Darren was woken up the next morning by the smell of oven-fresh bread and hot chocolate. With a yawn, he sat up, rubbing the last traces of sleep out of his eyes with the back of his right hand. Heather was crouching in front of him, holding a covered wicker basket, which had to be the source of that smell. Tiger and Fluffy sat on either side of her, the Aerodactyl already starting to get too large to be carried around like it had been when newly hatched.
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Albion had protested when his father called Darren’s victory. Not because there was much doubt as to whether Darren’s single Pokémon had beaten both of his, but because the way in which they had been beaten was, to say the least, out of the ordinary. Brock’s final word on the matter had simply been that since official Pokémon League rules didn’t disallow Pokémon evolving during a battle, he wasn’t going to call a Pokémon doing so cheating, no matter how unexpected it had been. It did result in Darren and Heather being delayed to alleviate the Gym Leader’s curiosity, but within the hour they had still been on the road, Darren now being in possession of two Gym Badges.
Breakfast, shared with their hosts, was both tasty and filling, and Darren easily settled into his appointed role drying dishes during the cleaning-up when they were all finished. It made him feel accepted, and helped soothe some of the insecurity about his own nature that the previous night had sparked. More food was packed into Heather’s bag, and Brock even found a slightly beat-up old messenger bag for Darren that he packed with a flashlight, some odds and ends, Pokéchow for both Darren and his Pokémon, and a few sandwiches wrapped in wax paper.
The Stones’ dinner table did not have the overwhelming number of dishes that the meal served by Heather’s aunts had featured, and the mood was more casual, as well, putting Darren at relative ease. The conversation around the table was light, simple, familiar, without ever getting intrusive, and the food…
It wasn’t yet quite dark when Heather knocked on the door to the modest house adjoining Pewter City Gym, Darren anxiously shifting a step or two behind her, trying to will himself less eye-catching and knowing he could do no such thing. Fox had come out of his Pokéball again soon after they’d left the tunnel through Mt Moon, and was currently curled up in his arms. He had to smile a little, despite himself, when the Pokémon reached up and gave his face a couple of licks for reassurance. What a trainer he was; his Pokémon looked out for him at least as much as, if not more than, he was capable of looking out for them.
The passage through Mount Moon was nothing like the Onix’s cave that they’d passed through on their way to Cerulean City. That tunnel had been rough, and they’d come through it with Heather’s Charmander’s tail as their only light source. This one had either been worked smooth with tools, or worn smooth by generations of Pokémon trainers passing through, and was lit by subtle, dim lights mounted along the walls of the main passage. Those lights took a while to get used to; something about them was different both from daylight and from the harsh fluorescent lights Darren had grown up under. But when their eyes got used to it, the lights were bright enough to see their way by.
Darren sat in the grass at the top of the steep slope, Fox and Tiger on either side of him, watching Heather lose her footing and slide back down in a small cascade of sand and gravel for the third time. “Are you still sure you don’t want a hand?”
Darren woke on his own the next morning; a novel thing in itself. The small guest room was windowless, tiny dim Starmie-shaped nightlights spaced along the walls, just a few inches from the ceiling, providing just enough light to let someone navigate the room without walking into the furniture, so not even the rising sun had disturbed his rest. A glance at the clock hanging on the wall, even in the room’s artificial twilight, confirmed that the sun had definitely risen some time ago, by an almost embarrassing margin. When he rolled over and sat up in bed, Fox stirred at his feet, instantly rising and stretching.
Fox had eventually tired himself out playing with the Gym’s mascot Pokémon in the pool, though he stayed in Vaporeon shape as he settled in by Darren’s feet. Darren couldn’t be sure without asking — and was wary of doing the asking in front of so many strangers — but he guessed that the Eevee was remembering how Darren had cautioned him about letting others know about his ability.
The Onix made good on her promise, letting Darren, Heather and their Pokémon off along Route 4. The entrance to her tunnels was hidden among trees and tall grass just south of the actual path. Heather claimed she recognized her surroundings, however, so they bid the wild Onix farewell and made their way through the vegetation after Heather recalled her Charmander.