He's done it, she thinks.
He's the Champion.
"Congratulations, Gold," she says, and clasps his hands in hers. "I knew you could do it." The air is filled with color and sound – balloons are soaring into the endless blue and reporters are pressing in, eager for an interview and Professor Elm is trying not to cry, sheer pride making his glasses mist up – and they're standing in the middle of it all.
"Thanks, Kris." He flashes that lopsided grin that she knows and loves. "Couldn'tve done it without you."
She likes to think he's being truthful. She likes to think she's helped him get here, to this dais of success, because in all honesty she's never been a very good trainer. Battling Pokémon has never thrilled her like it does him. As kids they would plan their eventual journey and Gold would ask her all sorts of questions. What would be your strongest Pokemon? What would be your fastest? What kind of awesome moves would you teach them? And she would choose the answers that she thought he would want to hear, just to see that smile that quirked endearingly on one side.
"I suppose you did well, to come this far," Silver says. He's standing off to the side, arms crossed defiantly, long hair hanging like a curtain over his face. "If you hadn't made it all the way after defeating me, I would have been displeased with you."
Kris and Gold exchange a smirk. For all his high-horsing, Silver isn't such a bad guy. They've been through a lot together, now that she thinks about it. They've traversed caves and cities and mountains together, albeit reluctantly on Silver's part. They've seen each other's Pokémon evolve and mature. They've seen Silver change, from an angry little boy with less sense than a shaken Slowpoke to a tough kid with ambition in his eyes.
And now… And now their journey is drawing to a close.
Kris smiles sadly. She's been dreading this moment for a long time. Today is the day that they will finally bid adventure adieu; hoist their packs over their shoulders for the last time, say goodbye to Silver and plan to meet again someday, return to their average lives (but Gold is Champion now, she reminds herself, and he's not average anymore).
Suddenly, out of the blue, a sharp pain blossoms against her skull. Her knees give out from under her. Flashes of red obscure her vision like a warning sign. It is as if someone is stabbing her brain with a rusty knife, twisting it violently out of sheer spite, and Kris clutches at her head with an aggrieved cry.
"Kris? Kris, what's wrong!" But Gold's voice sounds so far away. She is trapped inside the pain, suffocated by it, paralyzed and unable to do anything but suffer.
And then, as quickly as it came, the pain abates, like the tide retreating from the shoreline. Kris detangles her hands from her hair slowly and blinks up at Gold, whose panic-stricken face will haunt her memories for days to come. Silver is peering over Gold's shoulder, trying not to express the alarm that gleams in his dark eyes.
"Kris, what was that?" Gold murmurs. "Are you hurt? What happened?"
She forces a smile, despite the fact that her heart is pounding and her legs are still a little shaky.
"Just a headache," she says as he helps her to her feet. "Don't worry yourself over me, Gold. I'm fine. Really."
The drapes are yanked aside suddenly, flooding the room with light. The girl in the bed moans pathetically as her sensitive eyes are assaulted, and she attempts to burrow deeper under the covers.
"You need to get out of bed, honey. You've been moping for four days and enough is enough."
Kris scowls and pulls her pillow over her head. "Why should I? There's nothing to do."
"Kristina." Her mother's voice is clipped – no-nonsense and thoroughly aggravated. When she starts using the full first name, Kris knows she means business. "I know you're upset about getting separated from your friends, but honestly, this is getting ridiculous. Why don't you take your Pokémon out for a day at the beach? Or maybe you could go visit that nice young lady in Goldenrod – Whitney, isn't it? You two got along well, from what I recall. Or just… Just do something. Anything. You're making me tired just looking at you."
Kris mumbles something incoherent into the fabric of her bedsheets. Truth is, she's getting sick of lying around like an invalid. Especially when Gold is off strutting around the Indigo Plateau. But her body has felt so sluggish as of late, like someone has replaced her bones with lead. And the headaches are more numerous (though not as earth-shatteringly painful), three or four a day, usually arriving in a strange sort of pattern that she's learned to predict. It's so much easier to stay in bed, rather than drag her too-heavy body into the outside world.
Her mother sighs. "You know, Kris, I think Professor Elm needs someone to help him with a few errands…"
Chikorita. Her first Pokémon battle. The Cherrygrove Pokémon Center. Mister Pokemon and Professor Oak. The Pokedex. The egg. Meeting Silver for the very first time.
Overwhelmed by nostalgia, Kris finally gets out of bed.
Professor Elm beams at her when she steps into his lab. "Welcome back, Kris," he says, and shakes her hand vigorously. "Always nice to see a successful trainer returning to their humble beginnings! And to think, it seems like only yesterday that I gave you that Chikorita…"
She wants to say but I'm not a successful trainer at all, I'm nothing, I'm just Gold's stepping stone, no one will write my name in the history books. But instead she merely smiles and thinks of more optimistic times.
On the way to Violet City, Elm's package secure in her bag, she finds herself scanning the faces of passersby, hoping to catch a glimpse of brilliant red hair or that trademark baseball cap. But of course they aren't there, because they're already far beyond her reach. Of course they aren't there, because Silver's moved on and Gold has important things to do and she's the only one still living in the past.
As she walks through Violet, past the shadow of the ancient Sprout Tower, she abruptly sways and falls to the ground, skinning her knees in the dirt. No dizziness. No shaky legs like before. She glances back, seeking out the obstacle she undoubtedly tripped over, and finds nothing. Her center of balance is simply off-kilter, as if something has been tossed haphazard into her orbit without a second thought.
Her Meganium nuzzles her shoulder, worried, and Kris pats the creature's head absentmindedly. What is wrong with me? she wonders. Am I ill? Or am I just "heartsick", like mom used to say?
But she can feel another headache coming on, and there's no time for answers.
"Kris, can you get the phone?" Her mother's voice drifts up the stairwell. "I'm worried that it might be Aunt Lydia, and I'm not in the mood to talk right now."
With a tired groan, the blue-haired girl drags herself into the next room and picks up the receiver.
Her eyes widen, and a stupid smile tugs at her lips. "Silver!" she exclaims. "Oh, it's so good to hear from you! Where are you? What've you been doing?"
"Just… tying up loose ends," Silver says gruffly. The reception is awful, wherever he is – his voice on the other end of the line is riddled with static. "I had someone I needed to speak with, to confirm some things. But I… I don't have anywhere to go now. Would you… Would you mind if…"
"… If you came to Newbark for a while?" Kris laughs delightedly, imagining Silver in her mind. At this very moment he is undoubtedly fiddling with the hem of his shirt, twisting the fabric between his fingers (a nervous habit).
"Y-yeah. Would that be okay?" He sounds so meek. She's not used to it.
"What? Of course it's okay! I've been bored out of my skull without you and Gold and your constant bickering. You guys always kept me entertained, you know… Honestly, Silver, lately I've been so, so…" Lonely. That's the word she's looking for. But she doesn't say it. Instead, an irrational wave of anger washes over her, and blood begins to pound in her ears. "I've been miserable, you goddamn jerk! How could you just leave me alone for three weeks without even calling me? You never think about my feelings – it's always about you! Well I have problems too, okay? I have just as many issues as you do! God, sometimes I hate you so much!"
Stunned silence echoes back at her from the telephone, and all her anger melts away.
"Oh," she whispers, more than a little frightened. "Oh Silver, I am so sorry. I… I didn't mean any of that. I don't even know… I don't even know…"
"It's fine. You don't have to explain. I'll be in Newbark in two days, Kris. If you don't want to see me, I'll understand."
"Wait, Silver – "
But the line has already gone dead.
There is a mirror on the opposite wall, and Kris stares into it. Her slate grey eyes suddenly seem foreign and menacing, her slightly crooked nose strange, her signature hairstyle completely unfamiliar. Her fingernails are digging into her palms, leaving tiny crescent moons behind, and her teeth are clenched in fear.
Who am I? she wonders. And who will I be tomorrow?
She steps out the door and stretches, relishing the hazy warmth of the early spring sunlight. Newbark is peaceful today, even more so than usual, and only sounds that can be heard are the rustle of leaves and the laughter of children in the distance. Kris feels betters today – her body is less heavy than it was yesterday, and she's only had two headaches so far. Maybe it was just a headcold, she thinks. Maybe I just needed a week or two of rest and relaxation.
Kris's grey eyes focus on her favorite tree, a weeping willow down by the creek that snakes through Newbark. The tree has been there as long as she can remember, its branches skimming lightly along the water's surface, and she spots something just as familiar resting against its crooked trunk – a mop of bright red hair.
"Silver," she whispers, and runs to meet him.
He looks up as she approaches and smiles (something she's not used to seeing). "Kris. Did you find it?"
"What do you mean?" she asks, but quickly brushes the question aside and throws her arms around the boy's neck. "Oh Silver, I've missed you so much! Without you and Gold, I just… I just… I never thought three weeks could feel so long, you know?" She pulls back and sits down next to him, leaning her back against the comfortable sturdiness of the willow tree. "When did you get here? You haven't been waiting out here long, have you? You could've just come inside. Mom would love to feed you, I'm sure."
She looks at him expectantly, but Silver's expression is one of suspicion (almost fear, if she looks close enough).
"Are… Are you joking around?" he asks quietly.
"… Huh? Joking around? About what?" Kris tilts her head to the side quizzically.
The fear is definitely there now, tinged with a bit of horror. "Kris…" Silver says her name like it is an anchor – like he is trying to coax her back from the brink. "Kris, I've been here all morning. We've been sitting out here talking since nine o'clock. There was something you wanted to show me, and you went into the house to get it… Kris, you can't honestly tell me you don't remember."
It's as if an icy fist has closed around her heart, squeezing the life right out of her. The springtime sun slowly loses its warmth. The quiet, peaceful sound of water over stones fades into nothingness. Her whole body goes numb, encased completely in pure, bone-chilling dread.
"That's… not possible," she murmurs, but her tongue feels thick and words are failing her.
Silver's hands are on her shoulders. He's shaking her – too rough, you're hurting me, she wants to say, but can't. "Kris, when exactly did I get here?" he demands. "What did I say to your mother? What have we been talking about for the past three hours? What did you want to show me!"
"… I don't remember," she whispers, staring blankly at his face. "I don't remember."
Her mother is standing in the hallway, trying to stifle her sobs, but Kris can still hear her plain as day. She wants to cry too, but finds herself unable. It's all just too surreal. The words "tumor" and "inoperable" keep bouncing around in her head, refusing to let themselves be understood.
When did she first check in to the Cherrygrove Hospital? Two days ago? Three? Time is beginning to blur. She no longer knows the date, or the day of the week, or even what month it is.
The walls, the bedsheets, the doctor's coat… They are all so very, very white. Like snow. It makes her think of Ilex Forest in the winter, when the trees are skeletons of their former selves and the sound of footsteps is muffled and the refreshing cold bites at her cheeks. It makes her think of Celebi and praying at the shrine and sharing a scarf with friends. The sterile, barren white of the hospital makes her think of new beginnings (though it might just be the beginning of the end).
Where is Gold? she wonders. Where is Silver? Where are my Pokemon? The answers are somewhere in her mind, she knows, but it is as if her thoughts are obscured by a heavy fog. It's frustrating, to know something and yet be unable to grasp it, to have something within your sights and yet be unable to touch it.
Weariness abruptly tugs at her with a grip like a vice.
"Sleep would be nice," she says aloud, to no one in particular. Her own voice sounds alien and distant. "I'm so tired. I'll worry about everything tomorrow."
And maybe when I wake up, this nightmare will be over.
Kris closes her eyes.
From her window, Kris can see the ocean – the only splash of color amidst the neverending white. She likes to sit in a chair and watch the tide rolling in and out against the shoreline. Sometimes on windy days surfers will brave the choppy ocean, seeking to ride the perfect wave; sometimes colorful sailboats will dot the horizon, and she will make up complex stories about the brave sailors aboard them. Kris envies them, these make-believe sailors. No matter how hard she tries, she can never imagine herself anywhere but her tiny, white-walled prison. Even her memories are beginning to fade, one by one.
"We brought your Pokémon to visit, Kris," Gold says one day, with a half-hearted grin. He and Silver seem so wary whenever they come to see her, as if she might shatter into a thousand shards if they speak too loudly, or look at her with too much force.
He places the gleaming red and white Pokeballs in her lap and steps back quickly. You can't catch it, what I have, she almost tells him. But no. That would be a silly thing to say.
She presses the button on the nearest Pokeball, and her Noctowl appears in a flash of red light. He perches on the arm of her chair, as regal and powerful as always, and eyes her disdainfully. The clack of his beak and turn of his head say that he is not pleased.
You are not my master, his eyes say. My master is already gone.
"Remember, Kris?" Gold urges from across the room. "Remember when you caught your Noctowl?"
Yes. Yes a thousand times. She remembers the exact evening – how the air smelled and how the grass felt beneath her feet and how scared she was, to be alone in the middle of nowhere after sunset. She remembers the attacks she told Chikorita to use, and the exact moment she threw the Pokeball and caught the Hoothoot that would evolve into this noble creature before her.
Kris hesitates, and then shakes her head. "No," she says. "I don't remember catching any of my Pokémon."
She turns back to the window, and watches with dull eyes as a flock of Wingull circle above the shimmering sea.
Her head hurts.
One morning she wakes up and cannot move her legs.
Silver carries her to the chair by the window so that she can look out at the surfers and the colorful sailboats, her last connection to a world she used to know. But the clouds are angry today – off in the distance the sky looks like a bruise, mottled purple and yellow. An ominous breeze stirs the treetops, and near the inlet the waves are white capped, slowly being stirred into a frenzy.
There are no boats or surfers today. None of them are brave enough to face a storm.
But she watches the ocean anyhow, until the driving rain against the window turns everything into a ruined watercolor.
Silver stays by her side the entire time. He does not speak, but his presence is comforting, like the ragged old stuffed Teddiursa she used to play with as a child. It must still be in her bedroom somewhere, that stuffed Teddiursa, its fabric patched again and again, its button eyes sewn back on countless times.
Life was better, she thinks, when friends could be healed with needle and thread.
Kris catches a glimpse of her reflection in the darkened window and does not recognize the girl she sees. The girl she sees is gaunt and skeletal, more corpse than anything, with sunken eyes and hollow cheeks. The girl she sees is thin, disturbingly so, with lank, greasy hair and no spark of life in her once-vibrant features.
The girl she sees is a stranger.
Kris knows that she's wasting away. Food no longer holds any appeal for her – it turns to ash and sand in her mouth. Time no longer has any meaning to her – minutes often feel like hours, while some days pass in the blink of an eye. Gold and Silver come to visit her, pity pouring from their eyes and distress evident in their clenched fists, and she no longer speaks to them. She has so much left to say, but words are too much effort.
"I wish," she whispers one night, and then stops to collect her thoughts. Speaking, even to herself, takes considerable concentration. Her mother, aged beyond her years, is asleep in a chair across the room. Her head lolls against her chest, and other than her quiet snores the hospital is silent.
"I wish that I could go back," Kris whispers. Her eyes begin to prickle, and soon enough she's sobbing, tears pouring in rivulets down the hollows of her cheeks. "I w-want to go back to the b-beginning… I want to st-start all over again."
She waits, sobs catching in her throat, as if she expects someone to answer. As if she expects God or some benevolent spirit to descend from on high and grant her wish. (As if she still believes in the childish notion that life should be fair.)
But the hospital remains as quiet and still as the grave.
Kris's sobs fade away. Tiredness sets in, threatening to pull her under, and she fights it for only a moment before relenting. After all, what's the use of trying? The world has already given up on her. She's just another useless burden occupying a hospital bed. She's just another useless burden who couldn't make it to the Pokémon League, who relied on her friends for everything, who hated their accomplishments because of her own pathetic neediness. She's nothing. The history books won't remember her.
It's better, Kris thinks, if I just disappear.
And yet she can't help but wish to go back to those halcyon days.
Newbark Town, like always, is tranquil. Dusk stretches its shadowy fingers across the earth, and the whine of cicadas permeates the languid summer air. In the pale pink and orange light of the setting sun, the treetops look like precious jewels. A girl with pigtails and innocent eyes, no more than thirteen, swings her legs above the surface of a murmuring creek. In her lap is a small Pokémon, a Chikorita, and the girl pats it on the head lovingly.
"We're gonna do great things, you and me," she says to the Chikorita. It stares up at her adoringly, making quiet noises of contentment. "We're going to battle as much as we can and take on all the Gym Leaders! And then we'll beat the Elite Four too!"
The girl laughs. "Yep, even him. Nothing's going to stand in our way!"
"Hey!" a voice calls, and she turns to see a boy with dark hair waving at her from his front porch. She waves back enthusiastically and then hurries to meet him, Chikorita in tow.
"I know we're both gonna be way too excited to sleep tonight," the boy says. His Cyndaquil is perched on top of his backwards baseball cap. "How 'bout we meet up at midnight, at the usual place?"
"Okay," the girl replies, bouncing up and down eagerly. And when the boy grins she loves the way it quirks on one side.
Later that night, in the secret treehouse they built two summers back, the boy asks her what her strongest Pokémon will be. He asks her what her fastest Pokémon will be. He asks her what awesome moves she'll teach them.
The girl frowns. "Didn't you ask me that before, Ethan?"
"Huh?" Ethan taps his chin thoughtfully. "Nah, I don't think so. Must be your imagination, Lyra."
"… Yeah, you're probably right," the girl says, after a moment of thought. "Just my imagination."