A muffled crunch filled the air as worn leather pressed down on the thick layers of dead leaves and pine needles that carpeted the forest floor in various shades of browns and deep greens. Soldier pines pierced through the earth as straight and thin as spears, their gnarled roots snaking in and out of the clumps of dead debris waiting to snag an ankle. The sky hung low and heavy, the color of dull steel. But if the sky was dull steel, the wind that whipped down the hillside from the north was as cold and sharp as a forged blade. When the wind howled it brought a chill that cut straight to the bone. Stillness turned to fury as branches waved like the arms of madmen and leaves rustled loud and angry. And then, just as quick as it would start up, the wind would die and the forest would settle into a quiet slumber. But the forest wasn't asleep, nor was it empty; for even in it's deepest silence the hum of life could be felt. The feeling was neither friendly nor hostile, nor did it resolve any loneliness. It was like being the only person awake in a room of sleeping strangers.
As the wind began to pick up again, Oak stopped a moment to adjust the thick wool scarf that covered the lower half of his face. Only his eyes could be seen and they were dry and bloodshot from chill. His hair, even more grey than the sky, whipped across his brow in greasy, messy clumps. He brushed it back with a swipe of his palm but it fell out of place again right away. Three days, he thought. It couldn't have been more. For three days he'd been hiking through this forest and he was beginning to worry that he was lost. Two days is usually all it took, but I was much younger back then… A listless smile brushed his lips as he un-shouldered his pack. The map was folded neatly in the corner pocket and Oak unfolded it slowly with shaky hands. His finger found the bold black triangle that unmistakably represented Mt. Moon and began to trace along a hand-drawn line into the mountains to the northwest. The fifth ridge, he thought. That was his destination. Was this the fourth ascent or am I almost there? He was too tired and hungry to remember. His left knee had grown sore during his second day on the hike, or was today the second day, but now it was screaming. Better stop for a bit.
By the time he ate the last bite of boiled tofu, the sun had almost completely disappeared over the horizon. Rays of deep purple and dark orange swirled across the sky and the faint shimmer of the night's first stars could be seen peeking down. Oak leaned back against the rough, cold bark of a soldier pine and watched the colors darken as the sun let out its last breaths of daylight. The spectacle reminded him of the time he'd first seen a Goldeen die. It had been a hot summer and Oak had been traveling on Route 12 hoping to fish up some aquatic Pokémon for his Pokedex. He was young then and full of excitement to be starting his own trainer journey. A fisherman had pulled up a rather plump Goldeen and Oak rushed over to scan it with his Pokedex. He remembered how beautiful the tail was; it flowed and folded like a silken gown, all milky pearl and swirls of coral. As the fish let out it's last breaths, the pearl and coral turned into moving splotches of green and red and blue; it was a dance of color and it left Oak startled and fascinated. Then, as suddenly as the dance started, all the colors faded away to pale silver. It's the life leavin' em, the fisherman had told him. Green for the earth, red for fire and blue for the sea, those were the colors of life itself. Oak smiled to himself as he remembered the fisherman's tale. It had been many years since that day on Route 12 and Oak had seen many more incredible things, had heard more than his share of interesting stories, had met his share of people, good and bad, and yet these quiet moments out in the wilderness had always been his most cherished. They were small, simple moments that were only for those who were willing to quiet their soul and watch and listen. That was why he had become a scientist; for the fresh smells of pine and soil, the sound of the howling wind, and the spectacle of a Goldeen's swan song. The science is in the facts, the facts are in the details, and the details are often what are beautiful.
As if in answer to his thoughts, the wind began to wail. Oak drew his knees up to his face and crossed his arms around them. That was when he smelled the smoke. It was faint but definitely there. The shack, someone must have started a fire up at the shack. I'm almost there. Eager for shelter and a warm fire, Oak hurriedly packed up his map and eating utensils.
Though the smell was faint, it was easy enough to follow and it seemed to be growing stronger. By now, the stars were twinkling diligently in a sky of inky black and Oak had to walk by the light of a small flashlight. There was no moon tonight so Oak had to be especially careful not to trip over any roots that might be hiding underfoot. The going was slow but twenty minutes in it felt as though the ground were beginning to flatten out. He could smell the smoke strongly now so it couldn't be much further. A couple times Oak stopped to rub some of the soreness out of his knee but after the first couple times it no longer seemed to help. Just take a few more steps, just a little further and… There it was. Right there in front of him. It was a small building built with concrete and it looked very out of place in the middle of the mountain forests. However, it looked as though the forest had begun trying to claim the building as it's own. Thick moss covered the outside and some roots had broken up part of the foundation in the left corner. In spite of the differences, Oak still felt a wave of nostalgia at the sight; it was a sight he'd hoped to never see again.
The door was unlocked and let out a grinding screech as Oak pushed it open. Warm air blew in his face and his bones began soaking up the heat immediately. He closed the door and stood for a moment letting the warmth sink into him.
"It's been a long time, Professor", said a man standing in the corner dressed in a black suit. His back was turned and he was facing a wooden table with files scattered about under flickering candlelight. Oak knew the voice immediately.
"Not as long as I'd hoped, Giovanni."
Giovanni turned to face him and he smiled at Oak coolly. The candle burning on the table shone on his face and shadows moved across the deep lines around his mouth and the crow's feet of his eyes. It gave him a sinister look and any other man might mistake that cool smile for cruel contempt, but Oak knew him better than that. Giovanni had a way of making men feel uncomfortable without saying a word, but he was a man of deep convictions and passions, not unlike Oak himself.
"We've gotten old, Professor. You're looking every bit your age, though I can't say I've fared much better." He pushed his fingers through the grey hair around his temples. "Do you have the note I sent you?"
Oak patted the breast pocket of his moleskin jacket, " Why did you send for me? Why here in the one place that embodies all of the shame and the guilt that you and I have carried for eighteen years?"
"Shame and guilt? We did the best we could, Professor. Don't you remember? We saved Kanto from itself. Us. If feelings of shame and guilt are the price we pay so be it. I won't for one sec-"
"It was a lie, Giovanni! We had a duty to the people of Kanto and in the end our solution was to lie and deceive. I don't know if it was the right thing to do. I just, I've thought about it for so long. I try and tell myself it was the only way things could get better, that we had no other choice, but then I think of Cinnabar."
"And Red, no doubt."
Giovanni did not like being interrupted. Oak could hear the frustration in his voice and see the tension that was tugging at the corners of his mouth. Oak was angry, angry with Giovanni for making him come back here; angry with himself for Red, and Surge, and Blaine, for everyone. He should have known that coming back here, to this place, would send him into a torrent of emotion but those thoughts had been overshadowed by fear as to the reason for Giovanni's letter. When he spoke, Oak tried to keep the anger out of his voice. What came out was something that sounded like a mix of contempt and sadness. "Yes, and Red too."