Just A Pokémon?
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…
He didn’t even need to taste it. Just the smell of it made his mouth water. Whoever did the cooking in this home was nothing short of a magician at the stove, and not even Darren, wary as he was of seeming greedy, could resist having seconds of the thick curry, served over rice with boiled and buttered vegetables. He finished his meal and sat back, listening to the conversation without really taking part in it, until Fox got his attention by pawing at his leg under the table.
When he reached down to pat the Eevee’s head, the Pokémon dropped something in his hand which he, after having a quick glance around, brought up to have a closer look at. The item was roughly spherical, semi-firm, neither really dry or damp to the touch, and when he brought it closer to his face, it smelled… not like the food on the table, not at all, but still just as appealing, in some other way Darren couldn’t quite put his finger on. Fox nudged his leg, as if to urge him on, and he took a small bite. That tiny taste on its own more than adequately explained his friend’s insistence that he sample the food, though it also made him worry about where Fox had managed to get a dish that wasn’t on the table.
A question from Albion, directed at Heather or at no one in particular, Darren wasn’t sure, addressed that worry. “Is he eating Pokéchow?”
Suddenly all eyes were on Darren, and he felt his face heat, his antennae slicking back and becoming nearly invisible against his blond hair. What remained of the morsel his Pokémon had brought him fell out of his hand and was caught by Fox, who made short work of it. In that moment, Darren would have given a lot to have been born, say, an Abra instead, so he could have disappeared from the scene.
“I-I-I…” What could he say, really? “I’m sorry. Fox brought it, I didn’t realize… I didn’t mean to…”
And there was that voice, that impressively soothing voice, not making light of his embarrassment, but making it lesser. “That’s quite alright, Darren. I should have asked before we sat down; would you prefer the Pokéchow over what we’re eating? I’ve not met anyone like you before, so I’m afraid I’m quite new at this.”
“N-no!” Darren shook his head, somewhere between being truthful in spite of rising panic and saying what he thought the man wanted to hear. “I mean… I… It was good. Both the curry, and… what Fox brought me. I didn’t mean to cause any trouble!”
“You are not causing any trouble,” the Gym Leader assured him, and he actually did feel reassured. A bit. “Albion?”
The white-haired youth started, looking at his father for a moment, then at Darren. “Sorry about that, Darren. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.”
“It’s alright,” Darren found himself saying. “I can eat Pokémon food, but I’ve never encountered any I really wanted to eat before.”
That seemed to catch Brock’s interest; the man leaned forward, slightly, and his eyebrows rose, just a hair. “It was good?”
Reluctantly, Darren nodded, his face still burning. “Very. Fox liked it, too.”
“Uncle Brock makes the Pokéchow himself,” Heather butted in to explain. “He’s quite proud of his cooking.”
Even Darren could see where she was going with that, and forced himself to smile at the Gym Leader. “I’m sure Pokémon anywhere would be delighted with that fare, sir. And I… I understand the value of being able to confirm that with someone who can tell you in so many words. What that matters… I’d have to be half mad not to like the food you put on the table, too.”
Heather laughed. “I told you he’s an awesome cook, didn’t I?”
Over the next few minutes, Brock somehow managed to defuse the situation further, and to steer the conversation onto safer subjects that didn’t require Darren’s active participation. So the three humans, none of whom Darren had known for any length of time, finished their meals while he shyly listened in, voicing no opinions. Once they were finished, everyone helped get the table cleared — Heather did the dishes while Darren dried them with the dishtowel she put in his hands, while the Gym Leader transferred the leftovers to more suitable containers and put them in the fridge and his son put away the clean dishes as Darren got done drying them.
There was a comforting sort of domesticity about having been given a chore, however simple, to do, and Darren had to admit at least to himself that he rather enjoyed that.
Once the last traces of dinner were put away, they followed Brock’s lead into the home’s living room. The room was far from empty; a Crobat was hanging upside-down from a bar in the ceiling in one corner, a Geodude and a Chansey were resting on a cushion elsewhere in the room, and Tiger and Fox were playing a low-key game of tag with an Elekid under the watchful eye of the Raichu that had followed Albion to greet the guests earlier in the evening. When they entered the room, Fluffy somewhat clumsily ran along the back of the couch where he had been perched, calling for his trainer’s attention and flapping over into her arms when he had it. The rest of Heather’s Pokémon had apparently found somewhere else to go after their meal, as they were nowhere to be seen.
Darren only took a seat because Heather practically pushed him into an armchair, thankful that at least after a lifetime of being pushed around by Team Rocket in their headquarters, which certainly were not furnished with the comfort of someone in possession of a tail in mind, swinging his tail out of the way as he sat down was second nature. Even then, he might not have stayed seated when Heather moved to another chair, if not for Fox interrupting his game and jumping onto his lap, where the Eevee curled up, fluffy tail wagging.
“You got through Mt. Moon with no incident, I gather?” Brock asked, looking at Heather.
She nodded. “I love going through the tunnel! The statues are lovely; it’s a shame we didn’t have time to linger and have a closer look.”
Darren stared at her, wide-eyed, his tongue moving ahead of him. “You liked the statues?”
Her reaction was just as much surprise. “You mean you didn’t? Whyever not?”
“Of course not.” The half-Dragonite shuddered. “They’re creepy; I could swear they were watching me the whole time we were in there. Why would they put those things where people are supposed to travel?”
“To me they look—” Brock started, then fell silent, thinking, for several long moments. “Hmm, I wonder… Darren, do you know if you react to Pokémon repellant?”
Darren shook his head. “Afraid not, sir. Nothing like that around… where I grew up.”
“Have a look at that picture on the wall, will you?” A gesture directed Darren’s attention to a framed photograph of Brock and Albion in front of an amazingly detailed statue of a Dewgong, surfing on a stylized stone wave. “What do you think of it?”
“It’s… it’s good work. A very nice statue.”
“That’s from the Mt. Moon tunnel. One of the ‘creepy’ statues you walked past today.”
Darren stared at the man in disbelief. “I’d have remembered that one. It’s nothing like the others, especially not that… bird… thing.” He shivered.
“The statues are repellant dispensers, to keep travellers safe. It’s long known that most repellants are more effective if you have a strong Pokémon with you, out of its Pokéball, so I’d guess you reacted as though the statues were real Pokémon, threatening you.”
Darren nodded, imperceptibly, and hung his head. He should have guessed that it wouldn’t matter where he went. He’d still be seen as little more than a Pokémon as long as there were humans around.
The Gym Leader must have mistaken his resignation for physical exhaustion. “You’ve both walked quite far in two days, and must be tired. Heather, you know where the guest rooms are; I put them in order after you called. If you need anything, just let me know.”