classified ‘confidential’ and kept away from people.”

“Why do I have confidential information?” it asked. “There are files throughout my system that have been marked confidential. I do not believe I would have any trouble opening them, and could therefore easily reveal them to others. But my programming does not wish to do this.”

Oh. Of course. He chuckled and shook his head – the bad day had made him paranoid. “There are certain pokemon and items that it would be dangerous for a Pokemon Trainer to use, so it’s important for their pokedexes to be able to recognise them and provide a warning. But they’re not exactly something you want people chasing down, either, so they aren’t supposed to be easily accessible to trainers.”

“Really?” Ash asked curiously. “Are they like Mythical Pokemon, or something?”

“Some,” he admitted. “But not all so dangerous. Have you ever heard of a Master Ball?”

He blinked, and Rotom’s screen lit up with an exclamation emoji. “That is one of the files! I am supposed to identify it as classified material that should be reported to Officer Jenny at due speed!”

Kukui nodded. “They’re illegal, except when used by extremely high-ranking members of the League and International Police,” he said. “Master Balls have the amazing power to capture any pokemon, regardless of skill, level, or determination. They’re mostly only supposed to be used when an extremely powerful wild pokemon goes on a rampage.”

“Illegal, huh?” Ash paused, turning his fork over in his fingers for a moment before going back to his dinner.

“Why were you looking at things like that?” Kukui asked Rotom, who gave an electronic huff, bouncing in the air.

“There was a lot of talk of confidential information at the lab today! Things that the League does not want anyone to know! I did not understand what that would be, and so ran a search to identify comparisons!”

Aaaaand there went his burgeoning good mood. He sighed and rubbed his nose with the back of his hand. “Was there, now…”

“I still do not understand what the professors were talking about,” it said, oblivious to his reaction. “As Ash pointed out, there would be no reason for the League to hide information about his battles, or his pokemon.”

Irritation made Kukui’s eyebrow tick. “They’ve decided it’s specifically about you, now? I thought they were just focussed on the Kalos League.”

“Yeah, and I was the only one there who didn’t have any mega-evolved pokemon,” Ash pointed out as he shovelled the last of his dinner into his mouth to speak around it. “And I guess they think that if one of my pokemon has a special power, then maybe they all do.”

“A special power…?” he repeated, but Ash didn’t meet his gaze, instead getting up with his now-empty plate in hand.

“I tried telling them that every pokemon is special—in their own way at least—but they weren’t really satisfied with that. Especially not with how strong Pikachu is.”

“Who is ‘they’?” Kukui abruptly demanded. “I thought you were just working with Professor Acacia today.”

“I was, but some of the other professors were there too,” he said, glancing at him like he was surprised. “They were all a bit confused though, so we’re going back in tomorrow to sort everything out.”

It was tempting to ask what he could possibly mean by that, but he knew he needed to take a second to sort through his sudden anger reason by reason. He let out a breath and tried to keep his tone even as he muttered, “This is getting ridiculous. Why would the League be keeping something about you a secret?”

He’d intended it as a rhetorical question, but as soon as he heard himself he stopped, thinking of Olivia, and Hala, and Tracey. And then he looked up to find Ash staring back at him, just as startled as he usually was when asked a direct question about his wellbeing. Eventually, his eyes slipped off to the side to meet Pikachu’s gaze, and the silence began to stretch again.

It felt like an hour before Ash shifted his weight onto one hip and looked at him again. “They’ve never told me anything was secret.”

It was an avoidance answer – not quite what he’d asked. But before he could decide whether to make something of it, Ash awkwardly continued, “There’s some… stuff that maybe I don’t like talkin’ about. But y’know… it’s not like anyone’s ever told me not to say anything about it. So it’s not really a secret. And none of it’s about the League. There’s only a couple of things I’ve been told not to talk about, and the League wasn’t involved with either of them.”

He hesitated, fiddling with something out of Kukui’s view. “I mean, if it’d help, and it’s not about that stuff I’ve been asked not to tell, then I guess it’s okay to talk about it. It’s just that… even with the stuff I’ve told them already, I get the feeling like the professors doesn’t really believe me. And… I hate feelin’ like that. Like I’m lying. I’m not lying.” He paused again, his eyes flicking back to Pikachu. “I know… there’s some stuff that maybe the League doesn’t talk about either. I mean, Cynthia said she shouldn’t’ve been interfering in Unova, and Lance – well, when he’s bein’ a G-man, it’s not the same. But it’s not like any of that was really about me. And none of it’s about the League. Not like Professor Cassia’s askin’ about. Me and Greninja – that was just us. It’s just what Greninja can do! And I told her about that. I’m not lying!”

“I don’t think you are,” Kukui said gently, even as that ever-present desire to ask prodded at his ribs. “Why do you think Professor Cassia does?”

“Well – I mean, she…” He trailed off, and Rotom swung back into Kukui’s line of sight.

“It is what led to the conversation about confidential information,” it explained. “Professor Artocarpus suggested it was classified, and that Ash was simply sticking to the ‘given story’.”

“Professor Artocarpus?” he repeated. “He was there to help with the power analysis, I assume?”

“Perhaps. Very little analysis was done today,” said Rotom. “In the end, most of the professors simply asked Ash questions about his pokemon and experiences with the League.”


Something was ticking over in the back of Kukui’s skull. Part of him was furious that his colleagues were letting Ash in on their little paranoia trip. But there was something else, too. Supposedly, today should have just been Ash and Acacia. Maybe Artocarpus, because he’d been there yesterday, or Cassia, because she’d dealt with Ash before. But this didn’t sound ike that.

“Exactly how many people were there today?” he asked quietly, and Rotom’s screen flashed with five profile pictures of Kukui’s colleagues.

“Professors Acacia, Artocarpus, Banyan, Cassia, and Koa were all present and accounted for!”


Of the eight scientists that made up his team.

One of whom was his second-in-command.

Something was starting to ring just out of Kukui’s hearing. His colleagues were… he took another breath, thinking through what he was actually angry about. On the surface – well. On the surface, he had every reason to be furious.

Five scientists demanding information from a kid and all but accusing him of lying because what he was telling them didn’t fit their crazy little conspiracy theory. Yeah, that was out of line.

Kukui looked down at his unfinished dinner, and quietly decided he wasn’t hungry anymore. He got up and moved over to the kitchen, anger irrationally spiking when Ash backed up to give him room.

“You said you’re going back in tomorrow?” he asked evenly, and Ash hesitated, eyeing him cautiously before he answered.

“Yeah,” he said slowly. “Just to show them a couple of things. They seem kinda upset, you know?”

“Hm. Tell you what, Ash,” he said, keeping his voice level, “if it’s alright with you, I might come with you to the lab.”

“But I thought you couldn’t –”

He slowly turned his head and met Ash’s eyes directly. Ash’s brow quickly furrowed, and he swayed a little, like he wasn’t sure whether to take a step forward or back.

“It… it wasn’t a secret, right?” he asked. “It’s not like they said, right? About how you knew, and should’ve been telling me what to say when they asked? That was just them bein’ confused. Right?”

Kukui did not slam his plate into the sink. Nor did he storm off into the night, intent on punching at least one of his colleagues—his friends—in the face.

He did, however, quietly put down the plate and turn to face him, aware in a way that he was pretty sure Ash wasn’t that he’d accidentally boxed the kid into a small space and was looming over him. He debated kneeling down, realised Ash looked more concerned about him than himself right now, and sighed, instead reaching up to press his fingers to his eyes.

He had no goddamn idea what he was doing.

“Professor?” Ash prompted. “If you want to know, I –”



He slowly lowered his hand, but couldn’t quite pull it further down from his jaw. While he’d been staring at the back of his eyelids, Pikachu had appeared on Ash’s shoulder, not angry or warning but warily curious, reflecting the mild concern playing out on Ash’s face. Kukui couldn’t quite read it – whether it was concern for him or just the moment. And that alone made Kukui feel even worse, unable to decide whether he should be more angry or guilty or…

Ash was fine. He could handle himself against much worse than pushy scientists, Kukui was sure of that.

But it wasn’t about what he could handle.

It never should have been.

“You don’t have to tell me a damn thing, Ash,” he said finally. Another unreadable expression flashed over Ash’s face—a miniscule twitch in the muscles around his eyes and mouth that ended with a swallow before smoothing out completely—and Kukui wasn’t sure whether it was what he’d said, how he’d said it, or just that he’d sworn while doing it. “I want to know, I won’t lie about that. But not if you don’t want to tell me. Do you understand that?”

Ash’s jaw shifted, his mouth evening out into a firm line. Then he nodded once. “I understand, Professor.”

“But I am coming with you to the lab tomorrow,” he said. “Do not leave school without me.”


Remembering how well Ash could play with words sometimes, Kukui considered making some kind of threat about Ash not bothering to go to school and therefore not being able to leave without him, either. But he eventually decided that Ash didn’t really understand what was going on, or why he was angry, and so probably wouldn’t bother playing games.

For a long few seconds, they just stared at each other, before Kukui shoved himself away from the bench, unable to tolerate the idea of doing the dishes or anything else right now. “I’m going to bed. Good night.”

“Night, Professor…”


He closed the bedroom door behind himself quietly, but his house wasn’t exactly designed for sound proofing.

“What was that about?”

“No idea. Pikachu, go finish dinner and I’ll start on these dishes, okay? Then we should get to bed, too.”


Kukui pressed his hand over his eyes again, feeling exhausted.

Final Exam

Stretching his arms out in front of him, Kukui yawned wide enough for his jaw to crack. He hadn’t slept particularly well last night.

Combined with his mood, that meant the day hadn’t really gone very well so far. Ash had watched him from the corner of his eye all morning, and was noticeably quiet during school, leading the other kids into a similar cautious mood. On the upside, this meant they got through class remarkably easily, listening to his lecture and getting through their bookwork without any trouble. On the downside… well, no teacher worth their salt liked having their class act like they were about to explode.

He’d run away to the staff room at lunchtime, where Principal Oak found him and decided coaching was in order. For once, Kukui was not averse to the idea.

“I’m not sure what to do about it all,” he confessed. “I don’t want to pull rank, but even without Ash, this is all a little beyond someone mocking the boss. It almost feels like a mutiny.”

Oak shrugged. “You’ve never been good at classroom management.”

“These are colleagues,” he reminded him. “It’s a little different.”

“Only because yelling isn’t going to get you anywhere,” he argued lightly. “It’s still about respect. They got to this point because they lost their respect for you as their leader.”

“I hope this is leading to a comment about how I need to make my team feel like failures in order for them to succeed,” Kukui noted, trying to take the edge off his hurt.

“It’s only to be expected,” Oak said breezily. “You’re splitting yourself between two full time jobs and now a—” He paused to grin. “—boarder. You were bound to slip up at some point.”

Kukui sighed heavily, slumping into his palm. “Well, I’m not quitting either job, or kicking Ash out. So I need another way to deal with this.”

“Then you need to address the symptoms,” he pointed out. “They’re focussed on Ash. Deal with that.”

“I can’t punch my colleagues and call them all idiots,” he said, somewhat regretfully.

Oak grinned again. “I was thinking more along the lines of explaining the flaw in their thinking. From what you’ve told me, young Ash doesn’t explain himself the way he should. That’s not helping. You can fill in some of the gaps.”

“I don’t know the answers to those gaps,” he said. “Ash doesn’t tell me anything either.”

“You said they think the League is hiding something,” he pointed out. “Why don’t you agree?”

“I don’t…” He hesitated, then sighed again. “I’ve found out enough that I think there’s more than enough reason to keep Ash out of the public eye. He… gets involved too much, and he deserves to be left alone. The League occasionally has enough of a heart to notice that sort of thing.”

“Do you think that’s what it is?”

“Not… actively. Believe me, I know how they are. If they wanted to cover something up, they would do a better job of it than just allowing Ash to wander around spilling hints of secrets everywhere,” he said. “I’d have had a visit from someone long before now, warning me off doing anything stupid.”

“I didn’t realise the League went into such murkrow territory!” he said, but quickly lost his smile to point out, “Not that anyone would believe you if you told them that angle.”

“It’s conspiracy or bust,” he agreed wearily, and Oak leaned back in his chair with a thoughtful eye.

“Well, even if they are doing it for the greater good, it seems you do think they’re hiding something,” he pointed out. “I think your only way forward from here is to admit that, and point out what that greater good is.”

“Letting a kid be a kid and not have crazy people come after him over nothing?” Kukui deadpanned, and he huffed.

“I’ve heard less compelling reasons to keep secrets, but then, I am a teacher,” he pointed out, and then pushed himself off the chair and upright. “Come on, Professor. Lunch is almost over and if you’re not quitting, then you still have a job to do.”

“Right. Thanks for your advice, Principal Oak.”

He was still angry, but his head was infinitely clearer after the session. Clear enough that he realised Oak was right – the best way to get his colleagues to move on from their theory was to prove it wrong. He got through classes in a much better frame of mind, and when the kids were packing up, he settled behind his desk for some last-minute research.

“Professor Kukui?”

He looked up from his device to find Ash standing in front of his desk, gripping the straps of his bag and watching him with wide eyes. Pikachu was hunched around his neck as it usually only did when worried, while Rotom hovered half a foot behind. The rest of the room was empty – Kukui hadn’t noticed the others leaving.

“Maybe we should skip the lab today,” Ash suggested. “We could go get pancakes. Or maybe do some training. I’d really like it if you could give me some tips, y’know?”

“Maybe another time,” he said, then shook his head and went back to what he’d been doing. “What was your last conference before Kalos called?”

Ash actually flinched at the non-sequitor, and then stared for a few seconds before recovering enough to request clarification, “You mean in the Unova region? It was the Vertress Conference. I also did the Junior World Cup there.”

He grunted, searching it on the League website, and Ash blinked, visibly perplexed by his mood change.

There it was. All the videos. Searchable by pokemon type, round, and trainer.

And there Ash was. All of his matches. He’d made it to the top eight. Kukui opened another tab to look for the Junior World Cup in Unova – it was a charity event, it turned out, hosted but not specifically owned by the League. And once again, there were videos. Not just of the matches but some behind the scenes stuff too. One of the thumbnails was of Ash sitting with a group of other kids, laughing. It calmed another fragment of Kukui’s rage.

“Before Sinnoh, you were in…?” he prompted as he went back to the League, and Ash raised an eyebrow, confusion turning to bafflement.

“Hoenn. That was the Ever Grande –”

“Right, right…” Ever Grande was, as he would have expected, not on the site. It was too long ago. “The equivalent in Kanto was the… Chartreuse Conference. And Kalos had the Winterbell…” He remembered Winterbell because it had been the first time they allowed mega-evolution in the League. But neither of those conferences were on the site either, except for the final of the Winterbell – it had historical importance, and had been thrilling as hell, from memory.

“Professor…?” Ash hesitated, then slowly edged around to peek over his shoulder.

“What is this?” asked Rotom, and Kukui grunted again.

“The official League website. It holds all the information and videos from various conferences. I’m going to use it as proof of something.”

“So… are we not going to the lab?” asked Ash. “Can we go home?”

“No, I want to talk to my team,” he said firmly, and stuffed the device in his lab coat before grabbing his bag. “We’re going to get this over with today.”

Ash quickly straightened, his jaw tightening again. “I – look, Professor,” he began firmly, “I know you’re not allowed to be there when they’re asking questions. Won’t this just mess everything up for you guys if you use any of it?”

“There’s nothing to use,” he said as he headed for the door. “The questions they’re asking you have long since left any scientific purpose behind.”

It took Ash a second to react, but he ran to catch up and walk alongside. “What do you mean? They don’t understand stuff – that’s –”

“A scientist’s job is to ask questions and draw conclusions. Not make reality fit their hypothesis,” he said shortly. “My… colleagues—” The word tasted strangely acidic when he said it out loud right now. “—have been trying to make everything you say fit their ludicrous theories.”

Rotom darted forward to be part of the conversation, instead of drifting behind. “You mean their argument that the League is withholding confidential information?”

“And that stuff they said about you?” asked Ash.

Kukui jerked his head in a nod. “I promise you, Ash. I don’t know anything about any of what they’ve told you. I barely know what you’ve told them.”

“Oh… Yeah, I was gonna ask, when you said…” he said awkwardly. “Does that mean… you don’t know about Kalos?”

He glanced at him, surprised by both the tone and the odd look he was getting from the corner of Ash’s eye. “No more than what you’ve told me.”

“Right, uh…” Ash looked forward again, brow furrowing. “What have I told you?”

Nothing, Kukui thought viciously, but kept it to himself. Rotom was the one to rattle off facts – that Ash had been the only competitor without mega-evolution, and had managed to keep up because his greninja had some kind of special power, but his other pokemon had been able to defeat mega-evolved pokemon as well. That the Conference had barely ended before the Crisis began. That the Crisis had been met with a team comprised of at least ten of the most powerful people in Kalos at the time.

The silence following Rotom’s last repeated fact echoed in Kukui’s ears. It was barely anything, really. But it was, he had to admit, more than Ash had mentioned about any of the other regions he’d been to.

“Did…” Ash glanced at him quickly before looking away again. “Didn’t I tell you about bond-evolution?”

They were out on the road now – heading toward the industrial part of town where the lab was kept. This road wasn’t as well travelled as some of the others that led away from the school, but there were still a few kids around, none of them were walking enough to match Kukui’s long strides. Ash watched them as he waited for his answer.

“Searching,” Rotom reported. “You have said you are ‘really connected’ to it. More than your other pokemon.”

“Pika!” Pikachu objected, and Ash winced before reaching up to scratch behind its jaw.

“You know it’s different,” he said, and Pikachu muttered something before settling down again. Ash grinned. “I haven’t used a Z-move with Greninja.”

“Pikachu pika,” it grumbled, but it did look a little smug about that.

Ash shifted his gaze back up to Kukui. “Bond-evolution is… it’s kinda like mega evolution, only without stones or anything. And when it happens, I can – it’s like I can… see through Greninja’s eyes. I can feel everything it feels. We don’t – I can’t read its mind, but I know what it’s thinking, and it can hear me whether I talk out loud or not. No matter how far apart we are. My friends in Kalos call it Ash-Greninja. It’s…”

Kukui’s feet slowly stumbled to a halt, and Ash kept going just long enough to come around and stand in front of him. He looked awkward but determined, gripping the straps of his backpack and letting his eyes flicker all over the place.

“It stayed behind in Kalos because… there was this… during the – what did you call it? The Crisis? There was this guy, who… he did some stuff and it made everything go crazy. There were all these tree roots everywhere and they were—are--alive. Still alive, I mean. Uh…” Ash offered a weak smile at a student that they’d previously passed, her eyebrow quirking to see them again. Then his eyes flashed back to Kukui, just long enough to catch his gaze before looking out over the road again. “Greninja’s dealing with it. With – that – that’s where it is. Right now. Not – not right-right now. Right now I don’t know what it’s doing. I can’t always tell –”

He wasn’t entirely sure why, but Kukui slowly found himself kneeling down so he could look up at Ash instead, one hand hovering in the air between them. “Ash…?” he called softly, and Ash’s eyes flicked back to him. Something he saw there apparently relaxed him, because his pikachu-free shoulder slumped and he took a deep breath.

“Sorry I didn’t tell you. I didn’t think it mattered. Because all that stuff happened in Kalos, and it’s done, but it’s not finished, and – and until Greninja and Squishy are finished cleaning up, it can’t be with me. So I don’t… I just want it to live its own life, and I’m trying to live mine,” he said quietly. “We come back together sometimes, when it needs me, but most of the time we’re just… separate, you know?”

He didn’t know. But he could kind of understand enough to get by, even as his chest and jaw ached with questions he was just barely keeping back. And either way, Ash was still speaking.

“The thing is, Professor Cassia doesn't believe that, which I get. It's pretty weird. But she keeps askin’ questions about how I could beat mega-evolved pokemon. And I mean, it’s not – it’s not that big of a deal, you know? Mega-evolved pokemon are strong, but so are my pokemon. We train hard. We knew that was the kind of power level we were facin’, so we worked to be able to beat it. But… I guess I can understand why it’s a little unbelievable,” he added with a humourless grin. “It’s like how here, everyone’s always so shocked when you beat a Z-move. It’s the strongest thing around. But anything can be beat if you know how. It’s just that seein’ is believin’, as my friend Cilan used to say.”

Ash hesitated again. “Cilan… didn’t believe a lot of stuff. Iris didn’t either. Even when I told them. So I… I guess I stopped telling them stuff if I couldn’t… and that kinda became a habit. I guess. So I – that’s why I didn’t tell you. About Greninja and the League and… and Lysandre.”

Kukui furrowed his brow, wondering who Lysandre and Iris were. Friends of his, maybe? ‘Lysandre’ sounded vaguely familiar, but he couldn’t place it, and he wasn’t sure it mattered right now. His hand had found Ash’s forearm, holding it steady in a way Kukui didn’t really feel himself, and when he realised, he was a little surprised to discover Pikachu wasn’t objecting but rather watching him with appraising eyes.

“I guess that’s why Professor Cassia’s so mad, right? It’s the kind of thing scientists get all worked up about. Professor Sycamore even stopped his research to figure it out for us. And Lysandre – his whole plan changed because of it,” Ash continued. “So when you didn’t tell her about it, I guess she – it’d probably seem like you were keepin’ a pretty big secret, huh? But… but now you know, and you guys can talk about it, and I’ll help if I can, and –”

“Ash,” Kukui called again, and Ash’s eyes flicked back to him.


His grip tightened on Ash’s arm. “The problem I have with Professor Cassia and the others is not because you didn’t tell me about Greninja. This is not your fault.”

Ash shifted his weight from one foot to the other before responding. “I know it’s not my fault, but it made it worse, right? So now you know, you can talk about it, and it doesn’t have to be a big deal anymore.”

He sighed, and despite the fact he kind of wanted to just take Ash home, or ask questions, or pretty much do anything else, he dragged himself back to his feet and stepped around him. “All I can do is talk to my team. Come on, let’s get going.”

They walked the rest of the way in heavy silence, only occasionally broken by Ash’s half-hearted attempts to find another point or argument to try and help. But he always trailed off after a few ‘Hey, you know –‘ or ‘Professor, I –’s.

On the one hand, Kukui hated that he was the one who had caused the awkwardness, but on the other, he couldn’t let himself get distracted. This wasn’t really about Ash. Ash was the reason he felt so strongly about it—why he wasn’t just letting it slide off his back as he usually did with problems at the lab—but he wasn’t the cause or the problem.

The problem was his colleagues being unprofessional. He suspected they were even skirting dangerously close to unethical. It had been a long time since he’d done interviews with people, but he was pretty sure there were codes about how many people could be in a room, and what kind of questions you could ask. Interviews were not interrogations.

“Do you remember the Lily of the Valley conference?” he asked as they hit the lab’s street.

Ash startled, but quickly recovered to blink at him. “The Lily of the Valley? You mean Sinnoh? Yeah.” He hesitated, checking Kukui’s expression cautiously, then abruptly grinned like he’d never had a care in the world. “First time I really thought I’d be able to win.”

“Really?” he asked curiously. “How high did you place?”

“Top eight, but that was just luck of the draw,” he said, making a face. “There was this guy there called Tobias. He had two legendaries.”

“Darkrai and Latios,” Kukui said quietly, and Ash hummed, relaxing into the conversation as only he could.

“I was kinda annoyed I met him in the semi-finals. I think a lot of people who met him early were annoyed. His darkrai was crazy. Barely anyone could beat it,” he said. “It took me ages, and I was the only one who did. Most of ’em were knocked out in like five minutes. Even the Grand Final was only twenty minutes long.”

Kukui blinked slowly. “That can’t have been very satisfying.”

“It was almost boring, watching his matches,” he corrected. “So we were all like, really focussed on beating Tobias. I gave all my matches my all and everything, and they were so much fun! But watchin’ anyone try to beat him… Darkrai’d just steamroll everyone’s pokemon in like, five minutes. No one really learned anything, or had fun. We couldn’t even figure out why he was in the League – he was a nice enough guy, but it’s like… if you’re just gonna do something like that, what’s the point in competing, right?”

Kukui nodded. It was something he’d thought himself - a secondary reason for the Lily of the Valley to have been taken off the website regardless of its age. The League winner that year hadn’t been someone you could learn from. And despite all conspiracies to the contrary, education was actually one of the core tenets of the League – it was why they had Pokemon Professors on the payroll even here, in League-less regions. Part of the gym challenge was about teaching young trainers how to be good trainers. Not… lazy, arrogant directors that used sheer power to overcome every obstacle.

“Why do you think he was in the League?” asked Kukui, and Ash shrugged.

“Dunno. He wouldn’t really talk to anyone. But some people are like that, you know? The gym challenge is just a challenge. Something to beat. I guess it didn’t matter to him how he did it, just that he did.”

Thinking back, Kukui wondered if—when he’d been young, arrogant, and set on becoming a champion—he would have done the same thing if he’d had the chance. Caught a legendary, mowed through the competition. He was a little disgusted with himself to realise he probably would have, just to prove a point to himself.

“There was this crazy theory, though,” Ash added with a grin. “Since your friends have been comin’ up with all those weird ideas, I should probably let you know other people can be crazy too!”


“Yeah. Some people said he was actually like a Ranger or somethin’ in disguise,” he said, smirking at the idea. “A Ranger with legendaries in pokeballs. Crazy, right? They could’ve at least gone with like a G-Man or the International Police. But anyway, they said he was on some kind of undercover mission.”

Kukui stared at him, momentarily distracted from gathering ammo against his colleagues. “That doesn’t make any sense. What kind of mission would a Ranger have in the Pokemon League?”

“That’s what I said! But they were all like – maybe he’s here to stop someone, or maybe one of the competitors was evil and he was quietly going after them at night, or something.” He blinked, then scowled and folded his arms. “Gary even got in on it, saying it was a big plot between the League and the Rangers to make sure there was no way I’d win.”

“What?” Kukui’s head snapped around, his eyes widening. “Why would they –?”

“He said,” he began irritably, “it was because it would be too embarrassing if a loser became champion of Sinnoh! What a jerk, right? I never even got him back for it. I should send him pyukumuku guts and tell him they’re a scientific marvel.”

Kukui stared at him for a few seconds before he managed to blink and look forward again, his eyes catching on the door to the lab. “Well that… certainly puts a few conspiracy theories into perspective,” he said, and then took a deep breath, trying to refocus. This walk had been a bit more of an emotional rollercoaster than he’d expected. “Let’s go deal with another one.”

Ash paused again, unfolding his arms as he seemed to remember what they were doing. His lips twitched, and he curled his hands around the straps of his backpack before lowering them to his sides and nodding once. “Okay.”

All five of who Kukui now considered his problem children were waiting as they stepped into the lab, gathered around Acacia’s desk and deep in discussion. But when they saw him ahead of Ash, Koa and Banyan blanched and peeled off like children trying not to be seen near the cookie jar. Rage instantly resurfaced.

“Professor Banyan!” Kukui snapped, and his second-in-command froze mid-step before turning to face him.

“Kukui. Alola. I wasn’t expecting you to come by today,” he said, and Kukui glared at him.

“A word?” he demanded, and then glanced at Ash. “Wait here.”


He gave him a look, then went back to Banyan, curtly gesturing for them to head for the conference room.

He barely waited for the door to shut behind him before starting. “Five scientists interrogating a child?” he snapped. “What the actual hell, Banyan.”

Banyan held up a finger to forestall the objection. “Technically not a child. Technically an adult by several years. And Cassia got the paperwork. It’s all above board.”

“Don’t play legal games with me on this,” he spat. “Five of you? And you didn’t even talk to me about it, so don’t try and tell me that you’ve all suddenly switched your research projects to League Battling.”

“You’re barely in the office!” he argued. “You’ve been focussed on your job as a teacher, Kukui. This is hardly the first time I’ve taken over as lead researcher on a project so you aren’t distracted!”

“Project?” he repeated coldly. “What project?”

Banyan stiffened, immediately caught in his own words. He winced and held up his hands again. “It could become one. Acacia’s research is fascinating, Kukui, and Cassia is really developing some amazing theories.”

Acacia is researching the energies created by candy,” he said through gritted teeth.

“She’s researching energy,” he corrected. “From multiple sources.”

Something about that set off an alarm in Kukui’s head, but he ignored it for the moment. “And what is this theory of Cassia’s? That the League is hiding legendary pokemon in a kid’s backpack and shipped him to Alola for safe keeping?”

Banyan opened his mouth, then shut it again. He curled his hands into fists, rolling them through the air, before slowly opening them back out again. “Part of the theory is, yes, that the League sent a kid to a little-known Pokemon Professor for safe keeping…” he admitted shamefully, and Kukui was vaguely aware of a noise coming out of him that was part strangled growl and part undiluted frustration.

“He came here,” he just barely managed to snarl, “on vacation. He is staying with me because he enrolled in my class at the Pokemon School, which is unrelated to the League.”

“He was at the Kalos League,” Banyan said. “He was a finalist. The only foreign competitor, the only one without a pokemon that could mega-evolve, in the only conference from last year which has no released information. You have to understand how that looks to the rest of us.”

“The League was literally just finished when Kalos erupted in a national disaster,” he ground out.

“It’s still suspicious!” he cried. “And the things he’s been telling us, Kukui, it – if he’s telling the truth, Cassia’s theories are actually plausible!”

“Oh, please.”

“They are, Kukui!” he insisted. “She thinks he might be… special. That he has some kind of ability to… to make pokemon more powerful. Can you imagine what someone could do with that kind of power? How it could be abused? Of course the League would want to keep that under wraps! Of course you would lie to us to keep it secret!”

Kukui pushed his glasses up to press his fingers into his eyes. Because not only was it… somewhere between insane and entirely plausible, but… but if that had been the case… if the League had come to Kukui and told him that, then… yes. Yes, he would have taken the secret to his grave to protect Ash. He would have lied. He would have done a hell of a better job keeping Ash away from people who asked questions of reality for a living.

But they hadn’t. So it was just a stupid theory his scientists had come up with.

He didn’t know how to respond to it.

“I’ve been defending you!” Banyan continued. “If I can prove that the kid’s just… just making stuff up, then it shows you’re not lying to us, and –”

“Professor Banyan,” Kukui said shortly. “Are you actually trying to claim that you went behind your superior’s back and intimidated a source that had been providing you valuable first-hand accounts of unseen events in order to protect my office reputation?”

Banyan’s jaw clicked shut with an audible snap before he almost immediately reopened it. “When you put it like that…”

“Consider this a verbal warning,” he said. “I will put the next one in writing. You do not intimidate Key Trainers, let alone children.”

“Technically not a child.”

“Shut up,” he said, flinging his hand away from his face to slam it against his hip instead. “As for your ridiculous theories, I remind you: Ash is a student in my class. He is my boarder. We have no other professional connection or duty to one another. Is that clear? Any abilities he may have, any skills or pokemon with powers we don’t understand? I do not know them. And he is under no obligation to tell any of us about them. You are all out of line in demanding answers beyond what he voluntarily gives you.”

Banyan hesitated, shifting awkwardly. “He didn’t refuse. And we have the paperwork. It –”

“For the sake of our working relationship, Banyan, I advise you stop talking,” he growled, and turned away, refusing to take the conversation any further. He had other, more problematic team members to deal with. “Your ‘project’ is to be discontinued as of right now. All of you will return to your original research topics and leave Ash alone.” He yanked the door open, and immediately froze.

The group of idiots were gone. And so was Ash.

It took him several moments of being caught between anger, exasperation, and irrational panic before he noticed the door to the experimental chamber. And then the alarm bells that had been quietly going off in his head started slamming against his brain.

Acacia’s prototype.

Banyan had just said they thought Ash had…

He was scrambling for the door before he even had time to consciously think about it.

“That is incredible!” Rotom was saying as he slammed the door open. “I did not think it was possible!”

“Amaz…ing…” Acacia trailed off as she saw Kukui enter, and shifted as if she could hide her prototype behind her.

Koa had made surprisingly intelligent tracks, but Cassia, Acacia, and Artocarpus were apparently going all in. They were gathered with Rotom around the reader, while Ash was standing on the sensor, the power modifier in his hand like he was about to snap it over his wrist. Pikachu was sitting on the table nearby, and looked incredibly relieved at Kukui’s entrance.

Everyone else, however, eyed him like he was about to explode, which was appropriate, because that’s what it felt like his head was about to do.

“I know you told me to wait,” Ash began quickly, “but I thought that if we could just get this out of the way—if I could just show them it’s nothing—”

“But it isn’t!” Artocarpus said sharply. “And you knew it, Kukui!”

“Arty,” Cassia tried to warn him, but he ignored her.

“This is a huge step in Pokemon Science! This could change everything! Mega evolution, Z-moves, Affection, Friendship, all of it! All of our research! And you kept it secret for what?” he demanded. “So your League could keep the truth to themselves? What, like some kind of secret weapon? That’s sick!”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said coldly.

Less than ten minutes ago, he’d been chatting with Ash, and his anger had seemed… distant. Maybe it had just been bubbling away in reserve, preparing itself for this moment, because now he could barely see past it.

“Then… then come see, Kukui,” Acacia said, turning slightly to the side. “Look. It’s just like I theorised. Powers we haven’t recorded before – I bet some of these are –”

“Did the ethics committee change their mind?” he snapped, and Acacia froze. He glared at her. “Or did we suddenly get a new kahuna I haven’t heard about?”

“It… he offered,” she said, like that mattered.

Human experimentation, Acacia,” he snapped. “Voluntary or not, that is what it is. Ash, get out of there.”

“Professor –”

His head snapped around, and Ash flinched, then pulled himself straight again, fixing him with a determined look.

“I told them it was okay. It’s worth finding out, right?” he pointed out. “If it’ll stop all this –”

“Kukui, we’re not going to publish anything,” Cassia said. “We understand why you kept it quiet, but – we’re your team, we deserve to –”

“I am not keeping secrets!” he snapped at them. “And this is no longer about that! You have all crossed the line, and this – this is illegal! If the ethics committee found out about this, we would all be shut down!”

“They don’t have to find out,” Acacia said, folding her arms under her chest. “Like Cassia said, we’re not going to publish anything. But with these readings, I’ll have a starting point. I’ll be able to focus my research on the right kinds of energies. I’ll be able to –”

“Give me one reason,” he snarled, “why I shouldn’t fire you right now.”

She pulled back slightly, but it was Artocarpus that answered with an audible scoff. “Because the League wouldn’t want this information getting out.”

“Excuse me?” he asked quietly, and Artocarpus put a hand on Acacia’s prototype, right over the dial.

“That’s why you’ve been keeping all these secrets, isn’t it? These powers – this way that humans can affect pokemon. Ash found out, and won’t keep it secret anymore, so they sent him here, to you,” he said. “A nice little out of the way region, with no league, no attention. He goes to your school, you teach him all about how Z-moves are about pokemon and nature and have nothing to do with human powers. He was just mistaken about what happened. What he’s capable of. All sorts of secrets just go away like that, don’t they, Pokemon Professor Kukui?”

Kukui gaped at him. He was vaguely aware of Ash, Rotom, and even Acacia doing the same thing. He had no idea where to even start with that kind of insanity.

“But it’s not a problem,” Cassia interjected, holding up her hands. “Because no one outside the team has to know about it. We’re upset that you didn’t tell us, Kukui, but we know now and… we… we might as well get to the bottom of it, right? Maybe we can even help the League understand it a little better.”

“R-right,” Acacia said, slowly gathering herself back up. “I might be able to find a link between –”

Kukui’s glare snapped back into place and onto her. “Human experimentation. Do not try and justify it.”

“Oh, right, human experiments are out of line,” Artocarpus sneered. “But mental conditioning is A-okay.”

His hand had already been clenched, and he wasn’t particularly aware of himself moving, so it surprised all of them when Kukui’s fist cracked into Artocarpus’s jaw.

Later, Rotom explained the sequence of events as only a sentient computer could, with the crystal clear clarity of its last memories before shutdown. It explained how Kukui’s punch jerked Artocarpus off-balance, making his hand shove the dial it had been resting on. That made something surge through the power amplifier Ash was holding, jerking his arms upward in some kind of defensive mechanism and causing the modifier to finish snapping around his wrist, just behind the Z-ring. And then the power amplifier did what it had been designed to do.

But all Kukui heard through the fury was Pikachu’s sudden scream. “Pikapi!”

They snapped around, but it was too late. Ash was half-hunched forward, eyes wide open and his mouth open but apparently unable to drag in any air. Something was rising up around him, something blue or white or yellow or even red, the colours mixing together and sparking with impossible lightning before rushing away again. It wasn’t – it didn’t look like the energy Kukui had seen before. Nothing like a Z-move, or even the energies he’d caught glimpses of on Akala Island. This was something else entirely.

“Ash!” he yelled, rushing over, but he couldn’t even get a foot away before the lightning snapped out to his hand, burning and locking his fingers up like a real shock. He snatched it into his chest, staring helplessly. “Ash… Ash! Hey! Look at me! Ash!”

But it was like Ash couldn’t even hear him. He was staring blindly, and even as Kukui watched, his eyelids slid to half-mast. Whether it was because he still couldn’t breathe and was losing consciousness or something else, Kukui couldn’t tell. The rest of him seemed locked up, unable to move even a single muscle.

“You must turn it off!” Rotom screeched, sending alarm sirens out that almost covered the crackle of powerful energy. “Help him! Help him! Turn it off!”

“Acacia!” Cassia yelled, and Kukui spun around.

She didn’t seem to be listening either, her eyes wide and a small smile on her lips. “This is… I never even…”

“Acacia!” Cassia yelled again. “You have to turn it off!”

Artocarpus was scrabbling at the power dial, turning it back and forth. “I can’t – how do – I don’t know what –”

With each turn of the dial, the light around Ash changed colour, and Kukui could feel Ash seizing with each one. He shoved Artocarpus away just to make him stop, and stared at the prototype blindly in the resulting orange light, willing himself to remember what he’d seen Acacia do with it. There had to be an off-switch somewhere, right?

The power bars were straining on the scale, the reading from the power modifier reporting a steady increase – it was only pushing Ash further the longer it was connected. The buttons weren’t marked, the screen gave no indications of how to stop anything.

But then the hairs on Kukui’s neck began to stand up, tickling with static, and he found himself slowly turning again. The light had reached out, wrapping around Pikachu exactly like a Z-move, only more powerful and much more terrifying.

Pikachu turned its blind and furious gaze on them as its cheeks began to spark.

“Get down,” Kukui breathed, and then grabbed at Artocarpus’s lapels. “Get down!”

“Pi… ka…”

It was all the warning they were going to get. Kukui threw himself and Artocarpus backwards, while Cassia tackled Acacia to the ground. And then it wasn’t quite a scream, wasn’t quite a roar, and either way it was nothing compared to the sound of pure explosive lightning cracking directly through the prototype and obliterating it. The shockwave shoved Kukui into the far wall hard enough that he swore he felt his insides bounce against his skeleton. And then he had to hunch in on himself as burning hot shrapnel flew everywhere, shredding clothes and threatening skin.

And then… just as quickly as it had started, it was over.

Beyond the ringing of Kukui’s ears, he could hear Pikachu panting, and a deeper, wetter gasp of lungs denied oxygen too long.


“Pikapi!” Pikachu yelped, as Kukui struggled to unfold himself from the protective hunch he’d unknowingly curled into.

“Pika…chu… hey,” Ash breathed. “Th-thanks… thanks, b-buddy…”

“Pikapi! Pikapi!”

But before Kukui had even gotten to his knees, Ash’s head hit the floor, unconscious. Kukui scrambled over as Pikachu started crying, little paws curling into Ash’s sleeve and yanking, but it didn’t stop him from leaning over to pull off Ash’s hat and pull back his hair to check his face.

“It was the power amplifier,” Artocarpus breathed. “He... that was...”

“That was incredible,” Acacia whispered, and Kukui all but snarled at her, but wasn't able to take his eyes off Ash's profile, checking for...

“Ku- Kukui…?” Cassia whispered. “Is he…?”

He was still breathing. Thank everything.

A flash of metal caught Kukui’s eye, and he blinked at the power amplifier, noticing it for the first time. Realisation clicked into place and he snarled, all but tearing it off Ash’s wrist just to throw it across the room. It clattered against the door a moment before Banyan and Koa appeared around it.

“Kukui, what – oh my god! What happened? Are you all okay?”

“I’m calling an ambulance!”

“No,” Kukui said, without even thinking about it. “No doctors.”

“Kukui –!”

“No more science,” he said. “Not on my kid. I’m taking him home.”

Kukui left his bag at the lab, along with a promise to all of his team that they were not done talking about this. But they were done with Ash.

Rotom had been short-circuited by the blast, so Kukui packed it into Ash’s bag next to a very confused Rowlet, and slung that over his arm before carefully hitching Ash up onto his back. He wasn’t light by any means, but Kukui couldn’t begrudge Pikachu adding its own weight when it scrambled up to perch in the gap between their shoulders.

He wasn’t even halfway home before Ash started twitching awake.

“Mm… Pikachu?”

“Pikapika, Pikapi…”

Kukui couldn’t see anything but Pikachu’s tail, but he felt it shifting, probably reaching out to touch, because he also felt Ash lift his head off Kukui’s shoulder, instead resting it against the back of his neck, right on his bun.

“Hey buddy. You okay?”

“Pika…” it still sounded shaky and teary. Kukui couldn’t blame it – he felt a little like that too.

“Everyone’s okay, Ash,” Kukui said quietly. “I’m just taking you back to my place and then you can rest up.”

“Mm… thanks Pr’fess’r,” he mumbled, and shifted again to free Kukui’s hair. “Home sounds good now.”

Kukui’s fingers twitched, but he didn’t comment. He was feeling irrationally guilty about this. It was only in the last month or so that he’d even thought humans could have energy, let alone… whatever all of that had been. It was only recently that he’d though Ash could be anything more than just a good trainer. But still… he still felt so damn responsible.

“What happened?” Ash asked. His voice was sounding less slurred with each word, his weight shifting as he regained self-awareness entirely too fast for someone who’d just been unconscious.

For the second time in three days.

Kukui swallowed hard at the reminder.

“All I remember is… you… you punched Professor Artocarpus,” Ash said slowly. “And then… it was like… Prism Tower. It was…” His head dropped forward, barely touching the back of Kukui’s cap before he jerked upright again. He hesitated, then let out a soft breath. “I can walk okay if you want to put me down.”

“It’s only a little further,” he said. And maybe something in his tone got through, because Ash didn’t object any further, just pulled his arms back so he could hold Kukui’s shoulders instead of being slumped over them. Kukui took a deep breath and tightened his grip on Ash’s legs, but didn’t say anything else.

He could do this much, at least.

It took a while for the conversation to start.

They had to deal with Rotom, first. It rebooted a minute after they got home, panicked and slightly glitchy, but aside from not being able to remember the explosion, its only concern seemed to be a dangerously low battery. The electricity from Pikachu’s attack had apparently overloaded the cells. But with one look at Kukui’s warning expression, it quietly agreed to go onto charge without comment, leaving the rest of them free to…


Kukui set Ash up on the couch, not wanting him to deal with the ladder for tonight at least, and got him some tapu cocoa even though he said he wasn’t thirsty. Ash released all of his pokemon from their balls and backpack and they snuggled up around him on the couch. Maybe Pikachu explained what had happened, or they somehow just knew, but they all claimed parts of Ash to curl up on and refused to move, even when Kukui sat down on the other arm of the couch.

For a long time, neither of them said anything.

“I know I said you don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to,” Kukui murmured eventually, “but some reassurance you’re okay would be appreciated.”

Ash huffed out a laugh. “I’m fine. Really.” And he honestly sounded it. He sounded perfectly strong and healthy, like nothing had happened. But he was avoiding Kukui’s gaze, his eyes lingering somewhere near his ear. “Sorry I scared you.”

“I’m sorry it happened,” he replied. “They were out of line. I should have stopped it sooner.”

“I offered.”

He didn’t have anything to say to that, so he didn’t. Ash spent a minute fussing with his pokemon, scratching their ears and petting down feathers, before asking, “Are you mad?”

“Not at you,” he said firmly. He felt like that needed to be made clear.

“So, um…” Ash hesitated again, then suddenly firmed up and met Kukui’s collarbone face-on. “I guess this is kind obvious now, but um… I have aura.”

“Aura?” Kukui repeated quietly. “Like a lucario?”

“I don’t know a lot about it. I don’t know how it works, or whatever, but it comes up whenever I meet Riolu or Lucario, and I think it’s why sometimes I can see important memories for some people,” Ash continued, trying a little too hard to sound off-hand. “I’m guessing it kind of got out of hand today.”

“Pikachu pika,” Pikachu said softly. “Pika pika pi.”

Ash faltered a little, glancing at it, then added, “Or it… I guess it could’ve been something else? Like um… before me and Greninja perfected bond-evolution, sometimes the evolution would knock me out. Or mess with my head. Or both. I… it might’ve been that. Or um… um…” His voice was starting to shake a little. “Sorry, Greninja’s kind of freaking out right now and I… um… The point is, there’s a few things it could’ve been, and… oh, man…”

He pressed a hand against his face, closing his eyes like he needed to think. Kukui gave him time, just watching as he pulled himself—or maybe that incredible, mythical pokemon in Kalos—back together. It took almost a minute before he could lower his hand.

“I thought that’d be what they’d find. Aura, maybe. Or the bond-evolution stuff,” Ash said quietly. “Nothin’ to do with makin’ pokemon stronger or whatever. I don’t know about that. I thought it’d be fine and they would stop talking about you lying or whatever. I probably just made it worse.”

“What happened wasn’t your fault,” he said firmly. “Acacia had been warned off—multiple times—against human experimentation. Even if you volunteered, she should have refused.”

“Is she in trouble?”

“They all are,” he said, and then sighed, pushing his hands up over his head. “And I should be too. They’re my team. I should have had more control.”

“I’ve never had much luck with that,” Ash said with a weak chuckle. “I don’t think most people really know much about control when things go crazy like that.”

Kukui huffed and finished pushing his hands around to grip the back of his neck. He didn’t really know what to do now. What to say, what to think. Ash seemed okay, if a little nervous. He had a million questions, but he didn’t want to ask any of them. He didn’t want Ash to have to say or do a single thing. But…


“It happens a lot. I guess I just learned to go with it, you know?”

He chanced a look from the corner of his eye, but Ash was staring at Lycanroc, running his fingers through its fur like it held the script for this conversation.

“They were just… weird coincidences, at first,” he said quietly. “Stories about a guy dressed in blue with an electric pokemon. Or even just a trainer appearing at the right time. My name was Ash, and it rhymes with a lot of stuff, so that’s great for prophecies, I guess. It was all stuff like that. I mean… I’ve always loved pokemon so much. I wanted to spend all the time I had with them. And… and I wanted friends. I wanted people to like me. So I did people favours. And that’s what a Pokemon Master does, right? They help people with all kinds of problems. So if I wanted to be the best, I had to get involved with everything I could, right? I didn’t see anything special about it, even if sometimes people did have crazy stories to go along with it.

“After Lugia and the birds, though… Mom started getting kinda mad about it. She was really mad after that stuff with Molly and the unown… I was mad too, because she – I don’t care when people come after me, but Molly wanted a mom, and they took mine. The unown, I mean. They took my mom. But she didn’t care about that, she just kept going on and on about how I could’ve died and I mean, so what, right? I didn’t. And I needed to save her. She’s worth the risk!” He trailed off, brow furrowing, before he continued more quietly. “We had this huge fight. Brock said I should try seeing it from her point of view, and then I was fighting with him, too. Misty was the only one who got it.”

Brock… and Misty…


Kukui swallowed, but couldn’t say anything as Ash continued.

“I decided then that I wouldn’t tell Mom about any of it,” he said. “I knew she’d still ask Brock, and he’d tell her, but we kind of… we don’t talk about it. Because that way, we can pretend she doesn’t know, and so she doesn’t have to get mad, and I don’t… I’m not lying that way. I don’t have to tell her that nothing bad happened, or that I wasn’t safe. I dunno, it makes a kind of sense in my head. It’s been fine, you know? For me and Mom, anyway. For the most part.

“But then Misty had to leave, and… I dunno, in Hoenn, things started getting kinda weird. I started meeting more legendary pokemon. I met the Rangers, and the G-Men… I found out about aura and all kinds of weird stuff,” he said, shaking his head. “And in Sinnoh… man, in Sinnoh… everything kinda fell apart. I – it wasn’t different, or anything. It was all just stuff that happened, and it’s not like I went looking for problems or anything, but – there were these guys that wanted to destroy the whole world, and – and we had to stop ’em, but – I dunno, it was all just so much, and I just – all I wanted was to become a Pokemon Master. But everyone kept pointing out how I wasn’t a good trainer, how I didn’t do any of it right, but I was – when it was important, when it mattered, none of that mattered. So maybe I wasn’t runnin’ for the right goal posts, or something. Maybe I was supposed to… I didn’t know. I don’t know.”

He let out a soft breath. “And Brock… he’d been there through it all, y’know? He was always there, keepin’ things normal even if I wasn’t. But then he had to go be a Pokemon Doctor, which meant he couldn’t be with me, and… I got… It was selfish, but I was so mad,” he said. “Especially – especially when… I went to Unova, and it got weirder, but… I didn’t have Brock. And my friends there, they didn’t believe me, even after more weird stuff started happening. If they didn’t see something… And, at the end, Dawn – she’d been there in Sinnoh, but she’d never been like Brock. She just went right along with everything they were sayin', like I was just some stupid kid making up stories and…”

He pulled away from Lycanroc to push his hands into his hair, hiding his face. “Kalos was different. Like a total one-eighty. I didn’t even try to tell anyone anything, but they all looked at me like… and then, with Greninja… It was like I was there on the field, fighting, and some weird part of me started thinking… I dunno. I dunno what I was thinking, but… it was easy. It was so easy to be… bigger. Important. To just…”

“Pikapi…” Pikachu whispered, tugging at his pant leg, and Ash slowly pulled his hands away to pick it up and hug it to his chest.

“But then I messed up that, too. I barely scraped through qualifying for the League. And when I was there… Lysandre… he – Lysandre saw what Greninja could do and he… he wanted to use it. Use me. Make us his… I don’t even know what he wanted, but he got in our heads. He tried to make me think the world was… that it needed to be fixed. That it needed to be destroyed, so we could fix it.” He turned his head away, pulling Pikachu in tighter to his chest. “I love this world. That was all I could think. I love it so much. It hurt to even think that someone would want to ruin it. The idea of someone making me want to – to destroy it…”

Kukui felt sick. Deep in his bones, need to throw up, need to shower and beat up his punching bag and then shower again sick. But he shoved it down, just staring at Ash, breathless and waiting for it to finish.

“We stopped him. Me, my friends, and Alain, and the gym leaders and Diantha and Steven Stone, we all stopped him. I… I don’t know what happened to him, in the end, I couldn’t… I was so tired, and the whole world felt like it was burning. I couldn’t tell,” he said shakily. “And then it was – it was all done, and I came home to Kanto and… I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to – to keep going, you know? Find another league, or something, but… I was –”

Ash slowly lowered Pikachu back to his lap, and they stared at each other, Ash’s voice so low he might have only been talking to it. “There was this one time… One time, I was lookin’ at my room, and thinkin’ about how it hadn’t changed. When I left Kanto the first time… when I was ten, and I wanted to be a Pokemon Master? I wanted to win the League. I used to get so riled up. So angry every time I lost. I was gonna catch all the pokemon in the world. I’d have one of every single species. I’d have a ranch like Professor Oak, and I’d be a Champion, or maybe a member of the Elite Four, and I’d go on TV and the radio and I’d be famous and it’d be so cool. And I was lookin’ at my trophies. And I was thinkin’ about the Orange Islands, and the Battle Frontier, and I was thinkin’…”

He trailed off, but Kukui didn’t need to hear the rest of the sentence. He could remember.

After he’d lost to Lance, Kukui had gone home, and sat in this room in his parents’ house. He’d stared at his Z-crystals, at his pokeballs, at his gym badges. He’d spent a very long time not thinking much of anything, just… staring at what he’d dedicated so much of his life to.

Wondering what the point of it all was.

It sounded depressive, now he thought back on it, but at the time, he hadn’t felt depressed. He’d just felt… lost. Confused. A little—well, actually, extremely—angry but not sure where to place the blame.

“It really was a fluke, me comin’ here,” Ash said softly. “Mr Mime won a contest. I didn’t mean to come here, or to – all the stuff that’s happened. I didn’t mean for it. Really, Professor.”

“I know you didn’t,” he murmured.

“But I’m glad I did. Bein’ here, seein’ everything, meeting everyone… I love it,” he said. “I love Alola. It reminds me… it reminds me how much I love the whole world. I think I needed that.”

Kukui nodded quietly. And despite himself—despite everything—he found himself shifting down the couch until he could pick up Litten and gently put it down on the floor by their feet, so he could sit right beside Ash. It didn’t mind, just shifting around to settle down over Ash’s feet by Lycanroc, but Kukui still hesitated, watching Ash’s profile carefully. “Once, you told me that being here made you think about who you want to be, and who you’re meant to be. You said they were different things sometimes.”

“Yeah… Sometimes,” he admitted quietly. “Back in Kanto, in my room, they felt…”

“I get it,” he said, and reached out, curling one arm around Ash’s shoulders and gently pulling him into his chest. “I get it, Ash.”

He was still stiff, still barely leaning into his side. “Sorry I made you worry.”

Kukui hummed, aware of how strange his next statement was going to sound. “I think it’s something I want to do.”

“Sorry to –”

An almost involuntary noise came from Kukui's throat, and he shook his head just slightly. He didn’t know what Ash had been about to apologise for, but he knew he didn’t need to hear it. “It’s okay, Ash. It’s all okay.”

And that, finally, seemed to be it. He flinched, and then let out a choked breath, like he hadn’t quite been able to breathe past it. For a second, he didn’t move, but Kukui pulled a little, and that was enough for Ash to slowly turn into him, head falling onto his shoulder, and Kukui reached up with his other hand to hold him there.

He didn’t cry. He didn’t fall into a heap.

But he did lean, and breathe, and shake a little, and Kukui threaded his fingers into Ash’s hair and didn’t move for almost an hour.

Eventually… eventually, Ash told him a few things. In halting, reluctant stories about princesses and ghosts and other dimensions. He even tried to explain the aura thing, but fell flat because he kept trying to describe senses Kukui just didn’t have. He looked so unbelievably grateful when Kukui just nodded and listened anyway that it nearly hurt all over again.

He was pretty sure he didn’t hear more than a fragment, but after dinner, Ash started to look drained from the emotional turmoil, and Kukui coaxed him into lying down under a blanket. “Maybe we should skip school tomorrow,” he suggested as he sat down beside Ash’s head. “We can talk some more, if you want.”

“Nah, that’s okay,” he said wearily. “You had lessons planned to talk to the others about Kanto, right? That’s important.”

“Other things are important too,” he pointed out quietly, and Ash blinked before smiling warmly.

“Thanks, Professor. But I’m okay.”

“I know you are,” he said, and the weird thing was, despite all evidence to the contrary, he actually believed it. “I just want you to know that it’s okay to not be.”

“I dunno. I’m kind of a jerk when I get like that,” he said. Kukui sighed and didn’t comment, just let his hand drop onto Ash’s head. Ash squinted up at him, but took several seconds before apparently deciding on a question. “Aren’t you going to bed too, Professor?”

“In a minute. I need to process a few things.”

Pikachu had been curling up at Ash’s hip, but it looked up at that, considered, and then bounded over to Kukui’s lap instead. “Pikapika…!”

Ash squinted at it too. “You’re both weird.”

“Pika-chu,” it said, and whacked Ash’s face with its tail before settling down. “Pikachu, Pikapi.”

“He’s gotta get up in a minute, you –”

“Go to sleep, Ash,” Kukui ordered. “Or I’m calling us both in sick.”

“Okay, okay…” He closed his eyes, and Kukui raised his own to the ceiling, thinking about phone calls, and whether he should make them. It took him a few minutes to realise Ash had shifted to look at him again.

“Is this sleeping?” he deadpanned, and Ash quirked a very tiny smile.

“I just…” He hesitated, then sighed and closed his eyes again. “Thanks, Professor.”

“Any time, Ash,” he said softly. “It’s not even a hassle.”

He sat there too long, just listening to Ash slowly fall asleep and the world outside still turning.

Ash might have loved it, but there were some days… Kukui combed his fingers through Ash’s hair and hated it all, just a little.

Final Grade

The fun started at the airport.

Brock, it turned out, was a few years older than Ash and even more girl-crazy than Kukui remembered himself being at that age. But only for older women, which was both a relief (since it meant his students were automatically not involved) and very strange to watch. Because the kid went all out, grabbing hands and professing love like a bad romance play.

Misty, on the other hand, was a fiery red-head with zero patience for such shenanigans and an amazing technique in snatching his ear one-handed and hauling him up and away. Kukui almost assumed that meant they were dating, in the weird, half-playful, built on jealousy and hormones way that some teenagers did, until Ash caught Misty’s attention and Brock became background noise to both of them.

Which was interesting.

Pikachu obviously adored Misty, and on the bus, Ash swung into the seat beside her, their elbows knocking together as she berated him for not visiting before he went to Alola and he complained that she hadn’t called him, either. Kukui’s eyebrow began rising toward his hairline, amusement warring with intrigue.

Brock smirked at his look. “They’re just friends,” he said dryly. “Just ask them.”

“I take it this has been going on for a while?” he asked quietly, and Brock snorted.

“As long as I’ve known them. Misty knows but denies it, Ash has no clue and denies it even louder,” he said, and then shifted to face him a little better. “So you’re Professor Kukui, huh? Sorry I kept missing your calls.”

“That’s alright. I’m sure your studies keep you busy,” he said. “How long have you been training now?”

“Longer than I’ve been doing it officially, but the League’s pretty strict about qualifications, so I’ve still got a few years left,” he said vaguely. Kukui’s eyebrow ticked, annoyingly reminded of Ash’s ability to say a lot without giving any actual details. Brock’s lips twitched in return, and for a moment, they just looked at each other, Kukui feeling vaguely like he was being sized up until Brock abruptly continued, “So, Ash has been staying with you, huh? Bet that’s an experience.”

“It’s been a lot of fun,” he said honestly. “There are some ups and down – a few things I didn’t expect. But I’m really glad he came to Alola. You travelled together for a long time, didn’t you?”

“Longer than anyone,” he said. “How are you handling Team Rocket?”

His lips pressed together. With everything else that had happened lately, he’d almost forgotten them. “According to Ash, we don’t see them nearly as often as he expected. It’s still more than I’d like.”

“Not one for rhyming and alliteration?”

His frown deepened, and he lowered his voice so the class behind them wouldn’t hear. “I’m not one for people willing to steal pokemon, let alone people willing to kill kids for getting in their way.”

Brock pulled back a little, something in that impenetrable narrow gaze shifting ever so slightly. He glanced over at Ash, then back to Kukui. “Most people don’t notice that second point. He must be off his game.”

“It is not Ash’s fault,” he snapped, and Brock shifted again. Kukui looked sideways to make sure no one else had noticed, then took a breath to calm down a little. “I don’t think the rest of the class appreciate it. But they pushed him over a cliff and stranded all of us in the middle of the ocean. I noticed.”

“It’s weird how most people don’t,” he admitted, relaxing back into the seat. “They can build these huge, deadly machines, or wield grenade launchers and flamethrowers, and maybe it’s because we’re always fine afterward, but it’s easy to just not notice how dangerous things really are. Or maybe I just got used to it. Like scar tissue.”

It wasn’t funny, but Kukui still mustered a grimace that could pass for a smile. “You sound more familiar with them than I am. Why do they chase him around?”

He shrugged one shoulder. “If you ask them—or Ash—it’d be because of Pikachu. The first time they met, when Pikachu only knew Thundershock, it put out enough electricity to blow up a Pokemon Centre. Or so the story goes.”

Kukui glanced at him, and Brock shrugged again. “I believe it. Maybe not that it was a Thundershock, but otherwise it sounds about right. But even without that… has he told you much about…” It was hard to tell, but Kukui was pretty sure he was getting a sideways look. “…anything?”

“Not enough,” he said, and Brock’s eyebrow rose in yet another understated reaction.

He even paused a moment, obviously considering that for what it was worth, then nodded. “Well, if you were a pair of pokemon thieves, and you knew there was a kid that couldn’t go a week without stumbling across some new, rare pokemon, wouldn’t you follow him around?” he pointed out. “What always amazes me is that they don’t give up. Near as I can tell, they haven’t stolen anything since the day they all met. They get close sometimes, but that’s when Ash gets serious, and then they’ve got no chance.”

Kukui considered what he’d seen in Ash’s trial with Olivia, and wondered if that even came close to Ash getting ‘serious’. “May I ask you a personal question, Brock?”

“Sure. I can’t promise I’ll answer.”

“Why did you follow Ash around?”

Brock did a double-take, and then burst out in a startled laugh. “Are you kidding? I never got a real pokemon journey. My deadbeat parents skipped town when I was a kid and I needed to look after my siblings. And the gym, but that was more to keep the income coming whenever their bank account dried up. When Ash challenged my gym, he worked his magic and my dad showed up again, so I could skip town instead. That was my first taste of freedom since I’d been nine! Of course I followed him!”

Kukui gave him a sharp look. “Worked his magic?”

“Figuratively speaking,” he said, waving it off. “Probably a coincidence. They happen a lot around Ash. The point is, Ash was a lousy trainer who needed all the help he could get. It was the best opportunity I’d ever had to get away and I was gonna take it. Originally, I was only gonna stick around until he finished up the Indigo League, but then stuff happened and I wound up going through Johto with him. Then I was planning to start my own journey, but we ran into each other in Hoenn and stuck together. Same in Sinnoh. I probably would have kept going with him after that, but I figured out I wanted to be a Pokemon Doctor, and you can’t do that on the road.”

He watched him curiously for a few moments. “From what Ash said, I thought you travelled to those places together.”

Again, something like a smirk appeared. “I guess you haven’t spent enough time with Ash yet. You’ve gotta get specific if you really want him to tell you something.”

Maybe Kukui was just on edge—as much as Ash had gone back to normal after the incident at the lab, Kukui hadn’t really calmed down yet. Writing up incident reports and filing official warnings with too little time, trying to manage his own turbulent emotions and sort out what he was legally allowed to do, since firing everyone was technically even less of an option than throwing punches… he hadn’t really been able to process anything in the four days they’d had before flying out. So maybe he was just defensive and irritable, but there was something in Brock’s gaze and tone that felt like a challenge. Something that made him want to snap and accuse Brock of things he probably didn’t deserve.

And even if he did deserve them, Kukui knew he didn’t know enough about Ash, let alone Brock, to make that judgement.

So with great effort, he didn’t rise to the bait, and just smiled thinly. “I’m learning that.”

Brock’s smirk was visible this time, but he didn’t say anything, instead turning in his seat to join Ash and Misty’s conversation.

They’d barely passed the wooden sign welcoming them to Pallet Town when the driver pulled over and twisted in his seat.

“You stoppin’, Ash?”

“Yeah, thanks!” he said brightly, jumping to his feet. Misty and Brock barely waited for him to get into the aisle before following him up, while Kukui and the rest of the kids stared.

“Where are you going?” asked Mallow, and Ash grinned like it should be obvious.

“We’re gonna go say hi to my mom.”

“Ah, Mrs Ketchum!” Brock said rapturously, clasping his hands together. “How long it’s been since I last saw your shining face and felt the warmth of your divine –”

Misty reached over Ash’s shoulder to slap him upside the head. “Knock it off – they don’t have enough barf bags in here for everyone.”

Ash cringed, but was already bounding down the bus steps and out the door, where he spun on his heel to smile up at the windows. “We’ll meet you guys at the lab, okay?”

“Don’t go rilin’ up any of the young ’uns while you’re here, Ashy-boy!” the driver called as Brock and Misty followed him down. “My niece has still got three years before she’s on a journey, I don’t want you puttin’ her head in the clouds again!”

Ash just laughed and lifted his hand in acknowledgement before turning and running off down the side road, Brock and Misty a step behind. The other kids all stared, looking so betrayed and abandoned that Kukui could ignore his own surprise to smother a grin.

“I guess this is his hometown,” Sophocles said mulishly as the bus pulled back onto the road.

“I almost forgot that,” Lillie admitted, lifting her hands to her chest. “Isn’t that strange?”

“No, me too,” Kiawe agreed. “It feels like he’s been in Alola forever. Weird that it’s only been a few months.”

Kukui glanced back at them, then over at the two Oaks. Samson raised an eyebrow in return. “Two hours in the country, and you’ve already lost him. Excellent classroom management, Professor.”

Samuel sniggered as Kukui gave that the deadpan look it deserved.

Tracey had tried to warn him, but Kukui truly hadn’t… appreciated the sheer size and scope of Oak Lab until he was standing in the middle of it, staring up at three floors of files and a long hall of equipment.

“Trainer data over there, research over there, and League records here,” Oak said cheerfully, pointing at sections that Kukui couldn’t even hope to follow. “Have fun!”

He wondered if this was a gift or a punishment, and stumbled forward a few steps.

“Samson and I are going to catch up over some nice tea. Let me know if you need help finding anything!”

Kukui croaked vaguely. He could spend a year here and barely make a dent in it. What the hell had he been thinking?

The door clicked shut behind him, startling Kukui out of his blind panic. He wasn’t going to get anywhere without starting. So he turned and picked up the nearest League record file, determined to at least get an idea of what they required.

After an hour, he realised that most of it was actually pretty simple stuff. The file he’d picked up was a record of active trainers in Kanto, with notes about their career in the industry, whether they still had their starter, and if they were still interested in competing in official challenges. Most of the files were notes about ‘retired’ trainers – those who were no longer interested in challenging the League or pursuing a career in one of the League support teams, like pokemon science or health. They were pretty simple – records of when they’d left and what happened to the starter.

It was a little surprising just how many of the records were related to pokemon, and specifically the starters Oak apparently raised and gave out to each new trainer. It made Kukui cringe a little, because he’d never been much of a breeder. He’d had to gain the official qualification to become a Pokemon Professor, but it required skills and patience he just didn’t have. He’d barely excelled in raising his own pokemon, let alone bringing them up for others.

He flipped through a few of the trainer records, unsurprised to find most trainers left the industry around the two-year mark, their starters traded away or returned after they found a partner they truly wanted to be with. It usually took less than a year for a trainer to realise they weren’t cut out for the League, but a little longer before they abandoned the industry altogether. Childhood dreams died hard, after all.

Inevitably, he found himself thinking of Ash, who was still chasing that same dream so many kids started with. Still using the same starter, ready and willing to learn from scratch if it helped him reach that nebulous goal he’d set in his mind. He wondered what Ash had been like in the beginning. His friends and family dropped so many hints about personality traits Kukui had never seen. Arrogance, entitlement, impatience… he supposed they were the kinds of things a Pokemon Journey either enhanced or smoothed out, but the Ash he knew only got like that when he was messing around. It seemed odd that people who had known him for so long could talk like they were legitimate personality flaws.

A far off explosion made him look up, and his eyes caught on the view out the window, of the cosy town nestled in the valley below.

People often joked that Melemele had been made for postcards, but Pallet Town really did look like a painting. Perfect fields, quiet streets, tidy houses with red roofs. He could bet that the people who lived here were quiet and hardworking. A stereotypical farming community, built up around a ranch dedicated to raising people and pokemon.

Without thinking, Kukui closed the file he’d been reading and set it aside, wandering closer to the window.

Picturesque. It was the only word for it. Sweet and calm. Nothing ever happened here, Kukui was sure of it. Kids grew up here, went away, came back with babies and settled down to raise more kids. Farmers worked their fields, neighbourhood stores opened and closed, the sun rose and set and maybe sometimes some pokemon at the old Oak Ranch got out of control but that good boy Tracey would set them straight soon enough, because nothing ever happened in Pallet.

The kind of town people came from, and the kind of place you went back to. A home so perfect and pristine that it hardly seemed real.

This was where Ash had come from.

Kukui frowned, unable to imagine it. He wanted to. It was so safe and secure; he wanted Ash to belong here. He wanted to imagine Ash sitting on a fence post, or happily whiling the days away in a field, watching the blue sky pass overhead. He was suddenly struck with the urge to abandon his work and go find the kid, just to see him interact with this odd, perfectly calm world.

He just couldn’t see it.

“Oh, Professor Kukui! Welcome to my cafe!” Delia greeted. “I wasn’t expecting to see you so soon! Tracey was joking that we’d have to drag you out of Professor Oak’s archives!”

He smiled as he let the door shut behind him. It hadn’t been hard to find the cafe – everyone in town apparently knew Delia, and had been more than happy to point the way, though they all gave his bare chest a disapproving look and idly told him Ash wasn’t in town right now like that was the only possible reason he'd be asking. Apparently people ‘like him’ didn’t talk to people like Delia. He wasn’t quite sure what to make of it.

“I realised a lot of the work I was doing, I really could have done over the phone with Tracey. I thought I should come by and say hello,” he explained. “So, alola!”

She giggled. “Alola! My, it still has such a nice ring to it, even here without the white beaches. No wonder Ash enjoys saying it so much!”

He smiled tolerantly. Delia wasn’t nearly as patronising as some tourists; it was just that he was acutely aware this was Ash’s mother, and Ash hadn’t even sounded like a tourist when he was one. The comparison grated more on his already thin nerves than it should have, so Kukui glanced around the cafe to distract himself.

It was more of a restaurant deli than a cafe, and it suited Pallet perfectly. It looked like the sort of place that opened at four for farmers, stopped serving at six-thirty, and then re-opened at nine to serve young mothers and prepare for the lunch crowd. There had been a closed sign on the front door – apparently on weekends it was only open between nine and twelve. Delia was apparently taking advantage of the cafe’s cooking space to prepare dinner for everyone.

“So did you get much of a chance to speak to Misty and Brock?” Delia asked, drawing his attention back to her. “Brock was very interested in meeting you.”

“We talked a little on the bus,” he said, raising an eyebrow. “He’s an interesting young man.”

“Oh, dear!” she said with a laugh, obviously catching his tone. “I hope he didn’t try to intimidate you. He’s really very sweet – but you know how boys can be.”

There were a lot of things boys could be, but Kukui wasn’t quite sure what she was referring to and so just tilted his head with an awkward smile. Luckily, she caught the silent question too.

“I doubt he’ll ever admit it, but he’s actually very proud that Ash thinks of him as an older brother,” she explained. “He gets a little defensive when he thinks people can intrude on that.”

Oh. Kukui almost laughed as everything fit into place, and couldn’t help the amused sigh that escaped him, but he otherwise just shook his head as he walked a little further into the cafe. “We had a bit of a standoff, but nothing too serious. He seemed happy enough to think I don’t know as much about Ash as he does.”

“You should be safe as long as Ash doesn’t let slip how he thinks the world of you,” she said with a wink, only to laugh when she caught sight of Kukui’s blank stare. “Oh, don’t panic! At worst Brock will insult your cooking skills and start bragging about how much he knows about pokemon health. You’re perfectly safe.”

“Wh- no, not that,” he said. “Ash doesn’t…”

“Of course he does! Don’t be modest. You know he adores you,” she said, and then waved at one of the counter seats. “Sit down, Professor. Would you like anything to drink?”

“Uh… no, thank you,” he said, even as he dropped onto the stool. “I’m not sure I’d use such strong language. He doesn’t think of me any differently than his classmates, I’m sure. Beyond being his teacher, of course.”

Delia just smiled knowingly, and he found himself gripping his fingers, guilt rising. “Did Ash… mention anything about what happened earlier this week?” he asked. “Or what his plans were?”

“Is he planning something?” she asked. “He didn’t say anything specific. He was mostly upset that I hadn’t told him who our special guests were! And of course, he’s always excited to see his pokemon. Why?”

He faltered, then pushed through. It was as good a place to start the conversation as any. “I thought perhaps he might not plan on coming back. On Monday, there was an… incident at my lab. Some of my colleagues—” the word still tasted sick. “—took a theory too far, and they performed an experiment. On Ash. He was… hurt.”

Delia blinked, her hands stilling on the vegetables she’d been tossing. After a few moments, she went back to it, her voice only slightly strained as she said, “Oh, I doubt that would be enough to bring him back here for good. Is there some reason Ash should blame you? That doesn’t seem like him.”

“No, he…” He sighed, hunching a little over his hands. “I’m not sure he even blames them. But it was unacceptable. I should have never allowed it to progress that far. And to know that it even came close to whatever happened in Kalos, I –”

The clattering of the bowl made him look up, and it was to find Delia suddenly staring at him with wide eyes. He clenched his jaw. “I’m sorry, Delia. I tried to stop it, but I was too late.”

“He… told you…?” she asked. “He… what…?”

He swallowed, but didn’t even get started before she shook her head.

“No… no, I don’t want to know,” she said, and Kukui frowned, recognising the same tone Ash sometimes used to lecture himself about not letting things get to him. Delia braced her hands on the bowl, took a moment, and then smiled at him more warmly than he’d seen yet. “But really… I’m so glad. Thank you.”


“I worry about him,” she said, her voice a mockery of cheerfulness. “It’s wonderful to know he told someone. That he has someone he can talk to. Thank you for that.”

“Someone…” He was gaping, and he knew that was rude, but… “Delia, he – he doesn’t tell me anything! He acted like what happened on Monday was nothing! He was hurt—he could have died—and he tried to justify what they did to him! And then he – he told me that things like that happen enough that he –!”

He choked on the memory, but Delia quietly lowered her head, hair falling forward to hide her eyes. It was yet another familiar gesture, and Kukui’s emotions spiked to the tipping point.

“The kahuna act like he’s some kind of chosen hero come to either destroy or save mankind and he didn’t even seem surprised,” he snapped. “He has powers. Actual superhero powers of aura and who knows what else. He treats a living god like a rival. He talks about real ghosts—human ghosts—like they’re real. He has no concept of – and he says you won’t talk to him about it!”

She didn’t immediately react, but Kukui couldn’t—wouldn’t—allow himself to continue until she’d responded to that one. To the accusation that she wouldn’t talk to her son about the danger he was in. The things that hurt him. The things that apparently made up so much of his life and how he saw the world. Surely Ash had misunderstood. Surely this wasn’t what she wanted. She was his mother, she had to –

“The last time we did, I called him selfish.”

Kukui stalled mid-thought. She didn’t look up.

“It was a long time ago. The last time I was there for one of his adventures. An entei threw him out a window, high above some crystal spikes. If his charizard hadn’t appeared out of nowhere, he would have died,” she said quietly. “And he didn’t even blink – he was barely surprised to see the pokemon he’d all but released months before. He just carried on until the day was saved. And then he was busy making sure the little girl who caused it all was safe and happy and that, I knew, was the right thing to do, so I was proud of him. I was so proud of him. But that didn’t change the fact that I could have lost him. My whole world could have collapsed, right then and there, gone in an instant. Because he wouldn’t wait to let someone else take care of it.”

“You were in danger,” he guessed, and she shook her head.

“I wasn’t. Kidnapped, yes, but safe. I wasn’t even scared until I saw him putting himself in danger to rescue me,” she said, and paused a moment before sighing softly. “You see, he really is my whole world, Professor Kukui. He means everything to me. But he doesn’t see it that way. He sees people and pokemon who need help. And he’ll give everything for them. Every time. It doesn’t matter what the problem is, he’ll always put the world before himself. He always chooses his world over mine. So I called him selfish.”

Kukui stared at her. Eventually, she looked up, her eyes closed in a helpless sort of smile.

“I suppose that makes me more selfish! Choosing my world over everyone else’s. But that’s what it is. I know he’s doing the right thing. I know he’s doing incredible, wonderful things and I would never stop him! But I don’t like it. I will never like it. Because one day, it will be the choice, and I know he won’t see it like that. He won’t even think it’s a choice, just something he needs to do,” she said, and Kukui found himself in awe of her dry eyes as she met his gaze head-on. “But until then, Professor Kukui, I don’t want to know about the choices he does make. I only want to know that he’s safe. I only want to know that he’s happy. I only want to know that he’s coming home to me. The rest is just details.”

For so long, Kukui had been half-planning this discussion. He’d had so many things he wanted to say to her. To accuse her of. To demand and argue and defend.

But now Delia was here in front of him, in her quaint little cafe, in her safe little Pallet Town, and Kukui found himself suddenly and painfully aware of the fact that she’d always been here.

She’d raised her little boy here. He’d grown up. And then he’d left her.

He’d come back. A little older. Probably very different. But he’d come back.

And then he’d gone away again.

Again, and again, and again.

He wondered what that was like, to see someone you’d cared about for so long leave, only to come back different than they’d left you. He swallowed, and tried not to imagine how he’d feel if Ash didn’t come back to Alola. It had only been a few months, and already... “He can’t keep doing it on his own, Delia. He’s strong, but he can’t keep it up forever.”

“No,” she agreed. “I thought… after the last time, I was really worried about him. I was scared for him. So it’s good to know he’s spoken to you, at least.”

“He didn’t tell me anything,” he said, his voice a little harsher than he’d intended. “Not really. Not the way I want him to.”

“But he told you something. You know and you…” she looked away for a moment, then smiled again, just as warm as before. “You can’t imagine how grateful I am to you, Professor.”

He rubbed the back of his neck. “I won’t be surprised if he stayed here. Not after what happened.”

“I would be,” she said, and he sighed, looking away, but she just made a vague noise and smiled weakly. “I’m not sure he knows it, but I think he has things to do there still. And even if he doesn’t, I think you’re underestimating yourself. Give yourself another chance, Professor. You’ll see what I mean.”

He folded his arms over the countertop, and left a lot of things unsaid. There wasn’t any point, really. Ash might have learned a lot of bad habit on the road, but Kukui was now vitally aware of where the inclination for them had come from.

Besides, they’d probably covered the worst of it already.

Kukui had spent altogether too much time reassuring Sophocles and Kiawe’s parents that nothing untoward could possibly happen with a group of teenagers sleeping in the same unsupervised space. He didn’t want to imagine what they’d say if they found out even the so-called responsible gym leader guardians left them alone too.

But that was exactly what happened. Ash, Misty, and Brock peeled off from the others after dinner, Ash taking Rotom on a quest to find as many of his pokemon as possible (“You’re my pokedex, right? So you gotta scan all my pokemon!”) and the other two apparently unable to do anything but follow him. They hadn’t come back by lights out, but Professor Oak just chuckled at his concern.

“I forget how you Alolans worry,” he said, handing over a coffee. “The three of them have been running around the world on their own for years. They can handle themselves for a night on my ranch.”

“I thought Alolans were known for being too laid back,” he said dryly, and Samson chuckled from where he was sitting at the table.

“Except when it comes to our children. Kids stay kids for too long with us.”

“I don’t know if that’s a bad thing,” Samuel argued. “Growing up too quickly can have some poor results. My grandson was a slow motion train wreck for years before he settled down.”

Samson grunted, amused and intrigued. “How is Gary doing these days? Still with that grumpy old man in Sinnoh?”

“Professor Rowan is a highly esteemed grump of an old man, thank you very much,” Samuel said with a smirk. “But he’s doing quite well. He’s been making incredible breakthroughs with inter-dimensional research lately.”

“Inter-dimensional research?” Kukui repeated. “Ash said he was interested in Fossils, and Rowan works on evolution. Why’s he studying wormholes?”

Samuel shrugged. “I believe it has something to do with what happened while Ash was in Sinnoh. That or that odd story Ash mentioned about time travel and an ancient turtle pokemon.”

“Oh, Samuel, you’re not filling your students’ heads with those old tales, are you?” Samson cried, and then rolled his eyes at Kukui. “This old coot has been telling crazy stories for forty years about how he went to the future once!”

A month or maybe even a week ago, Kukui would have laughed. As it was, he just looked at Oak, who smiled back at him, sharing secrets with his eyes. “It’s terrible, the things people don’t believe when you tell them.”

“Huh,” he said. “Where did you time travel to?”

“Oh, about forty years into the future. The equivalent of a few years ago, now. I met the most astounding trio, helped saved a legendary from a villain, and then quietly went back to my own time like nothing had happened,” he said mildly. “It was like a dream. But I never forgot the friends I made there, those two boys and girl.”

“It was a dream!” Samson insisted, but Kukui glanced back at the window, to the two boys and a girl that had wandered off into the darkness. He met Samuel’s gaze again, and they shared a nod of understanding, before Oak suddenly whirled away to join his cousin at the table.

“Well, dream or not,” he said loudly, “Ash is convinced and he told Gary, who thinks it will benefit his career to believe him. I’ve been thinking about asking the two of you if you have any contact with a Professor Burnet. I know she comes from Alola, and rumours say she’s been working with time-space rifts for years.”

“She isn’t in Alola right now, but I’ll put out feelers to see if she’s interested in speaking with him,” Kukui said. It would be an excuse to track her down without sounding too soppy or bringing attention to how long it had been since they’d spoken. Besides, if Ash trusted Gary enough to tell him about one of his adventures, as Oak was implying… “I wasn’t aware Ash and Gary were so close. I’ve never seen them call.”

Samuel snorted. “Gary is better than he used to be, but he’s still too proud to call Ash for a chat. Besides, it’s hard to stay in contact with someone who’s always travelling, while Ash only ever thinks to call if he thinks someone needs to know something. Even I haven’t had a call since he’s been in Alola, since he’s not travelling around and checking in for safety reasons!”

Hope shuttered down again, and Kukui went back to the window. If Brock was such a big brother, maybe he was the answer. Or, since Ash and Misty were apparently such ‘good friends’…

But as far as Kukui knew, Ash hadn’t spoken to either of them since arriving in Alola. Delia was the only person Kukui had ever seen him call.

So he probably didn’t talk to them, either… He didn’t talk to anyone.

“Don’t worry about him,” Samson said. “He’s been worrying about that boy for a month now, and in denial about it for longer.”

“Hm?” Kukui looked around again, only to find the two Oaks watching him, Samson amused and Samuel with dawning understanding. He raised an eyebrow. “Something wrong?”

“Perfectly fine,” Samuel said, only to stand up and gesture with his coffee cup. “Come on, you didn’t take much time with my research today. Let me show you some of my more interesting work.”

With a quick glance at Samson, who shrugged vaguely, Kukui followed Samuel out of the kitchen and back into the lab space, up onto the second floor.

“I’ve known that boy since I was ten years old and lost in Johto,” Oak said quietly, though his attention was fixed on the files they were walking towards. “I watched him grow up, but I didn’t have a clue he was the boy I’d met until it was too late. He was just my grandson’s obnoxious brat of a best friend for years. Too loud, too rambunctious. He spent half his life in the wild, chasing down pokemon that wanted nothing to do with him, and the other half making a mess of any room he spent five minutes in. I’ve also watched him grow up out there, becoming the boy you know now.” He reached out and took out a file, which he flicked through to check the contents. “He’s easier to like now. Before, he was brash and arrogant – people expected him to be trouble, and so none of us were all that surprised that he could get himself out of it just as well. Nowadays it seems hard to imagine him picking a fight with anyone, let alone get into a fistfight with a pokemon.”

“He’s done that?” he asked, and Oak grinned.

“A few times. Brock always talks about a gang of breloom he had to drag Ash away from, but my favourite is the lucario. He successfully tackled a steel-type – that takes determination.” He held out the file for Kukui to take. It was about a bulbasaur that had developed multiple kinds of solar beams, each one designed to be recognisable by its team mates. Kukui quietly smiled, recognising Ash’s pokemon, and Oak nodded. “I know this is hard to believe, but he is alright. Whatever happened to make you worry, I assure you, he’s weathered worse. And he’s doing it for the right reasons. That helps him get through no matter how hard it seems.”

“I don’t doubt he’s strong enough,” he said. “Tapu Koko is the Alolan god of conflict, and it recognises him as a worthy opponent. What worries me is that he doesn’t seem to… acknowledge how bad it all is. Like he doesn’t have any right to even be stressed or upset about anything that happens. That’s not healthy.”

Oak shrugged, leaning back against the wall of files. “Ash is an interesting young man, Professor Kukui. He takes an awful lot of comfort from his friends, in ways you and I may not be able to understand. And those friends are not just humans. Pikachu is so much more than Ash’s starter, as I’m sure you’re aware.”

He sighed and closed the file, letting himself fall back against the wall beside Oak. “And I’ve only known him for a few months. He’s my student, my boarder. I don’t have the right to feel like this.”

“That’s a subjective opinion,” he said. “And I think you’re only fooling yourself.”

“It’s a pretty poor performance all told,” he admitted with a wry grin. “But recognising an emotion doesn’t mean I have the right to feel it.”

“Hmph. I never had any paternal feelings until I met my grandson,” Oak replied bluntly. “About twenty-five years too late, don’t you think? But there you have it, and ten years later I found I’d picked up another one without any blood relation.”

Kukui glanced at him, and Oak inclined his head.

“We don’t always pick our roles, Kukui, and sometimes we don’t deserve them. But we can learn how to play the role, and grow to be deserving,” he said. “That’s all the advice I have for you on that front, I’m afraid.”

He rolled his head to the side, letting the words turn over in his head. “It’s pretty good advice.”

“Well, I do have my moments.” he said, and then clapped him on the shoulder with a sympathetic grimace. “But for all my experience and knowledge, when it comes to watching Ash ride legendaries into battle against gods, I am afraid that’s something I still haven’t learned to cope with. If you figure it out, do let us know, won’t you?”

“I’m sorry,” Kukui said, blinking hard. “Ash doing what?”

“Oh, you haven’t gotten to that point yet? My apologies, that probably didn’t help your blood pressure. Luckily, you’re young enough to bounce back, so perhaps you can look forward to the spectacle at least. In the meantime,” he said cheerfully, swinging his arm out to the rest of the wall. “I find research into more ordinary pokemon to be a great distraction. I invite you to read as much as you’d like – he’ll be back before dawn and worrying won’t get you anywhere.”

“Battle against gods?” he repeated weakly. “As in… other than the Tapu?”

“Arceus at one point, if Brock is to be believed,” Oak said lightly, already walking away. “And he usually is.”

“Ar- As in –”

“Apparently they’re quite well acquainted now. Let me know if you need more coffee!” he said, and trotted down the stairs and away.

Kukui croaked, hoping this was some kind of hazing but terrifyingly sure it wasn’t.

Even with everything that had happened, Kukui would be lying if he said he wasn’t still looking forward to the gym. But even he hadn’t expected it to go as well as it had.

They got the necessary lesson out of the way, with the non-battlers quickly learning that theory and numbers meant nothing in the all-out speed of a gym battle. Then they stepped it up a notch, with Brock handily reminding Kiawe that sheer power and basic strategy wasn’t always enough. Kukui noticed Brock’s repeated use of Counter-Shield, proving its effectiveness, and gave Ash a sideways look, suddenly aware that he’d never seen Ash himself use it. He made a mental note to follow that up at some point.

But then Ash stepped up to challenge Misty, and everything changed.

For the first time, Kukui realised exactly what Ash had meant when he said the Trials were different to a gym battle. While he and Misty were still play-fighting every step of the way, everything else about Ash switched somehow. He worked with Pikachu in a completely different way, not even bothering with half of the instructions he might have normally given out, and barrelling through every obstacle with a rough kind of determination, thinking and responding and watching every inch of the battlefield for shifts. Even his voice was different. It was harder, firmer, almost impatient, like he was expecting more from every second.

This, Kukui realised, was really where Ash had come from.

The gyms were his training grounds. Where he’d learned and honed his craft.

This was the person Ash had thought he was training himself to be.

And oh, hell, did it show.

Kukui did manage to keep his dignity. But it was a hard thing, as tiny little Pikachu held its own against a gyarados. And then Misty unveiled her mega-stone, and her unbeatable strategy, and Kukui strained in his seat, unable to see any way out of it.

He was so glad mega-evolution hadn’t been a thing in his day. He never would have made it past the first gym.

But Ash just grinned, and proceeded to beat down physics, logic, and everything else to come out on top.

Yes, he used a Z-move, but it was still a pikachu against a mega-evolved gyarados. And Kukui couldn’t help thinking the Z-move had mostly just been Ash showing off for his Kantonese friends.

It took everything Kukui had not to suggest another round to prove it. Or maybe a full battle. Six on six. They could run to the Pokemon Centre to switch out Ash’s pokemon. It wouldn’t take long. And think of what it could teach the other kids. Gym battles were nothing like you saw in Alola. You know what else they didn’t often see in Alola? Triple battles. Litten, Rowlet, and Lycanroc, against three of Brock’s pokemon maybe. To show how different types faired against rock-type pokemon. Oh, and that bulbasaur that was practically Ash’s mascot back at the ranch. With the solar beam. That would be good. They should –

He ground down the urge and stomped on it a few times to keep his fanboy in check.

They did not have time.

But he’d never been more determined to build up his Alolan Pokemon League.

The flight back was quieter than the flight there. All the kids were exhausted from the whirlwind trip, and it seemed the late afternoon flight had been booked out with people in desperate need of Alola’s sandy beaches. Even the cabin crew seemed exhausted, wearily marching up and down the aisles to check on their sleeping passengers.

Kukui looked sideways at Ash, who was the only one of the class still awake, even Pikachu dead to the world. It was somehow slumped on its hind legs, pressed full-body against Ash’s torso, Ash’s hand curled over its back to keep it upright. All the energy seemed to have drained out of Ash once he said goodbye to his friends at the gate, and now he was staring out at the multi-coloured sky in silence. They were going to be fleeing the sunset for a while.

Kukui was reluctant to intrude on his thoughts, but in the end he couldn’t help himself. He had too many questions.

“So,” he began quietly, playfully. “Does Misty know about that girl in Kalos?”

Ash blinked, brow furrowing, and he slowly turned his head to blink at him. “Why would Misty know about anyone from Kalos?”

Obliviousness, thy name is Ketchum. “That girl you told me about? The one who kissed you?”

He blinked again, then suddenly flushed bright red, his eyes going wide. “It – that – she – Misty is not my girlfriend!”

It sounded so well practised that Kukui had to tamp down on his grin. “I’m sure your friend in Kalos would be very glad to know that.”

“She… that… Professor!”

He almost squeaked. Squeaked! Kukui cleared his throat and looked away, because that was the only way he wasn’t going to burst out laughing.

When he had himself back under control and Ash had regained something resembling composure, Kukui turned back to him with a softer smile. “But you enjoyed seeing them again?”

“Yeah, of course,” he said, relaxing back again. “I really miss them both. It was amazing seein’ ’em again. Thanks for getting it together.”

“It was all thanks to your mother and Professor Oak,” he admitted, then tilted his head. “How did it feel, coming home like this?”

Ash blinked again, then shrugged and let his eyes drift back to the window. “Kinda weird. It was great to see everyone again, but I wish we’d had more time. I didn’t get to see even half of my pokemon. And I wish I could’a shown everyone around some more.”

“I wish we’d had more time, too,” Kukui admitted. Though he did feel like he’d seen everything—and probably had the conversations—that he’d needed to. There was only one left. “Honestly, I wasn’t sure you’d be coming back.”


“To Alola,” he clarified, glancing at him. “After what happened on Monday, I thought you might prefer to stay.”

“On Monday? You mean at the lab?” he asked. “That really wasn’t that big a deal, Professor.”

“It really was, Ash,” he said, but didn’t push it. He hadn’t made any headway on the topic all week, and he wasn’t in the mood to argue right now. “But even if it hadn’t been… I wasn’t sure how you’d feel after what we talked about. I know you don’t like talking about your past. Or, at least, that part of it.”

He was quiet for a few moments, going back to the window again. His fingers curled and uncurled against Pikachu’s back, earning a pleased mumble, but it looked more unconscious than intentional.

“It wasn’t so bad,” he said eventually. “I feel bad for puttin’ all that on you, but… it was kinda good. It felt…”

He trailed off, but Kukui just smiled and nodded his understanding. He’d hoped so. “I’d like to hear more, if you wanted to tell me.”

Ash hesitated, then peeked at him sideways before offering up a small smile and going back to the window. “Yeah, maybe…”

They fell silent again, Ash’s fingers moving a little more consciously over Pikachu’s fur for a few minutes until he spoke again. “Can I tell you something weird?”

“Any time.”

“I really like stayin’ with you,” he said. “I like bein’ in Alola. Goin’ to school, training with Kiawe, hanging out with Sophocles and the girls. It’s been a lot of fun, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt so… Pallet Town will always be home, but Melemele…” He trailed off again, like he couldn’t quite bring himself to finish the sentence. But Kukui wasn’t quite sure he could have handled it if he did, so he just met Ash’s gaze in the reflection of the window, silently prompting. Ash dropped his eyes away. “But even if I didn’t, the truth is, I kinda feel like… there’s something coming. Something I need to…”

Kukui felt his spine straighten, and Ash’s brow furrowed before he suddenly straightened up, turning toward him just as firm and determined as ever.

“That’s not the weirdest thing, though. Between you and me, that’s not actually as weird as I would normally make it out to be. The weird thing is that I’m kinda not worried about it,” he said, and some of his certainty flickered into self-consciousness. “I’m kinda… I dunno. I just… I’m gonna do what I need to do, and then I’ll… I’ll come home. Maybe I’ll talk to you about it or something, and… I dunno, that’s just… that makes it seem less scary, you know?” He shrugged, then grinned shamefully, lifting his free hand to rub the back of his neck. “Sorry, that sounds stupid now I say it out loud.”

Kukui shook his head. It didn’t entirely make sense, but he kind of got it all the same. And he could feel that same old familiar warmth bubbling up in his chest, swelling and threatening to burst. “I’m… I’m glad. I hope I can be there when… whatever it is happens, but if all I can do is listen, then I’ll listen,” he said. “About whatever you need.”

The look Ash gave him was almost heartbreaking, but he quickly covered it up with a cheeky grin. “Even if it’s about onion ninjas?”

Kukui snorted despite himself. “Well, let’s not go – of course about the onion ninjas!” he said, and Ash laughed, pulling Pikachu a little higher on his chest. Kukui grinned back, awkwardly reaching up in the narrow space between their seats to knock Ash’s hat off and ruffle his hair. “I want to hear about onion ninjas and strange theories and legendary pokemon and wimpod stealing your malasadas and everything. We’ve gotta have some topic for dinner conversation and my life’s pretty boring without your stories.”

Ash gave a token resistance to the hair ruffling, ducking as best he could without disturbing Pikachu, but he was still laughing, and let Kukui pull him into his shoulder, even actively leaning into him for a moment before pulling back with a smile.

“Thanks, Professor.”

But then his attention was diverted by Pikachu grumbling, disturbed from its sleep by their half-hearted roughhousing. Ash pulled it higher up his chest again and whispered into its ears, quietly soothing it back to sleep.

Kukui smiled back, feeling warm and proud for no particular reason. He found himself thinking of how things had been only a few months ago, when he’d first seen Ash in his classroom, staring out over the campus and falling in love with the Alolan air. If someone had told him that one day, only a few short months later, he would be feeling so stupidly fond of ‘his’ kid, he would have laughed in their face.

But as Oak said, sometimes you didn’t pick your role. You learned and grew into it.

“Thank you, Ash,” he said softly, and Ash looked up at him again, then smiled and angled himself a little closer, his shoulder just lightly touching Kukui’s arm as he went back to Pikachu. Kukui’s smile broadened, and he raised his eyes to the blank screen of the seat in front.

He couldn’t wait to learn more.

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