It was a beautiful day outside. The sun was shining fiercely, the water was sparkling, and Ash was ready to set off. He took one last look through his bag, checked to see that he had all of his Poké Balls, and then cast a glance outside.

"Forgetting something?" Gary asked, coming into the bedroom.

"My Pokédex!" Ash yelped, grabbing it and placing it in his pocket. "I can't believe I almost forgot it."

"I updated it for you," Gary said. "It should run a lot smoother now."

"Perfect." Ash smiled and zipped up his bag. "Ready, Pikachu?"

"Pika pi!" The yellow Pokémon waved its arms in the air, eager to get going.

"I'll be there as soon as I can," Gary promised, walking Ash to the front door. "I just need to finish up some stuff. I'm sorry I can't go with you."

"It's alright," Ash said. "As long as you're there when I battle."

"Of course." Gary wrapped his arms around Ash tightly, planting a kiss on his lips. "You better not lose, Ash Ketchum, or then I'll be really embarrassed about giving you a badge."

"Don't worry, I'll make you proud," he said softly. He tightened his hold on Gary and leaned into the embrace. "I'm going to miss you."

"Jeeze, Ashy-boy, don't make me start crying here," Gary joked. "I think I'm tearing up."

Ash stuck his tongue out and grabbed his backpack. "See you soon, right?"

"Right," Gary confirmed. He grabbed his hand and squeezed it one last time. "Don't chicken out and run back here, alright? You can do it. I love you."

It amazed Ash that no matter how many times Gary told him that, it never ceased to make him feel as though he was floating on a cloud. It was everything he had ever wanted, and finally, it was his. It was hardly plausible that Gary could give him everything he wanted with just three words. "I love you, too."

He left before he could make more of an emotional fool out of himself. It would take him about four days to get to the Pokémon League, and Gary was driving there in a week. Despite the fact that he would see him soon, Ash couldn't help but be sad. It was difficult to live away from the person who meant the world to him, but he had to do it.

Gary had offered to loan him the car, or to drive him up himself. But Ash wanted to do it this way. Just him and Pikachu, walking down the road, camping out and travelling on nothing but their own two legs. It was a homage to his past, and his humble beginnings.

He thought back on the time he had spent in Pallet Town, and he couldn't believe that he had put himself through that torture. Spending entire days in his dark room, watching the hand on the clock tick by. Why had he done it? There was so much happiness in the world that he had been missing out on. The joys of climbing into bed with someone he loved, laughing and occasionally play-fighting. The elation of winning his final badge, and seeing the pride in Gary's face as he gathered him in his arms and congratulated him.

If he lost at the Pokémon League, he could learn to deal with it. Because he had gained something much more. Not just a lover, not just a badge, but himself. His badges weren't parasols anymore. They didn't protect him from everything, making it so that he didn't push himself further. Now they motivated him, and spurred him to go to the League Tournament and prove why he was worthy of each of those badges.

He had a new parasol now. He had Gary. Only this parasol didn't protect him from dealing with his fears. This parasol protected him from the self-doubt, the hate, and the worry that had been eating him from the inside out.

And that made all the difference in the world.

Eeep, I'm so glad with the way this turned out! I have a few things to say. First of all, a huge thanks goes to anyone who took the time to read my story, and especially to those who reviewed. A lot of you have faithfully reviewed throughout this entire process, and while I won't name everyone, you know who you are. You all made me realise what I really like about writing: connecting with my readers, knowing how they feel about my work, and meeting new and wonderful people. Thank you so much for making this experience ten times better than it would have been without any of you.

This story had a lot of personal meaning to me, in that I was once Ash, stuck in a rut and not going anywhere. It's a horrible feeling, to have no motivation, and it was only through finding my own Gary Oak that I managed to get out of it. This story is one that I am proud of, and as I said, I'm pleased with the way it turned out. I really put my heart and soul into it, and I hope that showed through my writing.

Thank you again for reading,