Different

FOUR YEARS AGO

Fourteen-year-old Oliver was mannerly, mischievous, and mute as a mountain.

As a toddler, his parents hoped he would start talking when he felt comfortable, but Oliver simply never did. Doctor’s tests revealed that nothing was wrong with his vocal chords. They could operate perfectly fine, but Oliver, for whatever reason, couldn’t – or wouldn’t – use them. He cried when he was hungry, yelled in pain when he hurt himself, grunted in affirmation or disapproval, but that was as far as he was ready to take it.

They spent a year trying every trick available in the book but nothing seemed to help. Even eavesdropping on him while he was alone in his room proved fruitless; Oliver was determined not to speak out loud to anyone, including himself. When he was old enough to learn how to write, his parents insisted he at least communicate on paper. There was always a stock of notepads and pens available in their home, and Oliver never left home without one.

As the universe does, with its infinitely unfathomable string of events, life carried on. The arrival of Professor Arbutus was both a surprise and blessing none of them could have predicted. The unlikely pair had taken a liking to each other instantly. When time allowed, she would sit with Oliver and teach him the histories she’d studied around the world, and when he was old enough, he’d help out around the lab.

Today, while Arbutus was away, Oliver relaxed under the shade of a tree by the riverbed. The smell of undergrowth, wet soil, and fresh grass filled his nostrils. Leaves from above rustled and fell from a breeze originating from the hilly forest. They landed in a messy configuration in a head full of hair ginger as flames and across skin the color of sand at sunset, covering the dark freckles that ran up his arms and neck. He only moved to shake them off his glasses. As the water whistled a bubbling tune, he stared up at the clouds, searching for familiar shapes.

The clouds, however, had their own agenda in mind. They were both substantial and ethereal, simultaneously there and not there. Bright blotches in the haze of the day glided across the sky in rhythm with the current, as if some heavenly deity had dipped a knife into the water like butter and spread it across the rich blue expanse of horizon.

It makes for a nice picture, Oliver thought to himself, but useless for cloud watching.

With a huff, he picked himself up, shook off the stubborn leaves that clung to him, and began climbing up and across the hillside. Perhaps he’d explore a different corner of the Escape Route today instead.

Reaching the entrance of the cavern, he enjoyed the cool air on his skin. Even during the peak of summer, the Escape Route served as a shelter from the heat for non-aquatic Pokémon and humans alike. Half as long as it was wide, it functioned as a man-made emergency path between Nyasa and Zarivar Town, although it wasn’t fully ready. There were still a few months to go before there’d be an opening in the Nyasa side as well. Many paths branched from inside the cave, unexcavated. One he knew was reserved by the Professor for Pokémon habitats she was studying. The rest were the areas Oliver loved exploring, although he would never mention it to his parents. They probably wouldn’t forbid him from going in, but…it would only add to their day-to-day stress.

He felt his heartbeat steadily slow to a normal rhythm, recovering from the trek here. He could have easily walked through town to reach the entrance but the climb up and around was the best part. He leaned on the wall with notebook in hand, catching his breath, when he felt the entire cave tremble with a rumble.

Two Lairon were locked in battle, their attacks shaking the walls and foundations of the cave. Impulsively, he moved further away from them, deeper inside, as another clash between the two Pokémon shook dust and pebbles from the ceiling.

Then larger pieces of the ceiling began falling and Oliver realised his mistake too late.

An entire section of wall crumbled beneath the weight and stress of the fighting. With a resounding crash of thunder and debris, the entrance to the Escape Route was blocked. The booming echo of rocks and boulders settling into their new home reverberated throughout the cave, filling his ears.

Plumes of dust filled his vision and lungs, and Oliver bent over coughing, closing his eyes from the sting. He tried moving back deeper into the cave to get away from the dust, and tripped on a rock that had rolled behind him. He felt his notepad fly out of his hand but couldn’t see where. Something sharp sunk into the flesh of his exposed arm as he landed, and he felt warm blood trickling down. His scream was drowned out in the noise of the avalanche.

When the chaos settled a minute later, he opened his eyes. The emergency lights were always on, so he wasn’t stuck in the dark…but he was definitely stuck. Reluctantly, he looked at his hurt arm. A thin piece of jagged rock was lodged sideways up his arm, breaking through the skin but thankfully nothing deeper. He clenched his teeth as he pulled it out, trying to stifle a cry of pain that fled his lips anyway. He immediately closed his hand on the cut, applying pressure, hoping the bleeding would stop. He’d learned that from Arbutus. He’d have to deal with the pain some other way.

Keeping his hand firmly pressed on the cut, he walked over to the collapsed entrance, grabbing his fallen notepad on the way. Four boulders twice his size and many smaller rocks bigger than his head combined to completely seal off Zarivar Town. There was no way he’d be able to move them and get out. He might have even attempted had his arm not been throbbing in agony. Oliver kicked some rocks but other than wobbling for a second or two, they stayed stubbornly in place. He kicked one more in anger and frustration and all he managed was having to deal with more pain in his toes to go with his arm.

Please… he thought. Let someone have heard the collapse. Please let someone come by and see it.

Tears filled his eyes at the thought that maybe no one would come. How long could he hold up here? Stifled sobs escaped him but there was no one to hear him. If no one had heard the avalanche, what good would yelling do? Oliver sat down on a stray oval boulder, and got a surprise when it moved.

“Ar!” he heard the boulder speak, and was so shocked that he jumped three feet in the air, barely managing to land on his feet.

That’s not a boulder…I just sat on an Aron!

He had a hard time deciding which was scarier, the fact that he was trapped in a cave or that he’d probably just pissed off a creature that could crush any part of his body with a single Headbutt. He couldn’t see how he’d talk his way out of this one…unless this Aron could somehow read.

Oliver froze, hoping that inaction more than anything would diffuse the situation. But the Aron walked toward him, staring straight into his eyes. He noticed that one of the spokes sticking out of Aron’s body was curved, almost bent. Had it gotten into a fight recently? Was it already angry from that?

Oh no…

In a panic, he scribbled “Sorry” and faced the notepad toward Aron. It stopped a few paces from Oliver, looking at him. Could it understand? It took the last few steps forward and tugged at his pants with its mouth. He bent down slowly, now at eye level with the Aron.

“Ron!”

Oliver was so startled he fell backwards. The Aron smiled at him…or was it his imagination? The entire scenario was so ridiculous that he smiled himself…before remembering why he was in here to begin with.

Sorry about before, Oliver wrote, although he figured it was hopeless. He’d never heard of a wild Pokémon being able to read. But it was worth a shot, wasn’t it? What did he have to lose?

Can you help me get out? I need to get back to family.

The Aron looked at him. Puzzled? Curious? It was hard to tell, he hadn’t nearly enough experience understanding Pokémon expressions. He’d never thought to even be a trainer, without a way to communicate properly with Pokémon. Helping Arbutus out in the lab was the closest he would ever get, and it was a way to give her back for helping him all these years.

He pointed at the rocks, trying a different approach. He made a motion with his head toward the rocks, then expanding his arms. Maybe Aron would understand him better if he pantomimed…

The Aron didn’t move.

He did it again, this time pointing at the Aron too. He felt so silly.

This is never going to work…

He looked at the Aron, tears coming back. It’s not your fault you can’t understand me. If it was anyone else here you probably would understand them.

“Ar?”

To Oliver’s surprise, the Aron ran right into the biggest boulder, smashing it with all its force. A crack emerged from the contact point, branching out like a Spinarak’s web, and the boulder fell apart, littering the area with smaller rocks and debris. It was still an obstacle, but at least now it was one Oliver could help with.

He stared at the Aron, unsure.

Did you really understand me?

He bent to move some of the rubble out of the way, clearing the space. Aron ran at another boulder, repeating the process. As it broke up the larger ones, Oliver cleared them away. There was much rubble and it wasn’t easy.

At one point the Aron disappeared for what felt like half an hour, grabbing a rock that was grooved inside, like a small crater and taking it along. When it returned, there was water inside. It placed it near him, pushing it slightly with its head toward him.

Oliver wrote a question in the notepad.

For me?

The Aron simply pushed it toward him again. When he took a sip, the Aron returned to pulverising the rocks blocking the entrance. Oliver hadn’t even realised how thirsty he was. Focusing so much on getting out had taken over every other sense in his body. Yet the Aron had noticed how tired he was…

“Thank you,” Oliver croaked, at the same time that he wrote it down on the notepad. The Aron stopped to look at him and this time it definitely looked confused.

When Oliver realised what he’d just done, he covered his mouth with both hands with a small gasp, the notepad falling to the floor for a second time.

Did I…just…say that!?

He hadn’t meant to talk. It had slipped out. The doctors had told his parents it was possible for Oliver to speak, but he had never been able to form any words before, even when he’d tried, alone in his room. He’d given up years ago.

Could he do it again? The prospect of failing this time was scarier than never being able to speak in the first place. It had been subconscious before, but could he speak if he actually tried?

“H-hi A-Aron.”

The words, while rough in his throat, tasted sweeter than Combee honey.

Oh.

Oh!

Using his voice hurt, the noise raspy as it grated in his throat. But unlike his arm, this was a welcome pain.

“I CAN TALK!”

Oliver couldn’t believe it. He yelled again, but was interrupted halfway as his voice gave out. He devolved into another coughing fit. When he’d caught his breath properly, he laughed, the noise coming out of him frayed and tattered. His stomach began hurting but the laughter was beyond his control. He collapsed in a fit of giggles and it was only when the Aron prodded him that he was able to stop and look up.

Faint rays of light were visible between the cracks in the rocks now. They were almost out! With renewed strength he hadn’t had a moment ago, he jumped up, grabbing more rocks and hauling them away. In minutes the rest of the opening was clear, fresh air filling his nostrils. He hadn’t noticed how dusty and dank the air had been inside.

A holler and a whoop later he climbed out to a small crowd that had gathered. Shocked and horrified faces started at him and it wasn’t until he looked at his arm and shirt that he remembered the dirt and blood that had caked on them.

I’m ok, he wrote. I’m fine. Not as bad as it looks. He didn’t want to speak out loud without telling his parents first. They ran to him, breaking through the crowd, surrounding him on both sides with fierce hugs.

“Oh, Oli, we were so worried about you! Are you ok?”

He had to force his way out of the embrace before he could nod.

Can we go home? Something to tell you.

***

“What is it, sweetheart?” his mom asked.

They were back at home and Oliver had changed and showered at his mother’s insistence. Now in their living room, his parents sat on the couch. He stood in front of them, notepad and pen in hand, nervous. While in the shower he had practiced saying the words, very quietly so his parents wouldn’t hear. But what if this time he really couldn’t? Worse than not being able to speak after tasting it for a few short minutes, he worried he’d raise his parents’ hopes and then crush them again.

But he had to try.

I can talk, he wrote down, and then said it out loud, slowly.

“I…can…talk.”

His parents didn’t move, not at first. They were as mute as he had been an hour ago.

Their reaction was slow, like the trickle of water announcing the arrival of a river. One tear formed, then another. In seconds, the floodgates had opened and Oliver walked over to them, sitting in between them. Their heads rested on his and he could feel their tears sliding down his hair.

Crying had never felt so good for all three of them.

***

PRESENT DAY

Eighteen-year-old Oliver was likeable, lively, and louder than a Loudred.

Well, not really that loud, but that was how the townsfolk described him. Ever since he’d found his voice, Oliver hadn’t stopped using it. The running joke in town was to be careful when you got into a conversation with Oliver, you might not get out. To his merit, Oliver took it in stride. He couldn’t help himself! He had fourteen years of words to make up!

And today, there was a lot going on.

A lot a lot.

Something crazy had happened in Nyasa Town, but no one was sure of what. Everyone had evacuated from Nyasa into the Escape Route, so they could get to safety in Zarivar, and the Champion herself had arrived just minutes earlier and told him to look for her children and take them to Professor Arbutus. He was the Professor’s aide, after all.

He couldn’t believe it. The Champion had asked him.

Him!

What an insane day!

Inside the Escape Route, now fully excavated and safe, he kept his eyes out not just for the Champion’s kids but for one more.

“Hey.”

He stopped someone he didn’t recognise, although he didn’t recognise most of them today.

“Have you seen an Aron around, one with a bent spoke? I can’t find him.”

“Sorry, kid. Haven’t seen any Pokémon in here today. Bit strange…”

“Yeah…Thanks anyway.”

Where could you have gone, Ronni?

Oliver wasn’t too worried, but something was off. Aron was always here. He’d come back every day for the last four years, and Aron was always waiting for him. He’d become its best friend, and vice versa. While everyone in Zarivar were usually happy to carry a conversation with Oliver, Aron never got tired of hearing him speak, no matter how long he rambled on. And even though Aron never really spoke back to him, somehow Oliver always walked away knowing the answer to whatever dilemma he’d been going through.

So where could Aron be?

He saw something from the corner of his eye – something staring at him – but when he turned to look, the Pokémon ran away. It was the same size as Aron, but he caught a glint of red as it ran.

Aron wasn’t red.

Where are you, Ronni? I hope you’re ok.

***

The next day, after the commotion in Nyasa and Zarivar had somewhat settled, Oliver went back to the Escape Route. This time it was empty. No one to scare Aron away.

But Aron didn’t come to greet him like he usually did. The empty cave really was empty.

“Ronni!” he yelled. “Where are you?”

His voice echoed back to him, haunting. He didn’t believe in omens, but he didn’t like the sound of the emptiness.

Again, from the corner of his eye, he noticed a red glint. It disappeared into a crevice by the wall as soon as he turned around.

“Ronni? Is that you?”

Slowly, a Pokemon poked it’s head out from the crevice. It looked kind of like an Aron, but it was very much unlike Aron, too.

Three horns were on its head where there should be none, two on the sides and one on the front. Where the metal should have been was now a shiny red carapace instead, an exoskeleton made not of steel but of some kind of beetle’s shell.

Was this a new Pokémon?

It walked out of the crevice completely and Oliver noticed a spoke sticking out of its shell, bent.

“Ronni?”

The red Aron-like Pokémon looked at him, and after years of talking to him, Oliver knew the emotion he displayed on his face.

Embarrassment.

It was Ronni.

He started running over but slowed when he saw Aron balk away.

“What happened? Are you ok?”

Something weird had happened yesterday, and although he didn’t know all the details, if this was his Ronni, then it must be connected. He’d have to ask Arbutus later.

“Hey. It’s me, Oli. Your friend.”

At the mention of the word friend, Aron walked closer to him, but still kept its distance.

“You’re embarrassed cause you look different.” It was an observation, not a question.

Aron nodded.

“But it’s me, Ronni! I’ve known you for years, I don’t care what you look like!”

It broke his heart to see Aron like this. Did it mean he wasn’t a good enough friend, if after all this time Aron was embarrassed around him just because he looked different?

“You saved my life, Ronni. Remember that day? Right here, too.”

It was a happy day to think of, but a painful memory. Oliver kept going anyway.

“You helped me even though I was different too. I couldn’t speak, remember? But you didn’t care. That’s why you’ll always be my friend, no matter what you look like.”

He grabbed a notepad and a pen from his pack. He used them for note-taking and observations now that he was helping Arbutus full time. He wrote a single word on the paper in large letters.

FRIEND.

“I love you, Ronni. No matter what, I’ll stick by you.”

His voice choked on the last words.

It took only a moment. Aron looked at him, eyes wide. Then, as if a switch had been flipped, it ran at him, jumping and tackling him lightly.

“Boy, you’re not as heavy anymore! Probably better for me, anyway!”

Like the first time they’d met, Oliver collapsed into a fit of laughter. And like that day, Aron was smiling alongside him.

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