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Here goes...my first TR fic. Actually this is the first time I've ever written a fanfic for an anime before, and considering how few episodes of Pokemon I've seen...ah, well. *shrug* I was inspired! Blame it on James; dang bishonen always get me... This is not in the spirit of the show; I can't do comedy. This is drama, a little sad perhaps... I'd love to know what you think.
Disclaimer: Pokemon & all its baggage belongs to somebody else. Otherwise I'd be one heck of a lot richer.
Though the sun had barely risen, the doctor came as soon as they called. He was a tall, gaunt man, with his mother's red hair mostly faded to gray and sparsely spread over his skull. But his hands were limber as a young man's, as he took blood and scale samples and gently prodded the snake's long, wan length.
"I'm sorry," he told them at last. "You've taken excellent care of it, but..."
"How...how much longer?"
He glanced between the two. "Tell us the truth," the man asked quietly.
The doctor sighed. He had given these verdicts before, to dozens of tearful masters in countless different circumstances. It didn't get any easier—he had long ago resolved to quit if ever it did. But when it was this personal..."Maybe a few days. At most a couple weeks."
She swallowed, then, suddenly, turned to press her head against her husband's sleeve, hiding her eyes. He put his arms around her, after so many decades no longer awkwardly, and rubbed her back.
The doctor folded his equipment back into the pouch. "I'm sorry. Really, James, Jessie...I've done everything—"
"I know," James said, raspily. He was always hoarse, nowadays, and the lump in his throat wasn't helping. "You're a credit to your parents, Cole."
There was a time he would never have imagined saying that to a Ketchum and actually meaning it. But Cole deserved the acclaim, and more—he'd followed in his mother's footsteps and become the best pokemon doctor in the country. Probably in the world.
And it still wasn't enough.
Jessie pulled back, scraping her palm across her eyes. "Thank you," she said, too softly. "I'm sorry..." Leaning forward in her chair, she reached for her pokemon, pulling the giant cobra's head into her lap and tracing her fingers along the ridges over its cloudy eyes.
"Chh...arbok," it hissed faintly.
James laid one hand on his wife's silver hair. She closed her eyes, and he saw the tears shimmering under the papery lids. "I'll walk you out," he told the doctor, to give her the privacy she needed.
"I'm sorry," Cole said again, once the door closed. He scrubbed his face with his hands. "It's hard being a doctor sometimes. No matter how much we learn, time always wins. Reptile pokemon have long lives, but..."
James's hand still rested on the gilt knob. He looked back as if to see through the carved oak panel to his wife behind it. "Most pokemon don't live as long as people."
"The dragons, and the fairy types. Ruby's still with Jigglypuff, and it hasn't even evolved yet. And my favorite Chansey will probably see my grandkids grow old." The doctor glanced at the older man. "Speaking of grandkids...well, I guess you'd know about that as well as me."
"I know Jackson's a wreck," James replied, with a little more energy. "He calls every day to assure me I'm not a great granddad yet. I don't think he was this rattled when Maggie was expecting."
Cole chuckled faintly. "It's different when it's your own daughter giving birth. I know. Maggie keeps telling me she's fine, but you know my sister, she'll be a rock right until Jeri goes into labor. Then all bets are off. I don't think she believes she's going to be a grandma."
"I know how she feels. Jess has been saying being a grandmother for thirty years is bad enough, but she'll get out every fan in her collection when Jeri brings the baby over." It would be nice to have a baby in the house again. Jackson had grown up so fast, and his three children even faster. Still, that little Jeri could be old enough to be married, and giving birth, when it seemed like just yesterday he had been giving Jackson his first pokeball...
"So...how is she?"
James started from his thoughts. "How's Jessie?"
"She's all right." James ran a hand through his hair. He still had nearly all of it, miraculously, and that it was snow-white he was also grateful. The blue had looked ridiculous enough in his youth. "Some days are better...the other ones...I do what I can."
"I'm glad you know how she's really feeling," the doctor said seriously. "Especially with Arbok... That much pain, she shouldn't keep it to herself."
"She tells me. She didn't want to at first, but..." Independent had been Jessie's middle name as long as he'd known her; he'd always loved that in her. But he loved her all the more that she shared this. Not only because of the trust it affirmed. Though she might have actually been strong enough for her burden, he knew he couldn't have borne his side alone.
"How about yourself? The heart's not giving you much trouble?"
James shrugged. "Same as usual. As long as it's pumping, eh?"
They walked in silence for a moment. Every day the door got further away, James swore. Damn inherited mansion. Sometimes he wished his folks had been more into quaint and cozy, or at least had thought to equip the sprawling monstrosity with a shuttle. They were only halfway down the hallway. He leaned on his cane and kept shuffling his feet along the polished marble floor.
The doctor was opening his mouth. James beat him to the punch. "And how are your parents?"
"Mom's loving being a great-grandmother," Cole said readily, though he realized the conversation was being deliberately steered. "It almost makes up for retirement, she says. Jeri's announcement thrilled her; she can't wait to be one twice over."
"And your dad?"
The doctor's smile softened. "He's...the same old brat, you'd say. He's on a voyage with Gail and her boys—Sis wanted to personally check out that rumor of the new pokemon off Indigo Coast. Mom told Dad to go, to 'make sure his daughter stays out of trouble.'" He sobered. "She knew he needed to get out. Have an adventure. He hasn't really traveled since, well..."
James nodded. "How long ago was that? Five years? Six?"
"You're joking. Good grief." He heaved a sigh. "Has he ever fought pokemon since?"
Cole shook his head. "Don't think he ever will again, even if it wasn't his fault. That last battle didn't kill it, really. Its heart would have given out if it'd been asleep into a pokeball. And that's what Pikachu wanted, to go out fighting. Even if it had ever evolved to a Raichu it should've died years before. Mice pokemon just don't live that long."
"Pikachu was special." James nearly smiled. "That was always why we were after it, but we learned it more every plan we tried. Did I ever tell you about the time—"
"Yes," the doctor chuckled.
"But I didn't—"
"I know them all. From five or six different perspectives, a lot of 'em. I knew I was getting old when my kids started complaining I was repeating the stories you guys had all repeated to me."
"At least you remember them."
Cole stopped, put a hand on the old man's shoulder. "Always, Uncle James."
"Isn't a grandfather a little old to be using childhood names?"
"You and Brock were more like uncles than any of Mom's sisters' husbands," Cole said. "You were so much more fun! It was great watching you and Dad argue—that was about the only time we could believe those stories about you being in Team Rocket."
"I know." They had finally made it to the entryway. The doctor paused before opening the door. "Is that why you don't visit much? You know Mom and Dad don't hold a grudge. You're welcome there anytime. Or at my house, or my kids'. Any of us. We'd love to see you more."
"We don't have any flying pokemon," James said shortly. "And travel's hard these days."
"I know, with Jessie...but maybe just one trip. It would mean a lot to Dad... Mom's been worried about him. We all are. Since Brock passed away..." Cole's stooped shoulders fell further in remembrance of his father-in-law. "It was long before that, though. I keep remembering something I think Luna told me, or Flint. A bit of lore they'd picked up somewhere.
"There's this old tradition that the best pokemon masters don't just train them. It's more than raising them, fighting them...the true masters, they put a part of themselves in their pokemon. That's how they bond so strongly. Why some masters can get incredible obedience, why some pokemon have abilities far beyond the average. They share a piece of their heart, their soul.
"I don't know what that means, when you take away the mysticism—maybe that's all it is, a myth. But in my job I've seen how close people can be with their pokemon. And I know, when that little electric mouse died, something in my father did, too. Maybe it was part of his heart, at that."
Maybe it was. They recited the proper pleasantries and farewells, and Cole reiterated his apologies, assuring that he was on call whenever they needed him, no matter the hour. But as James made his slow way back up the hall, it wasn't the doctor's promise that occupied his thoughts.
Piece of his heart. Remembering as he always would, with utter clarity, the moment he lost Growley, he was hit even now with a wave of denial. It had been an Arcanine, in perfect health—it was still inconceivable that the fight should have gone so wrong. Such an honor, to be asked to battle a pokemon so unique, so powerful. But Growley was its match. He had been so sure. The Arcanine leapt forward, mane blazing, fierce and triumphant, joyful to fight for its master, eager to prove the prowess of its newly evolved state.
And then the creature struck, and again, and again, as no pokemon ever fought. Vicious, sadistic—why hadn't they been told? Why hadn't they guessed why this mission had been theirs? Order the most expendable to try to defeat the monster...and they had. Their one impossible moment of success.
But the cost. Blood on his hands, his pokemon's blood, his best friend's life, dead in his hands.
He'd cried, and hadn't been able to stop, hadn't even been able to be ashamed. The tears just kept flowing. And Jessie...
Jessie, Jessie always so strong, so angry; Jessie the bitch, the others all said. Jessie his teammate, whom he had almost convinced himself didn't care about him, though he couldn't stop caring for her. It was Jessie who held him, without saying anything for a long, long time, and when she did it was so gently he didn't recognize her voice. He knew then he loved her, and for a time that was all that mattered, the only thing that could matter. Not until sometime later did he know for certain she loved him, and then those two truths were enough to heal the hole in his heart.
When he was mazed by grief, no good to anyone, it was Jessie who had marched into Giovanni's office and, as she always put it, 'tendered their resignation,' though everyone knew you couldn't quit Team Rocket.
James never knew precisely what she said or did, but they never donned their uniforms again, and they only tried to steal Pikachu a few more times before giving up the private pokemon black market as a lost cause in favor of a better business. It had been odd at first, designing inventions with legal uses, but easy enough once they got the hang of it. A number of their original gadgets were still selling well, and the corporation they had established netted enough profit that when James's parents actually died, his family's wealth was only a drop in the bucket. Jessibel was far from happy to learn he outclassed her by several tax brackets.
Her expression was one of his most treasured memories. Nearly a match to Brock's, when they had offered to sponsor his pokemon breeding ranch. But none of that held a candle to Jessie's face, the night he offered her the engagement ring. She'd all but fainted in his arms. Meowth had always maintained it was out of sheer shock that he'd had the guts to ask.
Lost in memory, he was smiling when he opened the door. Then he saw Jessie, hunched over her Arbok, thin shoulders shaking, her sobs punctuated by the wracking coughs he had come to hate more than any other sound. For a moment he forgot the stiffness of his limps and the ache in his back, hastening across the room to wrap his arms around her.
Was there a time she would have resisted his embrace? He had always hugged her, it seemed. But she hadn't always leaned against him like this, as if he were all that supported her weight. Little as that was. She had never felt so fragile. Holding her so closely, he was agonizingly aware of the recent loss. More than the delicacy of age; only dry skin stretched over her angled bones, the flesh burned away by the sickness. Like a bird, gossamer feathers drawn over frail twigs. Not his Jessie at all.
Slowly the shudders decreased, though she didn't raise her head from his shoulder. Her gnarled hands remained on Arbok, caressing the sleek scales, their purple-black dull and faded with age. "Did Cole say anything else?" she asked at last.
"Not really." His own hands massaged her neck under the thick silver mane. "It sounds like Ash and Misty are looking forward to Jeri's baby as much as we are."
"They've already got a great-grandchild," she said peevishly, a glimmer of her old sniping.
"Mm-hm. I wonder when Jackson will call today."
"Our son's an idiot. She's not due for another month."
"He wants to stay in touch." James stopped before he analyzed the reasons for that. He kept his fingers moving, careful to be gentle lest he bruise her brittle skin.
Arbok hissed in wordless contentment as her nails scratched the dry scales behind the eyes. Jessie flinched. "He said...Cole said only a couple of days..."
"Or weeks," her husband reminded.
"Maybe." She lifted her head, violet eyes narrowing in a look of determination so familiar he caught his breath. "They could be wrong. They were wrong about me..."
The doctors had told her six months at most. Almost a year ago, now. She had had only one comment when they gave her the diagnosis. "At least I'm not losing my mind." Not Alzheimer's or some other rot to prey on her thoughts; senility was no longer a concern. He loved her more than ever, in that moment.
They had elected to tell no one except Jackson, and he had kept that secret, among all the others he had let slip. Their other family and friends knew she was sick, but not the extent. They didn't need to know. Even if they'd care- -Jessie was inclined to believe they wouldn't, really; James knew otherwise. But she didn't want their pity, and she didn't need to be treated like an invalid, or worse a woman already dead. Instead everyone behaved normally around her, down to jumping back when she got mad to avoid the fan she still occasionally swatted people with. And she lived, in pain and always weaker, but still herself.
Jackson was terribly worried, but tried not to show it. And James could treat her no different, because he could not accept it; for all that he knew the truth in his head, his heart would not allow him to believe the possibility of her loss. Sooner lose his own heart, than hers to stop.
Sometimes he thought she was holding on for him. But other times he wondered if it was for Arbok's sake, staying with her pokemon as it had stayed by her all these years.
He didn't care why, as long as she did.
At the low rumble he looked over her head to the door. The Persian on the threshold inclined its head gracefully. "Jessie. James. Brunch is ready. Will you come, or should I have them bring it?"
"We'll come," Jessie said. It nodded once, then curved its sinuous form around in the doorway and disappeared with a wave of its long tail. Unlike its parent, Meowth's child only used words when they were needed; a nip or a swipe with its sharp claws was enough to order the servants around, like as not. This was balanced by the perfect politeness it always showed Jessie and James, for reasons neither they nor Meowth had ever been clear about.
"Help me up," Jessie commanded, an imperious tone to counteract the feebleness the request implied. James obeyed, gripping her arms as lightly as he could and still brace her. Leaning on him, she caressed Arbok's broad nose and whispered promises she would return. The snake hissed understanding, raising its head enough to flicker its tongue against her cheek.
Her face was pinched with pain as she moved to the door, James close as her shadow, forgoing the cane to assist her. When they were in the hall, she murmured, low as if she thought she would be overheard, "What happens to pokemon when they die?"
"What do you believe happens?" she pressed impatiently. "Do they disappear? Do they go to heaven? Are they reincarnated as other pokemon, or people? What happens?"
He tried to think if they had ever discussed this before. He couldn't remember. "I don't know."
"You've got to believe something. You go to the Lavender Town temple every year, don't you?" He did, to pay homage to Growley's tomb, though why he couldn't say. "Are they like people? When we die, do we all end up in the same place? What do you think?"
"I don't know what happens to people, either. Though I don't think Meowth would've made it to heaven..." He felt guilty as soon as he said it, for making a joke about the dead, for insulting an old friend. For not having thought of Meowth in too long, because it was painful to remember. Neither of them had told stories about their Team Rocket days for a couple years after Meowth died. It hadn't seemed right, describing his great plans without him there to embellish them further, laughing at their failures when one of them was gone. They'd been a team, and much as he loved being part of this couple, James dearly missed their threesome.
Jessie was occupied with her own thoughts, perhaps the same, or entirely different. Before they entered the dining room, he asked her, "What do you think happens?"
Her whisper was faint as Arbok's hiss. "I don't know."
Jessie had been well that day. She paid for it the next. Before dawn James awoke to her coughs, ragged in minutes; she could hardly catch her breath. Arbok was little better. He had the pokemon brought to their room and draped it over the bed, wrapping around her like a mantle. Its breath wheezing in its narrow lungs, it rested its massive head on her breast and was happy.
James was reminded of how the snake used to watch their child, and later grandchildren. He had initially been uneasy to have Jackson nearby when Arbok was out of the pokeball, but Jessie had argued for her pokemon, and the cobra proved to be as fond of their son as the boy was of it. He often fell asleep happily tangled in its coils. His children had delighted in the snake as well; Arbok had been left to babysit more than once. They'd come back from an evening out to find Brook playing with its tail, Jeri patting its head, and the baby safely cradled in a loop of its middle.
Jessie was sleeping there that afternoon, but not like a baby, the creases around her eyes sharpened by pain, cheeks hollowed. He was chary to wake her, but she blinked when his weight disturbed the mattress. Arbok didn't stir.
"Jessie?" She nodded. "I talked to Cole again, and also Ruby. We're setting up an incubator for Arbok downstairs. Like they have at pokecenters. It might help. Also..." He hesitated. "I talked to Ruby about the Healite spring. You remember, she mentioned it before? Those water pokemon they just discovered, the ones who can cure..."
"They wouldn't let me go," Jessie whispered.
"They wouldn't let Arbok go," he corrected gently. "They're really shy, the Healites. It took a lot of training before they'd let people near. Other pokemon still scare them."
"Arbok needs me." She trailed her fingers over the waning orange pattern on the cobra's hood.
"Maybe..." He stopped. After, he had been about to say, after Arbok died. As if he were waiting for it to happen, as if it were just a date, a way to mark time. Before death, and after death. Not a loss, an ending...
Too much death. Too many had died, if that was all death was to him, a transition. Or maybe this was right. Acclimatization, so when the end came for him he would be ready.
"I miss Weezing, sometimes," he said instead. Jessie looked at him. He shrugged. "I know, it's not the same." The gas pokemon had eventually split into three Coffings, all of which had since evolved to Weezing and divided themselves. "All its progeny are great, but I remember when it was just Coffing...the only pokemon I had, back at Pokemon Tech. It was different, then."
"Weezing," murmured Jessie. "And Growley, you still miss him." She leaned back against Arbok's coils. "When I got Ekans... It was my first pokemon. I was so happy, to have one at last. And it was a snake—there were girls afraid just because it was a snake. That was great. I'd just take out its pokeball and they'd run. Fighting it was even better. And when it evolved...cobras are so beautiful. The pattern, the hood, the grace...aren't they?"
"Arbok is beautiful," he agreed, wholeheartedly.
"And strong. The strongest. Aren't you," she murmured into its hidden ear. "You're more powerful than dragons."
"Larger, too," James pointed out, resting a hand on the giant, scaled side. He'd never seen an Arbok as big. At one time it had indeed been a match for a dragon.
But now its fight was gone. There was an old axiom that a pokemon that didn't fight had to be dead—and cursed not to be a ghost. Arbok could no longer battle, and it faded further every day. The incubator was no solution. James knew the doctor's estimate had been generous. A few days was a more likely span than even a single week.
When they brought Arbok to the incubator, Jessie walked beside it, one hand on its rippling length and the other wrapped around James's arm for support. She was shivering with exertion by the time they made to the study, crumpling into the waiting chair like a leaf-stuffed scarecrow. But she refused to leave her pokemon's side until long after darkness fall, when she was sure it was settled. As she left, it raised its head far enough to watch her, weaving with effort, and hissed, "Chhh-ar-harbok..." the longest articulation it had made in days.
Jessie coughed throughout the night, until tears streamed down her face. James held her close and begged for her relief. It was hours before they subsided enough for her to sleep, and he remained awake after she drifted off, counting each faint gasp of her failing lungs.
The next day Arbok barely moved at all. Jessie sat in the chair by its incubator, wrapped in an afghan though the room was too warm even to James.
At dinner time he brought a tray of food for them to eat together. When he reached the study he paused, wondering if his hearing aid might be damaged. But opening the door he found her singing, faint and gentle. A lullaby that he had taught her. Hearing it brought him back years, through layers and layers of memory. One of his nannies, singing it to him, long before he ran away from home the first time. Then he singing to Jessie, on the road one evening, a joke while discussing Jigglypuff's tactics. Much later, they sang it together to Jackson, with Meowth making an unorthodox trio.
He didn't remember the lyrics anymore, and she sang now with only melody. Arbok nestled against her, great eyes wide, entranced, and James no less so. When she finished, he didn't move until Jessie spoke. "Do you know the words?"
"I was just wondering if you did."
She sighed and shook her head, slowly. He could see tears winding their way down the lines of her face. "I brought dinner," he said.
"I'm not hungry."
"You didn't have lunch, either. Have you eaten at all today?"
She shook her head again, patting Arbok's scaled head.
"James, I'm not hungry...not at all. My stomach aches. My whole body..."
He set the tray down on one of the desks, carefully so as not to rattle the dainty china. "I'm not hungry, either."
She looked at him, then down at Arbok as if she couldn't bear to see him further. But when he hugged her, she wrapped her arms around him and held on as tightly as she could. Her tears stained his gray silk shirt; his own were lost in her silver hair.
She went to sleep beside him like always, but late in the night he awoke alone in their bed. The moon outside the window stretched pearly shadows across the tangled sheets. He turned on no lights, needing none to find his way through the dark mansion. But the lamp in the study was already on, a warm, golden glow seeping under the door to color the embroidered rug.
The incubator was off, however, and the giant snake coiled in the silver womb was still, no breath animating its graying lengths. Jessie hunched over Arbok, cradling the motionless head, so gently, but her hands no longer stroking the ridges above its eyes. Those vast golden orbs now were milky, glazed. She didn't look up when James entered, but she spoke, brokenly. "He...said my name. He said...Arbok...when I came...but then...he said Jessie. I...heard him. He said...Jessie...and then he..."
He touched her shoulder, and she was freezing, colder than the room, colder than Arbok's lifeless scales. Grasping the edge of the incubator, he lowered himself to the floor beside her and put his back against the incubator, then pulled her close and wrapped his arms around her. She leaned against him, not resisting, not shivering though she felt like ice through her gown and his nightshirt. She kept one hand on Arbok's head, resting between the empty eyes.
"We should go back to bed," he said at last, though he knew he couldn't stand without assistance.
She shook her head against his shoulder, tried to speak but coughed instead. He tightened his arms around her, as if he could prevent the spasms. When she trembled, he knew it wasn't with cold but pain, by the way her breath caught in her throat. It was a lifetime again before it ended, and when at last she slumped against him, he could feel everything left in her was spent. Raggedly she gasped, "I'm sorry...James...I'm sorry..."
"It's all right," he told her, honestly. "No regrets."
"Not now. Not for years." He closed his eyes. "Jessie...I'll always remember what a wonderful dresser you are."
She laughed, or sobbed, or both at once. "James...I always remembered...how you were better...than anything...I ever...could be..."
"You're better than anything I could dream of being," he said.
"I love you," she whispered, grasping at his nightshirt, weakly, fingers digging into the thin fabric as if to tear it. "Always..."
"I love you," he told her. "I've got you. You don't need to hold on anymore." He pressed his lips to the top of her head, until she relaxed in his embrace. Her fists unclenched, and she exhaled, a long, cleansing sigh.
"No regrets," she echoed, and nestled her head against his chest.
He rested his cheek on her soft hair, feeling her shoulders barely rise and fall under his arms. "I'm with you, Jessie. Always."
She said nothing, but reached out to brush Arbok's sleek side. Then she took James's hands. He loosely closed his fingers around hers, resting in her lap.
It seemed as if he could feel her heart beating against him. He lost himself in that steady cadence, in the blood flowing under her soft skin, in the slow rhythm of her breathing and the softness of her hair curling against his cheek. He forgot how cold she was, how chilled he was himself, how hard the floor was beneath the thin rug and how his joints ached in protest of his awkward position. Time slowed with her breathing, and gradually slipped away entirely, until all perception of it was gone, all thought of minutes and hours and years, all memory of age, passed by. Only him and her, and he was with her and she with him, and they might have been at their conception, the instant before birth when life is all and only potential.
When the rhythm of her breaths ended, they had already faded so much he was barely aware of the cessation. It seemed less a pattern broken than one concluded, fittingly. There was no pain, not where he might have expected there to be.
"No regrets," he whispered. Though he would have liked to see their great grandchild.
"Prrrrr." The Persian's rumble was low enough to vibrate through him, but he barely felt its whiskers nuzzle his cheek. It encircled him, but his arms were numb and he could not feel the warmth of its body, nor see the lamp though he knew it was still shining.
"Meowth," he said, though that was not its name. Only Meowth was here, that he could see. Smiling at him, that toothy grin that meant pure mischief.
The Persian was speaking, as it rarely did, but the words meant nothing anymore. Growley's bark was more important, and Arbok's hiss. Could a snake sing?
There was a pain in his chest, a burning fire of needles and fangs, stabbing into his heart. He couldn't breathe, as if his lungs were filled with smoke, yet the air smelled clean, like roses. But the only roses were in the dining room, dying in a crystal vase, and these he smelled were fresh, still alive on their branches, thorns and all.
"James," the Persian purred, so sadly. He would have answered, but then he heard her laughing, aloud and full as she hadn't been able to for months.
Would Jeri's baby be a boy or a girl? What would they name it?
He could find out later. The pain in his heart was subsiding, but he could no longer catch his breath. The Persian rubbed its head against his shoulder, but it was impossible to lift his hand to scratch its round ears. Later. Growley wanted to play fetch. They hadn't been able to for so long.
And she was waiting for him.
James closed his eyes, and followed the other half of his soul.