The Dark Side of Innocence

Aftermath

.

Meowth sighed contently as he sat on the boardwalk, basking in the sun as he munched on a leg of fried chicken. Several months had passed since the incidents at Team Rocket Headquarters, and he was becoming somewhat of a celebrity in the small island town they lived near. Both humans and other Pokémon flocked to him when he accompanied Jessie, James and Mondo through the little seaside village to sell their trinkets, do their weekly shopping or stroll through the streets on nice evenings. His human associates supposed it was only natural that a talking Pokémon would attract attention, but it still amazed them all how popular Meowth had become with the local townspeople. Children rushed to greet and play with him. Other Pokémon held long conversations with him that his human companions could only half understand. The butcher and the man who ran the local seafood market both gave him free meat and fish, and the kindly old lady who ran the bakery always insisted on giving him a box of donuts to share with "his trainers". Meowth took offense to Jessie, James and Mondo being referred to as his trainers. He also took the donuts. He currently had a (mostly) full box sitting beside him.

He wasn't exactly sure how he felt about his team's decision to "go straight" for the time being. Life was considerably less dangerous, but it was also considerably less exciting. Being a natural thief the cat occasionally tried to exercise his skills, but every attempt met with failure simply because anything he wanted here was handed to him. The chicken he was currently eating had been given to him by a friendly restaurant owner who'd seen him attempting to swipe it. The man had laughed and given him a free drink to go with it. Meowth thought about the days of his youth scrounging for food on the streets of Hollywood. Back then fried chicken certainly wasn't free, and stealing a piece usually resulted in a sound beating. Dull or not, he certainly couldn't deny that their lives had changed for the better.

"Here, Meowth, I saved this for you!" a little boy of perhaps six or seven called out to him, running up and handing the cat something wrapped in a paper towel. "I hate when Mom makes this stuff!"

"Joey, where are you?" a woman's voice called in the distance, causing the boy to flinch.

"Uh-oh, gotta run!" He dashed off, leaving Meowth holding what smelled like cooked salmon. The cat grinned and shoved the smelly little bundle in the box with the donuts. Hanging around the boardwalk during dinner time always proved to be profitable.

Discarding the chicken bone that he'd picked clean, Meowth took the donut box and walked back to the cabin where he found Jessie and James working together in the yard. James was gathering roses and trimming the bushes while Jessie watered the garden and verbally encouraged the flowers to grow. Meowth shook his head, but James laughed at her bizarre, endearing behavior. She had rekindled her interest in gardening, and Meowth had to admit she had a knack for it. She had collected (with James and Mondo's help) seeds and tubers from the wild and planted them around their dwelling to enjoy. Her favorite find was the orange daylilies, and her flower of choice was now growing all around the cabin. The sunflowers were another favorite. She'd succeeded in growing several that were now taller than she was.

"Where's Mondo?" the cat asked. James pointed to the cabin, not taking his eyes off Jessie. These days it seemed he only had eyes for Jessie. Living in an environment where they didn't have to fear for their lives or obsess over stealing Pokémon to please Giovanni, Jessie and James' budding relationship flourished as the two basked in a happiness that only those young and in love could know. Meowth was of the opinion that not having to go extended periods of time without bathing was a plus, too.

"Finished talking to the flowers yet?" James inquired as Meowth entered the cabin.

"It obviously works!" she retorted, pointing to a six-foot tall sunflower. "Just LOOK at the size of that thing!"

James refrained from pointing out that tall sunflowers were hardly a phenomenon. Her excitement over it was far too endearing. The couple felt as though they'd been reborn, as young and vulnerable as they had been before Team Rocket overtook their lives. They were rediscovering themselves as well as each other as they adjusted to their new, peaceful existence together.

Mondo was miserable.

In the flower of his youth, the young former Rocket was a broken man; a shell of his former self that walked around like a zombie. He ate, he slept, he existed. He never laughed, and his rare smiles were reserved solely for his Pokémon.

Jessie, James and Meowth were all struggling to find some way to help him while at the same time adjusting to the fact that the Mondo who had left with Lana was not the same Mondo that had returned without her. When he showed any emotion whatsoever his moods shifted wildly from passive to aggressive to completely erratic. It had been that way ever since the night of his return when he'd forcefully shoved James' head out of Jessie's lap and cried into it himself as a surprised Jessie, shocked James and tired Meowth looked on. None of them would ever forget that night.

As Mondo sobbed incoherently in Jessie's lap, James gathered Meowth into his arms and carried him to the washroom. Meowth had never been more happy to have a bath in all his nine lives. He recounted to James their story as he allowed his human friend to help him to wash away Giovanni's blood. He told of Lana's grisly demise and the following days he'd spent sitting by Mondo waiting for his fever to break. He told him about the Persian he'd drugged and the plan they'd made to kill their former boss. He told him about Domino's involvement in the matter and the end result that led to him being hit on the head with a severed hand. The whole time James said nothing, shedding silent tears for his friends and for the woman who'd saved his life. Finally he wrapped the wet cat in a towel and gathered him into his arms and whispered,

"I'll never forget this. Ever. I love you, Meowth."

Mondo had calmed considerably by the time they returned, but he was still weeping. Jessie rocked him back and forth in her arms while she herself fought back tears of grief for the friend who'd died attempting to save them all.

"It'll be all right," she'd told them all, praying that she was telling the truth. "It has to be..."

Back in the present moment, Meowth found Mondo sitting inside staring blankly into space as Spoink bounced around cheerfully with Ditto, who mimicked it. Unlike their trainer, Mondo's Pokémon were quite happy in their new environment. Spoink and Ditto spent the majority of their time outside of their pokeballs and had immediately become part of the family.

The cabin that was now their home was filled with color and life. James had crafted a series of Pokémon-shaped paper lanterns that were now hanging from the ceiling. It started with a three dimensional paper Koffing he'd made on a drab, rainy afternoon when he'd been thinking of the sad day long ago when Arbok and Weezing had been left behind in the forest to protect the herds of their respective pre-evolved forms. The smiling image of Koffing cheered him up immensely, and a paper Chimecho soon followed. The day after that he encouraged his companions to join him as he crafted a Mime Jr. next. Jessie, Mondo and Meowth all seemed to find his new hobby rather silly, but they all soon gave in to his coaxing and before long a paper Woobat, a paper Spoink and a paper Meowth's head were added to the group, giving the place a colorful, homelike atmosphere when James hung them all from the ceiling. Jessie and Meowth, encouraged by his artistic flair, continued making their own colorful contributions. Two snake sculptures soon decorated the living room, one of Arbok and one of Seviper. Jessie was quite proud of her handiwork. Meowth (with Mondo's help) was in the process of creating a statue of himself in the garden out back, and Jessie had used a cheap set of watercolor paints to create a large picture of the scratch-cat sitting on top of Wobbuffet's head. James seized the watercolors next to create pictures of Victreebel, Cacnea and Carnivine each in turn while his newly-caught Weepinbell watched with interest. James claimed that he'd never been happier in his life. The Pokémon all seemed to be in agreement with him.

"Jimmy didn't even notice da donuts," Meowth said, trying to sound cheerful as he set his box down in front of Mondo. "Usually he can smell 'em a mile away. Jess really has his head in da clouds!"

Mondo said nothing.

Meowth stared at his friend, feeling slightly guilty for not bringing some chicken back for him as well. Mondo never turned down chicken, no matter how depressed he was. "Have a donut," the cat offered, opening the box. Mondo took one, thanked him politely, and continued staring into space. The powder from the donut spilled everywhere, but Mondo didn't seem to notice. Meowth sighed. Everyone was trying to reach him, but for the most part Mondo remained unresponsive during the day to everyone except Jessie- and even she couldn't do much. The beginning of their co-existence together, however, had gotten off to a rocky start...

A few days after their return, Jessie, in typical Jessie fashion, attempted to steal the pearl off Spoink's head. Mondo snatched it out of her hand, returned it to his distressed Pokémon and stormed out. James and Meowth, sensing an oncoming storm and wanting no part of the drama, decided it would be a great time to go catch some fish for dinner. Jessie's sticky fingers among her friends was a problem they'd had to deal with on numerous occasions. Having worshiped Jessie from afar, Mondo had not had regular exposure to her personality flaws and James figured if they were all going to live together Mondo would have to get used to them. Meowth, who'd also secretly had his eye on Spoink's pearl, quickly banished all thoughts of the round object from his mind. When they returned later they found Jessie and Mondo brawling on the floor like squabbling siblings. Jessie had apparently tried to take the pearl again and Spoink had used Psychic and knocked her into the wall.

"Your Pokémon attacked me!" Jessie was shouting.

"That's because you STOLE from it!"

"It was just a pearl!"

"It's SPOINK'S pearl, not yours! You're supposed to be my friend!"

"I AM your friend!"

"Then why are you trying to hurt my Pokémon?"

James and Meowth dropped the fish they were carrying and ran to break up the fight. When they managed to pull them apart the fire in Jessie died immediately, but Mondo only became more irate.

"I gave up everything for you!" he screamed, tears streaming down his face. "Everything! My friend, my innocence, my future! All so that you would be safe and happy with HIM! I have NOTHING! I'll never be the same and I can never get back what I lost for you... and you STEAL from me!"

"I... I'm sorry," she said softly, and meant it.

James released his hold on Mondo and Jessie opened her arms to him. He collapsed against her, crying.

"I'm sorry," she whispered again. "I'm so sorry..."

From then on it was a common sight to see Mondo laying in her arms or napping during the day with his head in her lap. James knew that it was his own illness that had first awakened Jessie's nurturing side, but her attentiveness to Mondo was quite different from the way she had taken care of him. She and Mondo hardly ever spoke, they seemed to communicate in some non-verbal way neither James nor Meowth could understand. They both assumed that Jessie's newly-developed "motherly" nature sprung from a combination of pity and gratitude, but in this they were mistaken.

Jessie alone sensed the oncoming storm that was brewing in Mondo's mind and she knew that her young friend was on the verge of a mental breakdown. She had physically become a sort of safe-haven for him, but she knew whatever was going on in Mondo's mind would come to a head eventually and she feared what the end result of it would be. Ironically, seeing the two of them so intimate left James more envious of Jessie than jealous of Mondo. She seemed to be the only person who could come even close to reaching him, though Meowth was making a valiant effort at night to break through the emotional barriers he erected during the day. It was the only time Mondo seemed willing to talk about what had happened and Meowth, as Mondo pointed out on their second night there, was the only one who could come close to knowing what he was going though. But no matter how many times they conversed, nothing changed. Mondo refused to believe that he didn't deserve to be utterly damned for the lives he'd taken.

"Eat your donut," Meowth told him, forcing himself to refocus on the here and now so he could help his friend do the same. They both needed to focus on the future, not the past. Mondo's eyes lost their blank, glazed-over look as he focused on the smelly powdered ball in his hand. He sniffed it.

"Why does it smell like fish?"

. . .

Outside, Jessie had finally abandoned her sunflower pep talk in favor of surrendering to the magnetic pull of her partner's longing gaze. Before either of them knew it, they were on the ground completely immersed in each other. Their passionate moment came to an abrupt end when James rolled right onto the pile of roses he'd been collecting.

"AHHH!"

It took Jessie a moment to realize what the problem was, and when she did she laughed.

"We need to find a more suitable place to... enjoy each other. "

"Agreed," James answered, rubbing his backside. "Ow..."

Over the months the blue-haired man had become more and more receptive of his partner's advances and they'd finally begun taking their relationship to a physical level. Meowth and Mondo, to their horror, learned the first night that they could hear everything in the bedroom next door. Meowth had suddenly decided he wanted to go gather clams along the seashore and was gone in a flash. Mondo just laid in his bed and wept.

Today Meowth switched on the television as soon as the amorous couple entered and cranked up the volume after the bedroom door closed. He had no interest in human mating practices. Mondo got up and walked out, leaving his half-eaten donut on the floor.

. . .

"Are you sure you aren't hungry?" James asked Mondo as he put away the breakfast dishes the next morning.

Mondo shook his head.

James sighed and resumed his task of preparing food for the Pokémon. Unlike Mondo, the older male had settled into his new life quite happily. He spent a good deal of his time with Meowth trying to come up with new money-making schemes. Several mornings a week the two discussed the possibilities as they scoured the beaches looking for shells and other things that could be used to make trinkets out of while Jessie and Mondo gathered fruit and flowers from the forest. They would meet up back at the cabin and the two teams would switch partners. Meowth and Mondo made food and flower bouquets while Jessie and James crafted the shells into jewelry, keychains and other things to sell. The island was so remote that the ferry only came in twice a week, and on those days they all set up a booth in town to sell their homemade jewelry, fresh-cut flowers and snack foods. James still swore that with better planning they'd one day be the "richest rogues of all time", but the truth was that as weeks of peaceful living turned into months, their life of crime was beginning to feel more and more distant.

Spoink bounced cheerfully into the kitchen, eager for food. Another Spoink followed it. They approached Mondo, but the boy waved them away. "Spoink, Ditto, quit it," he told them grumpily.

James couldn't tell which was the true Spoink and which was the fake, although Mondo never had difficulty telling them apart. Ditto often took shape of other Pokémon in the room, which gave those around it a shock to suddenly see two Spoink bouncing around or a second Meowth following the first. Sometimes it would choose a form at random and Jessie and James had been fooled more than once into trying to capture it. James had sulked for an entire day when he realized that the Chimecho he'd chased around the cabin for the better part of an hour was a fraud and Jessie, James and Meowth had all made fools of themselves one day when their Rocket instincts resurfaced and the trio chased a "Pikachu" around the village, tearing through everything in their path trying to get at it. At the moment Ditto seemed content to bounce around in circles with Spoink, which made James dizzy if he watched them for too long.

"Here you go!" James said, setting down two bowls of food. Ditto reverted back to his true form and he and Spoink rushed over to their dishes and happily began partaking in their meal. James then called his own Pokémon and fed them, and Jessie's after that.

"Don't forget to take some water out to Tauros," he reminded Mondo. Tauros was grazing outside. Mondo nodded mutely, grabbed the bucket next to the sink and walked out the door with it. James sighed a second time. Mondo had forgotten to fill the bucket with water again. Grabbing another bucket from the corner, he filled it in the kitchen sink and set it by the door. Mondo returned a minute later, exchanged the empty pail for the full one and went back out again. This was becoming a common occurrence. It was as if the he was becoming more and more disconnected from everyday life. He even had to be frequently reminded to wash his hair and change his clothes, something he'd never neglected before.

Being the most sensitive of the group, Mondo's pain ate at James' soul. He wished some of happiness everyone else was experiencing would rub off on the depressed young man. James felt guilty knowing that as he spent his days happy and content in his new existence, the friend who had given up so much to make this new life possible for him was going through hell. While James spent his nights warm and safe in the arms of the woman he loved, Mondo spent his laying in the next room unable to sleep. While James hummed cheerfully as he cleaned up after their meals, Mondo stared hopelessly into space as he washed the dishes. There never seemed to be a time when one could look into Mondo's eyes and not see the chaotic despair behind them.

James wanted to do something but he had no idea what. Mondo went to Jessie for physical comfort and it was Meowth he turned to when he wanted to talk, but he spent a good portion of his day with James training their Pokémon, making meals and doing all the little domestic duties that Jessie and Meowth avoided like the plague. Yet James could never seem to find the right time or opportunity to approach him. This boy, who was somehow no longer a boy, was beyond his comprehension. There were times James felt so uncomfortable watching him stare into space or throw the same random object against the wall over and over again that the blue-haired man left the room. He felt guilty for running away from the problem, but at such times it seemed to him like he was living with a half-witted, slightly demented stranger. This only made James feel more guilty. Just because Mondo wasn't the same cheerful, idealistic person he'd once been didn't mean he wasn't still Mondo. He was still their friend.

He wanted to help him somehow, but he had no idea where to begin. What could he hope to accomplish where Jessie and Meowth had already failed? Still, he was determined to try.

Ten minutes later he walked out the door with two plates of sliced pineapple in his hand. Mondo had barely touched his breakfast and James always had extra room in his stomach for his favorite fruit. Jessie often brought him pineapple when he wasn't feeling up to snuff. He found Mondo and Tauros nearby. Tauros was quenching his thirst while Mondo violently kicked a fist-sized stone around. Once. Twice. Thrice. The fourth time he missed his mark and kicked at the air, throwing himself off balance and causing himself to fall backwards. Flat on his back, he stared up at the vast blue sky. James wondered what he was thinking. Was he admiring the cotton-like clouds? Pondering the vastness of the universe? Or was he simply wishing the earth around him would swallow him up and put an end to his misery?

The last would be my guess... James thought, setting the plates down on a nearby tree stump. He gave Mondo a hand up and guided him over to the food.

"Would you like some pineapple?" he asked, offering Mondo a plate. He took it.

"Thank you."

"What can we do for you, Mondo?" James asked gently, sitting down beside him. "How can we help you?"

"There's nothing you can do," Mondo responded, not looking at him. "There's nothing anybody can do."

"We've all been through a lot, but we're all slowly starting to heal. Everyone except you."

"It's different for you."

"Why?"

"Because you weren't in control when you did all those horrible things."

James cringed at his words. Horrible things... He didn't remember much from the days he'd been drugged, but what he did remember still gave him the chills. He wished he could forget everything that had happened to him, but he knew life wasn't that easy.

"I still feel guilty," he said softly. "Even if I don't remember all of it."

"You were drugged and ill, you don't have anything to feel guilty about," Mondo told him. "There wasn't anything wrong with me and the things I did were worse... and I remember ALL of it!"

"That's not what Meowth says. He told us how sick you were the day Lana died."

"It's not an excuse for what I did."

"Now you know how I feel," James returned.

"But it wasn't your FAULT! Everything I did... was ALL my fault, and I have to live with it. I killed Lana to save myself and somewhere out there is a son who doesn't have a father anymore because of me." He rested his head on his knees and whispered, "I wish I were you."

"Why would you want that?" James exclaimed. "After everything I went through!"

"I'd still rather be you than me. I'd rather be anybody other than me! Being me... hurts too much."

James closed his eyes, wishing he knew the right thing to stay. Mondo would refuse any words of comfort, but perhaps he could make his younger friend understand that he, even if only in a small way, understood his pain.

"Mondo..." he began, trying to control his emotions as unwanted images flooded his mind. "The day Meowth went to you after I choked him... I did something terrible. I almost did something unforgivable."

"What did you do?" Mondo asked.

"I hurt Jessie, and I almost... I almost raped her."

Mondo choked on the pineapple he was eating.

"She said something," James continued. "I don't remember what it was, but I slammed her into a wall and... I had to force myself to let go of her and run away before I hurt her. I'll never forget that look on her face. She and I had fought so many times before, but for the first time she looked truly afraid of me... She looked so... betrayed."

He closed his eyes, remembering the panicked look on Jessie's face. Even though they'd finally begun to take their relationship to a physical level, his dreams and memories still hindered his ability to completely relax and enjoy their physical intimacy. He was fine as long as she dominated their coupling. James loved the erotic sight of her bare form as she straddled him, loved to touch and taste her as she drove him to heights of unimaginable pleasure while taking her own as well; but he still found himself holding back, terrified of losing control. Trying to make love in any position where she was underneath him always sent waves of nausea and self-loathing cascading through him that killed his erection and brought the nightmare that he was still trying so hard to push away to the forefront of his mind. Hovering over her, he always panicked. When she asked him why she had to "do all the work" in the bedroom he felt shamed and emasculated, as if he himself were a victim; helpless in the face of his fear and his utter humiliation at not being able to give the same pleasure he received. No one, not even Jessie, could truly understand how he felt. It was the one dark cloud hovering over their romantic relationship.

"You didn't betray anyone," Mondo said softly, interrupting James' gloomy thoughts. "I'm the one who committed murder."

"You aren't the only one dealing with demons, Mondo," James told him, pushing aside his own feelings to concentrate on his friend's. "But you're the only one of us who's choosing to face them alone."

"I am alone," Mondo responded.

"No, you aren't! We're here, Mondo. Please don't shut us out."

Mondo only sighed and looked away.

. . .

Then one day he disappeared, leaving all his pokéballs behind.

For days Jessie, James and Meowth searched, using their Pokémon to search areas they couldn't reach themselves. They were growing more and more frantic, fearing that he'd gotten himself seriously injured, or worse. They finally located him on the evening of the third day, filthy and dehydrated in the middle of the forest. He was wearing his Team Rocket costume. They gave him all that was left of their water and then demanded an explanation for his disappearance. He just stared at them, his eyes empty and soulless. James tried to take his hand and help him up, but Mondo made no attempt to move. Jessie's initial relief quickly gave way to pure rage.

"Get UP!" she shouted. Mondo didn't budge. She knelt down in front of him so that they were eye-level and told him coldly, "We didn't spend three days searching for you to leave you sitting here in the middle of the woods. Get up now or I will knock you out and carry you back home myself."

When he didn't respond she made good on her threat. She hit him so hard he lost consciousness and hoisted him over her shoulder.

"Let's go," she ordered her companions. James and Meowth followed silently, neither daring to make a sound as she carried Mondo home. She kept far enough ahead of the others so they wouldn't see the tears she was struggling to control.

Despite the violent method used to retrieve him, Jessie's handling of Mondo was nothing but gentle once they got home. She removed his gloves, belt and boots while James tried to remove the tattered remains of his Team Rocket uniform. It was too tight to remove, so finally Meowth cut it off of Mondo's body with his claws. Underneath they found that he was covered with insect bites and rashes from spending three days in clothes that were too small for him. Together they bathed their now semi-conscious friend, re-clothed him in a pair of James' pajamas and fed him while Ditto and Spoink hovered around them nervously. Tauros was simply too big to be let out of its pokéball indoors so James released it outside where it kept vigil outside Mondo's bedroom window. When they put Mondo to bed James picked up Spoink and Ditto and put them on the top bunk with Meowth to sleep. In all this time Mondo had still not said a word. Jessie remained with him, singing him back to sleep as she held an ice pack where she'd cold-cocked him; while in the next room James stared out the window, lost in thought.

. . .

Mondo awoke the next morning to the sound of voices and the feeling of bare hands on his skin. There was a sweet, soothing smell in the air.

"Do you think he'll still be catatonic when he wakes up?" he heard James' voice ask.

"I hope not," Jessie's voice replied.

She was putting ointment on a rash on Mondo's stomach. The ointment instantly relieved the burning and itching but it made his skin tingle. He was acutely aware of its presence on every place Jessie had applied it and he realized with no small amount of embarrassment that Jessie had already applied the medicine on the more intimate areas of his body. He kept his eyes closed, wanting a little more time to collect himself before having to face the questions he knew would come- questions that he didn't have answers to. And, he admitted to himself, he enjoyed the feeling of her fingers caressing him. He prayed they wouldn't notice how badly he was blushing.

"He... scared me yesterday, James," Jessie said softly. She lifted the pajama shirt Mondo was wearing to attend to an itchy collection of insect bites on his side. "Almost as much as..."

"Almost as much as I did," James finished for her. "Back then."

"I was afraid I would lose you. Now I'm afraid we're losing him."

"Jessie..."

"I just don't know what to do for him," Jessie said. "If he does this again we might not find him next time. He could get himself killed."

Mondo felt James' hand stroke his hair gently. "We've got to get him some help. This is getting beyond us."

"I knew he was getting worse," Jessie said. "I should have done something!"

"You've been saying that ever since he disappeared, Jess. You've been doing everything you can; we all have. But you can't sit here and guard him every night. You need sleep, too."

She stayed with me all night...

"I... I have an idea. I want to talk to you and Meowth about something," James said.

"All right."

Mondo felt her weight leave the bed and the two left the room, shutting the door behind them. Mondo opened his eyes. He sat up and took in his surroundings. The now-melted ice pack was sitting on the night stand, along with the vaporizer Lana had given to Jessie to help James relax. The sweet smell he'd noticed upon waking was the same soothing herbal mixture. His eyes began to water, realizing something that in his heart he had always known, but had somehow forgotten.

"They love me," he whispered.

. . .

"We need to get him someplace where somebody can help him," James told his companions. "We've got to leave here."

"Leave here?" Jessie and Meowth echoed.

"We've always dreamed of an island paradise," Jessie said. "Why would we give it up now that we're finally here?"

"Yeah, dis place is poifect!" Meowth agreed. "And there's all da free clams you can eat!" He held up his full bucket as evidence. He'd gotten up early to gather them in hopes it would cheer Mondo up. He loved clams almost as much as the cat did.

"He's not getting any better," James replied. "We've been here for months and he's only getting worse as time goes on."

Jessie certainly couldn't contradict the statement. "If Lana were here she could tell us how to help him."

"If Lana were here he wouldn't be in the state he's in," James pointed out.

"So whaddya t'ink we should do, Jimmy?" Meowth asked.

James closed his eyes. After months of contemplating what he could do to aid in Mondo's recovery, he now knew what he, and he alone, had the power to give. It was something that neither Jessie nor Meowth possessed.

"I want to go to Nanny and Pop-Pop's."

"James, they take care of Pokémon, not people," Jessie said.

"And ya can't just fix him by havin' Chimecho cast Heal Bell on him," Meowth added.

"I know that!" James snapped, before shaking his head tiredly. "It's just... that place has a healing effect on people. When I would go there as a child feeling beaten down and broken it renewed my spirit. I just know it could help Mondo too."

"Somethin' needs to," Meowth said. "He can't keep goin' on like dis. Next time we might find him dead in a ditch somewhere."

"If we find him at all," said Jessie, clutching the bottle of ointment she was still holding.

They sat in silence for a minute, reflecting. Finally James said,

"You all worked together to save me. Together I know we can save Mondo, too... but we need help. We need money and access to doctors. If there's anybody in the world I could trust to help us it would be Nanny and Pop."

"What will being there change, James?" Jessie asked tiredly. "His pain is in his head, and that goes where he goes!"

"I think Mondo needs to go somewhere that he won't be able to envision Lana standing in every room. Somewhere with no memories."

"Jimmy's gotta point," Meowth said, looking at Jessie. "He's clingin' to da past, and it's gonna kill him unless we do something."

Jessie nodded. She'd been thinking something similar last night. She'd removed all of Mondo's Team Rocket costumes from his room and told James to burn them.

"We could certainly use two extra people to keep an eye on him," she agreed. "But what happens when your parents find out you're there? They will eventually, and then what do we do? Go hopping from one summer home to another?"

James shook his head. "No. No more running."

. . .

"Miss Jessie?" Mondo whispered, standing in the doorway. He'd stayed in bed for over an hour trying to figure out what to say when he finally got up. He decided an apology was in order, but after that... he had no idea. He still had no way of explaining what had happened, even to himself.

"What?" Her voice was devoid of emotion, despite the immense relief she felt hearing his voice again.

"I- I'm sorry..." He approached her timidly, not sure what reaction he was going to get. Yesterday she had knocked him out cold, and only hours later he'd woken up to find himself being lovingly tended to with such gentleness... He'd been bathed, clothed, fed and sung to sleep, and she'd spent the night at his bedside. Still, he knew she must be furious with him. He was right.

"Why did you take off like that?" Jessie asked angrily.

"I don't know."

"And why were you wearing those clothes?"

"I don't know," he said again. It was the truth, he couldn't explain his actions. It was as if some internal time bomb had gone off inside him. There had been just enough self-awareness left in him to remove his pokeballs, leaving Ditto, Tauros and Spoink behind. He didn't want to drag his Pokémon down into the darkness with him.

"We thought you were DEAD!" Jessie screamed. "Three days we searched, terrified out of our minds that something terrible had happened to you!"

Mondo sat down beside her. "Something terrible would have happened to me if you hadn't found me."

Jessie softened a little, knowing his words were the truth. She took a deep, shuddering breath. "You need to let go of the past. What happened back at HQ was terrible, but it's over. Let it go."

"I can't," he whispered.

"Why not?"

"Because I'm a killer!" he exclaimed. "That's not something I can just let go!"

"You're a brat, do you know that?" she told him. "I'm tired of your moping; your self-pity!"

"You don't understand!"

"How can I? We been here for months and you never TALK to me!"

"You wouldn't understand. Nobody understands how it feels to know that someone is dead because of them!"

Jessie couldn't deny it, but the fact seemed completely irrelevant. She didn't need to kill somebody to get the fact that he was in pain, nor did she need that particular experience to recognize how deeply he needed help, but Mondo had convinced himself that she couldn't help him- that none of them could help him, and therefore he wasn't going to let them in to try. James was right. They were going to have to leave this place and find someone who could help them get through to him.

"James wants to leave here," she said, looking in the direction of the kitchen where her mate was preparing a late breakfast. "He wants us to go and live at one of his summer homes."

"I'll go wherever you and James go, Miss Jessie."

"Will you?" Jessie asked angrily. "Or will you just run off the next time the mood hits you, abandoning your Pokémon and leaving us to fear the worst?"

"I'm sorry... please don't be mad at me anymore." He sounded so pained, so lost and yet so much like the innocent youth that he'd once been that Jessie's anger dissolved. His pleading eyes begged for her understanding. She opened her arms to him and he fell into her embrace.

"I don't know what's wrong with me," he whispered. "It just won't stop hurting."

"You're scaring us, Mondo," she whispered into his hair. "We've lost so much, I don't want to lose you, too."

"If I could take it all back... if I could undo everything..."

"But you can't," Jessie interrupted. "And Lana wouldn't want you to live like this!"

He looked up at her. "Why wouldn't she, after what I did to her?" he asked.

"We all have things in life that we regret, Mondo."

"Not you."

"Why would you think that?" Jessie asked.

"Because you're strong. You always move forward and never look back. I've always admired that about you."

Jessie laughed softly, but there was no mirth in it. "You're wrong."

"Miss Jessie?"

"I wanted to make that son of a bitch pay for what he did to us. Me, myself, with my own two hands! I wanted to be the one to kill him, to make sure the last thing he saw was my face as the light went out in his eyes!"

Mondo just stared at her, wide-eyed. She'd become wildly animated, not aware of the tears beginning to fall from her eyes.

"Instead I got to stay here and play nursemaid- to sit here and wait- day after day after day wondering if you'd ever come back. Before he began getting better I would sit at James' side wondering what would happen if he died and none of you ever came back again."

"I... I'm sorry..."

"Lana died to save our lives and you and Meowth come home like heroes from the battlefield, while I sat at home like an old woman... useless. I was useless!" She hated feeling useless.

"You're... jealous?" Mondo whispered, disbelieving.

Jessie felt a hand on her shoulder.

"You're wrong Jess..." James said. "You aren't useless. I'm the one who was useless. I was nothing but a burden. You took care of me; I would have DIED if it weren't for you!"

"You humans are ALL useless as far as Meowth's concerned!" the Pokémon grinned, coming in from outside. "You wouldn't know what to do without Meowth around!"

Jessie threw an apple core at him, but James picked the cat up, laughing. "You're probably right!" He hugged Meowth and set him down on the sofa, before turning to Mondo. "You saved us, Mondo... all of us. How many more people would that monster have killed if you and Meowth hadn't stopped him? Think of all the lives you saved!"

"And instead of being relieved like the rest of us that he'll never be able to hurt us again," Jessie continued, "you act like you pushed someone's baby in front of a car!"

"What I did was just as bad," Mondo responded. "When I think about Lana's brother... and Giovanni's son... and all the other people who may have gotten hurt because of me, I feel like I don't deserve to be happy. Don't you see, Miss Jessie? I can never make up for ANY of it! I couldn't even take responsibility and tell her brother what happened. I couldn't face him, so I ran... just like I ran the day Lana was killed. Just like... I ran from here. In my mind I feel like I'm always running, even when I'm standing still. I can't explain it."

"You've got to stop running," James said softly. Mondo turned to look at him. "We both do. I've been running away for so many years that it has become second nature to me. We've got to face our demons, or they're going to haunt us forever. It's time to take a stand, here and now- no more running. Let's do it together, Mondo."

He held out his hand to Mondo and Mondo grasped it firmly, nodding. Jessie laid her hand on top of theirs, and Meowth placed his paw on top.

"Together," Mondo agreed. "All of us... together."

Jessie nodded in agreement. "Together we stand, together we fall."

"I don't know about yous guys, but Meowth is tired of falling," Meowth said.

"Agreed!" James responded. "It's decided then. No more falling! Together we stand!"

. . .

"Do you t'ink we'll ever come back here?" Meowth asked, when they'd loaded the last of their things in the net attached to the Meowth-head balloon. "Dis was a swell little set-up we had."

"We'll come back some day," James promised. "I promised Weepinbell. Maybe when we're all ready to settle down we can build our own home on this island."

"Or at least a hideaway," Jessie said. "It's always good to have a few extra hiding places when you're as immensely popular as we are!"

"Popular with the authorities, you mean!" James grinned. Jessie grinned back.

"Exactly. Where's Mondo?"

Before Jessie could go back in to look for him, he emerged from the cottage on his own. He was holding the watch and pair of earrings Lana had left behind.

"What should I do with these?" he asked.

A pall of sadness fell over the group. Meowth's eyes began to tear up, and the look of pain on Mondo's face caused James to do the same. Jessie's first instinct was to tell Mondo to throw them away, fearing the sight of the objects would cause him to go off the deep end again. Finally James spoke.

"I've got an idea..." He grabbed Jessie's gardening trowel and dug a small hole in front of the cabin. He motioned for Mondo to place the jewelry in it. Jessie sprinkled some seeds in with the dirt as Mondo filled the little hole back in and Meowth patted the mound down with his paws until the ground was smooth again. James laid a red rose on top. "Today we lay to rest our friend, if not in body then at least in spirit," he said. "We thank her for all the good she did us and we hope that she's now in a better place."

Mondo wept, and Meowth thought back on Lana's memorial service at Team Rocket HQ. They would never know where her body had been laid to rest, but this would always be their own private place to remember her.

"Ready to go?" James asked. His companions nodded.

They all climbed into the balloon and James fired it up. Before long the group was flying away from the little cabin and the island that had been their home. They all looked back, watching it get smaller and smaller until it was only a tiny speck on the horizon. Then they turned their faces forward, letting the wind guide them towards the unwritten future.


~ End