"Ash you can be so dense sometimes!"
Ash sighed. Conversations began around him in this way with startling regularity. Most people would be insulted but not Ash. Once upon a time maybe, but that was a long time ago. Now all he wanted was to find out why he was being called dense.
"What did I do this time Dawn?" he asked his younger traveling companion. The blue haired coordinator was a real girly-girl in Ash's opinion. He figured that her annoyance probably stemmed from that somehow.
"Couldn't you see that Angie liked you?" she asked. Ash smirked, but since he was at the front of the group neither Dawn nor Brock noticed.
"Of course she liked me," he said, "we're friends."
"Arrgh!" growled Dawn in frustration. She couldn't believe that anyone could be this stupid. "I mean she REALLY liked you!"
"I really liked her too," said Ash casually, "I really like all my friends, right Pikachu?" He reached up to scratch his electric mouse pok mon behind the ear, getting a pleased "Chaaa" for his trouble.
Dawn ground her teeth together before answering. "No, I mean she-"
"Forget it Dawn," interrupted Brock with a placating gesture. The budding breeder nodded to his friend ahead of them. "He doesn't get it and it will be a long time before he does."
"What are you two talking about?" Ash called back to them. Brock simply shot a glance at Dawn that simply said "See what I mean?" The coordinator held up her hands in ascent.
Ash smiled, glad they'd given up. Truthfully he knew exactly what they were talking about. He had noticed Angie's awkward infatuation with him. But playing dumb was easier than rejecting her, because there was no way he could return her feelings. Unconsciously his hand went to his breast pocket as he thought about it.
Before long the trio found a suitable place to spend the night and quickly set up camp. After feeding their pok mon and themselves (Ash had three helpings, reinforcing the idea that he was, in fact, part snorlax) the trio prepared to turn in for the night. Ash was the first into his sleeping bag, with Pikachu curled up beside him, and it wasn't long before his loud snores permeated the camp. Dawn soon followed from within her tent. Brock was the last one awake. He took a moment to study the aspiring Pok mon Master. He shook his head, wondering if his young friend would ever grow up, before he too climbed into his sleeping bag to get some shut-eye. It wasn't long before his hormone fueled mumbles of "Jenny" and "Joy" could be heard between Ash's snores.
Ash's eyes shot open. He listened intently to his companions and when he was confident that he was the only one awake he sat up. Careful not to disturb Pikachu he reached for his backpack. He withdrew two items from it before setting it down gently. He clicked on a flashlight, one of the items, so that he could regard the second. It was a book. He opened it on the page that he'd marked with an old handkerchief. He took a moment to finger the fabric before he began to read.
"What are you doing?" The voice made Ash jump, dropping the book. He turned to find Brock sitting up in his sleeping bag. "Were you reading?" he asked, disbelief evident in his tone.
"What?" asked Ash, flustered. "Come on Brock, you know me better than that." He reached for the book but Brock was already out of his bag and beat him to it. His eyes widened in shock.
"The Art of War?" he asked incredulously. "This is pretty heavy stuff man, even for me. Since when do you read stuff like this?"
Ash sighed. His secret was out. Well, one of them at least. "Since Hoenn," he said.
"Since Hoenn?" Brock gasped. To his knowledge his friend didn't read anything that didn't have anything to do with pok mon. He was struggling to process the idea that Ash had been reading books like "The Art of War" for nearly two years. "Why? When? How did you keep this from me?"
"Well, I was on my own you know," Ash began, "for the first time since the start of my journey. I was so used to relying on you, and Misty, and I was going to have to learn to rely on myself. So I bought a book on the boat. To better myself you know? Took me weeks to finish it." He shook his head, as though it was embarrasing. But he continued. "I kept it from May because I didn't want her to think I was a bookworm. I kept it from Max because I didn't want him teasing me over struggling with such a basic book. By the time you joined us in the Petalburg woods it was a habit.
"After I finished the book I found a second hand bookstore and traded it for a harder one. And it continued like that. I'd read for an hour or two after you all went to bed. And when I finished one book I'd get another. And as a result I'm now reading that," he finished pointing at the book in Brock's hands.
"But," Brock started, struggling for the right words, "If you've been getting smarter why do you act so... So..." he floundered.
"Dense?" supplied Ash. Brock nodded. "There were a few reasons. I was already hiding the books from you guys, I didn't want to have to explain where my new found intelligence came from. Your expectations didn't rise. And people always underestimate whoever they think is stupid. That's a major reason why I've made it so far you know?" At this Ash looked a little sad. "Whether because of my age or my perceived stupidity people are constantly underestimating me. It's an advantage I'm not sure I could do without."
"Okay, first of all that's a load of Tauros dung," said Brock sternly. Ash looked up at him, shocked. "You're a great trainer and you've come this far because of the bond you have with your pok mon, not because of your opponents underestimating you. And second, I still don't get how I didn't notice this!"
"It wasn't that hard," answered his friend. "You sleep as if you've actually managed to accomplish doing what you dream about with Jenny and Joy."
Brock gulped. "What, what do you think I dream about?" he asked nervously. His friend just shot him a look. "Okay, I guess you're definitely not as dense as we all thought you were." He paused as if considering something. "So does that mean you know what me and Dawn were talking about earlier?"
"About Angie having a crush on me?" he replied. "Yeah I kinda noticed that. Can't blame her really, I did save her life. Twice actually."
"So why didn't you do anything about it?" asked the breeder.
"Do what?" Ash shook his head. "Playing dumb was easier than rejecting her. I couldn't return her feelings."
"Why not?" inquired Brock. He suddenly looked worried. "You don't swing the other way do you?"
"What?" exclaimed Ash, genuinely shocked. "No Brock, I'm not gay. It's just..." He hesitated, wondering how much to tell his friend. "My heart belongs to someone else." he finished at last, looking down.
It was then that Brock noticed the handkerchief his young friend had been fiddling with throughout the conversation. A familiar pink and yellow handkerchief. He smiled. "It's Misty isn't it?" Ash didn't ask how he knew. It seemed his other secret was out now too. "When did you realise it?"
"After that thing with the Mirage Kingdom," he answered truthfully. "She was so heartbroken, so distraught, over letting Togetic go. Right then I knew, I never wanted to see her hurt again. I wanted to make her happy everyday. I wanted to hold her close and never let go. I wanted to protect her from anything that would make her sad again."
Brock nodded. "That's love alright," he said. "So why haven't you told her?"
"How could I?" asked Ash, looking up. "I'm just another trainer traveling on his journey. She's a successful gym leader. Besides how could she like someone like me? She hates me remember, she always insults me, yells at me, hits me. I don't stand a chance."
Brock smiled. "Glad to see that density hasn't completely disappeared," he said as he gave the book back.
"What's that supposed to mean?" asked Ash.
"It means you should take the chance and tell Misty how you feel," he said while getting back into his sleeping bag. "Now get some sleep, we've got to be up early tomorrow.
Ash shrugged and put the book back in his bag, deciding that he'd leave off reading for tonight. He lay back down in his own sleeping bag and reached into the breast pocket of his jacket. Withdrawing the small object within he smiled. It was a gift from Misty. A fishing lure that bore her likeness. It was special to him, just as she was.
"One day, Misty. One day."