All you have to do, it says. As if it’s easy.
And maybe it is; after all, Red’s never learned how to walk away from a fight.
The air rasps in Leaf’s throat as she walks to the well, and she has to take a long rest before lowering her bucket. Red helps lift it from the dark water and back into her waiting hands.
Between her slowing breaths, she tells him about her life, the world she wants to see beyond the town’s narrow borders. Red listens, and listens, and listens.
Articuno has centuries of wisdom and gathered strength.
All Red has is a Pikachu.
The landscape changes beneath his wandering feet as he follows Pikachu’s flashing light towards the next legendary. He barely notices as the low fields give way to forest, then marshland. He only stops when the ocean washes up against his worn shoes, and even then he’s not stopped for long.
The blizzard batters Red’s bare arms and face. This one—Lugia—screams storms. His weapon is a yellow blur visible only in flashes, and its battle cries are hoarse and cracked—beyond inhuman. Still, Red shouts into the roaring wind and swallows the shuddering fear rising in the back of his throat.
His answer is the sharp crack of lightning, like bones breaking.
“I’m to be married,” Leaf says, and gives a helpless little laugh.
Red says nothing.
Her fingers lace together; even as her skin turns sallow, she’s still beautiful. “We were betrothed when we were very young. Our families…” she stops, breathing fast. Like many of her stories, it has a beginning, but no end.
Red stands and brings the bucket to her family’s home, letting her rest a few moments more beside the well. As he hands the water to Leaf’s father, their next-door neighbour hurries past. He barely glances in Red’s direction. Leaf is the only one in the village who looks at him instead of through him.
Red watches the boy’s eyes light up as he kneels beside her—watches as Leaf touches his cheek and smiles.
That night, he goes out and sets traps in the forest. He waits for days until a Pikachu appears, and lets it nibble almost all of the food before he catches it.
If only humans were so simple, he thinks.
Seven, the voice says to him.
Leaf’s body is perfectly still. Her lips are withered, but her skin seems less yellowed, more pale.
Zapdos’s body lies in a crumpled heap. Red has fallen to his knees beside Pikachu, who sprawls on the floor, too tired to moan.
These new burns are livid, crisscrossing up his hands and forearms. Pikachu flinches as Red picks him up, and a new mark arcs its way across his palms. He jerks, but doesn’t make a sound, cradling the Pokémon close to his chest.
Red can feel the dirt gathering on him as he hunts—under his fingernails, under his clothing, under his skin. It weighs on him. His back itches, and his feet are numb. He feels like hasn’t slept in days. But he can’t stop.
He bathes in every stream he’s come across, but he can’t get clean, he thinks he’ll never be clean again. It ceases to matter as he stands trembling before the still body lying on the shrine and sees her color returning, one legendary at a time.
The land is icy again. Suicune flies without wings, skipping back and forth across the empty field. Pikachu’s teeth flash as it bites down on the legendary’s shoulder. The creature only roars and shakes it off.
Red grits his teeth against the pain that claws against his scapulae. He gives another command and watches Pikachu struggle to respond.
An unexpected barrage of stars rips Pikachu free from Suicune’s back. Red looks up and sees the boy next door standing across the battlefield, glaring at him. Eevee leaps forward to stand over Pikachu, who struggles to rise and fails.
Suicune seizes the opportunity to escape and vanishes into the horizon. Pikachu lifts its head and shrieks, and a thunderbolt lances from the sky, felling Eevee with one blow. Green’s hands drop to his sides in shock.
Red walks through the cold and the dark, only dimly aware of the boy chasing him and pulling at his tattered clothes. Pikachu hangs from his shoulders like a trophy from the hunt. Red’s hands loop around its thin body, shielding it from Green’s flailing fists.
“What are you doing?” Green shouts in his ear. It sounds so far away.
Green lunges to block his path, shoving him back when Red tries to step around him. “Red,” Green growls, and Red finally looks up. Whatever Green sees in his face makes him hesitate, but only for a moment.
“You can’t—you can’t bring Leaf back,” the boy says, shaking him. “She’s gone. What you’re doing, it’s—”
Six, Red thinks. His breath is harsh in his throat as he lifts his hands from Pikachu’s body and shoves. Green stumbles. It’s enough to let Red pass.
“I’m going to stop you,” Green shouts after him. Red doesn’t hear.
Suicune doesn’t last as long the second time. By the time Green catches up, Red’s already won.
That night, Red is dragged awake by sharp pain breaking through his back. His searching fingers feel blood-slick feathers covering hollow bones, and he retches into the snow.
Green is fresher and faster. He climbs the mountain before Red can.
Eevee’s body is a tiny barricade. “If you want Moltres,” Green snarls at the cave entrance, “You’ll have to go through me.”
Fire-tinged feathers flock around his feet, reminiscent of the withered weight curled beneath his jacket. Pikachu limps back towards him and licks his hand.
“Why are you here?” Green asks. The bravado’s been beaten from his voice, leaving it shaking, quiet. “If anyone should be doing this, it’s me.”
Red tries to recall Leaf’s smile, the timbre of her voice, but he can’t. All he can think of is the altar, the white dress, her sunken eyes.
“Come home,” Green pleads, cradling Eevee in his arms. But home was the well, with Leaf beside.
Home is a burned tower and a dead girl on a waiting pyre.
Red follows the sounds of thunder to the cliff overlooking the sea. Green is already there, battling Raikou.
“You can’t beat him if I beat him first,” Green spits, and sends out Charmeleon to hold Red and Pikachu at bay.
After Moltres, fire doesn’t scare the two of them anymore. Pikachu dives through the sheet of flames and slams Charmeleon into the ground. A few feet away, Venusaur lands a flying strike against Raikou’s chest.
With a roar, Raikou is thrown from the cliff and plummets towards the sea. Pikachu sprints to the edge and hurls itself after it, screaming. Lightning bleaches the sky.
After the funeral ceremony, Leaf’s body is arranged in the village temple for final goodbyes. She’s dressed in white and surrounded by flowers. Green kneels beside her, holds her limp hand and presses it to his forehead.
Red watches from the shadows, unnoticed, waiting. Pikachu is a silent shape at his side.
Finally, Green leaves, his thumb smudging the tears that linger on his eyelashes. Red steps forward then and lifts Leaf from her funeral bed. Her body is light.
It’s a long, slow journey to the burned tower. At long last he lays her on the makeshift altar.
She had a story to finish, Red explains. She wasn’t ready yet.
“I wasn’t ready yet.”
Red stands thigh-deep in the ocean at the base of the cliff. The waves try to push him back. Green is beside him, watching his Squirtle search for bodies or survivors.
“I loved her, too,” Green says, his voice hoarse. “But—Red. We have to move on.”
Red doesn’t answer.
“Do you know what you’re doing?” Green hisses, grabbing Red’s shoulders, twisting him until they’re eye-to-eye. Red’s wings flare slightly to keep his balance and move the jacket they hide beneath. Green’s eyes flick to his back.
“You—“ Green’s hands drop. “I thought Gramps was lying.” He shakes his head, and his voice is low and bitter. “It’s too late for you, isn’t it?”
Squirtle surfaces with a limp yellow shape. Red bursts into motion towards them, splashing awkwardly when he gets in too deep. Green lets him go.
“You bastard,” he says, helplessly.
Entei doesn’t fight at all, only watches him with sad eyes.
Pikachu is bundled in his arms, but tumbles free when it sees the legendary. It knows what’s expected. Red opens his mouth, but his voice catches in his throat. It’s worth it, he tells himself. The only response is a low buzzing in his head.
He looks at the legendary and struggles not to cry.
Entei, too, falls.
Red’s wings are a heavy load on his back, bowing his shoulders and ruining his stride.
Green is sprinting towards Ho-Oh, arms waving. “Get out of here!” he shouts at the last legendary bird. “Run!”
Red tries to give chase and stumbles. When he picks himself up, Pikachu is far ahead of him, racing to stay beneath Ho-Oh.
“No!” Green shouts, but the lightning strikes through Ho-Oh and hits Pikachu, a clear line of blinding white. Red hears a final familiar scream—and then nothing.
He's so tired.
When he last saw Leaf on the pyre with only one battle remaining, she was smiling. He would swear by it.
Mew was her favorite legendary, he remembers. When he finds it, he’s without Pikachu or Green. All he has are ruined wings, a slow-pounding heart, and a body streaked with black.
He doesn’t try to fight it. He just stands there, wordlessly pleading.
Mew follows him back to the burned tower and circles the girl on the altar. It lightly touches Leaf’s forehead, her cheek, her chest. It flits through the tower ruins, examining the idols that ring the walls. Only one of them is left intact.
Then it returns to Red, who sags where he stands and fights just to keep his eyes open. It whispers in his ear before drifting towards the last statue. Mew’s form dissolves and the idol shatters.
The ground shakes, and Red’s eyes close.
The weight of his wings has driven him to his knees. Black feathers bloom from his face, from the backs of his hands. He watches quietly, unmoving.
Green lifts Leaf from the altar as the tower crumbles. Her eyes are open, and her chest slowly rises and falls. Everything about her glows: her skin, her hair, even her eyes. Green watches him, his expression pained and pitying.
“I did it for you,” Red whispers, before he dissolves into the dark.