Tinkerbell collapses, exhausted, when we finally come to the line between Route 201 and Sandgem Town. I bend down and pluck her off the ground, petting her soft feathers carefully. There's a strong sense of finality as we look out into the dying light of dusk, painting the small town before us in a dull orange haze. From here we came, and to here we have returned. Our journey has already brought us grief and suffering, already forced us to question our true motives for leaving this haven. I can tell Leo is glad to be back, though he shows no outward signs of happiness. Without his partner, he's lost the will to go on.
The grass beneath our feet is mostly dead, our footprints from three days ago pressed into it like we've been walking on the moon. I put my foot into one of the indentations, pressing down slightly to change its direction. These marks point toward Twinleaf Town, toward a place we will never venture to again. I wonder briefly what Leo is thinking, wonder how much he regrets ever leaving Sandgem.
Keep each other alive.
I'm sorry, Dawn. We've failed you. You asked one small task of us, and we couldn't follow through. Now we see that you were right, that leaving has brought us nothing but pain and death. Perhaps we were too weak, or the undead were too strong. Either way, we've lost a member of our family and he will never be by our side again. What greater failure is there than to let your own brother die?
A tall, raggedly thin form emerges from within the lab. Leo, Scout, and I know immediately who waits for us, yet we don't run for him. We've failed him too. We left his home with our heads held high, but our tails between our legs –too cowardly to tell him we no longer wished to be under his care. We thought we could take care of ourselves, that we'd learned enough in eighteen years to survive without any adult intervention. If Prinplup's death is a sign of things to come, then surely we were wrong.
A part of me, bigger and more powerful than the part that controls logic and reason, wants to believe there is some other way. That this is just a mistake, an error in a story we can fix after some proofreading. That part wants to see this as merely the exception that proves the rule; a nonsensical argument that just might change my mind. For Leo, this is the end. But for me? If I choose the arrogant path, the self-righteous and stubborn route, then my journey is not yet over. I can continue to test my luck, to see how far I can go before the grief or my weakness becomes overwhelming and I'm forced to lie down and die.
The tall man begins walking toward us, faster with each step. He is wearing a thick brown jacket and stained, ill-fitting pants. As he comes closer I begin to see the deep lines of age on his face, the dark circles of exhaustion cratered beneath his eyes. He walks with a limp, and has disregarded his old cane. His left leg drags behind him, his steps short and erratic. The sight makes me think of an undead human, too slow to get anywhere at any remotely dangerous speed.
Leo takes a few steps forward, his somber expression beginning to break into something like regret. The Professor's pale grey eyes shine with tears, and I have to look away to hide my shame. He finally reaches us, wrapping his frail arms around our shoulders and holding us tightly. I blink hard, fighting valiantly against my own urge to cry. Tentatively, I put my arm around his side, gripping to his coat like a small child.
"I understand why you boys did this." Leo and I sit across from the Professor at the same dinner table we ate at for the past four years, hot tea in our hands and blankets around our shoulders. Rowan leans back in his chair, looking into his lap at his wrinkled hands. "I should have known. Even as children, you could never stay in one place for too long. I'm surprised you put up with us here, honestly." His voice is much quieter than usual, weak and a little hoarse. I never noticed how old he sounded until now. I've always pictured Rowan as he was when I first met him nearly six years ago, a much younger and more energetic man with plenty of vitality left in him. Now I see him as he is; an eighty-year-old man living in a sixty-six-year-old's broken body. "I remember when I met you boys back in Twinleaf, so long ago. You demanded I give you Pokémon; you told me you wanted to see the world and start a new life. I…I suppose this time I should've been more understanding."
I almost want him to yell at us, to punish us for running away. That would be easier than seeing him like this. The hurt is clear in his voice and his eyes, and we know he feels at least partially responsible for Prinplup's death. Yet it was our fault for leaving, and our fault for putting ourselves and our Pokémon in danger. He isn't guilty at all, but we don't know how to tell him that. Neither of us has spoken, showing Rowan the respect we didn't earlier. If he wants to talk, we need to let him.
"You boys…do you know what you mean to me? To Dawn? You are like my sons, and Dawn is like your sister." He puts his hands on the table now, fingers resting over the edge. "I only wish I'd talked to you about this. Yes, the-the undead are beginning to lose energy, and yes, they have avoided this place for quite some time. But…they are only staying away from here because they know we can stop them. They won't attack us because they have some vague memory of this place, and that memory prevents them from trying to destroy us. That said," He finally turns his gaze on us, his eyes cool and distant. "I don't want to discourage you boys from doing as you wish."
We are too stunned to speak. We'd assumed punishment; we'd assumed he'd want to keep us here forever. And we'd accepted that. The concept of him actually wanting us to see what lies beyond these walls, to continue risking our lives is nearly impossible to fathom. He has always told us to stay with him, to keep ourselves protected in the lab where he can watch over us. We figured for the past few years that he'd never want us to leave him under any circumstances.
He sighs heavily, shaking his head a bit. "You boys can't stay here for your entire lives. I see that now. From now on, you can come and go as you please. There will always be a place for you at this table." He stands up suddenly and limps off, leaving us to sit and think about what he's told us.
"I'm not going to say I told you so or anything like that." Dawn and Leo are in the next room over, though Dawn's voice is the only one I hear. She rarely has much to say to me, and I'm okay with that. She's always clung to Leo, staying up late at night talking to him and sharing her deepest secrets. So like any other talk she has with him, I make myself busy around the corner and eavesdrop. "I just think…I just want you to stay here now."
"That was the plan." His voice is barely audible, dragging itself through his throat in a struggling mumble. Something about the way he says it bothers me, as if now I know he's absolutely not going to change his mind. He would never lie to Dawn, and even if he's not quite sure of what he thinks, his innermost beliefs always come out around her. This simple admittance is hard to accept, this promise that he's made his decision and so have I.
"Good. I mean, I wouldn't try and force you to do something but…" she laughs with very little humor. "I guess I really want you to do this."
Leo is quiet for a long moment before answering. I hear him lean back, his chair creaking loudly. "I won't put you through that again, Dawn. I-I've already killed my best friend... I swear that, even if I have to stay here for the rest of my life, I'll never, ever hurt you and I will always protect you." His words are so earnest, so full of the childish sincerity I always remember him for, that I can't help but feel a sharp sting in my heart. This part of him is still there, hiding deep within him, but he'll never show it to me again. I thought this journey would bring us closer together, but it's only broken us further apart. My closest friend is gone now, and the child I've been longing to see again for so long has died alongside his first Pokémon. I see now that he could handle losing anything, as long as he still had his Prinplup.
His name escapes from Dawn's lips, soft and full of relief. I hear a chair shift and the rustle of clothing. She is allowed to see a person in him that I never will.
I kick my bed aside, ignoring the sharp pain that results from it. Our bedroom lies in complete darkness, a thick, dark curtain separating it from the moonlit hallway. I hurl my backpack against the wall and collapse into a frustrated heap on the floor. The same yearn for freedom still burns inside me, and no matter what I do I can't put it out. It would be logical, it would be rational, it would be sane to stay here and wait out the storm. Why do I want so badly to throw myself back out into the pouring rain?
Beyond these walls lies nothing but pain and heartache. Nothing but starvation and death. Nothing but arrogance and stupidity. I have seen –twice now- that I cannot survive out there. Or perhaps worse, that I cannot keep others alive either. I know I must swallow my grief and move on, but deep down lies the knowledge that Prinplup's death was primarily my fault. I am lazy and foolish. I called victory before my opponent was completely defeated, and left my frozen best friend and his valiant but outmatched Pokémon to fight a beast I could kill. I cannot say with any confidence that such a mistake will not happen again. By letting my guard down for just one moment I allowed my friend to be brutally murdered, and my other friend to lose faith in himself forever.
Giving up is the only option. There is nothing else I can logically do to keep myself and my Pokémon alive. They trust me to do the right thing, but I can't trust myself. My mind flashes back to my other partners, to the red hot tears that stung my face when, one after another, they were slaughtered before my eyes.
Laura, Arthur, Dracula, Beatrice...they were the loyalist of friends and I failed them all. They would never want me to continue, not after this. Not after losing yet another Pokémon due to my own carelessness. But how can I live here? My mind begins to come loose at the mere thought. Four more years? Eight more years? Who knows how long I could be stuck here, listening to the Professor slowly die while Dawn and Leo discuss their darkest secrets every freaking night.
I slam my fist into the ground. But staying here means I stay alive. Scout and Tinkerbell too. I want that to be enough. I want to live a rational and reasonable life, hidden away from the chaos and madness of the outside world. I crave logic, and I long for simplicity. This place is home and this place is sanity.
A bright light appears on the other side of the room, and I look up to see Scout standing at the doorway, her tail burning brilliantly in the dark. She watches me for a long time, examining her pathetic trainer crouched on the floor. I want to apologize for everything, to tell her I know I'm an awful trainer and I don't deserve her.
She kneels down beside me, and holds out both her hands. They flicker in the light of her tail, and I stare back at her in confusion. A quick, high-pitched burst of sound falls from her mouth, and she pushes her paws toward me. I sit up, reconfigure my body so that my back is to the wall, and lay my hands in hers. A small smile spreads across her little face, and she nods several times.
"What are you trying to tell me, Scout?" I ask her quietly, my voice low and hoarse. She looks toward the door, toward the window at the end of the hallway, and suddenly I understand her completely. I follow her gaze, staring out for a while before looking back at her. "Are you sure, Scout? I-I'm a terrible trainer." She frowns and shakes her head, squeezing my hands tightly.
You've managed to keep me alive so far.
"Scout…" I hold her paws for one moment longer before pulling her against my chest and squeezing her tightly. She is all I need. With her, I am invincible.