"And the winner. Ash Ketchum, using his Pikachu!"
Ash's drained expression brightened into a huge smile. They had battled for over two hours, but his - no, their - work had paid off. He picked up his winning battler, whose cheeks sparked. It smiled brightly, although tired, and twitched its ears.
"Pikachu! We did it!"
The crowd rose to their feet, cheering loudly. Members of the audience began to crowd out and flood Ash with congratulations. Joys. Giselle. AJ. Duplica. Snap. Jennies. Mikey and his brothers. Seymour. Melvin. Anthony and Rebecca. Lara Laramie. Ash's mother. Professor Oak. Even Team Rocket.
Ash stood in the middle of all his friends and gave Misty and Brock a bear hug, a group hug with Pikachu squashed in the middle. The champion Pokemon didn't mind. It didn't mind anything. They had won!
Ash's opponent silently recalled his Pokemon, a Jolteon. He saw his grandfather moving up to congratulate Ash. The happy, cheering crowd was paying no mind to him whatsoever.
Gary Oak left the stadium, defeated.
A ten year old looked up at his parents hopefully.
"Can I get a Pokemon?"
His parents gave each other a 'not-this-again' look before turning back to their child impatiently.
"Gary, focus on your studies."
"You've been to see your grandfather again, haven't you!"
"Don't humour the old man. He said he wanted nothing to do with us."
"That's not what he told me! He said YOU were the ones who stopped assosokating with him!"
"It's associating. Don't argue with your parents. Go back and study vocabulary a little harder."
"Why can't you be more like your sister, Gary?"
Gary sighed and walked back into his room. He sat on his bed and stared at the wall for a long time. Other kids' rooms were full of Pokemon posters and merchandise, but he wasn't allowed to have any. In rejecting Professor Oak, they also rejected his profession.
He didn't go back to his studies. He was ten years old, how much studying does someone that old have? He knew his parents were bent on producing another prodigy like his older sister, and he knew just as well that he was sure to disappoint them.
"It's not that I'm stupid," muttered Gary, repeating the words his father told him, "it's just that I don't work hard enough."
"It's not that I'm stupid," mimicked Gary, repeating the words his mother told him, "it's just that I'm unmotivated and daydream too much."
"I am stupid," sighed Gary, repeating the words his sister told him, "I'm nowhere near as good as her."
"It's not that I'm stupid," mused Gary, repeating the words his grandfather told him, "it's just that I don't care, and I have to find something I care about before I can do well."
He'd heard the same things over and over. He liked his grandfather's version best. Professor Oak seemed to be the only person who even bothered to understand or appreciate Gary.
Gary took his latest test paper off the desk by his bed. A large red D- was in the corner. One of his better efforts, but it still inspired the constant lectures. Not to mention that his older sister had gotten another A+ on her latest assignment.
"This bites," muttered Gary, "why do I have to be such an idiot."
Because there was nothing else to do, he got up and climbed out the window. Being a typical boy of his age, going downstairs and out the front door was too simple. Instead, he clambered onto the outside sill, before manoevering over to a helpful tree, clambering onto it and sliding down its trunk to the ground below.
Also, this method ensured that he wouldn't be seen.
Gary wheeled his bike out the garage and jumped onto it. Then he pedaled hard, to a nearby place. Only a few minutes away, a house on a hill.
"Well, Gary, it's nice to see you again!"
Gary smiled at his grandfather. It seemed that Professor Oak was the only person who was ever pleased to see him.
"Gramps, can I have a Pokemon?"
Oak blinked in surprise at the sudden question. "Well Gary, we've talked about this before, and I don't think your parents -"
"I know. But I can keep a secret."
"Now Gary, a Pokemon is not something you can keep a secret, you have to be able to let it out and give it some freedom."
"Yes, but... I still want one."
Oak looked at Gary seriously. "Why?"
"I just want a Pokemon of my own. They're all so cool. And other kids get to have them."
"Is that your reason?" Oak looked almost sad.
"Well," said Gary, embarrased, "I did want to be able to see it grow up, and learn new attacks, and fight with me. And you know, it could actually be a real, proper friend. And I could find out more about Pokemon, and it'd like me best, since nobody else does... and I could finally be good at something, and we'd become champions of Pokemon League together!"
He forgot himself and finished what he was saying in an enthusiastic voice. Oak's face broke into a smile.
"Gary. You're definitely ready."
Gary lay under his bed, biting his lip. He hadn't crawled under the bed since the last lot of fights, when he was six. It was just - endless shouting - and his parents never shouted.
"HE IS READY! IF YOU CONTINUE TO TREAT GARY LIKE A CHILD HE WILL NEVER ACCEPT RESPONSIBILITY!"
Professor Oak. He never shouted either.
"IF HE CAN'T ACCEPT THE RESPONSIBILITY HE HAS NOW, HE COULD NEVER HANDLE A POKEMON!"
"And it's not fair when he'll dump it on us!"
Gary lay, hoping nobody would come into his room. Last time, each time after his grandfather left, his mother would be in an extremely bad mood.
The shouting went on for a long time, before softening to what almost sounded like civil talk. Still, Gary did not move. He had to know what would happen.
"Fine, a deal then. If Gary makes no further improvements in this school year, you allow him to try his skill at this instead, where he's likely to succeed."
"He'll never succeed. He's a loser."
Gary pressed his arms into the floor beneath him, as if trying to get further into the ground.
"Well, I concede, Professor. I suppose there's little harm in it, and when he does go it will at least mean we have him off our hands. Such a troublesome boy. May doesn't give us nearly so many problems."
"And you do not give so many problems to her, I wager. Now then, do you promise?"
Gary could almost hear them rolling their eyes, but now he felt a faint twinge of - well, not hope, what was that - anticipation.
"Fine, we promise that if Gary makes no further improvement, he can run off into a no-future career just like you did."
"Gary, your mother and I would like to talk to you."
Gary crept nervously into the lounge room. His shirt was covered with dust from when he had lain on the floor.
Professor Oak was gone.
"We were discussing you with Professor Oak, Gary." They never called him by his first name, let alone call him 'father'. "He says you're doing quite well in informal study of Pokemon."
Gary nodded, silent.
"Well," said his mother, "your father and I have decided that if you prove you are capable of studying hard and being responsible, you may go on a Pokemon journey of your own next year."
"That means," said his father, before Gary could reply, "that we need to see a marked improvement in your grades by the end of this semester. Otherwise, it might... uh, be dangerous for you to go on a Pokemon journey if you're really not capable of studying well and knowing what you're doing."
"Okay," said Gary. His parents had nothing more to say, so he left the room and stared out the window of his own. In the familiar tree that stretched by his window was a nest. A Pidgey and its babies slept there, peacefully.
Gary smiled. All he had to do was work hard - because hard work always pays off - and he could finally leave!
Over the next month, Gary changed. He would spend hours every night, doing and redoing his homework, trying to make it stick, trying to make it make sense. He went to the teacher whenever there was something he wasn't sure of.
Whenever he found himself beginning to slip into daydreams and drawing again, to draw a Jolteon or a Lapras, his favourite Pokemon, he reminded himself that he didn't need to do that. If he waited, he would soon get one for real.
One recess time, he was sitting at his desk as usual, trying to get the problems finished while they were still in his head. There seemed little point in going outside with everyone else; why bother if there was no friend to play with? This time, however, he was interrupted.
"So you take that remainder and -"
Gary looked up, losing his train of thought. "What?"
One of his classmates, Ash Ketchum, walked up to his desk and looked at what he was doing.
"Maths? Didn't you finish that in the lesson?"
"I'm nearly done."
"Hang on. You got that wrong. And that one."
"Don't correct me." Gary felt stupid being corrected by someone younger than him. Ash had been put up into his class because he was finding the work too easy.
"I was just SAYING. Geez, you do schoolwork all the time, no wonder nobody likes you."
Gary glared. "Just because YOU find it easy."
"It IS easy."
"Oh, shut up."
"Why bother trying if you're just gonna fail anyway?"
"I am NOT gonna fail, whatta YOU know, Ash Ketchum."
"More than you."
"Big deal. When I finish this school year I won't need this stuff any more anyway." He added, with a hint of pride, "I'm gonna be a Pokemon Master."
Ash laughed. "You! You don't even know what 1 + 1 equals. You could never be a Pokemon trainer."
Gary got mad. "I'm gonna. I'll show you!"
"Well then, we're rivals," said Ash, angrily, "because I'm gonna be a Pokemon Master. And I'm going next year too. My Mom said I could years ago, as soon as I turned ten. Don't copy me!"
"Your parents do anything for you, you wuss."
"At least I'm not a stupid moron!"
And with that, as though it had been a devastatingly witty retort, Ash went back outside. Gary slumped down into his seat and wondered why he had come in in the first place.
He just wants to be the best, thought Gary, but he beats me in everything else, so there's gotta be something I'm better at. Maybe he can do maths, but that doesn't mean he knows anything about Pokemon.
Gary realised, for a moment, that he was jealous. Then he shook his head, thought of Pokemon, and went back to work.
"Well, Gary," said Oak, "I heard your grades have improved a little."
"A little..." sighed Gary. "Yeah. My parents said if I got better, I could train Pokemon."
Oak's eyes widened slightly, but he said nothing. He was remembering how they had agreed that if Gary made no more progress in his schoolwork, he could try training.
"Why's school have to be so hard? Nobody else thinks it is. Ash said I was stupid."
"You're not stupid. Ignore Ash. Don't think about it for a little while. Come over here and look at this instead. I've got a new Pokemon to show you."
Oak opened a Pokeball and the Pokemon appeared.
"Now Gary, do you know what that is?"
"Yes, that's a Pikachu."
"Tell me what you know about it."
"It's an electric Pokemon, it's good for a pet if you don't mind occasionally being shocked, it's known for being cute," rattled off Gary, "and it evolves into a Raichu."
"How does it evolve?"
"Umm... a stone?"
"Very good. A thunderstone will make this Pikachu become a Raichu."
The Pikachu looked at them, seeming to not like that train of thought. Its cheeks sparked and it shocked them both.
"What was that move, Gary?" coughed Oak, lying on the floor.
"Thundershock," groaned Gary, also on the floor, "Pikachu's first and weakest electric attack."
At the word 'weak', Pikachu narrowed its eyes and thundershocked them both again.
"Real nice, gramps," coughed Gary, "can you put it back in its Pokeball now?"
"I think that might be a good idea."
And with some effort, Professor Oak managed to get Pikachu back inside its Pokeball.
Gary bit his lip, and searched for his name. Ash Ketchum, third out of two hundred. Predictable.
His name wasn't on the first board. Or the second.
He turned. Ash was calling to him.
"Didja see what I got?"
"Didja see what YOU got?"
"Well, don't go near the last board then!"
Ash turned back to his friends, laughing. Gary glanced at the end of the room and there, found his name. Failed.
Kids can be cruel, thought the teacher, but knew it was important to let Gary fight his own battles.
He didn't. He just turned and walked home... the way he would be doing until he was an adult and could get a job his parents wanted him to get...
"Gary, we're very disappointed in these results."
And you think I'm not? he thought.
"We thought you'd try harder now. I can see you're not really serious about becoming a Pokemon trainer."
"I... really tried," Gary said in a low voice, which cracked slightly.
"You don't expect us to swallow that. With this attitude, you'll never get anywhere in school."
Gary nodded, not taking his eyes off the floor.
"So, you can go."
His bowed head snapped up.
"Yeah. We're ashamed to have you as our son. If you give up on everything here, and you don't make it - which you won't - don't come back. Got that?"
Gary nodded, fighting the urge to whoop, sing, dance around the room. He didn't care about what his parents were saying. All he knew was that he was going to be a Pokemon trainer, and he had to win at it.
Finally, something he could be the best at. As long as there was just one person who believed he could do something - his grandfather - he could do okay.
His grandfather was congratulating Ash. His cheerleaders had faded away altogether. What was going to happen now?
There was nothing left. No friends. No family. No goal. No talent.
What was the value in being second best? Especially to someone who had always made him feel second best.
And now, Ash was going to gloat, just like he had in school. Wasn't it enough he had nothing left?
Ruined, at the age of twelve. Anyone else would have laughed at that phrase, but Gary never would. There was nothing melodramatic or exciting about it.
His parents hadn't been in the stands, watching him. They knew he had gotten to the final. He even told them himself. They just said "you'll never win" and said they wouldn't waste their time.
They had been right. And now nobody had any faith in him, not even his grandfather.
Familiar voice, familiar phrase. It was always the prelude to more insults.
Ash ran up to him, Pikachu riding in his cap as usual. The celebrations had died down, and nobody else had bothered to look for Gary yet.
"What," he replied softly.
His rival held his hand to his neck, as if embarassed.
"Uhh, well... you fought well. I bet you'll be a Pokemon Master next time."
Ash and Pikachu didn't understand why Gary's face brightened so much at those words.
And nobody understood why the two rivals suddenly became friends. Nobody understood how Gary managed to keep up the drive for another year. Nobody understood how this loser kid, not even loved by his parents, managed to become a Pokemon Master.
Gary knew. For someone to have faith in you can work miracles.