Ash wasn't an idiot. He knew how much two plus two was (ahem...four), he knew what type of animal a dolphin was (a...mammal?), and he knew how to rub his stomach while patting his head—and without cheating, at that. He could recite a passage of Hamlet from memory ("To be or not to be: that is the question!"), and he could even type out a few words on a keyboard without looking down. He wasn't the smartest kid on the block (that was Gary), but he wasn't the fool he was made out to be.
When his mother told him he was to go to a "special school" for kids like him, he knew immediately that the results of that IQ test had come in. And while he tried to cover for himself and say it had been a bad day when he took the test, his mother would not under any circumstances tell him how low he'd scored. All she let slip was that the score was dictating where he would go to high school after the summer.
For once in his life, Ash Ketchum was afraid for himself.
The uniform came in a week later.
Ash was mortified. The package included a tie (which he couldn't tie), a blazer (which made him look like a nerd), two dress shirts with buttons (he had a hard time with buttons), and two black dress pants, all of which were a size too big for him. When he put it on for his mother, he could see from a mirror that he looked very, very stupid. It reminded him of when he was small and dressed up to look older.
Of course, his mother absolutely loved it. "You look so much like your father," she would say whenever he complained. When he pointed out how Dad had never looked like a thirteen-year-old in an over-sized school uniform, she would say, touching a cheek with her hand, "Well, he wasn't that impressive to look at until he turned seventeen." And Ash would have nothing to say, because that was as far, he knew, as his mom would talk about him.
In any case, despite his reluctance to wear such fancy, useless clothes, his mother forced him to wear it during the ritual "visiting the neighbors" routine that a small town like Pallet encouraged. Their neighbors, the Oaks, were high-class, upstanding citizens. As he and his single mother were rather poor and lower on the scale, they had to dress up as fancy as they could. His new uniform was currently the best thing he had in his closet.
Gary, unsurprisingly, teased him about it when Mrs. Ketchum and Gary's mother, grandmother, and grandfather took to the living room to have tea and finger sandwiches.
"What's with the clothes?" asked Gary with a grin. "Trying to look stupider?"
Ash crossed his arms. "They're my new uniform. Mom made me wear them."
Gary gave him a once-over and laughed. "Your jacket's inside out."
"No, it's not!" said Ash indignantly. "It's supposed to be like this!"
Gary smirked, shrugged, and went to his computer. They were in his room; after some small talk with Grandpa Oak and his family, the two boys had been sent off to do something that wouldn't disturb the adults. While Ash loathed Gary at times, he knew that his room was the jackpot for entertaining, high-tech stuff—all expensive, of course. He had a laptop, a computer for his desk, several hand-held consoles, several home consoles, two cameras, a whole chemistry set, and a virtual gaming helmet; the overall cost had to be over fifteen-hundred dollars and counting.
Ash followed him, watching as Gary booted up his desktop and went online, typing something called "Pokemon" into a search engine.
"What's that?" asked Ash, suddenly curious, pointing at the monitor. "Is that the name of a band or something?"
Gary snorted. "No, Ashy-boy, it's not."
"How was I supposed to know?" Ash growled.
"By waiting for me to tell you," said Gary, smirking. "But I don't think I will now."
Ashy-boy was the nickname Gary used whenever he thought Ash was being stupid, either accidentally or on purpose. At the age of four, Ash (or rather, Ashton) had picked up some cinders from the Oak fireplace during one visit. "What's this?" he'd asked Gary. "Candy," Gary'd replied, and with that confirmation, in front of his mother and Gary's grandparents, he'd swallowed down the whole handful. While he was coughing up the foul-tasting dirt, Gary had fallen to the floor, clutching his stomach from laughter, shrieking, "Ashy-boy! Ashy-boy!" From then on, Ashton had been Ash.
"I don't know...." Gary pretended to rub his chin thoughtfully. "You aren't mature enough, I think. Maybe when you get some hair on your chin...."
"You don't have any either!" Ash pointed at Gary's own smooth chin.
"But I'm older than you, so I know I'm mature enough." That was true—Gary was older by three months, and taller by four inches. He'd used those two facts to rule over Ash throughout their childhood.
"C'mon, Gary, you're only older because you were impatient in your mom's stomach. C'mon, just tell me what 'Pokemon' is!"
Gary rolled his eyes at Ash's method of persuasion, but nevertheless scooted himself to the side so Ash could see the whole monitor as well. On the screen was a picture of a small device, one that was shaped like a ball. It was red on top and white on the bottom, and dividing the two colors cleanly in half was a black line. Sitting smack-dab in the middle of the device was a screen, and underneath it were three white buttons.
"That's a Pokemon?" asked Ash.
Gary swatted his hand at Ash's face. "No, you idiot, it's called a Poke Ball, and that's what you hold a Pokemon in. It holds one Pokemon each, and you can use it to interact with them."
"Oh," said Ash, frowning. "Okay, but what's a Pokemon then?"
He sighed. "You're a dumbass, honestly."
"Well, then you're a—a dumbass teacher!"
Gary pushed him to the side. "Move over. I need to reach the keyboard." He typed "Pokemon" into the search engine again, and the first result that came up was a video article. They watched as a pretty blonde woman stood outside a store with a microphone in hand. A long line that seemed to stretch on forever came from the door of the store.
"It appears Pokemon fever has reached an insane degree now with the new Poke Ball device out in stores," said the reporter. "Released only a few days ago, the Poke Ball is able to connect to the main Pokemon site. The head designer of the Poke Ball has said that its accessibility and its light-weight design will be perfect for those who have no time to take care of their Pokemon stuck in the computer.
"Pokemon, virtual monsters that you can buy and play with on the web, have become the It product of Kanto. From high-tech robots to furry little rabbits, Pokemon appeals to every type of person imaginable. Now, with an affordable, portable device, will Pokemon's popularity escalate to new heights?"
There were several people, a couple of adults and a few kids, who were standing around the reporter, smiling and waving at the camera. At the reporter's urging, they shouted, "Yes!" and raised up all their own Poke Balls at the camera.
The reporter smiled. "By this crowd's answer, only a nuclear war may threaten Pokemon's popularity. Until next time, I'm Gabby Roxanne reporting from Silph Co., Saffron. Back to Oli."
Gary turned to Ash. "You figured it out now, Ashy-boy?"
Ash furrowed his eyebrows. "Not really."
"Hey! I just didn't get what she meant with the 'robots and rabbits' thing."
Gary sighed and muttered, "How you even got into school is a mystery to me."
Before Ash could protest, Gary typed in something, punched it in, and from out of nowhere came a pop-up screen. On the screen was a furry fox-like thing, brown everywhere except its neck, where there was a white muzzle that would put Santa Claus to shame.
"What's that?" asked Ash.
"A Pokemon," replied Gary in an exasperated voice. "Mine. It's an Eevee."
Without anymore provocation, Ash shoved his face closer to the screen, shouting, "Gary, look at it! It's sorta cute, but it's not, it looks like your terrier and its ears are really weird, and it looks so real—" Ash turned to Gary, grinning. "It's like it's breathing."
Gary seemed amused by Ash's reaction. "Well, duh. It's supposed to look real. That's how the company that makes them gets money. People are suckers for cute."
"I can see why, I mean, look at it, its eyes are huge and brown and its nose looks like it's twitching and wet and it's blinking and scratching itself behind the head—" His words were so quick that Gary could barely register them.
"Yeah, I get that you like it. Now get off." He pushed Ash off him; while trying to get a closer look at the Eevee, Ash had almost completely taken over the chair, forcing Gary closer to the floor. "Your ten minutes are up. My Pokemon, my rules."
Ash, eager to see the many processes of maintaining a Pokemon, stood beside Gary's chair obediently as he was shown how to brush an Eevee's coat (with circular strokes on the brown fur, but downwards with the white), how to feed it (either buying some Pokemon food from the online store, or learning how to hunt using a minigame on the arcade), and how to teach it tricks, like sitting down, or rolling over, or getting it to give its paw for a treat.
But most importantly, there was learning how to battle. After all, as Gary explained, how else was a trainer (someone who owned a Pokemon, Ashy-boy) to get money for food? Sure, there were contests and musicals and smaller minigames to try your luck in, but really, the only way to get any notoriety was to defeat anyone you could fight, get half their money, and invest your earnings in battle items (like vitamins and equipment) and battle some more. There were tournaments, whether official or fan-made, that could be won, and the winner usually got a new, rare Pokemon and tons of money. The more well-known you were, the more people would donate Poke-Dollars (the virtual currency) to you and your Pokemon.
"How do you battle?" asked Ash, enthralled. "Is it like those fighting games?"
"Yeah," replied Gary, who seemed to thrive on all the attention he was getting, "but much cooler. Instead of having to press all those buttons just to get one thing to happen, you teach your Pokemon how to use these natural powers they have called 'moves,' and then they use things like fire and water and electricity and ESP and use it all against other Pokemon. The greatest thing about these battles is that it's all hands-off—it's all up to how well you raised your Pokemon and how much effort you put into it."
"Wow," Ash breathed. He sank to the floor, his hands shaking. "I really want a Pokemon now."
Gary peered down at Ash. "You know, it's free. To get a Pokemon, I mean. Well, not really, you've got to pay a dollar to sign up as a trainer on the site, but that isn't too much. But you need one of the newer touchscreen computers to do anything."
Like that, Ash was up in a flash. "Only a dollar?" he nearly screamed. "I can pay that! We've got a older model, but it's still a touchscreen—and—and—I can get any Pokemon I want?" he asked, rounding on Gary.
"Not any," corrected Gary. "What I meant to say was, signing up is only a dollar, but getting a Pokemon like an Eevee costs around, what...three thousand Poke-Dollars? I got my Eevee from raising up a good team and winning a few tournaments." His chest visibly swelled. "I got a thousand just with my Pidgeot alone."
"Oh, okay," said Ash, his enthusiasm returning. "Then what Pokemon can I get?"
"It depends on where you log in. Silph Co. lined up the Pokemon world with our own, so that what you can catch depends on where you live. I don't know, I think you can catch a Nidoran or something." Obviously feeling generous from being considered a veteran, Gary looked it up on the Pokemon site map. "From around Pallet, you can catch some Pidgey and Rattata, maybe a Mankey if you can somehow get a little closer to Viridian."
"Are they good?"
"Well, they aren't horrible," said Gary with a sniff. "They can always evolve, and like I said before, my Pidgeot was awesome wi—"
"Wait," interrupted Ash, puzzled. "What's 'evolving'?"
Gary sighed and put a hand on Ash's shoulder. "Ash, Ash, Ash," he tutted. "You have much to learn."
The thoughts and ideas and plans and concepts were numerous and invading, lodging themselves deep into Ash's head as he absorbed knowledge from Gary. His embarrassment over his uniform and new school forgotten, he learned of the whole map of the virtual Pokemon world and how to travel it; with Eevee as a living example, he learned how to care for a Pokemon and how to teach them how to battle; under Gary's guidance, he learned of type charts, the way moves worked, and how to intimidate the opponent using psychological manipulation (a skill that Gary considered essential).
And somehow, to Ash, these things made more sense than all his arithemetic, language and history classes combined. How to time an attack just right, how to capture a wild Pokemon without any screw-ups, how to manipulate your voice in the microphone to tell a Pokemon what you meant when you said, "Use that rock!"...It all seemed more fascinating than anything he'd ever experienced. Why hadn't he learned of it before?
"Because you're an idiot from a small farming town," replied Gary when Ash explained all this to him. "And you're out of touch with machines. You used to run around and climb trees instead of doing your tech homework when we were in grammar school."
"Well, I never thought I'd need to," Ash snapped back.
Soon, Ash had a habit of visiting Gary even on non-visit days. Once he finished small talk with Grandpa Oak, he would head up into Gary's room to see if he needed to learn anything else about Pokemon. He usually would, as Gary did not want him to, as he said, "Screw up your first Pokemon before you even get it." They studied meticulously the strategies and tactics of current tournament winners, whether they were from the official curcuit or fan-made ones, and they followed the Official Pokemon Magazine religiously.
Sometimes, after a particularly hard quiz from a Pokemon magazine Ash failed, he and Gary would go outside with Gary's new Poke Ball that had come in the mail and use it to capture new Pokemon. Because it was portable, the Poke Ball allowed them to run around with Eevee and Gary's other Pokemon without the usual restrictions present on the desktop. This would occupy them for hours on end.
The summer came and went in those few months. More new devices were released for the Pokemon series: the Pokedex, the PokeGear, the PokeNav, the Poketch (which Gary was particularly fond of), and other things that had the prefix of "Poke." They looked up cheat codes for the more profitable minigames, and even once, despite Ash's inital ambivalence, they entered a contest they'd spent weeks washing and cleaning Eevee's coat for. They hadn't won, but the two were intrigued by the format and even brought up a Vulpix Gary had bought specifically for contests.
It was an awesome summer, in Ash's opinion, one that he would miss once he went to that "special school" his mother had enrolled him in. He convinced Gary to look up the school on the web, to check what it was like—but all they knew was that it was a school up in Saffron City, that its average student population was at least two hundred per grade, and that it was a boarding school, and a renowned one at that.
That tingling feeling Ash had felt before crept down his spine when he read that it was school meant for a "certain type of student." He wondered what type he was to be admitted there.
However, he easily forgot his fears when Gary declared that he was ready for his first Pokemon.
The routine had been normal enough that day, exactly a week before his send-off to Saffron. He went over to the Oak residence, rang the bell, waited for a moment, went up the stairs, talked to Grandpa Oak, and finally came to Gary's room. Like normal, Gary was lying on his bed perusing the latest edition of a Pokemon fanzine, knocking his knees together absent-mindedly. Ash knocked on the door like usual, and Gary looked up, like usual.
But Gary's expression was anything but normal.
"It's time," he said with a solemn face, laying the magazine on the bed. He stood up. "It's time."
"What do you mean?" asked Ash, furrowing his eyebrows.
"It's time," he repeated, but then added, "It's time for...it. For that."
Ash blinked. "What?"
Gary, breaking his sagely expression, rolled his eyes and shook his head. "Honestly, when I'm trying to play up the moment you just kill it. Idiot. Anyway," he said, regaining his composure, "you've finished your training with me. You're ready."
Immediately comprehension filled Ash's face, and he let loose a radiant grin. "You think?"
"I know. I know." He pulled Ash to the computer and sat him down on the chair. "It's time for you to begin. You got the money?"
"Well, I've got a few coins and some lint in my pocket—"
"You've got a full dollar's worth?"
"Hand it here. I'll take your money, and I'll give up my own dollar."
Ash produced his coins; Gary swiped them from his hands, and then inserted his dollar into the desktop's money slot.
"I always wondered how those work," mused Ash.
"Don't think too hard; you might hurt yourself," Gary muttered, tapping furiously at the screen, pressing various buttons that popped up suddenly. Without warning, the sound of paper being shredded hit Ash's ears.
"Oh," he murmured.
"Okay, we did the money part, so we have to fill in the required fields, and you're done." Gary looked down at him seriously. "Don't screw this up."
Ash frowned at him, but made sure to be careful when pressing the "Male" option on the screen. Once that was done, the next option came: "What is your birthday?" He put it down. Then came another question: "What is your e-mail address?" He put that one down, too. Finally, it said, "Please hold still as we take a registration photo."
"Wait, what?" asked Ash in alarm. "What are they talking abou—"
There was a snapping sound, and when Ash could see clearly, there was his face, his eyes wide and his jaw hanging open mid-word, sitting on the screen.
"Oops. Forgot to tell you about that," said Gary nonchalantly. "They take photos for just-in-case situations. Nothing too bad."
"But why didn't you tell me—!"
"Because you look nice and stupid in that photo," said Gary with a snicker. He pointed at the screen. "Next part."
On the screen was another command: "Please type out your full name. Nicknames accepted." Ash quickly typed in his name.
"What is your greatest strength?" it finally asked.
Ash blinked. "What does that mean? 'What's my greatest strength....'"
Gary peered over his shoulder. "Huh. Guess they added in another question. Probably had trouble with some bots or something. I don't know, just type something in."
Ash thought for a moment. What was his greatest strength? It wasn't intelligence or common sense, he was sure, and while he was an active guy, he wasn't a star athlete or anything. He was stubborn, he could say, but his mom always said stubborness depended on the person; on one person it was a strength, while on another it was a flaw. He didn't have a passion for any hobby in particular....He was determined, he guessed, but everyone, he figured, was determined in their own way.
Without thinking, his fingers typed in the word "Pokemon" and pressed Enter.
The monitor went completely black. Ash looked at Gary, who raised an eyebrow and shook his head. Whatever was happening wasn't something he had expected.
Hello. The word was slowly typed onto the screen by invisible hands.
"Holy—" Gary's curse was cut short by Ash punching him on the arm and pointing at the screen.
You are Ash Ketchum. Is this true? asked the invisible typist.
"W-Wha...?" Ash looked at Gary. "What sh-should I say?"
Gary shrugged, his eyes stuck to the screen.
Ash reluctantly pressed the Enter key. The words disappeared from the monitor. After a long, tense moment, when nothing else appeared, the two let out a sigh.
Welcome to the World of Pokemon! the screen suddenly said.
And like that, their paranoia left them. Gary even managed to laugh.
"It's just a system update to the thing," he said giddily. "It's some kinda tutorial....I thought for a second that that was...was something else." His laugh went slightly hysterical. "And here I thought—I went stupid for a second there. You rubbed off on me."
Ash tried to glare but couldn't. He was too relieved to feel angry.
But then their fears returned:
Ash Ketchum, you have been selected to test an experimental program. In time we'll have you fully informed of this ground-breaking product. Unfortunately, we can not allow you to know about the contents wholly until a later date. We apologize for the inconvenience. Thank you again for this service.
The monitor went black. Not a second after that, the screen turned a blinding white, and suddenly, sitting in Ash's lap innocently with a fresh new tint, was a Poke Ball.