Ash Ketchum wasn't stupid.
At least, he didn't think he was. Sometimes he found it hard to tell. It was hard in a world where people were always yelling at you if you made the slightest mistake, and not just in Pokémon battles. He wasn't usually the type to doubt himself; some people had even called him overconfident. But he knew he wasn't stupid. Not really.
He just didn't understand a few things.
Girls, as Brock had frequently reminded him, were complex. If they acted like they hated you, it meant either, according to Brock, that they secretly liked you and were afraid of showing it, or, of course, that they really, really hated you. And if they acted like they liked you, then that meant they probably just wanted to be friends and weren't interested in you at all. Or, if they acted like they liked you, but they made it clear they liked another guy better, it was your duty to win them over and prove how much better you were.
It hadn't escaped Ash's notice, though, that with Brock's track record, he probably wasn't speaking from experience.
He was right about one thing though – they were complex. There'd been a time when the girls that he knew had wanted nothing more than friendship with him, and that had suited him just fine. But if you ever did manage to get one to date you for more than a day, then, in Ash's experience, that was when things got complicated.
Apparently, there was a whole other set of rules for when that happened. You couldn't, for instance, talk about Pokémon too much, even if that had been your sole topic of conversation with them up until then. They didn't like it if you did, Ash had discovered. They accused you of being boring, single-minded, only interested in one thing. What they now wanted, it seemed, was to be constantly holding hands, and kissing, and cuddling, and talking about feelings. Ash could probably have handled that, if it had been true. But if you did that too much, they didn't like that either. They accused you of being clingy, creepy, too dependent on them. Not having a life of your own. And some girls didn't like that at all. They'd bite your head off if you tried "anything funny" with them.
(In his defence, the cave had been dark. Ash had only tripped. He hadn't known what it was he'd grabbed hold of. And he had only been eleven at the time).
Oh, and another thing? They really didn't like it if you brought a Pokémon on a date.
A ketchup bottle bursting could kind of ruin the mood.
"Ash?" Misty asked, as they sat on top of a hill one night, both leaning against a wide rock. "Do you ever think about the future?"
"What?" Ash turned to look at her. "You mean like, what Pokémon will I catch next?"
"No…" She sighed, inwardly. "I mean like…what will happen in your life? Will you ever grow up? Get a job? Get married? Have kids? Stuff like that?"
Ash paused to consider the question. "No." he replied. Seeing the exasperated look on her face, he quickly offered "But you look pretty in the moonlight."
Her face softened. "Really?"
"Yes." he answered, honestly.
Misty smiled, her whole face transforming.
"Thanks, Ash." She reached out and took his hand.
Ash didn't understand boys, either.
He ought to. I mean, he was a guy after all. Guys weren't supposed to be complex. They were supposed to be simple. Too practical. Not interested in anything that mattered. Unemotional. These were the kind of things he'd hear whenever he overheard Dawn complaining about her numerous boyfriends.
(He never heard May say this about Drew, but, well. Ash had always suspected that Drew leaned more towards the girl than boy side of things anyway. Not that he'd know or anything.)
Guys weren't complicated, in the general scheme of things. They didn't seem to mind talking about Pokémon. Basically, anything girls wouldn't talk about, guys would. He'd never had any problems with them before, when he was travelling.
Only later, sometimes? Things happened. Yeah. Things happened.
Ash had never actually been on a date with a guy – he just couldn't imagine it. Either they just ignored him totally after the things happened, or they wouldn't say anything, but then the things would happen again. Sometimes regularly. There was one rule that was always the same: You do not talk about the things. Ever.
The first couple of times this had happened, Ash had been confused. Now, he thought, he got it. Guys were complex too, all right. Just in a different way. They certainly didn't want to cuddle, much less talk about feelings. Even acknowledge that they had any, beyond friendship. Maybe they didn't. Ash could never tell, but he could tell that some of the guys in his life had wanted more than friendship from him. They just didn't want arelationship. Not that Ash wanted that either, with a guy, or with a girl for that matter. He didn't know what he wanted.
Guys were not above using you. Dawn had said this countless times, but it never occurred to him that it would ever be relevant to him. But once they discovered that you had something, anything, to give them – they would use you, get as much as that out of you as they can. Not that Ash minded that, exactly. In truth, he had generally felt pretty good when he was being "used".
But sometimes, afterwards? It messed with his head. Just a little.
"This doesn't change anything, you know," Paul muttered, zipping up his sweater.
Ash knew. "I know."
"I still think you're pathetic."
"I know." Ash just managed to catch the end of this sentence – "…at Pokémon." . Ash almost laughed at this, except he didn't, because you just didn't, with Paul.
"And…" There was an awkward pause. "And…your strategy still needs work."
Ash frowned. "You want to battle now?"
"What? No." Paul answered quickly, diverting his gaze. "No time, now."
"So, I guess I'll…see you around."
"Yeah." Ash said. "You will."
But Ash wasn't totally stupid. He did understand some things.
He understood Pokémon.
Pokémon were complex, too, no doubt about that. But in a different way to humans. In the kind of way that Ash could understand.
His Pokémon – or at least, most of his Pokémon – had always had the same attitude to battling, to life, that he had. They never gave up. They were always striving for something better, for excellence. To be the best they could possibly be. Ash knew that some people thought trainers pushed their Pokémon too hard, but he also knew that that wasn't the case. His Pokémon wanted it, he knew they did, you couldn't fake that kind of attitude. They wanted to win that badge, or that tournament, or that league, almost as badly as he did. It was because of him that they tried their hardest, and maybe they didn't always win, and maybe he wasn't the strongest trainer in the world (yet), but that didn't matter, because he knew that trying their best made them happy. But more than that – just being around Pokémon made him happy. His Pokémon were his best friends – and he hoped, he really hoped they saw him the same way.
The thing was, Ash thought, that a lot of people didn't understand Pokémon. They thought they were simple-minded – like animals, almost. And a lot of people didn't understand him. They thought he was simple-minded. But Ash wasn't, and he knew that Pokémon weren't either. They were just, a lot of the time, not so good at communicating what they thought. Because, obviously, they spoke a different language.
Ash didn't have his own language – he spoke plain English, most of the time anyway – so he wasn't exactly sure what it was that made people think he was stupid. His mistakes? His recklessness? His rash decisions, made in the heat of the moment? Whatever it was, Ash didn't care. He knew that people like that weren't his friends.
He had great friends. Human and Pokémon alike. They'd always been there for him, no matter what, pretty much ever since he could remember. He was lucky to have them, he knew – a lot of people didn't have that.
Ash had had plenty of friends. He'd had more-than-friends. There'd been girls, and there'd been guys. He'd had Pokémon of all kinds and types and species. But his best friend…
"Pikapi?" The small yellow Pokémon looked up from where he'd been lying, curled up in Ash's lap.
Ash hadn't been planning to say anything, really. He'd just kind of wanted to reassure himself that Pikachu was still there. But instead, he said the first thing that came into his head.
"I love you."
Pikachu studied him for a moment, his brown eyes wide. Ash wondered, for a split second, if it was a mistake. A girl would have been suspicious. A guy would have been horrified.
Pikachu was neither, though. Pikachu smiled, eyes shining, reflecting trust and love. Then he leapt up onto Ash's shoulder, and asked. "Pika chu pika?"
Ash stood up, taking in the scene around him. It wasn't anything special – just a lot of trees. And he was wet. He somehow hadn't noticed it'd been raining, he'd been so deep in thought. And that, let's face it, was unusual for him.
Maybe Viridian Forest hadn't been the best place to take a a break in. But anyway, it was time.
He turned his face to Pikachu on his left side, to answer his question.
"Yeah. We're going."
No matter what happened, he'd always have Pokémon.