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 man who opened the door had the kind of leathery suntan that comes from spending a lot of time outside, and spiky brown hair starting to show just a couple of silver hairs at the temples. He smiled when he saw Heather, who immediately threw herself around his neck.
“Hey there, Heather.” The man, apparently the Gym Leader himself, set the girl down with no real visible effort at all, and looked past her at Darren, who shrunk under his gaze. “And you must be Darren; Heather told me about you. Come on in; I’m no danger to you.”
Something about the man’s voice, Darren found, was oddly soothing. Reassuring. The part of him that wanted to trust him had taken a step forward before the other part, the suspicious part, kicked in and made him stop dead in his tracks. How did he know he could trust the man? It was obvious that Heather could, but Heather wasn’t… wasn’t like him.
“Oh, come on, Darren! Aren’t you hungry? Because I’m starving, and there’s no better cook than Uncle Brock.”
He had to smile, again, and with that smile some of his tension eased. “Pleasure to meet you, sir?” He held his right hand out, and would have hidden his left, the misshapen one, behind his back if not for the Eevee still curled up in the crook of his arm.
“All mine. That’s a healthy-looking Eevee you have there.” The large man returned that smile with a big one of his own as he shook Darren’s hand, then turned his head to call over his shoulder. “Albion! Come say hello to our guests!”
Darren stiffened, and felt his antennae folding back as he became aware of the sound of steps approaching from somewhere further into the house. Out of the corner of his eye he could guess at Heather moving, and then, before he knew what was happening, she was in the arms of another boy about their age, his hair even lighter than Darren’s, so pale it might as well have been white.
He might have stood frozen there, in the Stones’ entryway, the rest of the night, if not for what happened next. A Raichu had followed behind the boy, and she pounced on Tiger with even more enthusiasm than Heather was displaying. Satisfied that she, with her greater mass, had the Pikachu pinned down, she meticulously started grooming his ears. Hearing the small Electric Pokémon’s protests, most of which seemed to be some variation of “Mooom…” to Darren’s ears, made the half-Dragonite chuckle, which earned him a dirty look from the Pikachu whose dignity no doubt had already been seriously wounded.
“Listen to your mother, Tiger,” he laughed as he crouched down to set Fox on the floor.
When he rose again, Brock was looking at him in a new way. One that made him uncomfortable, but not in the way that Team Rocket’s plans for him had, nor the way the looks he’d gotten in the Pokémon center that fateful morning. No, he was uncomfortable the way one might be in a new, stiff, exceptionally well-tailored suit. There was respect in that look which intimidated Darren in its unfamiliarity. How could he possibly live up to that kind of look?
“Heather wasn’t exaggerating,” was all the Gym Leader said, before he turned with a subtle gesture that encouraged his guests, people and Pokémon alike, to follow. “Dinner’s on the table; let your Pokémon out and there’s plenty of chow for them as well.”