Leaf can see Mt. Silver from her window. She pets her jigglypuff, watching the way the clouds scud around the lofty peak, and dreams.
Green is already a gym leader by the time Leaf gives in to the itch in her feet. She informs her mother that she’s leaving that day over breakfast, packs a few necessary things into her messenger bag, and leaves. She doesn’t stop by Professor Oak’s lab, because she already has a starter; two pokémon would be cheating.
The road to Viridian City is a gentle upward slope, and her legs are sore by the time she gets to the pokémon center. She rubs her calves that evening as she sits on one of the center's thin mattresses, grinning. There’s so much road before her. There are so many places she’s going to see.
She doesn’t stop to see Green, either. He’s just taken over the gym, and she’s sure he’s overwhelmed with settling in. Besides, she’s not interested in anything he might have to say. She doesn’t want to hear admonishments or advice. All she wants to hear are the two words she told herself before she left Pallet: “Good luck.”
Mt. Silver is closer now, looming in the distance. She smiles at it, and then steps into Viridian Forest.
Mt. Moon is first. When Jigglypuff meets other pokémon who look like her, she refuses to fight and instead engages them in a singing competition that makes Leaf glad her mother urged her to bring earplugs along.
(It’s a nuisance, her mother had said. I’ll be glad to see that pokémon out of the house.
I’ll miss you too, Mom, Leaf had replied, straight-faced.)
The interior of the mountain is poorly lit and the trainers seem so much younger than her. “We were really small back then, huh,” she says to Jigglypuff, who only cocks her head. When Leaf turns around and exits the way she came, Jigglypuff follows eagerly, happy to be back out in the sun.
People usually go through Mt. Moon, not over, so her journey up is lonely and somewhat treacherous. She slips often on the shale, gathering sharp, thin slices on her palms and shins. The hikers who cross her path are friendly enough, teaching her how to cling to the rocks with different handholds and how to build cairns to mark her trail. “But I’m not going back that way,” she says.
An old hiker’s eyes twinkle. “It’s not always about where you’re going, lass,” he says. “Sometimes, it’s about where you’ve been.”
She shakes her head, but learns anyway. There’s no such thing as useless information. Jigglypuff loves to build the cairns, and Leaf often has to call her to catch up when she slows to gather stones. As her pokémon hurries to meet her, the stones clatter from her small paws like hail.
The top of the mountain is unreachable, because it doesn’t exist.
Leaf stands at the center of the crater, staring up at the ring of stone that encircles her. Out of the corners of her eyes she can see clefairy peering at her curiously, too scared to approach. Jigglypuff is stronger now, too. An hour ago she defeated an onix and shook her head when Leaf offered her a potion.
A glimmer catches her eye. She wanders over and finds an opalescent rock buried amidst the gray stones. She lifts it and rainbows scatter across her hands, the dark ground, Jigglypuff's dusty pink coat.
She looks at her pokémon, who reaches up fearlessly.
"You can do it," she says, and passes the moon stone over.
Lance's smile is wan. "If you're looking for Red," he begins, but Leaf shakes her head; she already knew that he'd be long gone.
"I'm a challenger," she says. The polite smile fades and a look of pleasure takes its place.
She doesn't train flashy and strong pokémon, like Green, and hasn't befriended legendary pokémon, like Red. She trains what she catches, and what she catches is common: a dewgong, a fearow, her faithful wigglytuff. Still, they've all gotten this far.
Her body moves like shifting water and her pokémon respond in kind, feinting, dodging, throwing up screens of light or pouring out clouds of toxic gas. Lance's shouts grow louder and louder, but Leaf's side is silent except for her own harsh breathing, perfectly synchronized with her pokémon's. It's a hard fight, the hardest she's ever had, but at last Lance's stock of full restores are depleted and his last pokémon falls.
He shakes her hand. "Thank you," she tells him, and his smile is genuine.
"Thank you," he says. "Pallet Town certainly produces strong trainers, doesn't it? Professor Oak has done a good job with the three of you."
She laughs. "Thanks. Um, Lance...listen. I don't want to be champion." She glances back at her pokémon, tired but still ready to go. "I've still got a lot to do. Is that all right?"
Lance's smile twists with something that's too well-mannered to be bitterness. "It's fine," he says. "I should have expected it. There's a precedent, after all."
Leaf passes Mt. Silver on her way, but tries not to glance at it too much. There's a weight on her now, right between her shoulderblades and hurrying her steps.
Green wrote her letters when he was on her journey. Sometimes she would receive them on a week or two delay, if her mother decided they weren't important enough to tell her about, and then she'd get a whole slew of them at once.
She's left them all in the top drawer of her desk, but she remembers every one. After Green lost the championship to Red—he never wrote about that, but he didn't have to, the news headlines were writing enough—he went to Johto briefly. I'm in Blackthorn City, he told her then. It's pretty lame, but I caught a few cool pokémon in the Ice Cave (get it? haha). There's this place called Nico's, too. You should check it out.
She didn't hear from Red much on their journey, but that didn't surprise or disappoint her. The only thing she received from him was a shaking poké ball, with the note she'll be happier with you. Jigglypuff had been her companion ever since.
The coldness of the Ice Cave snaps at her skin, and she shivers. Kanto's a temperate region, and Pallet is the southnernmost town there—the frigid temperature is new to her, invigorating. Every surface shines with refracted light, and her battles with the other trainers there keep her from feeling cold for long.
Nico's, it turns out, is a burger joint with the best strawberry milkshakes she's ever had. She takes a photo of herself, grinning and sharing one with her newly-evolved umbreon, and sends it to Green. Nico's is great! she writes.
Mt. Mortar is the last place she visits in Johto. It echoes with dripping condensation and the inside is pitch black. She teaches Ampharos flash to compensate, and the two of them frown at the wobbly shadows that are cast along the cave walls. Still, she soldiers on, because Kiyo in Saffron City gave her a map of the mountain when she was in still in Kanto and told her to find him when she visited.
It's been at least six months since she saw him last, but Kiyo is glad to see her. She and her pokémon spend the day learning training techniques, hard ones that make her muscles ache, ones that teach her that even though she's strong, she can become even stronger.
At the end of the day, she battles him and wins. Even though she rarely loses, she still beams after the battle is finished, patting her pokémon with pride. "Good work!" she tells her wigglytuff, who nuzzles into her shoulder.
"You're one of the best trainers I've ever met," Kiyo says to her. His voice is gruff, but his eyes have almost vanished into the creases of his smile. He hands her a poké ball—a gift—and tells her, "Constancy to purpose is the secret to success."
She steps out of Mt. Mortar with a new tyrogue riding on her shoulders, a day's hike from Blackthorn City. It's not a homecoming and doesn't feel like it, but she can't deny that a section of her journey is coming to a close. She doesn't want it to end, though. She's not ready yet.
Years ago, Leaf watched from her window as Green ran from Professor Oak's lab into the high grass beyond the town. Red emerged from the lab a few moments later, tugging on his cap and scuffling his feet.
Instead of following after Green, like he almost always did in those days, his steps took him to Leaf's front door. Immediately she pulled away from the window and sprinted down the stairs. "Don't run in the house!" her mother scolded, but Leaf barely heard.
Red's hand was lifted to knock when Leaf yanked the door open. For a moment they stood there, blinking at each other.
"Hi," she said breathlessly.
In return, he gave her a small smile.
Leaf squinted at the flash of light that illuminated her backyard, then gasped at the small pokémon that stood between them. "Charmander!" she said. "You picked charmander. Are you going to give him a name?"
Red shook his head. "He doesn't want one," he murmured.
She kneeled down and reached a hand out. "Hello," she said. Charmander looked back at Red, who nodded, before wrapping his small claws around one of Leaf's fingers. "Keep an eye on Red, okay?" she told him. "We always took care of each other, but now you have to do it."
Leaf looked up to see Red watching her. "You should come," he said softly.
"I can't," she said. They'd had this conversation before. "I have to help my mom."
Red glanced at Charmander, and then after some unspoken agreement recalled him to his poké ball. There was a long pause where they stared at each other, wordless. Then Leaf lunged up from the ground and in a moment Red's arms were around her, holding her, squeezing her as hard as she was squeezing him.
"I'll catch up one day," she said fiercely into Red's ear. "I promise."
The last time she saw Red's starter was during his championship parade, where Charizard stood on a slow-moving float and Red was a tiny, clinging spot on his back. Every now and then the camera zoomed in to Red's pale face—he was nervous, though most people wouldn't be able to tell. He ran his fingers across Charizard's scales as if to soothe himself.
Charizard swung his tail and flapped his wings, spouting gouts of flame into the air. He was trying to keep the attention on him, Leaf realized, and away from his trainer. It's what she would do if she were there.
"Good boy," she whispered to the TV.
The heat of Mt. Chimney makes her skin feel tight. She doesn't have any fire pokémon with her but she thinks, Charizard would enjoy this, and smiles.
"Haven't you been gone for long enough?" her mother demands. She looks smaller than Leaf remembers over the video call, older. Something like fright rises in Leaf's throat.
Leaf shakes her head, dismissing the tightness in her chest. "Hoenn's beautiful," she says instead. "I wanted to show you what Mt. Pyre is like. Look." She holds her phone up, slowly turning in a full circle to show her mother the sun glimmering off the ocean water, the way the region spreads out below the mountain like a painting. The mountain's interior is riddled with wandering paths and funereal markers, the outside littered with tokens of the bereaved. In the distance she can hear the cries of wingulls, but besides that, the mountain is silent. It's not eerie, like the Pokémon Tower in Lavender Town was, or gloomy, like Mt. Mortar. It's peaceful. She feels like she has a chance to think up here.
"Can you see it?" she asks after she's pulled the phone back to herself. Her grin fades when she sees her mother's irritated expression.
"You called me for that?" her mother asks. "You could have just sent a postcard."
Mt. Pyre doesn't exactly have a gift shop, Leaf thinks, but she doesn't say anything.
After a moment her mother sighs. "Are you all right?" she asks. "Do you need any money?"
"No...I'm fine. I've been making a lot of money through battling other trainers."
At that, her mother's eyes soften. "Just like your father," she says. "Well, I've got to run. Come home soon, all right?"
"I'm thinking of going to Sinnoh after this."
Her mother looks like she wants to say something, but presses her lips together instead. "Just—be careful," she sighs. "The world's a big place, you know."
Leaf nods. "Yeah, I know."
A wingull follows her down from the summit, and when she lifts her arm it lands fearlessly on her outstretched hand. "You're cute," she says. "Do you want to come with me?"
It hops to her shoulder and nibbles on her hair, and Leaf smiles. She remembers chasing wingulls with Red and Green on the Pallet shoreline, her arms spread wide as the birds flew before them to form crying white clouds. "I'll show you all sorts of places," she says.
She remembers learning about mountains when she was still in school. They're symbols of change, thunderous and unceasing change that takes thousands of years to leave its mark, expressions of the larger forces of tectonic plates and the earth's molten core. Stark Mountain, however, is anything but slow. The cooled magma has shattered into jagged black rocks that are hard to keep her footing on, and she stubbornly doesn't think about what will happen to her if she falls.
The paths through the mountain are falling apart. Wigglytuff shoves huge boulders aside and Hitmontop smashes through rocks, clearing new pathways for her where there are none, but all three of them are becoming exhausted. The heat is oppressive, and they keep stopping so that she can dump water over their heads, offering a pitiful reprieve.
She's shaking the last few drops out of her canteen over Wigglytuff's drooping ears when she hears, "Yo, are you all right?"
Looking up reveals a younger boy standing in front of her, his arms folded. His red shirt is a shock of color amidst the black rock that surrounds them, and for a moment she thinks of someone else.
"I think I'm a bit lost," she confesses.
The boy grins. "Lucky for you, I'm not."
She raises an eyebrow. Now he's reminding her of another boy she knows. Still, she holds back her retort; her wigglytuff is panting in a way that's worrying her. "Well, that makes one of us," she says with a wan smile. "Do you think you could show us the way out?"
"Leave it to me! Your pokémon really don't look good, though."
With a final pat and a last gulp of a super potion, she recalls Wigglytuff to her poké ball. "It's just...really hot in here. I've been to Mt. Chimney, but it wasn't this bad. You can't really go inside of that mountain, though—not like this."
As they walk together, he asks, "So are you from Hoenn?"
"Kanto," she says. He whistles.
"I'm Buck," he says. "I grew up around here. They say the mountain's so hot because it's guarded by a legendary pokémon."
"Really?" she says. "That's cool."
Red, she thinks, wouldn't have stopped until he met the legendary. She knows that he seeks them out sometimes; she thinks he might worry about them. If they're lonely, or something. He's always gone out of his way to help others, playing quietly next to the new girl in class until she felt confident enough to start a conversation, sticking close to the famous professor's grandson when everyone else had been pushed away.
She's not Red, though, so she casts a last look to where the legendary pokémon is said to be sleeping—then turns and follows Buck out of the cave.
Buck had warned her about Mt. Coronet's weird magnetic field, but it still makes her skin crawl. Umbreon's fur stands on end, and Ampharos keeps blinking like he has a headache. It's a long, hard struggle to get to the top, and the last climb has no paths or trails—just rock, and her pokémon, and her two hands. The skills she learned from the hikers on Mt. Moon come in handy.
She sits at the edge of the mountain's summit, panting. She can barely see the cairns that Wigglytuff has been leaving to mark their trail, but she's glad for their presence. It's hard to catch her breath up here; it's not the first mountain she's scaled, but it's the first that's so high. She wonders how it compares to Mt. Silver, and then—
Then there's a roar, and she doesn't have time to think about anything because Wigglytuff is tackling her out of the way of a monstrous icy fist.
She scrambles to her feet, shoes skidding a little in the whipping snow. Wigglytuff stands before her, puffed up to twice her usual size. There's a moment where all Leaf can see is white, but then she spots two red-violet eyes glaring at her. "Abomasnow!" she gasps, and then leaps back as it releases a barrage of—leaves, their edges gleamingly sharp. Wigglytuff fires a return salvo of stars, most of which knock the leaves aside, but some of them land glancing hits. The abomasnow roars and Wigglytuff's body deflates somewhat, just as Leaf breathes out. She tests the ground beneath her feet and finds it solid. It's just a battle, and Leaf knows how to handle those, no matter where they take place.
Wigglytuff leaps at the Abomasnow and then returns, striking it hard enough to make it stagger backwards. It roars again, louder, but its expression is startled. Leaf smiles, shifts her weight, throws out a hand. Their opponent rushes forward and in response her wigglytuff blows herself up again, using the fierce wind to propel herself onto Abomasnow's shoulder. She holds onto its shaggy fur and sings, right into the wild pokémon's ear.
At first it seems to have no effect. It charges straight for Leaf, arms raised and massive fists sheeting over with ice, but she doesn't move from her spot, shoulders back, head held high. Moments later it starts to slow—then wobble—and then, with an exhausted moan, it collapses bare centimeters from Leaf's feet.
She bends down to place a gentle hand on the abomasnow's massive head. Its eyes flutter closed as she captures it, and Leaf and her wigglytuff share a grin as the adrenaline catches up with her.
To catch a fearsome pokémon at the highest point in the world—it's hard to top that, she thinks. Maybe it's time to go home after all.
It takes a month before she earns her newest pokémon's respect, but by the time she leaves Sinnoh, they're as close as all of her other pokémon. Ice and grass work well together, she thinks to herself, watching the Sinnoh shoreline fade into the distance from the deck of the luxury liner that's bringing her back to Kanto. She's wealthy enough now that she didn't think twice about paying for one of the best rooms on the ship. She works hard, after all, and she deserves to have nice things.
It's been two years since she left Pallet Town. That night, lulled by the gentle rocking of the ocean waves, she dreams of playing hide and go seek with Red and Green when they were younger. Green almost always wanted to look first—he liked hunting, even back then he liked getting to the bottom of things.
The hiding place she finds already has Red in it. She turns to leave, but he grasps her wrist. "You can stay," he murmurs when she glances back.
She's grown quite a bit since leaving Pallet, and it's a tight fit to squeeze into the space beside Red, but she manages. He's bigger, too; she can't really see his face. "Shh," he tells her.
Green never finds them. She spends the rest of the dream waiting, watching Red out of the corner of her eye. His expression is serene, though she can only see it in details—his stubborn chin, the long sweep of his lowered eyelashes.
"Red," she whispers.
He lifts a finger to his lips, but says nothing.
"I missed you," she persists, her voice a hush. "I've missed you all this time."
She can see his smile, close-lipped and soft—but nothing else.
Her mother's eyes widen when she opens the door. Leaf knows what she's seeing: her wayward daughter dressed in Sinnoh's latest fashions, wearing six polished poké balls on her belt, and with the same messenger bag she had when she left. Her hair's longer now, nearly to her waist, and not tied up the way it used to be when Leaf was younger and her mother braided it herself. They're almost the same height. She meets her mother's stare and forces herself to stifle a nervous laugh.
"Well!" her mother says. There's a twitch at the corner of her mouth that might be a smile, or might be a sob. Leaf doesn't ask. "Don't just stand there. Come in."
Were the curtains always made of lace? Was the dining table always made of cherry wood? She removes her shoes and lines them up next to the light gray scuff on the wall like she's done for as long as she can remember, but the shoes beside her own seem unfamiliar. She refuses to call the sensation unease, so she settles on deja vu instead.
Leaf's mother doesn't bother feigning interest in her two years of travel, and Leaf doesn't bother telling her any stories. She listens to her mother talk about the small things that have happened while she's been gone—the renovations she's been making to the house (that's why things seem wrong), Daisy's last visit a few days ago, the new neighbor who she swears is trying to steal her eggplants, a robbery that took place last week in Celadon. "What's the world coming to," she sniffs.
Leaf feels like she's in a pretty good position to answer that, but stays silent.
Her mother keeps shooting Leaf glances, and only her years of experience with dangerous pokémon keep her from flinching. She doesn't have anything to feel bad about, she tells herself. She's older, with several continents' worth of accomplishments and friendships that she didn't have when she left, gathered despite her mother's constant warnings throughout her childhood. Those are the facts, but now that she's returned neither she nor her mother know what to make of them.
Her mother looks out the window and Leaf wraps her hands around her empty tea cup. Her back hurts from holding herself so rigidly upright; she's spent the past two years moving freely. She remembers how much her mother would scold her when she was younger for tumbling home at sunset with her dress covered in grass stains and dirt, still waving goodbye to her best friends in the world.
Leaf's mother asks if she's spending the night. Then she asks if she's staying for dinner. Leaf shakes her head each time.
"I just wanted to give you something," she says.
She digs through her messenger bag, acutely aware of how the dirt of four regions is embedded into the worn, sturdy cloth, and pulls out a box. Her mother takes it, her expression schooled into a blank smile.
From the package she lifts a variegated blue scarf. It's large enough to cover her lap in soft waves.
"They're all the rage in Sinnoh," Leaf says, "and it was a good color." They both like blue; it's one of the only things they still have in common, Leaf thinks.
When her mother looks up, her stiff expression has broken into one of brief wonder. "Thank you," she says. "It's beautiful."
When Leaf is ready to go, she hugs her mom on impulse and her mother lets her hold on for as long as she wants. When they pull apart and look at each other, she's not sure who's more surprised.
"I'm glad you didn't forget about your old mother," she says, blinking rapidly. "Be safe. The roads can be dangerous after dark. Are you sure you don't want to stay?"
"No, but thank you," Leaf replies, stepping past the threshold. "I'll call."
The walk to Viridian is a pleasure stroll after her years of traveling, and she's not winded at all by the time she climbs two flights of stairs to knock on an unfamiliar door.
Green throws it open with a shout of delight and picks her up before she can even say hello. She manages to elbow him in the stomach in retaliation and he wheezes, stumbling the last few steps until they both drop onto his couch.
"You were supposed to be here three hours ago!" he says. "You should have called me. Then again, I'm not really surprised, it's not like you ever call in the first place."
"Aww, were you worried?" she says, squirming so that she's actually sitting up instead of half-faceplanted into the couch cushions. "And stop being such a drama queen, it's not like I didn't talk to you at all. I sent you selfies!"
She learns that his grin is still slightly crooked. "You only sent me selfies! They're taking up like a gigabyte of my hard drive, it's ridiculous."
"You saved them? Green, you do care," she teases, nudging his side.
A few years ago, Green would have spit vehement denials. Now he only blushes slightly, throwing an arm around her shoulders and squeezing hard. "Someone's gotta do it," he says. "You're welcome, by the way."
They stay up until the small hours of the morning, eating ice cream out of the same carton and seeing who has the funniest, most ridiculous stories to tell after two years of being apart. It's like the sleepovers Leaf remembers before Red and Green started fighting. For a moment she can't remember why she ever started traveling; then she remembers that they were the ones who left first.
"So you're going to see him?" Green asks over breakfast. His voice is carefully nonchalant, and his shoulders are tense in a way that's sadly familiar.
Leaf takes her time chewing and swallowing a bite of toast before she says, "Yeah."
"I'll draw you a map," he says, surprising her. "You should get an early start, and if you don't leave the summit by four, you won't make it back before nightfall and you should stay up there until morning. All right?"
She blinks. "All right," she agrees. "Thanks. I...I was worried that—"
Green waves a hand. "Nah," he says, but his eyes dart away. "I got over that, don't worry. Old news." His laugh is awkward, but not bitter. "I've been going up to visit him every week or so, actually."
He lends her some of his supplies and gives her a pack of things to bring with her. "Tell him I said hi," he says before heading off to work.
She arrives at the top of Mt. Silver at a rare break in the diamond dust. Though her hat shields her eyes from the sun, she's still squinting from the snow glare. She shakes her head, raising a hand to provide further coverage, before gazing around her.
The ground far below is almost totally obscured from view by thick clouds. Their surfaces crumple and roil like an uncertain white sea, and the mountain peak thrusts through them, an island where no islands should go. The sun is reflected in odd ways, touching the snow around her and the cloudy ocean with shades of blue and gold.
It's quiet, so quiet—a reward after the last two days, which have been nothing but noisy chatter and the screaming of the snowstorm she hiked through to get here. She takes a deep breath of the slightly thinner air and lets it out, relaxing.
She doesn't have to turn around to know that he's behind her, but she smiles at the gentle brush of his hand against hers.
"I told you I'd catch up," she says.
Red waits until they're inside the cave before he pulls a poké ball from his belt.
They don't discuss it, but they both know that it's a six on six battle with no items, relying only on their skills and intuition. Red sends out Venusaur, and she counters with Pelipper. Her abomasnow is met with Charizard, and Red's espeon faces Umbreon in kind. Blastoise faces her ampharos, who's knocked out by Snorlax before Hitmontop whirls onto the field.
Then she sends out Wigglytuff. Red's eyes widen, and then crinkle into a smile.
By the time she remembers to look at her watch again, it's almost five o'clock. "I should tell Green," she says, but Red shrugs.
Leaf leans back against him, burrowing closer into the warmth of his side under the rough wool blanket. "Yeah," she agrees after a moment. "He probably figured this would happen, anyway."
She likes Mt. Silver, she decides. It was the first time she knew that she would find a person, rather than solitude, waiting for her at the summit.
She reaches out and tangles their fingers together. "I haven't been to Unova yet," she says. "Do you want to come?" He doesn't answer, so she adds seriously, "I've heard they have some really sweet mountains."
She can feel his chuckle in the puff of breath against her hair, the quiet tremor in his chest. She looks up and sees that his eyes are twinkling, but he still shakes his head.
"I'm not ready yet," he says. She nods, understanding that only too well.
"Well, it's not like I'm in a rush," she says. "I could use a break, anyway."
There's a long pause before murmurs, "Here?"
"In Pallet," he says hesitantly. "Or with Green—"
She rolls so that she's above him, putting her hands on his shoulders. "With you," she says.
He blinks, staring up into her face. After a moment he reaches up to skim a lock of hair away from her cheek with one curled finger. She leans into the fleeting touch, her eyes sliding closed, and when he tugs her down she goes easily. The kiss is dry, soft—effortless.
"I missed you," he breathes when they pull apart.
She pokes at his chest. "I've always been here," she says. "You never left me."