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the space between a rock and a hard place

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“I never really know what's on your mind.

Is it ever me, or just someone you've left behind?”

— Alvvays

 

It was during one of their miscellaneous bunk talks—ones where Goh inevitably ends up hanging off the edge of his bed (and Ash’s words) in a manner reminiscent of a wild Mankey or ones (his favorites, might he add) where Ash occasionally journeys to the top bunk and the two converse well into the murky hours of twilight—when Goh finally mustered up the courage to probe deeper into the topic of Ash’s previous travel companions. He had heard plenty about some of Ash’s friends scattered across the world—Brock, Misty, Tracey, Cilan (too many, far too many to name, not that he was jealous or anything)—but he perpetually remained remarkably tight-lipped about most of the female companions he traveled with many moons ago. And Goh just wanted to know more about Ash’s past, that’s all, he insisted with a level glare at Ash.

“But you already know a lot about me,” Ash replied dumbly. Goh paused in his position poised slightly over the bunk railing, waited for that little glint that occasionally sparked alight in his eye when he was lying about something. Ash was never verbally obvious about those instances but Goh was the type of character to get lost in the minute details of an obsession if that’s what he was terming his affections. Never before had another living being captured his attention this rapidly like Ash has before, and he knew he was well and sincerely fucked the day he found himself changing his phone wallpapers to pictures of him and Ash smiling together, effectively erasing the years-long streak a picture of Mew had as his phone background.

“Is it bad to want to know more details about someone who is literally the champion of Alola and didn’t bother to tell me until a month into our friendship?” Goh spitefully watched his friend wince at the rising tone of his voice but he couldn’t bring himself to care. Ash displayed this open-book persona, one probably carefully crafted partly from time spent in regions far different from Kanto and partly out of the genuine kindness of his heart, but Goh still felt as though he was solely allowed to skim the surface, not permitted to delve any deeper for reasons unknown to him. Ash tilted his head back, moonlight from the obscured window in the center of their dormitory cascading over his sprawled out form.

Goh stared, blindsided by his sudden loss of motor control for a brief moment, blinked when he realized Ash’s saturnine eyes were trained on him. An incomprehensible expression was etched on his face, a sign that there must have been an inner conflict Goh would (again) never hear out of the other boy’s mouth. “What?” He mumbled defensively after Ash elected to remain silent for a beat too long. He pulled himself back up to the safe retreat his bunk provided, decidedly a bad idea when he jostled his sheets too roughly and earned a sleep-laden kick to the shin courtesy of Raboot.

If he had kept his mouth shut, like Chloe was forever ordering him to, he would have spared Ash from the uncomfortable atmosphere he had constructed for them. And maybe he wouldn’t have signaled the end of their late-night discussions had he said something light-hearted instead, perhaps a discussion about Professor Cerise’s recent findings on Pidgey migration. His hand snaked up to his forehead in frustration. Chloe was right— “Keep acting like a know-it-all, and when the dust dissipates, there will be nobody left but me to listen to you,” echoed Chloe from the hazy backdrop of his memory —this exact behavior was why his past friendships hence far have all shattered to smithereens. Whenever he picked up the sharp, twinkling pieces in the wake of an ex-friend’s abandonment, he was unfailingly met with the isolated, distorted reflection of a frightened boy, alone with inanimate objects for company.

Goh’s chaotic, self-deprecating line of thoughts screeched to a grinding halt at the unexpected appearance of his companion peeking a cautious head up from the ladder connecting their bunk beds together.

“Hey,” said Ash timidly. “I—“ A sheepish grin Goh was more accustomed to seeing in lieu of the tight frown that Ash had sported thus far lit up his friend’s features as Ash hoisted himself up into Goh’s crowded bunk space. Raboot cracked a suspicious eye open, huffing like the teenager it had evolved into, and promptly hopped down to Ash’s bed where Pikachu miraculously was still sleeping. He didn’t look threatening by any means but the knot that had been tying itself steadily in Goh’s stomach increased tenfold with every inch Ash crawled closer to him.

Ash parked himself in front of the other boy, crossed knees establishing the barest contact with Goh’s. A long exhale, a rush of blood; Goh balled his fists on either side of him and counted to ten mentally. One, two, three, four—.

“I’m sorry I waited so long to tell you about Alola,” said Ash. He resembled a Magikarp in the vicinity of a Gyarados, flighty with nerves and unsung fears but he pressed onward. “I didn’t want you to treat me differently.“ Ash took one of Goh’s hands.

“I never did.”

A flicker of worn desperation eclipsed Ash’s usual smiling face—gone in a flash as if Goh had imagined the entire scene. The moon continued to shine in brilliant greyish-white, the earth shuffled along in its trajectory orbiting the sun, and the soft, steady breathing punctuated each moment of silence that dared to intrude upon the private moment the two boys shared amongst themselves.

“Yeah, you deserve more credit than that, bud,”—Downcast eyes drooped downward with the weight of the world, contrasted by the tension that seeped into the creases of Ash’s pajama shirt—“I’m sorry, if you really want to meet some of my friends, I can text them.”

By all means, that should have been the answer Goh was seeking. Hadn’t he wanted to know Ash inside and out like the back of his hand, two peas in a pod? He distantly wondered if any of Ash’s other travel buddies were cognizant at this hour, practically every night. If—the thought came to him a tad selfishly—he was the only person Ash deemed important enough to waste the days and nights away with, alone. Then again, compared to so many brilliant people that lit up Ash’s life in the past, he could very well be but a minuscule blip on the horizon of Ash’s journey, a simple flare of light miles away that would be spared a passing glance but ultimately shoved aside in favor of newer, more pressing matters.

“You don’t have to text them, I just want to hear more about them. I mean, you’ve been all over the place and met so many people but you barely tell me about anyone or anything important from your past,” Goh scratched his head in embarrassment and chose to focus on a dark patch of shadows near the corner of the room. “Makes me feel like I don’t know you at all sometimes.”

“Well… I’m sorry for treating you that way. I think you’re one of the best friends I’ve had in a long time!” Ash grinned, hand giving Goh’s own a reassuring squeeze. “Hm… did I ever mention May?”

“No, who’s that?”

Ash beamed to himself, a distant look clouded over his eyes. Goh let out a tiny sigh— he really disliked the fond expression reserved on Ash’s face for someone that wasn’t him. Although, it was his fault for submerging both of them into this mess anyway. He propped a hand up underneath his chin, hunched over closer towards Ash’s body as he recounted the tale of first meeting May and her obnoxious little brother, and subsequently gave a rundown on her dreams as a coordinator. Always the animated boy, Goh’s eyes lazily followed the erratic gestures Ash made; Every dramatic pause and over-excited jolt of Ash’s flailing arms incited a warm feeling in his chest and a gracious smile stayed firmly in place.

He was content to sit like that for as long as Ash allowed them to. He made sure he nodded along at appropriate times, laughing whenever Ash ventured off into another tangent about the many, many shenanigans he and his past partners had been a part of. Time seemed to pass leisurely in Goh’s opinion yet remained unyielding as the steady tick of the clock mounted on the wall indicated so. Once Ash had started, there was no stop in sight as he verbally took Goh on a journey spanning each region he had explored thus far, giving a plethora of minor details about the girls in his life that Goh had been seeking from the beginning of tonight’s talk.

After Ash made it through his retelling of his farewell to Iris,—“she always called me a little kid but I knew she meant well,” stated Ash, tears nestled in the outer edges of his eyes—he snapped his mouth closed for the first time in what had to have been an hour. Goh paused too, a stray hangnail he was picking at left forgotten as he glanced up, only to detect that a downtrodden expression marred Ash’s face, hand clenched around a fistful of Goh’s comforter.

He cleared his throat after it was obvious that Ash was in a ceaseless rut. “Uh, where—where’d you go next? Kalos, right?” He asked cautiously, wary of Ash’s next move.

“Yeah.” Deep breath sucked in all too sharply, then released. “I’m sorry, I’ve told you about everyone from Kalos though, huh?”

Goh racked his brain in slight panic—was it Paul who was from Kalos? No, Ash mentioned Paul’s repeated quarrels with him from when he was in Sinnoh. A brunette possibly? Or was it a blonde? “If you did, I can’t recall. But I’d be happy to hear about your Kalos friends!” He smiled apprehensively, hoping Ash wouldn’t assume he hadn’t been listening the entire time. He had! It’s just that… he was listening for more specific details about Ash’s companions if he was being honest with himself. If maybe, Ash had antecedently experienced anything complicated towards one of his friends, the same way Goh currently felt.

“Well, I mostly traveled with three other people. Clemont,”—Clemont! He was the boy Goh was scrambling to recall. He made a mental note to commit that name to memory—“Bonnie, and Serena.” Goh was reminded of the boisterous video call he walked in on a few weeks ago, of Ash wiping away tears of laughter and shouting the names of two blondes that screamed at something vaguely explosion-sounding. Clemont and Bonnie—they must have been related.

“Oh man, Clemont was so much fun to hang out with! He always made these cool science machine thingies—“

“Who is Serena?” Goh interjected. He regretted saying anything the second he watched Ash’s demeanor shift into a more protective, foreboding aura. Malaise washed over him again, what happened with this girl? Why were they both so tense all of a sudden? There were so many questions Goh wanted to articulate, but he knew when to poke and prod Ash and when to simply let him be—Ash would tell him, he trusted in his gut instinct.

“A childhood friend, at least according to her. I didn’t remember her at all when I first met her even though she gave me back a handkerchief she said belonged to me. Honestly, I didn’t recognize the handkerchief either but deep down… I think I remembered who she was. Or like, I had the sense that I did? She was… really great,” His voice sounded awry to Goh’s ears—melancholy didn’t suit Ash Ketchum as it turned out. Goh swallowed a pinprick of hurt down; It was clear as day that Ash cared a great deal about her.

A terse silence befell them. Ash was busy studying Goh’s comforter like it held the answers to all the world’s secrets while Goh floundered for something, anything to reply. Comfort (and social cues for that matter) was never his biggest forte but even he was aware that he should be diffusing the situation. Despite his mute pleas, words were failing at the moment and after heavy deliberation, Goh slowly wrapped tentative arms around the other boy, intending to convey that he was here for him if nothing else. He was also secretly praying Ash would kickstart their conversation again as Goh genuinely had no clue what to say without inadvertently hurting him.

His prayers were answered when Ash eagerly deepened the hug, burrowing his face into Goh’s shoulder. He was suddenly overwhelmingly grateful that their room was tinted with midnight shadows, he wouldn’t have any explanations as to why his cheeks positively burned when he was in close proximity to Ash. Sighing, Goh gently moved backward while mentally screaming at his body to get him under control, but Ash only tightened his grip around Goh’s waist. He can’t recall a time when his pulse thundered this broadly in his chest.

“Serena was—is a really good friend of mine. I had a ton of fun with her there too.” Ash spoke languidly into Goh’s shoulder, a stark contrast to the nervous tone that laced his earlier description of her. Goh listened with widened eyes, hands trembling where they were still circled loosely around Ash’s torso. If the other boy noticed that he was struggling to get his breathing and heartbeat under control, he kindly didn’t bring up the matter. “And I want to tell you more about her but every time I see a picture of her or hear her name, just anything in general that’s related to her, I remember when she said goodbye to me.”

Another nerve-wracking pause. Forget regulated breathing, Goh shifted roughly instead to position his entire head over Ash’s right shoulder, peering blankly at the ladder near the edge of the bed. He was seriously regretting harping on Ash about his friends. Of course, he knew that he wasn’t the center of Ash’s universe like Ash seemed to be for him but the way he was talking about this Serena girl left an acerbic taste in his mouth.

“Y’know, she was my first kiss,” stated Ash as plainly as he would announce the weather. Goh’s entire body jerked; Of anything Ash could have said, that was wholeheartedly out of left field. His brain kicked into overdrive, his lips the only closed gate to the flood of questions that wanted to commence pouring out of him. All he was capable of doing was stewing in numb silence while two innocent little words ‘first kiss first kiss first kiss first kiss ricocheted painfully around his skull—“Goh? Hey, you’re squeezing a bit too hard buddy,” Ash wheezed out.

“W-what?” Goh gasped harshly. He managed to untangle himself from Ash faster than the speed of light, blood pounding in his ears. The reality of what Ash just said hit him with the unstable force of a tornado and he knew, he knew, he knew he didn’t stand a chance —and still, he could only gape at him in wounded stillness. “What?” He repeated.

Ash studied him through somewhat narrowed eyes, calculating Arceus knew what as Goh blinked wildly at the same spot on the ladder he had been vacantly staring at earlier. The quiet, comfortable atmosphere of their room faded away to suffocating darkness the longer Ash gazed at him. “Everything okay?”

In, out. In, out. In, out. In, out. In, out. Nothing was quelling the all-too-familiar ache that arose in Goh’s chest. He wondered if Ash would rather have spent all the time he’s spent with Goh so far with Serena instead. If he thought about that goodbye every waking hour, if he dreamt about the day he could finally be rid of Goh and resume the rest of his life with her. His breathing quickened again, and he couldn’t stop the guilty tears that pricked his eyes. This wasn’t how friends were supposed to react. Ash was going to leave him someday, he assumed that long ago, but he hadn’t stopped to consider that Ash’s reasoning behind it was because he was going to go back to Serena. He scarcely registered Ash maneuvering him onto Ash’s lap, too lost in his deep-rooted fear of abandonment and his upsetting unrequited affections. The next action he was conscious of was when his panicked breaths eventually settled to match pace with Ash’s own tranquil breathing.

“Better? Are you okay?” Ash whispered lowly. Goh furiously swiped at his eyes, thoroughly mortified to have reacted as stupidly as he did to Ash telling him he shared his first kiss with Serena. Silent tears continued to trickle down his cheeks as he glared down at his crossed legs, far too angry with himself to take into account how softly Ash was handling him right now, rubbing soothing circles into the small of his back. “Do you want to tell me what happened?”

“No, I don’t. Serena was your first kiss.” Goh said dolefully.

“She was.”

“And… and you never told me you had a girlfriend.” He spat out, venom dripping with every word. Maybe if Goh was convincing enough, he could blame his mini-meltdown on being upset that Ash didn’t trust him enough to inform him of that fact. That was at least partially the truth.

“I don’t.”

“And you—huh?!” Goh spun himself around to the sight of Ash’s face—excessively close to his own—twisted into a confused frown. He wished he could have prepared himself for the avalanche of conflicting emotions Ash was drowning him with tonight, he didn’t believe he could ever be this emotionally stretched thin in his life.

“Are you sure you don’t want to tell me what happened?” Ash asked carefully. He placed a single palm flatly on Goh’s knee, a white flag of sorts. Goh immediately shook it off, almost missing the hurt look aimed towards him. Almost.

“No, what do you mean she’s not your girlfriend?! Who kisses a girl and then doesn’t ask her out?”

Ash fixated on him with a level, bewildered look. “Uh… she kissed me… and she texted me later that day with a confession. That she felt that way about me for a long time, and that she was extremely sad to see me go. I didn’t—and still don’t—feel the same way and she said she was happy to just be my friend.” The same melancholic tone from earlier returned, punctuating every word Ash spoke about her with acute regret. “But we’ve barely talked since then and I feel like it’s my fault? I try to text her sometimes but then I just feel guilty and when she does reply, it’s like she’s replying the same way she would to a fan. So…”

Goh exhaled in a mixture of relief and sorrow for his friend. Apparently, he had nothing to fear regarding Serena but the notion that something was amiss nonetheless permeated his senses. “I’m sorry. It’s not your fault, you can’t force yourself to like someone. We can’t choose who we love.” He’d laugh at the irony of his sentence if he wasn’t so preoccupied with cheering Ash up. He was all too happy to slide his insecurities to the back burner if it meant that he could wipe the disheartened glower that stained Ash’s features away (and if it meant that Ash would forget about Goh’s breakdown).

“You’re right.” Ash stared intensely into Goh’s eyes, honey-brown clashing with sky blue. The hairs on the back of his neck rose in tacit anticipation. Ash leaned closer, close enough to the point where Goh could count the eyelashes fanning onto his cheekbones. A mere inch separated them and if Goh had met him halfway, if he possessed an ounce of confidence, he would’ve done something he regretted. “We really can’t.”