The professor and Gaburias come back from the kitchen with fresh mugs of coffee for everyone and Alan's fiercely buzzing Holo Caster.
"I think you've got a message," he says with a wink.
Alan has five messages. Which is impressive, for someone who has one friend.
The first is a hologram that was sent in a little after the end of his lunch break: a Pokémon League badge, floating and glowing beautifully. Alan quickly recognizes it as the Fairy Badge, from Kunoe City.
The second message is a text, identical timestamp; it reads: congratulate me! (sic), preceded and followed by a half-dozen emoji of blowing horns, trophies and clapping hands.
Alan is smiling and mentally composing his response before he even opens the next one, which is dated from a few hours later, only ten minutes ago:
omw to shouyou city next, we're dropping by Miare! will b there tomorrow! make time for me xoxo
Then a selfie (meaning, a picture of Hari-san and the new Dumbber striking proud poses on the desk of a Pokémon Center, with Manon's fingers in a V-shape in the blurry foreground).
i'll pick you up at the lab y/y what time do u finish?
“Manon got her Badge,” Alan quickly announces out loud while he types his reply:
Congratulations! I have tomorrow off, actually.
“Marvelous!” the professor exclaims. “Kunoe City, right?”
“Yes.” Alan adds the professor’s appreciation and one thumbs-up emoji to the beginning of his message, for good measure, before hitting send.
Manon's response is instant, but just as fragmented: first, a full paragraph consisting entirely of animated Harimaron emojis expressing various levels of happiness and excitement.
Then, a second later: perfect
Five seconds later:
should make it in the morning wanna hang out
And in the time it takes Alan to try and reply All right, what time and where do we meet? , she fires off:
jk ofc you wanna hang out ;) ;) ;) ;) ;)
mmmmm see you at that one ice cream stand at 10 k
dont forget lizardon
(That last one is almost offensive.)
Alan waits another thirty seconds to make sure she's done and his Holo Caster isn't going to fall apart from all the buzzing, then he carefully replies: Ok. See you tomorrow.
"What a happy face," Sophie’s voice comments. Alan looks up to see her take a sip of coffee with a kind smile. "More good news from Manon-kun?"
Alan smiles back. "Yes. She’s coming through Miare City, so I'm treating her to ice cream tomorrow."
"Ooh!” the professor chimes in, handing Alan his own mug. He winks again and adds brightly: “Have a nice date, then."
Alan startles, begins to say, "That's not," but Sophie has turned her seat back to face her computer and the professor has moved on to offer Cosette some madeleines, and he did just make arrangements to meet a precious one for ice cream. Manon has never asked him wanna hang out? before — well, because they were hanging out constantly, but... they never…
Settling for a time and place and activity plan does make it sound more... formal.
Lizardon pops his neck through the door and Alan mechanically reaches up to scratch him behind the horns as it dawns on him that this is indeed, probably, a date.
"Oh," Alan concludes, staring in the distance.
Lizardon chortles, but puts his head in Alan's lap to help him sit out the crisis, which is what true loyalty and friendship mean.
(Or maybe he just came for the snack time.)
Alan is at the ice cream stand in the city center at a quarter before ten. Manon walks into the plaza at five past. At six minutes past ten, Manon trips on one of the chairs of the terrace and Alan feels the past two months' worth of protective instinct propel him to rush out to grab her — then two vine whips wrap expertly around her waist and Hari-san pulls her back up on her feet without breaking a sweat.
Alan repurposes his gesture of reaching out towards her into dragging his palm over his face. Still, embarrassingly, he feels himself smiling.
"Woops," Manon notes, sheepish for about half a second, then immediately unconcerned. She spots Alan and her face brightens. Alan is smiling in earnest by the time she joins him in the queue. "Hi," she adds, still panting a little.
Manon’s cheeks are red on top of the slight tan from the traveling. Alan is perfectly aware that his own pasty skintone now reflects the hours of lab work again.
"What are you getting?"
"I don't know, vanilla?"
"Oh, come on, look, they have —" she grabs his sleeve to pull herself onto her tiptoes and squints at the list of flavors scribbled in fancy loopy cursive. "Blue Chiigo Fizzy Explosion, why don't you get that?"
"The answer is in the question," Alan deadpans.
She laughs, the kind of loud guffaws that are out of place in most settings but the only appropriate laughter to a sunny spring morning at an ice cream stand. Finally, she suggests, "Chocolate?"
Alan recognizes offers of compromise. "I can do chocolate," he concedes with a shrug. From where he’s sprawled on her hat, Hari-san makes what is clearly some derogatory comment about Alan’s tastes, and Alan retorts: “I won’t take that from you, sir.”
"Maybe Koutetsu will like Fizzy Blue Chiigo Explosion," Manon concludes, mischievously. One of the Monster Balls on her belt shakes in reaction, but Alan couldn't tell if it's in enthusiasm or alarm.
"That's the Dumbber from Daigo-san, right?" he checks while looking for his wallet. "So it got its first Gym battle?"
"Yep! They did great. Hari-san took care of the final round, but Kou-chan cleared Mache-san's Ninfia all by themself!"
"Really? That Ninfia was tough, that's impressive."
"Right? Totally earned some ice cream."
"Indeed." The clerk nods at them, so Alan starts rattling off: "One chocolate, one Kurabo-berry, one Fizzy Blue Chiigo Explosion... still Yache-berry for Hari-san, rose cream for Fla-chan and Chiigo-macha for you?"
"I'll try the Sweet Avocado Delight this time, with sprinkles."
Alan manages not to wince too hard.
It's not awkward. For five minutes, this morning, Alan vaguely felt like he should be worried about what to wear, but Manon would be in her travel clothes anyway, and she would probably look at him strangely rather than stare in awe if he were ever to dress up. This might be their first date, technically, if it is a date, but they've done this too often, know each other too well, for that kind of formality. It's not like he can be chivalrous either when Manon fights him over paying for the ice creams, "I have a salary!" versus "I just won a Gym, my treat, my treat!!", and they end up deciding to settle it with a Pokémon battle. After eating the ice creams. But by the time they're done, Manon is bored of the park, and digestion is no time for fighting, so they go shopping. And a gentleman would be supposed to get their date a present, right? Except what happens is that Manon spots a ribbon in the window front of a battle-accessories store and exclaims that it would look lovely on Lizardon, so Alan and Hari-san wait outside in the sun while Manon debates with the owner over colors and battle-advantageous effects.
After ten minutes, Alan buys Hari-san a cool pair of sunglasses.
By the time Manon and Lizardon finally walk out, Alan has bought a second pair for himself.
“Ha! You match too!” Manon points, and tugs proudly on the green ribbon tied around her wrist. Next to her, Lizardon wags his tail with the excitement of a newly-hatched Hitokage, making the ends of his identical ribbon flap back and forth. Alan raises his glasses to eye the acquisition doubtfully.
“I’m not sure the tail is a good idea…”
“Fireproof, duh,” Manon reassures him. “And fire-enhancing!”
"Ah, good. Is yours fall-proof, then?”
She sticks her tongue out at him, but it’s not any more ill-intended than Alan’s comment. “So mean! You’re just jealous you didn’t get one.”
“I’m fine, I got cool glasses.”
“Rima-ri!” Hari-san concurs. He hops over to inspect both ribbons over the rims of his sunglasses, and nods in grave approval.
“Maybe I can stick the Lizardonite to that,” Alan muses.
Lizardon wags his tail a little more forcefully.
They do have that battle a few hours later, though Manon has forgotten by then what it was about in the first place. Lizardon has the type advantage, but Koutetsu is kind of savage indeed. Alan is pretty sure Dumbber normally can’t use any other move than Take Down, but of course the special babies the Champion hands out like candy would be an exception that can learn a varied moveset. Still, it would be an awfully unbalanced match, if Lizardon wasn’t obsessed about his ribbon and going to ridiculously excessive lengths to keep it safe and clean.
“Are those really meant to be worn in battle?” Alan mutters.
“It’s okay, Lizardon, you’re supposed to use it!” Manon tries to encourage him, but Lizardon eyes it anxiously over his shoulder and very visibly makes the choice to take another hit to the face rather than deflect it and cause dust to rise from the park’s sandy battlefield.
At sunset, Alan walks Manon to the Pokémon Center, which is just as unnecessary as it is natural and undiscussed. They stand there, before the entrance, in the light of the lobby. Manon holds Hari-san to her chest and they all look at each other’s shoes instead of meeting eyes.
"That was fun," Alan says in the void.
"Yeah,” Manon replies, similarly solemn. “It was good to see you. Say hi to everyone at the lab."
"Of course. The professor gives you his congratulations as well, by the way."
"I'll visit next time we're in town."
These are always the weird moments. Not awkward, they can never be awkward, but empty, as they’re aware it's time for goodbye but still don't know how to say it. Alan has never been good at those.
Manon finally looks up at him, under the rim of her hat and her messy bangs, and in a way that seems very pointed and deliberate, she hoists Hari-san a little higher in her arms, and makes him climb onto her shoulder instead. Then she opens her arms, wide, staring Alan in the eye and slowly grinning. Alan blinks in confusion — then gets it.
“Oof! You big brute!” she chuckles in his hair, warm and airy. Alan hugs her a little tighter, feels her shift to stand on her tiptoes in order to allow for that, so he just full-on lifts her up and she screeches in laughter, pretends to kick his knees, her hands clinging to the back of his jacket. “Aah, put me down, put me down!”
“Rimarima!” Hari-san concurs, grabbing Alan’s shoulder to keep his balance.
Alan does, but doesn’t let go completely, and she squeezes back even tighter too.
When they finally let go, their arms still trailing around each other, Alan still isn’t quite sure what he should say and how, but he knows what he wants to say. He puts his words together carefully, and Manon waits and listen. "I'll be busy for a while," he enunciates, "so it won't be possible for this one, but... tell me when you challenge your next Gym, and I'll come watch, and cheer on you."
"I'd love that. See you next time, then."
That, Alan realizes. That's a good one.
"See you next time."