The first time Ash hears it, some boys are joking together with Cilan.
They don't seem to be being mean, but Ash can tell from Cilan's awkward laugh that it's not funny. So he changes the subject and the whole incident passes. When he catches Cilan's eye later, the older boy looks both relieved and terrified. Ash doesn't know what Cilan should be worried about, but he smiles broadly and eventually Cilan goes back to normal.
The next time Ash hears it, it's from Iris.
Ash still doesn't know what it means, but he tells her to stop anyway, because Cilan is within earshot, and those kind of words make him upset. He's pretty sure Iris never meant to hurt Cilan, but he still doesn't want their friend to overhear and be sad again.
It's not that Iris isn't willing to oblige, but the look that passes over her face is something Ash has never seen before. "I see," she says, but in a few seconds, another wave of understand washes through and she has to repeat herself, "Oh, I see..." She goes through this process several times, each time reaching a new level of comprehension. Finally, it seems she's done, and she looks at Ash in surprise. "So, you... you knew...? Did he tell you?"
"Tell me what?" Ash asks, confused, and Iris' face changes one more time.
"Oh," she says, her voice dripping with that 'you're such a kid' tone, "I see..."
The third time Ash hears it, some girl is laughing at Cilan. It's different this time, because she's not laughing with him, but her face has the hints of a sneer in it. Ash immediately tells her to get lost, and drags Cilan away from the situation. He wonders why Cilan didn't defend himself; Cilan's more than capable of winning a battle of words, but realizes that while they may have left the girl behind, Cilan's still depressed.
So, Ash offers to help with supper, even while Pikachu traitorously runs off to play, and spends the next hour chopping vegetables and discussing movies with Cilan. By the time the meal's ready, Cilan is back to his energetic self.
The third time Ash hears it, some boys are making fun of Cilan. Ash is getting sick of this, so he marches over to tell them it's not true, but is stopped when he sees the look on Cilan's face.
Ash knows that expression very, very well. When he was younger, Gary used to pick on him all the time, tell him he was a horrible trainer and call him a loser, and on a good day, Ash could defend himself. However, sometimes Ash wasn't having a good day, and would start to believe what Gary was saying.
The expression on Cilan's face is the same; he knows what these boys are saying is true. But from the way everyone is talking, it doesn't seem like Ash and Gary at all, it doesn't seem like the sort of thing Cilan could be wrong about...
Ash still doesn't know what any of this means, but he hates the look of shame on Cilan's face. He tells Pikachu to get ready, and they quickly stride over to Cilan's side, Pikachu's cheeks sparking dangerously.
Ash would never have Pikachu just attack people like that, even if they're being jerks, but these guys don't know that, and they're quick to back off and run away. Cilan is a bit shaken, and no matter what Ash does, he can't get a smile out of him.
Finally, Cilan sighs with resignation. "So, you heard, right?" Ash nods, but he still doesn't get it.
"You don't have to tell me what it means if you don't want to." And Cilan's green eyes go wide with shock. "Just let me know if they bother you again." It's somehow weird, the idea of Ash defending Cilan like this. Cilan has rivals, but he's far too nice to make many enemies, and too matured to be bothered by stupid people and their stupid remarks. Even Burgundy doesn't bother Cilan, much as she tries. Ash is the one who's the easy target for bullies and snide remarks, and the one most easily hurt by them, so this role reversal feels a little uncomfortable. All the same, Cilan is his best friend, and everyone has a moment when they need someone to defend them.
Cilan nods in agreement, then finally starts to laugh. It starts out with some bitterness, but then becomes pure and happy again, and Ash doesn't ask why it started out ugly. There are things in Ash's past that he doesn't tell Cilan, and Cilan is allowed to keep a few secrets of his own.
Ash hears it again during a tournament, when Cilan is battling against Burgundy. He's close enough to the sidelines to hear, and everyone around him goes eerily silent, but most of the people in the stands don't realize something's happened.
It's not a joke, mean-spirited or otherwise, it's a full-on accusation, with dramatic pointing and clenched fists. Cilan looks cold and emotionless, the exact opposite of himself, while Pansage looks ready to unleash a Solarbeam in Burgundy's face.
Ash just cheers louder than ever, because Cilan doesn't lose to people like Burgundy, no matter what dirty tricks they pull.
When it's over, he claps Cilan on the back and smiles, but he doesn't bring up Burgundy's words. Ash still doesn't know what this means, though it seems like everyone else does, and they're terribly awkward about it, but he feels it's Cilan's secret to tell. So he keeps smiling and telling Cilan he's proud of his battle and hopes that Cilan understands that Ash really doesn't care what dumb things Burgundy says.
The next time Ash hears it, it's said to him. Cilan isn't around.
As usual, he still doesn't know what it means, but he hates that they're talking about Cilan like that, hates that they're trying to tease Ash by insulting Cilan and he tries, very angrily, to make them stop.
He wishes Pikachu wasn't with Nurse Joy. It's harder to handle teasing when his best friend's not around.
But the three boys are bigger and stronger than Ash, and they back him into a corner. Ash can tell them to shut up all he wants, but that doesn't mean they'll listen, and they proceed to tell Ash all sorts of terrible things about Cilan. All the things Cilan wants to do to Ash.
Ash doesn't believe any of it, doesn't even know what half of it means, but it's so vivid and threatening that he can't help but be overwhelmed, and he covers his ears.
The boys pull his hands away. They lean in closer with sneers and smirks and describe in great detail all the places Cilan wants to touch Ash, how Cilan wants to take off all of Ash's clothes and do things with his tongue that Ash didn't even know were possible. Ash doesn't want to hear this, doesn't think he's ready to hear any of this, but he's forced to listen to all these disgusted, dirty and humiliating things they claim Cilan thinks about him.
"Hey!" Ash hears Cilan's voice and has never been more relieved or more mortified. The other boys say more crude things and call Ash Cilan's boyfriend, but Cilan ignores all these taunts as he coldly repeats that they should leave Ash alone. By the way things are going, it looks like a fistfight is going to break out, but then Pansage's voice starts to rise above the arguing.
Of course Cilan wouldn't command his pokemon to attack innocent people, but Pansage looks threatening enough on it's own, and all the commotion is attracting attention from Nurse Joy.
And then Ash hears his favorite sound in the world. "PiKA-CHU!"
Pikachu looks like a promise of death, and between him and Pansage, all of the bullies turn tail and run. The relief hits Ash like a tidal wave, and he leans back into the wall, letting himself sink slowly down to the floor. Once the aggressors are gone, Pikachu runs over to his trainer, worry etched into his cute face. "Pikapi?"
Ash suddenly realizes that he's crying.
Cilan also rushes over, but Ash can't answer him, can't even look at him with all the thoughts swirling in his head. He wants to forget it all but it's stuck in his head now, hurting him in ways he doesn't understand, even as Cilan drops to his knees beside Ash and looks even more upset than his friend.
"Ash..." Cilan keeps trying to say, "I'm sorry, are you okay? I'm really sorry..." What does Cilan have to apologize about? Ash thinks to himself, but he can't bring his voice out from wherever it ran off to hide. Cilan keeps trying to put a hand on his shoulder, but he never quite succeeds, always holding himself back and looking like he hates himself for even trying, and Ash is grateful for that, because he thinks if Cilan touches him now, he's going to break. Ash knows this isn't Cilan's fault, and he knows that Cilan would never want to hurt him. All these new things rushing in his head can't possibly be true, Cilan wouldn't want to do any of these things.
But right now, Cilan is so full of shame that Ash is forced to realize that some of it must be true.
He can feel Cilan next to him, sense his shaking, hesitant movements. He can hear his voice, trying to comfort Ash and make sure he's okay. Cilan's focus has always been on the people around him, helping where he can and showing kindness to all he encounters.
Ash isn't so sure anymore, if Cilan might actually want to do any of those things the boys accused him of.
But he knows that Cilan would never want Ash to feel as hurt, filthy and humiliated as he does right now.
And that's enough for Ash to raise his head again, and take Cilan's offered hand. "I'm okay," he tries to say in a voice that is too unsure to state anything clearly.
But it'll have to do, for now. "I'll be okay."
Dinner is awkward.
Cilan isn't in the mood to cook, or in the mood for much of anything else. Iris orders her food and scarfs it willingly, as if to make up for the way Ash and Cilan just play with their silverware and try not to make eye contact.
They should talk about this, but Ash doesn't want to.
He's not ready to talk about this, and he wants it to disappear.
Ash hates that his friendship with Cilan has turned into this gross, disgusting thing that he's scared of, full of things he doesn't understand, and he wants to go back to laughing and hugging his friend without a care in the world.
He wants Cilan to be able to laugh and hug without a care in the world.
It's like it was with Misty, Ash realizes, except it didn't feel threatening, just big. Misty came with something that was too big for Ash, it pushed him into little corners in his mind and made him feel sad and uncomfortable as much as he felt happy. Misty could handle it and Ash couldn't, and it always bothered him until Misty stopped pushing and Ash stopped pulling away. Now Misty is special, and their friendship is special, and Ash doesn't feel like he has to put up walls anymore to protect himself from that super-sized, crushing emotion that Misty brings with her.
But this thing now, it's so much more than it ever was with Misty. Ash feels like he's going to die. He wants to crawl into a hole and never come out again, and he wants to hate Cilan, because he trusted Cilan and didn't have any protective walls between them and now Ash has been overrun by this feeling he hates. But he also knows it's not Cilan's fault, and he thinks Cilan hates this just as much as Ash does.
Ash wants to call his mom. But he also wants to never have to talk about this again, so he tells Iris everything's fine and tries to steal some of her food.
She lets him, only because she clearly doesn't believe it at all.
Ash pulls Pikachu close to his chest and just breathes. He needs to think, and that's not something he does well under normal circumstances, let alone when his world is being turned upside down.
Iris tried to talk to Cilan, but Ash saw the other boy turn away from her, shutting her out. Cilan won't talk to her, he won't talk to anyone.
But he's suffering.
Normally, Ash talks to Cilan when he has trouble. Cilan is older, more experienced, more mature. Cilan knows the right thing to do and the right thing to say, and he has a way of making Ash feel at peace. Ash loves that about Cilan.
But right now, Ash isn't sure he can talk to Cilan about this. He has to, eventually, Pikachu told him he has to and unfortunately, Ash thinks he's right, but he can't do it now. Right now, Ash's head is still spinning.
Cilan has no one older to turn to. His brothers are far away, and he can't talk to Ash. It looks like Cilan doesn't feel he can talk to Iris, either.
He's completely alone.
Ash doesn't really know what Cilan's going through, Ash has enough trouble trying to understand what he's going through, but he doesn't like the thought of Cilan being alone.
And with that thought in mind, Ash gets up and walks over to his friend, Pikachu jumping off his lap and watching curiously. Ash stops in front of Cilan, who looks heartbroken and sick. "Hey."
"Ash..." Cilan, expert of flowery language Ash doesn't understand, is at a loss for words. Ash can't think of anything smart to say, either.
So he steps forward and hugs Cilan tightly, hoping that communicates his feelings well enough.
For a minute, he thinks he's done something wrong, because Cilan freezes like someone hit him with Ice Beam. But slowly, Cilan's arms start to melt and he begins hugging back, and before long, he's sobbing into Ash's shoulder. He's so much taller than Ash that the smaller boy is nearly suffocated, but it's fine.
It feels normal for a second, like they're standing in the center of a tornado and for one second, the winds can't reach them.
Cilan continues to cry, and Ash still doesn't know what's going on, but he whispers, "We're gonna be okay," into Cilan's vest, and that seems to help a bit.
Ash doesn't sleep at all that night. He can't help but think about all the words he's heard, and even though he still doesn't fully understand them, they're hurting him so much. He wonders if it will hurt less if someone explains it to him, or if he's even capable of understanding it.
Ash wants to be older, more grown up.
But he also wants his innocence back.
He can wish for it all he wants, but something's changed, something nice and pure has become something else, and he doesn't like it.
It's confusing, and it pesters Ash all night.
Pikachu doesn't sleep either. He's a good friend like that. It's one of the things Ash loves about Pikachu, because he knows Pikachu wants to just roll over and sleep. But he won't, because he can see that Ash has suddenly become afraid of the dark and his thoughts and his dreams, and without having to be asked, Pikachu will watch over Ash all night.
It's pure, Ash's friendship with Pikachu. They're closer than anything, "almost too close", someone once muttered, but Ash didn't really get it and decided he didn't really care.
Ash wants his friendship with Cilan to be pure again, like it used to be. He wants his friendship with Misty to be like it is with Pikachu, except every time he tries, the uncomfortable feeling comes back. He wonders if he "just grows up, already," like everyone keeps telling him to, this will all make more sense.
But most of all, he wonders if those boys were right, if Cilan is dreaming all that creepy stuff about him, and tries as best he can to replace those thoughts with something else. Anything else.
Ash doesn't sleep at all that night.
Cilan doesn't want Ash's help with breakfast, so Ash plunks his elbows down on the table and rests his head against his hands. Pikachu curls up on the chair beside him and goes to sleep, but Ash thinks that's for the best. He wants Pikachu beside him for moral support, but this issue is between him and Cilan, and he's not sure he's ready to share all of it with Pikachu. It's confusing, but having Pikachu there physically yet not mentally feels just perfect for Ash right now.
Cilan stirs around the strawberries in his saucepan with a focus that seems excessive. "I'm sorry about what happened," he says hurriedly, and Ash rolls his eyes.
"That's all you've been saying." Cilan hasn't stopped saying it since it happened, and Ash is curious as to why Cilan thinks it's his fault.
There's also a part of him that suspects he doesn't really want to know. "What those guys said to you," Cilan glowers down at the food he's preparing, "It was uncalled for. They saw a beautiful, frosted cake and they swiped their dirty fingers all over it."
Ash doesn't always get Cilan's food metaphors, but that describes how he feels fairly well. "Honestly, I didn't really get half of what they said," Ash says in an effort to calm Cilan's quiet rage. It's not a lie; Ash doesn't get it. Unfortunately, that's part of the problem.
"You're ten years old," Cilan snaps back affectionately, "I'd be worried if you did get it." Cilan's not that much older, but Ash doesn't bother to say this, because it doesn't matter anymore. Ash isn't so eager to understand these things, now that it's ironically gone so far that he must be made to understand.
Cilan realizes it, too. "What did you think about it?" he asks quietly, still keeping his eyes locked on his task. "Do you believe them?"
It's a very delicate question. Ash can't believe all of it, but he can't deny that some of it might have glimmers of truth. He didn't really care, before. That was Cilan's business, Cilan's secret. It still is, Ash just wants to clear the air and get things back to normal.
So he answers as honestly as he knows how. "You're my friend, Cilan," he says innocently. "That's what I believe." And Cilan smiles.
There's nothing but the sounds of bird pokemon on the lake and the bubble of Cilan's various culinary concoctions for the next minute or two, but it's peaceful, so Ash doesn't bother forcing conversation. It's nice to just sit there with Cilan, comfortably quiet. They both know things aren't completely fixed yet, but they trust each other, and that's enough to make it right.
Ash feels like he'll be okay with whatever happens next.
Cilan turns his stove down and lets his dishes sit for a moment, gliding softly into a chair across from Ash. Pikachu continues to dream, and Ash strokes his fur while Cilan composes his thoughts.
Finally, "You know how Attract only works between a boy and a girl?" Ash nods, eager to finally hear something he understands. "Well," Cilan says with a bit of hesitation, "If you and I were both pokemon, you could use Attract right now and it would work."
Ash thinks about this for a second. "Attrack makes the pokemon fall in love, right? So, when you meet other guys that know Attract," this should be impossible, but Ash remembers Misty and Giselle, "then you fall in love?"
"Sometimes." Ash decides this fits with all the things he's heard so far. "But the boys don't always know they're doing Attract."
"You're telling me," Cilan grumbles a bit, but there's a smile on his face that puts Ash at ease.
"So, are you in love with anyone now?" Cilan seems surprised at first, then gives Ash a long look.
"I don't know," he says finally. "I guess I haven't really thought about it." Cilan seems to be telling the truth, but that doesn't seem to fit with everything Ash has been hearing.
"Those guys..." Ash begins, and he sees Cilan tense. When he looks down at his own hands, he can see that they're clenched, and it takes a bit of work for Ash to make them look relaxed again. "They said you wanted me..." They didn't say what for, exactly, but all their descriptive talk was enough. It hurts, imagining Cilan doing those things to him, or even wanting to do those things to him. "They said you were thinking about... that you were gonna..." Ash shuts up suddenly, because it's too much again. This is something he doesn't want, something that's far to big for him to handle, and Cilan looks pained.
"I don't..." Cilan looks miserable, and it strikes Ash that this thing might be too big for Cilan as well.
"I think you're wonderful." Cilan's words are spoken suddenly and with such sincerity that Ash almost falls over. "I love how you connect so easily to pokemon, and how you're always running around with a smile and how you'll do absolutely anything for someone in trouble. That's why I wanted to travel with you," Cilan concludes with a fond smile. "That's why I wanted to be friends with you." And that erases all the pain and uncertainty for Ash.
He thinks he understands. Cilan is affected by Attract attacks from other boys, and so other people made fun of him. And since Ash and Cilan are best friends, those people thought Cilan must love Ash, and made fun of them both.
The logic holds, but that's not enough to make everything right just yet. Because Ash remembered how guilty and ashamed Cilan looked, and that worries him. "It's not your fault, you know," Ash says, and he hopes that's the right thing, because he's not sure how to deal with this. He's not even sure what part of this issue he's saying isn't Cilan's fault, just that he can't see where Cilan did anything wrong.
Cilan picks at the wood table for a bit. "Before, it was just me," he says with a sigh, "But then I heard them saying all that stuff to you and I thought... I thought I'd ruined everything for you and Iris."
"Ruined what?" Ash asks, and Cilan looks morose again.
"Just... Well, love should be smiling and holding hands and kissing..." Cilan says with a blush, "Not all that..." he drops it, Ash knows what he's talking about, "I think about it sometimes, but you guys don't, and then this happened and now you have to think about it..." Ash thinks he gets it, because he'd be giving anything to have someone take a vacuum to his brain right now. "And I used to do stuff with you and just have fun, but now..." Cilan looks sick, "Now, all I think about is the stuff they said, and how you were... crying..." He whispers that last part, as if it will embarrass Ash any less.
It doesn't, but it's nice to know someone else feels the same way. Ash looks across the table, remembering how easily Cilan would sling an arm around his shoulders as they'd laugh about something, but now... now Ash pictures the same scenario and it jumps straight to the image of Cilan tearing off his unde-NO!
Ash brings his fist down on the table as he tries to banish that thought from his brain, loudly enough that Cilan jumps a bit. He backs up a bit while Ash tries to get a hold of himself before he starts crying again.
This isn't how he wants things to be.
"Maybe..." Cilan is biting his lip nervously, "Maybe it would be better if I went back home..." The words cut Ash even deeper than anything those bullies said to him.
"No!" he cries out, causing Cilan to jump for the second time. "You can't! I..." If Cilan left because of what everyone else said, it would mean Ash failed. Cilan should never feel like he can't be Ash's friend, that he's not welcome with Ash and Iris. "I'd miss you," he confesses, and Cilan looks touched.
"Thanks," he says, "But if I'm only causing trouble..." Ash thinks about this, then decides that thinking about things was where this all went wrong. He likes it better when he heard words he didn't understand, and chose not to care, because Cilan was always going to be his friend.
"You're always thinking about other people," Ash says defiantly. When Cilan was bullied, Cilan worried about Ash, and even when being accused of terrible, terrible things, Cilan was worried most about how it was affecting Ash and Iris. "Why do we think you'd stop now?" Cilan is about to protest, but then he catches up to Ash's logic and nods slowly. "Why are we acting like I care?" Ash says in a quieter voice, because when it comes down to it, he's realized he doesn't.
He doesn't care at all. If other boys use Attract on Cilan, then Ash will pull Cilan away by the ear if he gets annoying, or make Iris do it. Or maybe Ash will do nothing at all, because Cilan's been like this the whole time and Ash hasn't even noticed. And even if Cilan did fall in love with Ash and wanted to hold hands and stuff...
… Cilan is his friend, and the kind of friend who'd never do anything to push the other somewhere they didn't want to go. It wouldn't be half as creepy as that time Brock fell in love with him. Ash hopes that Cilan never falls in love with him, though, because that would be really sad.
But for now, they're best friends, and they trust each other. Why should they be bothered by stupid adult things they don't understand?
It takes a lot of talking, and a lot of forgetting, before things are back to normal.
But when Cilan throws his arm around Ash and laughs, all Ash thinks about is how silly Iris looks with a Joltik in her hair.
And when he catches Cilan looking at him later in the evening, he just smiles back. Because he knows, and Cilan knows, that if they have something they need to tell the other, they can say it.
And if they choose to keep it to themselves, then that's okay, too.
The next time Ash hears it, he knows what it means.
He still doesn't think it makes any sense.
So he tells the person to be quiet, grabs Cilan's arm with one hand and Iris' with the other, and marches the three of them off to somewhere nicer.
As long as the three of them can smile innocently together, Ash doesn't need to understand anything else.