Disclaimer: Pokémon is a registered trademark of somebody else.
Author's Notes: Here's to ten years of English-language Pokémon games.
He didn't know where he'd come to himself, but it didn't really matter anyway. He had no intention of staying, whether it was the heights of Indigo Plateau or the depths of Seafoam's caverns. The whole world—more than the world—was open to him, but there was only one place he wanted to go.
When he opened his eyes, it was to a faultless blue sky, air that was neither too hot nor too cold. Cobblestones, the murmur of water in the background—the boxy little building behind him. Even after so long, he knew where he was immediately: the Pokémon Center outside of Rock Tunnel, with the old Power Plant just around the bend in the stream. What he was doing there, whatever errand he'd been on, he had no idea, but it didn't matter. There would be time later, there was always time, and the world could wait.
Reaching down to his belt, he pulled off a pokeball and spent a minute turning it over in his hands. It was a little scuffed, its lustrous white underside marred by a black smudge, but there was nothing to suggest how long it had been about its work. He flicked it to the ground, relishing the hollow clunk it made as it opened—they just didn't sound like that anymore.
Fearow took shape, stretching its long neck towards the sky. The flat light shone off brown plumage, still not a feather out of place. He reached out to bury his fingers in the bird's tan ruff, smiling at its glare and then leaning over to whisper the name in its ear. As ever, there was only the sparest of moments for him to climb aboard before it was off into the sky that had never known cloud.
"Oh!" She looked up from her cup of coffee, face paling as her eyes settled on him. That expression of blank, uncomprehending shock hurt him, but it was gone in an instant. Then she was up and out of the chair, rushing over to hug him. "Why didn't you tell me you were coming?" She pulled back, looked him up and down. "Still the same as ever, I see."
He nodded. She looked too similar, though; same smile, same voice, same bustle about the kitchen as she threw together a sandwich. Perhaps she was a little shorter than before—but then, everything in this place seemed to be shrinking.
"Here you go, sweetie. You're lucky I still had some leftover ham in the fridge. You know I don't eat ham." The sandwich was almost too much. How long had it been since there was someone who would cut the crusts off his bread?
He sat down to eat and tried to work out how long it had been. No more than a couple of months, maybe only a week or so. He glanced at the newspaper she had been reading, but the date on it meant nothing to him. The problem with these sorts of things was that when you didn't know what day it was, you couldn't find out how long you'd been gone with something as empty as a calendar.
She chattered while he chewed—slowly. Everything here seemed a little slow, just a little more difficult than it had to be. Even the clock above the TV had stopped, if it had ever worked at all. That was another problem. If a clock stopped, you couldn't tell how long it had been waiting to start counting again.
"…just talking to Professor Oak the other day, you know. He was saying to me, 'Now, that son of yours, what's he up to? I gave him that pokédex how long ago, and he still hasn't filled it up! Just twenty more to go, you tell him that, and there's no excuse for him not to find them!' I think you should see him, dear. He gets lonely sometimes, working in that lab of his all day. Without his grandson around, there's only his aides to talk to, and most of them aren't very personable, you know."
He nodded and kept his eyes on the half-eaten sandwich, trying to hide the sadness in his smile. It would be lonely, yes, living in this postage-stamp town, waiting for a day that would never come. It took his mother a moment to recognize the melancholy of the silence, his unwillingness to raise his eyes, but she let the rest of the meal pass in silence, sipping her coffee and studying him until he was done. "I've kept your room clean for you. It's just how you left it," she said as the last bite disappeared. After a moment more of silence, she added, "You will stay and rest a while, won't you?"
"Of course, Mom." That was the reason he had come.
As promised, everything was as he remembered, not even a speck of extra dust to commemorate the years (months, weeks?) he'd been away. The bed, neatly made up in bright red sheets with charmander on them, looked inviting, but for the moment he was far more interested in the computer on the opposite side of the room. It sputtered and ground noisily as it powered up, a far cry from the quiet, purring models he'd grown accustomed to, but it still worked.
He opened up his storage folder, eyes tracing row upon row of rare and exotic items, items from all over the world he'd collected on his travels. The EXP share, the card key, a couple of TM's—these were not what made him pause.
It was still there, right at the top of the list: a single potion fresh and waiting, waiting for the day he set out to make the world his.
He hadn't been able to face the professor. He could picture the lab clearly enough, anyway; the gray-haired man poring over instruments beside a long, impeccably clean lab table, ghost-coated assistants drifting about in the background. How could he explain to the professor why the pokédex would never be complete, why the man would always be waiting, like that forlorn little poké ball, the unwanted one left out on the table? That was the worst of it, he thought. The poke ball. It would be like dying in your sleep, wouldn't it—to be closed away one day, put into a quiet hibernation, with the understanding that you would one day be released. To pass the years never dying, never living, never realizing that you had ceased to be at all—was there anything more horrible?
He ran a hand over the slick shell beneath him, letting the reassuring cold sting of the spray whipping at his face and arms remind him that he was alive. The ocean stretched on ahead, peppered with the bobbing heads of swimmers arranged in neat patterns around great floating piers, but he'd defeated all these long ago. It was only the tentacool that still challenged his rule, appearing before Hydros' snout for a helping of skull bash to send them to the oblivion of the depths. He toyed with the idea of catching one, reaching into his pack where he knew the master balls were, but in the end thought better of it. He hadn't come here to prolong what had already died. This visit was his eulogy.
Cinnabar Island's Pokémon Center had a PC like all the others, and this time he was browsing through the pokémon he had in the storage, flipping through box after box and drinking in the memories. By now, the significance of many of the names eluded him, but there were a few that leaped out at him, calling up images and sounds and smells of days long gone past. Stinger the beedrill, his fast friend and companion in the early times. Starry the clefairy, found hiding in the dark depths after hours and hours of careful search. Freaky the hypno, whose crooked gaze had driven off legions of Rockets.
Between such prestigious names, however, he caught sight of something else. CUBONE, tucked away in box ten at the very end of the list. He brought the data up onscreen. It looked like it was fresh; certainly he hadn't bothered to nickname it. There were no memories attached to this one; it had been straight from battle to the PC, and it hadn't even been healed. It had been in here for a long time, clinging to its last scrap of consciousness. He withdrew it and took it to the ever-smiling nurse behind the counter, and in seconds wounds that had lingered for years were made to vanish.
The region spread out beneath him, narrow little and fences bordering perfectly straight roads cutting a checkerboard map into the landscape. He remembered the first time he'd gotten to fly, just after presenting the weird box to Feathers. Ever since that day, the fearow had carried him without complaint. Things were different now, of course. Everything was different. Then, he had wondered what was lying beyond the Plateau, far off in the empty mountains. Then, he had wondered where the S. S. Anne went when it left Vermillion's port. Now he knew all these things and more, and his mind was lost in what had been rather than in what could be.
He almost laughed at the expression on the Safari Zone attendant's face as he peeled hundred-Yen bills off the thick wad of cash he'd pulled out of his pocket. The man had probably never seen so much money in his life, nor was he likely to see it again. It was funny how people didn't recognize the Champion when he came strolling through town.
The sight of the Safari Zone sobered him up, though. Not his favorite place, that was for sure, but now that he wasn't combing the grass in search of a tauros he could appreciate it a little more. Before, he'd been too busy chucking rocks at the wildlife to really appreciate what sort of wild this was.
A very scripted one, that was for sure. The dense grass was kept in discreet patches, the shorter stuff surrounding it recently mowed, if the smell of bleeding vegetation hanging in the stagnant air was anything to go by. The trees were dense but regularly spaced; the ponds had filters at their bottoms and, occasionally, cleaning equipment near their edge, ill-disguised by a clearly plastic rock or stump.
Still, it didn't really matter. This was a peaceful place, and in truth, wasn't one spot as real as any other? He walked along, enjoying the rustle of his stained sneakers through grass and the occasional shock as a pokémon darted across his path or let out a cry of challenge, breaking into his reverie. He skirted them with no more than a smile and walked deeper, walked until it felt right to stop.
It was a remote place, near the back of the reserve but not quite in sight of the last major fence. There was water nearby, deep and cold and stocked with dratini. Kangaskhan roamed here in the open fields, and perhaps that was why he had chosen this spot. The motherly pokémon might just be willing to take in a little orphan.
CUBONE blinked around at the sunlit world it knew nothing of, having been closed for all its life in the musty tower of Lavender and then in a PC storage box. Its watering eyes settled on his face and it tensed a little, recognizing the one who had captured it. At first it pulled away from the outstretched hand and the smile, but after a little coaxing it allowed itself to be touched.
He knelt beside CUBONE for several minutes, stroking the creature's back and rubbing its bone helmet as if for good luck. The little pokémon let its bone droop to the ground, leaning into his hand and letting out a low, steady purr. He wished that he could stay there all day, just like that, with the perfect sun warming his back and the pokémon's pebbly skin beneath his fingers. It was the way of things that everything must end, though.
It was funny. He had more than five other cubone, one of which was even an oddly-colored one, leathery skin an olive color rather than the usual brown. He had more than one of each of the singular legends that ruled over this land. He had pokémon from all over the world and even beyond this world—a pikachu from Spain, a skarmory from Brazil. He had honed fighters and rarities to make the most obsessive collectors drool. But he also had this. It was just CUBONE, nothing more. Forgotten in a PC like it had been forgotten in the shadowy halls of Lavender's tower, weeping for the loss of the only one who had ever loved it.
Leaning closer, he murmured to CUBONE in a low voice. "You're free now. I'm not your master any longer." The pokémon stopped purring, looking up at him with blank eyes. He did his best to smile, then nudged CUBONE towards the deeper grass. "Go on. It's time for you to go and find your mother." CUBONE kept watching, eyes now glistening with unshed tears, as he stood and started to leave, long shadow cast before him over the grass. When he got some distance away and turned to look back, though, the pokémon had vanished.
He considered sending them out, talking with them, enjoying their company once again. His fingers knew the contours of each scratched, dented poké ball as he ran his hand across his belt. Lazy, who never wanted to do anything but eat and sleep and then do both again, but who would battle excessively for the privilege of doing so. Flames, whom his cousin told him looked like a chicken on fire but whom he thought was beautiful. Psych, the newest but by far the most powerful, once a rampaging creature full of hate but now turned docile and complacent by the power of his gym badges. Feathers, vain and haughty and forever needing to be loved. And, of course, Hydros—Hydros, the very first, the irreplaceable, the origin of it all.
He considered letting them out, but then didn't. What could he say to them? He could release them, perhaps, but wasn't that only another kind of oblivion in this place? They hadn't felt the years roll past, wouldn't understand what had happened. And, more selfishly, he knew that it could never be the same. He had others now, others that could tear these to shreds, fling all their pride back in their faces, leave them broken in body and spirit with barely an exertion of effort. What could he say to them—that he'd moved on, found new worlds, found more powerful partners—but that they could still never be replaced? Could they even believe that the weight of time still cast them in a warm light, inviolate and precious in ways that the others were not?
Better to let them rest forever in their deathless sleep, dreaming, maybe, of their finest battles, of the wondrous places they'd seen, from the depths of Victory Road to the vastness of the ocean. Maybe they even dreamed of him. He hoped so. Yes, let them have their dreams, forever perfect, the very way that he no longer could. He couldn't go back to the past, but they never had to come forward into the future.
Pulling the handful of balls off his belt, he stuffed them into a pocket and stood there for a couple of minutes, hand over the comforting bulge of memory slowly growing warm from proximity to his body. Then he closed his eyes and let himself drift again.
The sting of wind and ice buffeted him as soon as he found himself again. He had to squint his eyes against the glittering white blankness, and the roar of the winds was so absolute that it became its own kind of silence, washing out all other sounds in one constant, heedless rushing.
For a moment he didn't remember what he'd been doing or why he was here. Then his hand went to his pocket, too fast, too eagerly. Empty.
That was all right. Everything had its time. And still, he had to smile, turning himself so that the wind wasn't in his face and setting out through the snow. He held them in his mind's eye, those five poké balls, waiting, just waiting, to someday be opened to release a past he'd thought lost forever.