"Are you sure you're okay with this?"
Cilan shifted from foot to foot, eyes darting over to where Pikachu and Pansage were introducing Purrloin to all of the other Pokémon, but after a moment he looked back at Ash.
"I think so."
"You think so," Iris repeated. "Cilan..."
She trailed off with a helpless look at Ash. Ash sighed, but even as he opened his mouth Cilan held up a hand. "You don't need to worry about me," he said firmly.
Ash frowned at him. "We know that, but we're your friends. We want to help."
Cilan stared at him for a moment, then a more genuine smile touched his face. "Thank you, both of you." He hesitated, shooting another quick glance over at his new Pokémon. Purrloin was staring wide-eyed up at Excadrill, and Cilan shook himself and glanced back at Ash. "I'm all right. Really."
"You weren't when she hatched," Iris pointed out.
Cilan coughed. "Yes, well. I was surprised."
Ash eyed him, at the way his hands still hadn't stopped shaking, and folded his arms. "You're still scared though."
Cilan opened his mouth, then closed it again. Ash waited, he'd learned that much from Brock, and finally Cilan's shoulders slumped. "I am still scared of Purrloin," he admitted. "But it's hard to be scared of her."
Ash followed his gaze. Next to the other Pokémon, and Excadrill especially, Purrloin was little more than a purple fuzzball. Even as they watched Axew bounded forward to say hello a little more enthusiastically than might have been wise, and Purrloin tripped over her own feet and sat down hard on the ground.
"Axew," Iris scolded. "Be gentle!"
She started forwards, but Cilan was already there. He picked up Purrloin very gently and settled her in the crook of his arm. "Are you all right?"
Purrloin purred, snuggling into the warmth of his sleeve, and Cilan's eyes softened. He scratched her behind the ears, then sat down next to Pansage, and started rummaging through his bag with his free hand. "Why don't we see about finding you something to eat?"
Ash watched closely, but Cilan seemed calmer as he talked Purrloin through the ingredients he was pulling out of his pack. Iris scooped Axew out of harm's way, then she grabbed her bag.
"I'm going Berry hunting," she announced. "Purrloin might like some."
Purrloin blinked bright green eyes up at her, and Cilan smiled. "I think so. Make sure you get enough for everyone; your eggs look like they'll be hatching soon too."
Iris brightened at the thought. She vanished off into the trees, and Cilan glanced over at Ash. "I know you wanted to get to Castelia City as soon as possible, but-"
"No, it's fine," Ash assured him. "This is a good camping spot."
There was a river and plenty of space for training, and it would be better to focus on the baby Pokémon for a bit anyway. Cilan smiled, then glanced down when Purrloin gave a plaintive yowl. "Sorry, I know you're hungry. Let's start with the basics, and then we can start adding to it..."
Pikachu bounded over to scramble up onto Ash's shoulder, and Ash rested his hand in soft yellow fur. "Think they've got this, buddy?"
He kept his voice low, and Pikachu's nod confirmed his own impressions. Pansage and Dwebble were both sticking close to Cilan, and Gible was just as interested in the food as Purrloin was. Ash watched for a minute, then took the opportunity to beckon Snivy, Tepig, and Oshawott over. He ushered them over to the trees a little way away, but close enough to keep an eye on Purrloin, and sat down so that he could address them all.
"Okay, you guys know that my egg's gonna hatch soon, don't you?"
Snivy nodded, and Tepig gave a cheerful squeak. Oshawott was a bit more subdued, but he looked up as Ash kept talking, "So I'm going to need you three to help me out, okay?"
Snivy nodded again, but Tepig and Oshawott exchanged looks. Ash patted both of them. "You're gonna be the older ones, so you'll need to set a good example. I don't know what it's going to be, but it'll be a baby, just like Axew and Purrloin and whatever Iris hatches, so we'll all have to take care of it."
Snivy flicked her tail in acknowledgement, but the younger two Pokémon exchanged looks. Ash eyed them for a moment, then focused on his Grass-type. "Snivy, can you give Cilan a hand, please?"
The look Snivy gave him said she knew exactly what he was doing, but she padded over to sit next to Pansage. Ash watched her curl up in the sun, then turned back to Tepig and Oshawott.
"Let's talk about the Gym Battle."
His friends blinked up at him, but Pikachu chuffed a soft laugh and curled up in Ash's lap. Ash patted him for a moment, before focusing on his two younger Pokémon.
"You were both awesome back there. Lenora was a really tough opponent, but you didn't give up and you coped with all her tricks, and you won the badge. Thank you, so much."
Tepig beamed and padded over to get a scratch. Oshawott still hesitated though, and Ash reached out with his other hand to pat him on the head.
"You did well, Oshawott. You should be proud of yourself."
Oshawott shrugged. He continued to fiddle with his scalchop, and Ash sat back with a frown. Oshawott was easily upset, but this was the first time Ash hadn't been able to cheer him up just as quickly. Tepig glanced between the two of them, eyes wide as he pressed closer to Ash's side, and Ash took a deep breath.
Something about the Gym Battle was clearly bothering him. Ash thought back, but in the end he could only shake his head.
"Okay, what's up, Oshawott?" he asked. "It was a hard fight, but you still won. You did great."
Oshawott shook his head. He turned away, then suddenly slammed a Razor Shell down onto a nearby rock. Ash jerked back in surprise, but Oshawott just glared at the thin scar he'd sliced into the stone and Ash suddenly got it.
"Wait, are you upset because you don't think you're strong enough?"
Thinking back, Herdier had taken Oshawott's attacks pretty easily. Oshawott gave an emphatic nod, then waved a hand at Pikachu and squeaked. Ash opened his mouth to ask for an explanation, but Pikachu was already nodding. He jumped forward and tucked himself into a somersault, and his tail flashed silver as he used Iron Tail. There was an explosive bang, and when the dust settled the rock was lying in pieces.
There was a pause, then Oshawott stalked over to the fragments. He glared down at the scar in one of the larger pieces, and Ash crossed the clearing to crouch next to him.
"I get it. And I'm really proud of you, Oshawott."
Oshawott blinked up at him, and Ash smiled. "You won the battle, and you still want to get stronger. That's really important."
Oshawott was a good fighter, but he had never been as excited about training as some of Ash's other Pokémon. Oshawott's eyes widened, and Ash continued, "We'll keep training until you're strong enough to handle any Pokémon."
Pikachu chirped agreement, cheeks sparking with excitement, and Oshawott finally managed a smile. He brandished his scalchop with renewed determination, and Ash bounced to his feet.
"All right! Then let's get to work right away!"
Oshawott nodded eagerly, then paused and scratched his head. He turned a slightly sheepish look at Ash, who had to laugh. "Don't worry, Oshawott, coming up with good training ideas is my job."
And he'd been thinking about it since long before the battle with Lenora. He'd just thought he'd have to coax Oshawott into participating, instead of Oshawott being the one to come to him.
"See, you've got great moves, and you'll get better at using them the more you practice, but we need to work on your strength and speed too. That way you'll be able to fight for longer and beat tougher opponents mor easily."
Oshawott nodded thoughtfully, then blinked round when Tepig came bounding up. Ash grinned. "You wanna train with us too, Tepig?"
Tepig yipped, and Ash exchanged a grin with Pikachu. "That's great! The two of you will become much stronger if you work together."
A bit of competition never hurt either. His two youngest Pokémon looked at each other. Oshawott tossed his scalchop from paw to paw, and smoke chuffed from Tepig's snout, and Ash's grin widened. He couldn't wait to see what they were really capable of.
There was a lot of work ahead of them though. Ash looked round their campsite, taking stock of what they had to work with, and clapped his hands.
"Okay! Speed's important, so let's start with some running."
Tepig nodded, but Oshawott looked less enthusiastic. Ash folded his arms. "You said you wanted to get stronger, Oshawott. You know it's not going to be easy."
Oshawott sighed, but nodded. Ash patted him on the head, then glanced over to the rest of their friends.
"Hey, Cilan, we're going for a run."
Cilan had set up his cooking gear and was holding various spices up for Purrloin's inspection, and he waved a hand at Ash's word. "All right, Ash. Food will be ready in an hour. No, not that one, Purrloin," he added, when his new partner sneaked a paw towards a bowl. "I promise you it'll be much nicer once it's cooked. Why don't you try some of this poffin instead?"
Purrloin accepted the piece he broke off somewhat warily, then her eyes widened and she attacked the rest of it with great enthusiasm. Cilan watched her fondly, and Ash smiled to himself as he turned back to Tepig and Oshawott.
"Let's go, guys!"
Ash started them off at an easy jog. Oshawott and Tepig were fast and agile in battle, but they really needed to build up some stamina. Pikachu kept pace alongside him, but both younger Pokémon were breathing heavily before they'd gone too far.
"You're doing well, guys," Ash told them. "Keep it going."
Tepig huffed out a cloud of smoke, then tripped on a root and went tumbling head over heels into the undergrowth. Ash skidded to a halt. "Oops. You okay, Tepig?"
He hurried over to check, but Tepig was already sitting up and offered him a sheepish smile. Ash gave him a scratch. "That's it. Ready to keep going?"
Tepig squeaked, but even as he scrambled back to his feet Pikachu's head snapped round. His nose twitched for a moment, then he tugged at Ash's pants leg.
"Huh? Something wrong, buddy?"
Pikachu hesitated, then shrugged. He took a couple of steps forward, and Ash nodded. "Whatever it is, we'll check it out. Lead the way, Pikachu."
They didn't run this time, much to Oshawott's relief, and it was only a few minutes before they came out into another clearing and Ash realised what had attracted Pikachu's attention.
Iris jumped and spun round. "Keep your voice down," she hissed, but even as she spoke there was a screech and her shoulders slumped. "Too late."
Ash was too busy gaping. Just behind Iris, a strange blue and black Pokémon was lurching to its feet. It's head came up to Iris' waist, and swung round to face Ash when he stepped closer.
"Woah, did you egg hatch? That's awesome, Iris!"
Iris' answering smile was a little strained. "It is, but be careful. Deino bite."
She waved a hand, and Ash winced at the ring of tooth marks. Deino screeched again and stepped forward, and Iris hurried to place herself between them. "It's okay, Deino. Everything's fine, they're friends."
Ash ached to go and introduce himself properly, but Iris' caution made him hesitate. Instead he grabbed his PokéDex and scanned Deino. "She's a Dragon-type? Iris, that's great!"
Iris' expression softened. "It is. They're really amazing Pokémon."
She kept her voice low and calm as she stroked Deino's shaggy fur, and the baby Pokémon seemed to settle a little. Ash tore his eyes away and kept reading.
"Wait, she's blind?"
Iris nodded. "That's why they bite everything. All their other senses are really good too."
That explained why she was being so careful about keeping in physical contact with it, but reading about Deino was making Ash want to go and meet her even more. Iris looked at him, then at Deino, and chewed on her lip for a moment.
"Okay, I think you can come over now, but be careful. And quiet."
The last was said with a fierce glare. Ash checked his excitement and walked over as calmly as he could. Deino's head came round, but she stayed still under Iris' calming hand a Ash crouched next to them.
"Hey there," he said softly. "My name's Ash, and these are Pikachu, Tepig, and Oshawott. It's really nice to meet you."
Pikachu gave an equally soft chirp. Tepig kept his distance, but when Oshawott started to bound forward Axew stopped him with a shake of his head. He tore bore bite marks, and Iris winced as she followed Ash's gaze.
"Deino are kind of aggressive," she said. "And hatching must be really disorientating. She only calmed down once I was able to connect with her a bit."
Ash nodded. He wasn't entirely sure how Iris' dragon empathy thing worked, but Deino looked pretty happy and wasn't attacking anyone, so she was clearly doing something right. "She's really cool, Iris."
The smile Iris gave him was tired, but genuine. "She is. I just hope I can look after her properly."
"Of course you can," said Ash firmly. "You're doing great."
Neither Iris nor Axew looked entirely convinced, but Deino pressed against Iris' leg with a soft croon. Iris blinked down, and the deep furrow between her eyes eased as she stroked the dark fur.
"You're getting hungry, aren't you?" she murmured. She exchanged a glance with Axew, who nodded and scurried off into the bushes. "We'll find you some food."
Ash inched closer. "Hey, Iris, D'you think she'd let me touch her?"
Iris hesitated. "You can try," she said, after a moment. "She's a bit calmer, but be careful."
Taking care not to move too fast, he rested a hand in the thick black fur around Deino's shoulders. Almost immediately he had to jerk it back from fiercely snapping jaws. "Woah, take it easy!"
Sparks flew from Pikachu's cheeks as Ash scrambled back. Iris hurried to pull Deino away, only to yelp when Deino promptly bit down on her arm.
"I'm okay," Iris bit out. "Everything's fine, Ash," she insisted, when Ash opened his mouth. "Leave this to me."
Ash swallowed, but Iris knew Dragon-types, and Deino in particular, far better than he did and he stayed back. Iris closed her eyes, and after a moment Deino released her and butted her head against Iris's arm in what Ash hoped was an apology. Iris patted her head, and waved off Ash's concern.
"She wasn't trying to hurt you," she explained. "Or me. Biting is how they learn about the world."
Ash sat back down, still out of arm's reach. "So she's going to keep biting everything?"
He was beginning to see why Iris had been worried. Even Pokémon that didn't mean to hurt people were still dangerous. Deino seemed quite content to rest against Iris though, and Ash shook his head. "Okay," he said. "I guess we can deal with that."
He'd got used to Pikachu electrocuting him after all. Iris, though, was chewing on her lip. "Ash… I don't want anyone getting hurt."
"You're the one getting hurt so far," Ash couldn't help pointing out. "And she does listen to you."
"More or less," said Iris slowly. She looked down at Deino, and sighed. "I just…I'm not sure if I can do this."
Ash opened his mouth, then closed it again. He'd never seen Iris like this. Iris loved Dragon-types, dreamed of being a Dragon Master, and was very confident in her ability to handle them. This wasn't like her at all.
Iris sighed again.
"Drayden always said that Hydreigon are the most difficult species of dragon to train," she said quietly. "He didn't even try until after he became Leader of the Opelucid Gym. They're powerful and aggressive, and if not trained properly…"
She broke off with a wince. Ash checked his PokéDex again, this time focusing on Deino's evolutions, and had to fight a shudder. Hydreigon definitely didn't sound like a Pokémon for an inexperienced trainer, even one who specialised in Dragon-types.
But then again…
"Isn't that the same of any Pokémon?"
Iris blinked. Ash leaned forward and tried to organise his thoughts. "Torterra can cause earthquakes. Infernape's Blaze can blow up an arena. Sceptile and Pikachu can fight Legendaries, and beat them. All Pokémon are dangerous if they're not trained properly."
"I know, but that's not the point," Iris protested. "Hydreigon-"
"Iris, you don't have a Hydreigon."
Iris stared at him, taken aback, and Ash took full advantage of her surprise. "You've got a baby Deino that's only just hatched, and who already likes you and listens to you. I know it's gonna be tough, but by the time she evolves I know you'll be able to handle it." He grinned at her. "You'll have had a lot of time to get stronger too, y'know."
For a long moment, Iris just stared at him. Ash held her gaze, until he started wondering if he had said something stupid. The only type he had ever raised was Gible after all, and his friend was about as different from Deino as it was possible to be, but just as he was beginning to think he should apologise Iris suddenly lunged forward and flung her arms around him.
"Thank you, Ash."
Ash was too surprised to do anything other than hug her back. Iris released him just as quickly when Deino gave a plaintive croon, but she gave him a warm smile before focusing on soothing the young dragon. Pikachu scrambled onto his shoulder to watch, and Ash let out a long breath.
This was going to be interesting.
Cilan could only shake his head as watched Deino work her way through a stack of pancakes.
"How did Karena have a Deino egg, of all things? They're incredibly rare."
Iris shrugged. She was keeping a very close eye on her new partner. "Don't know, but they are hard to raise. I can see why someone would leave an egg at a daycare instead of trying to raise it themselves."
Ash nudged her. "Their loss. She's gonna be awesome!"
It was going to be tough, but he knew Iris could handle it. Iris grinned at him. "We'll do our best!" Her eyes dropped to the incubator sitting next to Ash. "Now we're just waiting on yours, Ash."
Ash glanced down at the incubator. The light was flashing to let him know that it was close to hatching, but the egg itself hadn't so much as twitched yet. "I can't wait! Whatever it is, it's gonna be great."
Cilan chuckled. "I'm sure it will. You have a knack for bringing out the full potential of your Pokémon, Ash, and raising a Pokémon you've hatched yourself is special."
"It really is," Ash agreed.
It was a couple of years since Phanpy had hatched, but seeing him grow from a baby to a powerful Donphan had been one of the most rewarding experiences of Ash's life. He couldn't wait to do it again.
The moment was interrupted when Purrloin popped up to grab another poffin, and Cilan almost jumped out of his skin. Ash leaned forward, but Cilan recovered quickly and broke off another piece for her with a smile.
"There you go. This one is a little bit more bitter, so let me know what you think."
Purrloin beamed and rubbed into his hand for a second before ducking out of sight again. Cilan sat back and let out a long breath.
"It's fine," he said, before Ash could ask. "It's just going to take a little while to get used to."
Ash eyed him, but before he could say anything a screech echoed through the campsite. Cilan glanced up, and his face creased into a smile.
"I think Deino is still hungry."
Iris rubbed the back of her neck with a nervous laugh. "Yeah, dragons have big appetites."
Axew and Gible exchanged looks over their own overflowing plates, and Cilan smiled at her as he flipped the pancakes onto a plate. "That's a sign of a healthy young Pokémon."
He added a handful of berries, then walked over to set the plate down. "Here you go, Deino."
Deino's head came up as she scented the food. She padded forward, but instead of immediately going for the food she lunged at Cilan.
Iris darted forward, but Purrloin got there first. She lashed out with razor-sharp claws and Deino fell back with a startled squeak. Purrloin glared up at her, utterly impressed by the dragon that loomed over her, until Cilan hurried to scoop her into her arms.
"Be careful, Purrloin! Don't get in fights if you can avoid them."
Purrloin gave a rather indignant squeak, and Cilan's expression softened. "But thank you."
He scratched her behind the ears, and Purrloin leaned into him with a purr. Iris looked up from where she was tending to Deino.
"Are you okay, Cilan? And Purrloin, I'm so sorry-"
"It's fine," Cilan interrupted gently. "She was just curious. I know she didn't mean any harm." He glanced at the red claw marks on Deino's snout. "And to be honest, I think Purrloin did more damage to Deino."
Purrloin gave a very satisfied smirk from Cilan's arms. Ash tensed, half-expecting Deino to try to take revenge, but the baby dragon backed away. Iris stared at her.
"Wait, is she scared of Purrloin?"
Deino huffed, and Iris hurried to stroke her. Ash grinned. "Purrloin is the only one to fight back when she bit them," he noted. "I think it's a good thing."
"He's right," said Cilan, with a nod. "People and Pokémon will fight back when they get hurt, even if it's an accident, and the sooner Deino learns that the better."
Deino gave a rather plaintive squeak, and Iris pulled her in for a hug. "It's okay, Deino. I know you didn't mean to hurt anyone, and no-one's mad."
Her smile faltered a little when Deino rested her head on the bandages on her hands and arm, but she continued to hold Deino close. "Hey, don't worry about that. I'm going to do everything I can to help you."
Axew bounced over to join them, followed by Excadrill after a pointed look from Iris, and Iris stroked Deino's neck. "You can trust me, and Axew and Excadrill," she repeated. "We'll look after you, promise."
Ash had to hold Oshawott back from joining in. The last thing they wanted was to overwhelm Deino now. Iris continued to talk quietly to her partners, and Cilan touched Ash's shoulder to draw him away.
"They'll be fine," he said softly.
Ash grinned up at him. "I know they will. They're gonna make an awesome team."
His eyes dropped to where Purrloin was still nestled in Cilan's arms, and his grin widened. "And they're not the only ones."
A faint blush touched Cilan's cheeks as he followed Ash's gaze, and he coughed. "I certainly hope so."
Purrloin's purring intensified. Pansage caught Ash's eye and nodded, and Cilan smiled at his starter as he sat back down. Ash joined him, stretching out in the grass, and glanced back at Purrloin.
"So when we you going to start training?"
Cilan's eyebrows shot up. "Ash, she only hatched a few hours ago."
"I know that," said Ash. "But I bet she'd like it. She wasn't afraid of Deino at all, and she's really fast. I bet she'd love battling."
Purrloin was indeed blinking up at Cilan with bright eyes, but Cilan shook his head. "We'll talk about it, but not just yet. She needs to grow up a bit first."
Purrloin pouted, but dissolved into purring again when Cilan resumed stroking her. Cilan smiled at her, then glanced at Ash. "Training can be a good way of getting to know a new Pokémon," he said, "but it isn't the only way. I need time to get to know Purrloin. Iris and Deino need to learn how to communicate in every day life before they get involved in a more stressful situation. What works for you won't always work for everyone else, Ash."
Ash leaned back in the grass to think about that. He had always connected to his Pokémon through battling, whether it be against them or alongside them against Team Rocket or something. He'd never really thought about how other people would do things, but considering Cilan's Purrloin-phobia, and Deino's…everything, he could see the point.
"I guess not," he said. "But if she ever does want to battle, I'll be here."
Purrloin's ears pricked up, and Cilan chuckled. "I have a feeling I'll be taking you up on that, Ash."
Ash grinned, and reached over to give Purrloin a scratch before bouncing to his feet. The sun was stating to dip below the horizon, but there was still time to get some training in.
Snivy was already back at work; unlike some of his friends she had always taken the initiative with her training. She seemed to be trying to work out how to track Gible while he was underground, and even as Ash approached she lashed out with a Vine Whip. Gible broke the surface just slightly out of reach, shot her a toothy grin, and vanished again.
"That was really close, Snivy," Ash called. "Keep practicing, and you'll have it down in no time."
He was pretty sure there was a Ground-type Gym Leader, and it would be a useful thing to know anyway. Snivy nodded firmly and refocused on Gible, and Ash glanced round for the rest of his friends.
Both Tepig and Oshawott were still picking at Cilan's leftovers by the fire, but they had had busy day and Ash decided to leave them to it. Pikachu, meanwhile, hadn't needed encouragement to train in years, and was alternating bursts of Quick Attack amongst the trees with precisely aimed Thunderbolts. Ash started to make his way over, only to pause as Sandile stepped into his path.
"Hey, Sandile." He crouched down, wincing as he realised he hadn't checked in with the Ground-type in hours, and rubbed the back of his neck. "Sorry I haven't spent much time with you today. How's it going?"
Sandile shrugged. Unperturbed, Ash sat down next to him. "Have you been practicing Earthquake? I saw you working with Torterra earlier."
Sandile grunted, and his tail flicked sharply to the side. Ash grimaced. "That bad, huh?" Sandile glared at him, and Ash held up his hands. "Hey, don't look at me like that. I had to send Torterra back so that I had space for my egg!"
Judging from his expression, Sandile could not care less about League regulations. Ash sighed. "Torterra will be back, y'know. Besides, wouldn't it be more satisfying to work it out on your own?"
Sandile snorted. Ash considered pointing out that if he let himself be caught Ash could send him back to train with Torterra and Dolphin straight away, but he checked himself. He wanted Sandile to be his Pokémon because of him, not because he could get cool moves out of it. He shook the thought away, and an idea came to him.
"Why don't you work on it with Gible? It would be a good one for him to know too, and he might be able to help."
Sandile did not look convinced. Ash followed his gaze just in time to see Snivy finally catch Gible with a Leaf Storm and send the little dragon flying into a tree. Ash winced, but Gible bounced upright straight away, waved, and plunged back into the game with a squawk.
Ash smiled, but he could feel Sandile's eyes on him, and hurried to school his expression.
"Hey, Gible might like to mess around and have fun, but he's really strong. You could learn a lot from him."
Sandile just grunted. Ash scratched him on the head, and smiled when the wild Pokémon didn't complain. "Think about it, okay? And whatever happens, we'll start work on Earthquake in the morning."
Neither Iris nor Cilan would appreciate them disturbing the baby Pokémon now. Sandile's eyes widened behind his sunglasses, and he held Ash's gaze for a long moment before nodding. Ash patted him again. "Great! Make sure you get a good rest."
Sandile nodded again, and actually leaned into him for a second before waddling off to curl up next to the fire. Ash watched him fondly, then went to gather his Pokémon. There was a lot to do in the morning, and he planned to get an early start.
True to his word, Ash was awake early. Too early actually. The grey dawn was only just starting to give way to pale blue, and not even Pikachu twitched when Ash rolled out of his sleeping bag. There was no point in trying to go back to sleep, but Ash didn't mind. There was plenty to do while he waited for his friends to get up.
He had only up been up for a few minutes though before a soft beeping drive all thoughts of training plans and battle strategies from his mind.
Ash dived for his incubator. He silenced it before it could wake anyone, and picked out the egg with shaking hands. It was warm to the touch, and rocked violently as he settled it in his lap.
"Come on," he whispered. "You can do it."
The egg stilled for a second, then started shaking even more fiercely than before. Ash held it carefully, heart pounding against his ribcage, until there was a sharp crack and a jagged line split the egg down the centre. There was a pause for one, two heartbeats, then with a loud defiant crack the egg split open.
From the fragments of shell emerged a rumpled red and white feather, then Ash found himself holding a ball of grey fluff. The Pokémon was small enough to fit in his cupped hands, but even as Ash gasped at the feel of the soft downy feathers he looked down and met a pair of blazing grey eyes.
The Pokémon stared up at him, newly hatched, helpless, and utterly unafraid. Ash stared back, unwilling to break the moment even as he brushed fragments of shell from its feathers with trembling fingers.
Phanpy hadn't been like this. Nor had May's Eevee, or Dawn's Cyndaquil. They had been loud and scared and desperate for reassurance, just like any baby Pokémon would be.
This one, though, continued to stare Ash down in silence. Those eyes seemed to be judging him, and it took Ash a moment to find his voice.
"Hey there," he said softly. "My name's Ash. It's really great to meet you."
The bird blinked once, but otherwise didn't respond. Ash hesitated, then shivered as a surprisingly chilly pre-dawn breeze blew through the trees. He tucked the young Pokémon against his chest automatically, twisting to shield it from the cold, and shivered.
"I'll get the fire going, but first, are you hungry?"
If he knew anything about baby Pokémon, it was that they always had good appetites. This Pokémon, however, seemed far more interested in the Pokémon sleeping by the fire. It started to wriggle out of Ash's hands, eyes fixed on Gible, who was closest, until Ash tightened his grip.
"Hey, what's wrong?"
The Pokémon glared up at him, and Ash took one look at the gleam in his eyes and understood. "You want to battle?"
It nodded. Ash blinked, then smiled. "Good. You can battle everyone you like, but food first, okay?"
The Pokémon held his gaze for a long moment, then nodded. Ash ruffled its feathers and headed over to the pile of berries, snatching up his PokéDex on the way over. He ached to find out what his new friend was, but making sure the baby was healthy came first. He grabbed a handful of berries and split an Oran in half.
"Here, see what you think of this?"
The words had barely left his lips before the Pokémon launched itself at the fruit. Ash watched in astonishment as it devoured the berry, and looked around for more. Out of curiosity Ash handed it a Sitrus berry that was nearly as big as it was, and had to stifle a laugh as it attacked without hesitation.
"Hey, don't make yourself sick."
The Pokémon paused long enough to give him a look before returning to its meal. Ash kept one eye on it, and took the opportunity to scan it with the PokéDex.
Rufflet blinked up at him. Ash listened to the description, but didn't take his eyes from his new friend. The read-out finished, and Ash set the 'Dex back in his pocket.
"You really want to get strong, don't you?"
Rufflet's eyes gleamed, and he nodded furiously. Ash grinned. "Good, 'cause my dream is to be a Pokémon Master, and make all my Pokémon the strongest they can possible be." He held out his hand. "Will you help me?"
Rufflet held his gaze for a long moment, then for the first time opened his beak and let out a fierce screech. Ash heard startled voices behind him as his friends awoke, but he was too busy grinning at his new friend. He had a very good feeling about this.