Author's note: So this is something like the third one-shot that I am not-coincidentally spurred to finish and post during a Farla NaReWriMo. Thank her for getting me to write one-shots.
Thanks to opaltiger and elyvorg for beta-reading and offering general thoughts.
"Metapod, just a bit more! Hang on!"
And at that moment, blinding, searing light burst out of your cocoon, and I knew that you were evolving. This was the dream: I'd been training you tirelessly for weeks, after so many failed battles against Brock, and the sheer elation of realizing that this was it, that you were finally becoming a Butterfree, felt at the time like the ultimate climax of my journey.
I remember when you crawled out and spread your fragile little wings for the first time. I remember how they quivered as you stretched them out, how your antennae twitched, that glorious moment when you jumped up and took flight. I remember how you fluttered in a quick circle, and Brock's Onix growled, and I said "Confusion!" and you cried out and then…
Of course I remember it. It was my first gym victory; how could I ever forget? I remember the Onix roaring and collapsing, the rumble under my feet as it hit the ground. I remember Brock's calm voice telling it to return while the widest grin I had ever sported spread over my face. I remember literally jumping for joy, feeling as if my heart were about to explode, and seeing you flutter down towards me in a little playful loop before landing on my head and snuggling into my hair.
It feels like yesterday.
It also feels like very, very long ago, because it is.
Trainers aren't supposed to have favorites, but you were my favorite. I loved Charmander and Pidgey and Nidoran to death too, of course, but there's still just something about the first Pokémon you train to a full adult form, and Butterfree had been my favorite Pokémon since I was a kid. When the others were struggling, I could always count on you, and when we were faced with a difficult foe, your powder moves were indispensable. For those months you were my most powerful Pokémon by far, the pinnacle of my team; I don't think I could ever explain just how proud I was every time I sent you out of your Pokéball and heard your defiant battle cry, every time a far larger Pokémon's eyelids drooped as it breathed in your Sleep Powder and slumped helplessly on the ground, every time an opponent admitted defeat and you landed triumphantly on my head, giving me that cute little snuggle of yours. Silly as it seems now, I earnestly felt like you were invincible. I imagined you putting Lance's dragons to sleep. I imagined carrying you on my head into the Hall of Fame as I was crowned the champion. I imagined it would be you and me on the covers of the newspapers, me grinning at the camera while you nibbled on my ear.
And then… you started losing. Just the occasional battle, at first. It hit my pretty hard when that hiker's Onix, the same Pokémon you had so handily defeated in Brock's gym, slammed you into the ground with its tail and you didn't rise up again, but I knew you were at a severe type disadvantage, so all things considered it wasn't that strange. But then it started happening more and more. My other Pokémon evolved, not only catching up with you but overtaking you, and so did the Pokémon possessed by the other trainers around me. It started to dawn on me, very slowly – I think I was in denial about it for a while – that you were frail and not very fast. I tried to feed you carbos, but still more and more of the Pokémon we faced would land a heavy blow before you even got the chance to launch a Sleep Powder. Eventually, with a heartwrenching feeling of dread in my stomach, I gave in to my nagging suspicion that you were underperforming compared to the rest of my team and decided, silently, to start keeping track.
It was true. You fainted more often than any of them and finished the fewest battles on your own. And the margin was increasing.
Initially I think I explained it as being that I'd been overconfident, that I used you in too many battles you weren't well suited to while I was more careful with the others. I got careful about not doing that. It helped, a little, but eventually I had to face the fact that you just weren't keeping up.
I wasn't disappointed in you. It's hard to explain, but it wasn't like that. It broke my heart to realize you were falling behind, not because you weren't good enough but because I loved you and loved your joy when you won and loved being able to trust you to win any battle. It broke my heart to have to recall your unconscious form after you'd done your absolute best, to let my hand wander past your Pokéball when I knew you wouldn't be able to handle the Pokémon my opponent had just sent out, to switch you out and send out Charizard instead because you couldn't take another hit. And more than anything, it broke my heart to see your battle cry change, gain just a hint of nervousness, something I heard in your voice because I knew you so well but also knew you would never, ever want me to hear.
(I never told you that I could tell. I never told you that I could feel the increasing desperation in your victory snuggle. I never told you how I felt, or that I knew how you felt. I don't think I could properly admit it to myself at that point.)
I started using you less and less, only when I was facing a Pokémon that seemed like particularly easy prey for you. I suspect you noticed, but you never complained. I know now that it must have broken your heart to see that loss of confidence in your abilities, but I didn't see that far then.
And then I started rotating my team. That wasn't because of you – I'd caught more than six Pokémon now, and I wanted to use the others and be able to pick the most adept team for any situation. But it wasn't long before you were rarely on my active team. I felt guilty every time I left you on the PC – I would think to myself that after I'd gotten past this route, or beaten this gym leader, or battled these trainers, I'd get you out again and we'd find someplace where you could really shine and get some training. At first I really did it. Then I started occasionally deciding it wouldn't hurt if I just used some of my other Pokémon that also needed training and were better suited to the wild Pokémon in the area for now, and I could just get you out later. And then I started putting it off because I knew you were undertrained compared to my other Pokémon and would have a difficult time either way. And then I promised myself when I got the chance I would take you the last spot we'd successfully trained at and there I could surely get you back on level with the rest of my team again.
When I finally did get the opportunity to go there again, I simply forgot. I have no excuse. I had gotten caught up in my journey; I loved my other Pokémon, I was excited about getting Blaine's badge before my friends, you had been pushed to the back of my mind, and I just forgot about it. When I remembered, I was already on the way to Seafoam Islands to investigate rumours of Articuno sightings; I couldn't just turn back.
By the time I had returned, I was too ashamed to face you. It had been so long. I had left you to rot. I tried to get myself to go and get you, but I didn't know what I would even say to you. I told myself I had important other things to do, that I had just one gym left and I might as well get that done without having to first spend the weeks it would take getting you caught up by this point.
I defeated Giovanni. I triumphantly watched Gyarados Hydro Pump his Rhydon to kingdom come. And as I left the gym with my badge and looked out towards Route 22, I realized you would never be on the team I would take to the Indigo Plateau to take on the Elite Four, and that Victory Road just wasn't any place for a Butterfree. I decided, really decided, that I'd train you up when I'd taken on the Elite Four; then, surely, I could relax and train whomever I wanted, wherever I wanted.
I became the champion with Charizard by my side. I was ecstatic. My original dreams, that image of you buried in my hair in the Hall of Fame, had faded; I'd moved on, and by this point I'd developed new dreams, dreams about a victory flight with Charizard. And that was everything I'd hoped for. I didn't even remember that you weren't there until I was back home, being congratulated by my mom.
Again, I was ashamed. I didn't want to have to tell you I'd taken on the Elite Four without you. I had other Pokémon who needed training, more rumours of legendary Pokémon, and an offer to go to the Sevii Islands.
I told myself I'd take you out and train you later.
It's been six years.
Now I stand facing the sunset, on the road leading to Viridian Forest, where I first met you that fateful day I headed out on my journey. The breeze is light and cool, just like it was that day, and I can still remember you, as a Caterpie, crawling out from behind a tree, my first challenger and my first catch. Now all I can think is that you should have stayed hidden, evolved in your own time, and maybe gotten another trainer, a nice bug catcher or somebody, who wouldn't betray you like I did.
I take a deep breath and my hand trembles as I reach for your Pokéball. The scratches and tiny dents in its surface are nostalgically familiar; I haven't touched this ball in so long I'd forgotten it was so worn, but now that I feel them it seems as if I always remembered somewhere in the back of my mind. I press the button and feel it maximize in my hand. A part of me is still hesitant, still wants to put you back on the PC and pretend this never happened – but that's not an option. I know that now.
With guilt clenching at my gut, I drop the ball onto the ground and watch you emerge from it in the air, facing away from me. I see you scanning the area for an opponent, then fluttering in a circle and turning around, looking at me questioningly.
Your face can't form expressions like a human can, but I can see anyway in the slight tilt of your head, the twitching of your antennae, the slight slowing of your wing flaps, that it takes you a moment to recognize me. That wrenches at my heart more than anything; suddenly it occurs to me that your sense of time on the PC was muddled, that your first realization of how long it's been is seeing me suddenly a teenager in place of the child that you knew. You hover there silently for a second, just staring at me with those unblinking red compound eyes; I don't know if the accusation I see in them is real or just a projection of my own guilt. I try to imagine what must be going through your mind, what it might feel like to realize you've been in stasis for years, that everyone you knew has moved on without you – but I can't even begin to comprehend it.
"I'm sorry, Butterfree," I whisper; my voice is hoarse, and as I say it, as that pathetic apology escapes my lips as if it could ever make up for it, tears start pricking at the corners of my eyes. "I should have done this so long ago."
It's painful to speak, so I point the ball back at you and press the button, showing you that nothing happens, that I've deactivated the Pokéball. I throw it away; it bounces off the ground and comes to a rest by the roadside. You stare at it for a second, then look back at me.
"I kept telling myself I'd keep training you," I say, fighting the urge to avert my eyes, the feeling that I don't have any right to look at you anymore (I don't, but this whole time I've been refusing to face you, and I can't do that anymore). "And I never did. I released the others I couldn't get the chance to continue training, so they could move on and have a life, but not you. I could never accept that you'd be better off without me. But you would."
You look at me for a moment more, and then you flutter upwards, circling a few times in the sky for the first time in six years – six years that you never even knew. I try to swallow the lump in my throat, but I can't; my mind is full of every time I avoided using you, every time I put off training you, every time I remembered you and realized I hadn't thought about you for weeks. It's an aching, suffocating feeling of opportunities lost, potential wasted and friendship neglected.
I expect you to turn in the direction of the forest and fly off, but you don't. Instead, you take a graceful dive toward me, land on my head and bury yourself in my hair. A thousand memories blend together, guilt mixes with triumph and joy and love; everything shatters to pieces inside me, and I break into sobs. I dimly realize tears are streaming down my cheeks, too; I don't know how long they have been.
"No," I say without thinking, my voice thick and strained, "no, I'll train you up again, we'll train and be together and make everything the way it was supposed to be and I'll never leave you behind again, not ever – please don't go."
You don't. You stay, nibbling lightly at me, a comforting weight to remind me you're still there, while I cry and cry and can't stop. You stay while I run out of tears and just stand there shaking. You stay while I finally collect myself, wipe my face and take a few deep breaths. I don't deserve your loyalty anymore but you stay anyway, and a part of me hates that, wishes you'd just hate me as much as I do so I can stop feeling so undeserving.
"I'm sorry," I say when I regain the ability to talk, staring unseeingly at the pink-tinged clouds in the distance. "I have no right to want anything from you. It's your life. I've taken enough of it away from you already. I just want you to be happy."
You snuggle up to me a little, and whether from the gesture alone or with the help of some psychic nudge, I know what you're trying to say: you're happy when you're with me.
There's a burning feeling in my throat as I swallow. Don't you understand? Is the situation lost on you? I reach up, pull you as carefully as I can off my head and let your wings take over to hover in front of me. "Butterfree," I say hoarsely, looking into your eyes, "it's been six years. You were falling behind and I started thinking training you was a chore so I put it off and forgot about it. And then I didn't do it even when I remembered because I couldn't admit it to you, so I just… left you there."
And don't you see how selfish that was? Don't you see that a true friend would never do something like that?
There is a pause. I can see your antennae droop a little, and immediately I wish I hadn't brought up your battle performance; it seems like I'm blaming you for it, and I can tell it's making you anxious. "It wasn't your fault," I add. "I was being impatient and it was unfair. I should have just…"
I trail off. To be honest, I'm not sure if there is any one thing I should have just done. Would you have been happier if I'd given you special extra training to keep up, a constant reminder that you couldn't just be part of the team like the other Pokémon but needed special attention? If I'd continued to send you out only against the weakest of opponents? If I'd continued as normal and you'd just gone on being beaten up and getting more nervous about battling until you dreaded it altogether?
And as I'm thinking that, it finally occurs to me that it's been a long, long time since you loved battling the way you did at the beginning. You started losing your enthusiasm when you started losing battles, and my misguided attempts to prevent that never really helped. I'd been dragging you on even before I left you behind.
"Do you even want to battle anymore, Butterfree?" I whisper hopelessly, realizing now how naïve my earlier declarations that we'd train and make everything the same were, because things just aren't the same – and a thought illuminates my mind, a thought that has to come from you because it feels alien: you never cared about battling in the first place. You just wanted to win… for me?
I stare at you in incomprehension, part of me thinking that's ridiculous and can't be it, part of me realizing now everything makes sense – you lost your enthusiasm because you thought you were letting me down, not because you hated losing, and of course when my reaction was to use you less and give you intermittent special training sessions just to keep up with the rest of the team, that only reinforced that.
You look at me with those eyes, and I get the feeling you're nodding.
For a few seconds I can't speak; I just stand there, looking at you, a mixture of emotions fighting within my brain. "Butterfree," I finally manage to say, "we don't have to battle. You don't have to battle to be my friend. Or if you do battle, I don't care how you do, so long as you're having fun doing it. We can just… if you want, you can just come along and… not battle. Or you can battle, if you want. Just tell me when you want to battle and…"
You fly at me to snuggle into my hair again, like you're happy and everything's okay now. My mind is numb. Everything is not okay. I still don't even feel right about taking you with me again; it's what you want, but I can't shake the feeling that it shouldn't be. It could all have been avoided if I'd paid better attention, or tried to understand you more fully, or just talked to you instead of leaving you on the PC so I wouldn't have to – if I'd really treated you like someone who had feelings, instead of something that induced feelings in me. It was my stupidity that led to all this hurt, from beginning to end.
But this is about you, not me. And I truly do want you to be happy. So I take a moment to compose myself, then clear my throat and say, "Okay. We're heading for the Viridian Trainer House."
I got used to having you around again. It's easy to almost forget what I did to you when you're there, keeping me company, cheering my team on, as if those six years never happened. You really do seem happy. I don't understand it, but your joy warms my heart, like it always did. And still, sometimes it really nags at me: why would you forgive me so easily?
Maybe it tore you apart, but you pretended to be okay for my sake, in the same blind devotion that made you keep battling even when you had grown to hate it. You'd never admit that to me, so how could I know?
Or maybe you really didn't care about those six years. What do I know of a Pokémon's view of life? Maybe, somehow, the notion of being abandoned is meaningless to a Butterfree. Maybe you don't have a concept of betrayal. Maybe the past just doesn't matter to you, as long as I'm with you now, and you'd find the idea of guilt puzzling. I don't know.
But if that's the case, then would you have done the same if I had beaten you? If I had starved you?
If I had just sent you out again into a battle after six years, without a word, without regret, expecting you to just fight as if nothing had happened?
I don't know.
I'm not sure I want to know.
As Charizard deals the final blow to that Alakazam, you snuggle into my hair, the way that you always used to do, and I just know that your happiness must be real. What else could it be?