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Zero Lab was as still and quiet as Arven had left it, only the sounds of his steps across the dirty floor to distract him from his mission. Behind him, the small pokémon, the result of his own mad quest that had taken him to the other side of the world twice over, hovered. He caught a glimpse of it in one of the somehow still functioning monitors, seeing it glancing about at the unfamiliar environment.
"We're not far. Do you still feel it?"
The creature buzzed slightly, affirming his question.
His hand tightened around the flute, the strange instrument he had found in an oasis town that he somehow knew the moment he had touched it could only be played one time.
One time is all that it would take. But he wouldn't be the one playing it.
"Down here," he signaled to his companion. It hesitantly followed him into the elevator, and the long, silent descent into the deepest part of the lab.
What remained of the time machine still dominated the room, and in the now dim light seemed to Arven almost like the moonlit shrine in that far distant forest. With a sigh, he put his hand to it, remembering the revelation that the treasured Violet Book he had carried had been a key component to shutting the system down once and for all.
"...What if we get there and he's..." He stopped and shook his head. "No, if that happens, we can just turn around and come back. I'll just know is all. Nothing will really change if that's the case, right?"
His companion cocked its large head.
"You're right. We should just go there. So you can feel the time energy, right? It's enough to follow?"
He sighed with a bit more relief than he thought. His idea was foolish and stupid and potentially reckless but he had put too much time and energy to it to turn back. "I really am my father's son," he muttered with a bit of poison to the words. "All right, I think I'm ready." With a shake to his fingers, he reached out a hand.
Under his feathery, hesitant touch, Celebi began to glow.
When Arven opened his eyes, the only change was that the lights were on. The mirrored room was the same as he remembered, the shuttered time machine still dominating the available space. "...You followed the energy, right? You said it was strong enough!"
Celebi gestured back towards the elevator. It was unlikely to have made a mistake. After all, traveling through time was what it was known for.
"All right, but if this is something else then I'm not counting this as part of the 'there and back' deal. Not until we find him."
The pokémon again gestured to the elevator.
"Fine." After only a step, he paused. "...you can probably tell how nervous I am, right? Not like he'll care. You've probably seen this a million times, haven't you?" He glanced around but didn't really take in anything. "Desperate humans trying to beseech you to help them...though why I had to go to Orre to find this thing is beyond me," he added with a gentle shake of the flute in his hand.
A short ride and the doors opened onto the main floor of Zero Lab. Where a moment ago it had been in ruins, the entire area was fully functioning. No debris lay haphazardly about, all access to the diverging rooms was clear. Strange figures and images displayed on screens that Arven was certain hadn't been there a few minutes prior. Everything seemed newer than it should, and far more advanced. Even calling them screens seemed inaccurate, as the data seemed to float in the air.
As much as he detested it once it emerged, he couldn't stop himself from a "woooooow..."
Celebi seemed almost to giggle, and Arven relaxed a bit at the sound.
Everything that had impeded the gateway on their way in had been cleared away, and Arven immediately glanced around at the depths of Area Zero. The disturbingly crystalline crater had intensified, great glowing structures sprouted around them like colossal buildings over narrow streets. He wondered for a moment if the place wouldn't be overtaken entirely, given enough time.
As he continued through the massive overgrowth, checking every last viable corner and sometimes getting a glimpse of Celebi still hovering behind him, he tried to ignore the growing sick feeling rising up through him, starting from the pit of his stomach and simmering through his limbs with a tremble. Nervous was one thing. Nervous was perfectly normal, or as normal as the concept of time travel could be. But if all his work and time had been for nothing...
"Then we'll just turn around and go back home," he repeated as if it was all right.
Eventually he broke into the daylight, the midday sun illuminating the glow that seemed to saturate even the air itself. The first time he had come to Area Zero, the glow had disoriented him, making him think that hidden items lay everywhere, but it was an illusion. Even the ambient sound in the crater was different than anywhere else; even in his travels he had never been anywhere else that sounded close to the haunting, almost theremin-like tone that carried on the breeze.
It did Arven some good to see that even more massive trees had sprung up. Even if they were still covered in tera crystals, they were at least something organic.
One of the waterfalls seemed to have changed, but he wasn't sure how. Maybe that was also an illusion. He had to focus as best he could, through nerves and whatever else existed to pull him away from continuing on.
Something in the distance seemed off. A white patch, unnatural even in such an unnatural place, drew his eye.
Arven found his pace quickening as he approached, as more details came into view. That was unmistakably a sitting figure, a human figure, or as human as a robot could be.
He had finally found his father's AI.
Arven broke into a run, nearly stumbling over himself to reach the figure. This was the scenario he had envisioned every day for the past few years, ever since hearing about Celebi's powers. Every time he imagined it, he said something different, but he knew in honesty that if it ever came to pass, he would speak entirely from the heart. With a laugh to his voice, he called out.
The figure didn't react. Arven stopped.
It was him; it was him without a single doubt. The same lab coat, the same weird sci-fi body suit that Arven had always thought looked terrible, the same distinctive haircut, the same deep brown eyes, staring placidly at the sky above the crater, but he did. not. move. and when that sunk in, neither did Arven, freezing in place as that sick feeling absorbed every sense he had.
Everything he'd done. Everything everyone had done. Every encouraging word the AI had said before bidding them a fond "adieu!". All of it was for nothing.
"...You were too broken down, weren't you...?" Arven muttered. The AI had been so badly overloaded in the final fight from being dominated by the Paradise Protection Protocol that he ended up severely physically damaged even without being struck, and had parted from them while still convulsing from the lingering effects. "You put on a brave face for us but you couldn't keep going." He turned away from the unmoving machine, fists clenched white. It didn't matter if he broke the flute. There was no use to it any more anyway. "You lied to us...let us think there was hope for you..."
Celebi settled on his shoulder and patted the side of his face. He doubted it understood his reaction but he whispered a thanks just the same.
But...if the AI had been too damaged to function, why was the lab so clean? Arven tried to take a deep breath and focus on that thought, but his breaths were ragged and staccato. He wrenched his eyes shut tight and tried again, gritting his teeth and trying to keep himself from sobbing.
And he was so tightly focused on trying to think that it took him a moment to notice that something had lightly closed around his hand.
It felt for all the world like a human touch.
He turned, slowly, not certain that he could take whatever it was that awaited him, and was met with the soft smile of the AI. "Arven."
"Arven," the AI spoke again, "I did not expect that I would see you again. Though I am grateful to be proven incorrect." That intense, direct gaze flashed blue for a fraction of a second as the AI looked towards Celebi. "Yes, of course. The time machine did not permit humans to return to their original time...you would not risk that."
"The time machine's gone." Arven immediately regretted that those were the first words he spoke. "You shut it down just like you wanted. I don't think there's anybody in the world that could get it going again."
The AI nodded and raised a hand to his chin. It was the same thinking gesture that the real Turo had often made, the memory of which drew Arven back just a step, though his hand remained in the touch. "Yes, I don't believe there would be. Please, sit with me."
With a deep breath that he noticed was holding back another sob, Arven smiled back at last, and slowly lowered himself to the grass to sit beside the AI. "I wouldn't--" he started, but as he spoke he had turned his head, and at the sight of his father's face, or the identical facsimile thereof, those tightly restricted tears started to flow at last.
He could feel the AI's hand lift away from his. His father's actions all over again, pulling away from anything Arven needed him for, and he sobbed in reflexive fear, the feeling of abandonment that he had long drawn bitterness from starting to rise up within his core. But the AI drew him closer, pulling him in a tight hug the likes of which Arven had long ago given up any hope of feeling.
Celebi had been gently dislodged from its perch by this, but seemed content to sit nearby.
It wasn't his father. It was never his father. But it was the closest Arven knew he would ever come to something as seemingly basic as parental affection, so he set the flute aside and drew his arms around the AI to return the hug, far tighter than he had thought he ever would. "I wanted to talk to you more!" he exclaimed with a choke in his voice. "I was so angry, but you're not him..."
"I understand." The AI gave him a squeeze. "It was difficult for me to leave you as well. But I had to fulfil my duty to shut down the time machine, for the safety of Paldea and the world."
"You were so beat up..." Arven murmured as he rested his head on the AI's shoulder. "I was worried. I didn't know if you'd be alive or not."
The AI brought a hand to the back of Arven's head with a gentle pat. "I am not alive. Although I very nearly shut down. The damage to my body from the Paradise Protection Protocol was catastropic, but the crystals of Area Zero, their peculiar energy, are beneficial to machinery such as myself."
Though Arven could hear every word of the explanation, it didn't make a difference to him. This was what he had worked so hard for, what he had traveled the world for, what he had tracked down a mythical being for. "I wanted to talk to you..." he repeated, far softer than before. "I couldn't let it go. I was having nightmares again..." His sobs, against the AI's familiar lab coat, felt choking and indulgent but he didn't care. "I needed to find you again. I needed to know what really happened!"
The AI stroked Arven's back. "I will tell you anything you wish to know, for as long as you can remain here."
"I can stay as long as Celebi says I can," he sniffled. Almost forgotten, he remembered the long sought artifact he had come to deliver. But it could wait a little longer. He sat up a bit, not enough to extricate from the hug, but enough to look at the AI directly. "It's been three years for me. How long has it been for you?"
"Three years, approximately." The AI smiled, a kind smile, so unfamiliar on that face that Arven knew so well. "I am unable to establish a more exact time. When I arrived in this era, I lost a great deal of my original functions. In my original form, this robotic shell worked in tandem with the Zero Lab computer. In order to travel through time, to prevent the Paradise Protection Protocol from rebooting, I had to separate my programming. Some part of it was tied to that system, whatever it may have been."
That he wasn't certain was a surprise to Arven. "Well, it worked. The time machine never started up again. Looks like it never did here either."
"Correct. It had been shut down for too long. All power input to the lab had long been lost. As you have likely seen, I have fixed the parts I will use in my research. But that machine will never pose a threat again."
Arven felt slightly icy thinking of what would have happened if the machine had simply roared back to life in the future, and hugged the AI a little tighter.
"Due to the reconfiguration I had to perform, I was in sleep mode running an extensive diagnostic for some time, and during that, I was unable to track the passage of time."
Ah, that was what the point had been. It seemed the AI at least retained the real man's penchant for overexplaining, although Turo had always done so with bitterness, as if he couldn't believe he had to explain things to someone of inferior intelligence. The AI lacked any of that and seemed to do so out of the understanding that the other person wouldn't reasonably be able to connect the dots. Which, Arven thought, was absolutely true in that case. "However it worked out, I'm glad it did. Which is why..." He paused, not wanting to move.
"...God, you approach everything out of such curiosity, don't you?" Arven gave another squeeze before sitting back, missing the hug already. "I needed to ask you something first and foremost."
"It must be very important if you would seek out a mythical pokémon for it."
Celebi giggled before returning to toying with a flower.
Arven nodded, the tension balling his fists on his lap. "I want to ask you to come back with me. Celebi already agreed to do so if you say yes."
The AI closed his eyes, but it didn't appear to be a thinking gesture. "I cannot. I am sorry. Arv--"
Arven shot to his feet. "Why not!" It wasn't a question, not really. "You really just planned on running off on me? Never seeing me again, just like--"
He didn't need to go any further to be painfully clear. "I did not plan it. I did not know that the professor had programmed such a fail-safe into the time machine. And I did not want to leave you."
"You still did."
The AI stood as well, and reached out an arm, but Arven didn't take it. "Arven...please listen to me. I had seen how well you had grown up. Everything you had accomplished. And either way, we could not have remained together." He shook his head and let his eyes close again, seeming to take a deep breath even though Arven knew that the AI didn't breathe. "It was either remove myself from the present day, or implement my data termination procedure. I do not believe you would have wished to see me, looking as I do, reduce myself to an empty shell." He looked back at Arven, taking in the young man's frustrated expression, and smiled sadly. "Arven...witnessing your adventures, those of your friends, I was able to take inspiration from that. I had grown envious of your freedom. Of your abilities to pursue your dreams."
"You pursued his dream."
"His dream was different." The AI took a hesitant step towards Arven. "He wished to create something that would have had undue consequences, regardless of what it would have done to the world. My dream was to see the future. And, although I did truly want to remain to speak with you further...that was not an option."
"Penny could have fixed you. She's real good at hacking complex machines. She could have made sure you..." Arven sniffled. "I'm sorry. I know we couldn't have done that." He turned back, but didn't look at the AI's face, keeping his gaze groundward. "Even if she could do it, it would mean the time machine would keep spewing out all these dangerous creatures until then."
"Correct." Arven couldn't see it, but the AI's voice sounded like he was smiling. "I did not have time to tell you all of that, so I'm glad you came to understand it anyway." He reached out an arm, hesitantly at first, and settled a hand on Arven's shoulder. "I had a decision to make, and I had to make it faster than any of us would have liked. And regardless, my decision would have been the same, even if I'd been allotted the time to speak with you."
Still avoiding looking at the AI, Arven still raised a hand to cover his. "I still feel like I'm gonna cry just hearing your voice."
"I am sorry. It is the voice I was programmed with." He repeated the gesture that outwardly resembled sighing. "I wish it was not so upsetting for you to speak with me."
"It's not just that you look and sound like him," Arven admitted. "I know that's the biggest thing, but you also..." He shook his head and smiled with shaking lips. "Anyone who would do what you did is a hero. You deserved better than you got." The corners of his mouth were already turning down, as much as he tried to keep the smile intact. "Everyone agreed. Me, all my friends, Clavell, we all wanted better for you." Finally he locked eyes with the AI, and stammered through breathy sobs before he could properly speak again. "Y-you're a hero. Thank you s-so much..." He grabbed onto the AI's shoulders for support, both physical and emotional. "I can't--"
The AI pulled him close again, into another hug. "Thank YOU, brave Arven. There would have been no saving Paldea without you."
"I don't feel like I really did anything."
"On the contrary." The AI shook his head. "Without your bravery and your dedication, you and your friends never would have been able to rectify the damage the machine posed to the Paldea region. You were the key to everything, brave Arven."
"I just don't feel like a hero. You and Juliana did all the work. I just kinda stood off to the side and had a mental crisis." He let his arms drop to his sides. "I saw you, and I knew you weren't him, and that was all I was good for. Spent the next few days kinda...low-key freaking out, and then Penny asked me if I was ok and I broke down." He wiped at his eyes. "High-key freaking out. Clavell tried to talk to me, heart to heart, but I couldn't take it. I walked out and spent the next few hours trying not to puke."
The AI offered nothing but a sympathetic touch, a pat down Arven's back.
"I spent a while wandering around. Couldn't really focus on much, until I heard a story about a spirit that could travel through time. I don't know why I just automatically believed it. I guess I was just desperate." He let his head fall to the AI's shoulder. Maybe if he let himself zone out a little, he could believe it was his father's arms around him, as much as he knew otherwise. "Getting obsessed with a fantasy story and restructuring my life around it." He chuckled airily, neither as biting or as defeatist as he thought was sufficient. "Sounds familiar, doesn't it? I'm really my father's son after all."
"That is usually the progression of events."
Arven wasn't sure if it was a joke, a philosophical observation, or meant flatly literally, but he wasn't going to object to any of those. "Anyway, finding Celebi was kinda the easy part. I can't really understand what it says, but I get the general idea. I think it was drawn to my...I don't know, severity or something. Like it saw how badly this took over my head."
From its position on the ground, Celebi chirped merrily as if in agreement.
The AI nodded against Arven. "Grief is a powerful thing."
"You grieved him too, didn't you?"
"Yes. As both my creator and as my friend."
Arven sniffled. "Friends don't use friends like he used you."
They both fell silent again, Arven's staggered and thick breathing the only sound between them. Finally he pushed away from the embrace and looked at the AI, trying to find any difference between the machine shell and his father. "...You really do look just like him. I can even see the birthmark on his chin, under the beard."
The AI smiled, not the enthusiastic smile he had before, but a small, sad one. "I am as he made me. A monument to both his genius and his..." But he didn't finish the sentence.
"His ego?" Arven offered.
"Perhaps. Though I was going to say 'his failure.' I regret that I had to disappoint him, but the severity of his actions left me no choice."
Arven sighed. "If he had survived, do you think he would have changed his mind?"
"There is no way for me to say for certain." The AI gestured that they sit again, and returned to his place near some flowers. "I had considered the possibility that he might, that a brush with death would have caused him to reconsider the destruction innate to his plan. I had also considered the possibility that having such an unshakable reminder of his own mortality would have invoked in him a need to work even harder to pursue his goal, no matter what cost to Paldea or anyone in it."
"Can never be sure, huh?" Arven sat beside him again, and realized he had forgotten the flute nearby. He had traveled the world for it, ending up in the Orre region, a place he never wanted to go back to, all in case the AI would refuse his offer of returning with him.
But he had been holding the flute awfully tight, he realized, and anxiety set in. What if he had cracked it? Cautiously he picked it up from the grass where he had set it, and was relieved to find that the tune and instructions on how to play it seemed to appear in his mind when he did so.
"Um..." he muttered, holding out the flute. "This is for you. I figured you might say no if I just showed up here with Celebi and asked you to come back, but I wanted to give you a way to return if you changed your mind."
The AI accepted the gift. "Thank you." He cocked his head curiously. "...Fascinating. The moment I touched it, I seem to understand it."
Arven laughed, relief evident in his relaxing expression. "I was worried you wouldn't be able to! It's always told me how to play it whenever I touch it, but it can only be played once. Once you play it, that uses it up. I don't know how or why though."
"Incredible!" But the AI's head drooped, concern on his face. "Arven...I do appreciate this. But I don't know that I can do so."
"Oh..." Arven put a hand on the AI's shoulder. "Well, you have all the time in the world to decide. Keep it with you and..."
"That is..." The AI paused, eyes darting around, avoiding Arven's gaze. "...not what I meant. Arven, I don't know that I'm capable of it."
"What do--" But it was evident, Arven realized. For all his planning, for all the years he had devoted to this plan, for hauling himself all the way around the world, to Johto, to Orre, to everywhere in between, he had forgotten that the AI didn't breathe.
The world seemed to fall away. All of Area Zero, the crystalline air, the strange sounds, the growth beneath his feet, Celebi at his side, the AI before him, all of it faded in an instant and Arven was alone. He had forgotten something so vital, something the entire plan hinged on, and it was for nothing. Something pulled at his sleeve, something patted at his arm, something shook him, something said his name, but nothing penetrated the void. He was alone, he was meant to be alone, he would always be alone, he was stupid and self-centered and had based his entire plan on his own arrogance he was just like his father after all.
Something was around him. Something firm and solid; it felt almost reliable. It encircled him and cradled the back of his head, which made him realize he was being held. It was something kind and gentle and grounding and soothing, something he had always longed for his whole life, something that had always escaped his grasp.
"It's all right." His father's voice, but not his father. His father had never been so kind or gentle or grounding or soothing. "It's all right. I'm here now. We're together right now. Please open your eyes, Arven."
When Arven did, the AI's gentle expression seemed to be floating in a field of misty blue, the sky above the crater framing him as everything else around them began to register. Celebi was on Arven's stomach, tugging at his shirt a little bit.
"You blacked out for a moment," the AI told him. "I wasn't certain what to do. I was scared."
"YOU were scared?" But the initial vitriol faded immediately and Arven sat up in a jolt and wrapped his arms around the AI again. "I worked so hard to bring this to you and I never even considered that you can't use it. You can't br--" Though Arven found his own breathing thick and heavy and almost impossible, and he gasped for whatever air he could manage, finally choking out an extensive, all-consuming string of sobs as he clung to the AI with all his might. "I don't want to leave you," he finally managed, after some time. "I don't want you to be alone. You deserve to have your own life, outside of my dad's influence."
"So do you, Arven. You deserve to be your own person."
Celebi had moved behind the AI and nodded at that, making sure Arven could see it.
"I can be my own person. He took that from you."
The AI buried a hand in Arven's thick hair. "I ultimately made my own decision. I wanted to have my own adventures, as I had witnessed in you and your friends. My free adventurers..."
Arven tightened at the phrase, one of the final things the AI had said to them before vanishing into time. "If the only choices he gave you were 'fling yourself through time' and 'self destruct', that's not your own decision. You called him your friend but he betrayed you..."
"I know. Although at the end of his life, he did call me his friend."
"That doesn't make it true." Arven pulled away slightly, but not fully. "You said he loved me, but that didn't make it true either."
"Words alone would not. But I possess his memories, and I know from them that it was a true statement."
Arven didn't say anything, only shook his head.
"I need to tell you something else."
"Another of his lies..."
"No, only my own words. And those of Celebi."
Arven sat up straighter, slightly pulling the AI with him. "Celebi spoke to you?"
"It was unusual. But as you were starting to black out, Celebi let me know that the power to summon it comes from the flute itself. It will remember me here, and know that it may hear my call."
Celebi picked up from the ground, taking a flower with it, and merrily circled around the two, chirping "Bii bii!" merrily.
Arven shuddered. "So you don't need to breathe for it...?"
The small fairy seemed to answer for the AI, picking up the flute from where he had set it aside, and twirling it through the air with a mystic power.
"I hope that suffices as more of an answer than I could give." The AI was smiling, just a bit broader and friendlier than the warm expression from a moment before.
"You've gotta stop letting everyone talk for you!" Arven exclaimed with a laugh, playfully swatting the AI's shoulder. "Be your own person. Be who you want to be on your own!" Another laugh, but it was combined with a sob. "Heh...I'm not done crying yet, am I?" He sniffled. "Celebi, you never talked to me like that."
The fairy buzzed around them again before settling back on Arven's shoulder with a tiny shrug.
"It wasn't in so many words. It was more as if it sent an understanding directly to me. To my...mind, if you would call it that. I suppose it must be true, then, that it possesses psychic abilities." He let go of Arven, trailing a hand down the young man's arm as he leaned back, and again looked towards the sky. "Arven, I'm glad you're here. I never believed I would see you again. When I woke from sleep mode, I initially believed that I was dreaming."
So that was why he had been unresponsive when Arven had first approached. "Do you dream?"
"In a way, though they are not true dreams as you experience them. I replay old memories. And lately I have begun to replay my own, rather than his, and surmise scenarios built from them. Which I believe is a sign I am already becoming my own person."
"Absolutely it is." Arven scooted a little closer and looked skyward as well, wondering if the AI was looking at some specific point or simply enjoying the view. "Have you figured out a way to leave Area Zero?"
"I believe in time, I will be able to modify myself to do so. But I have not tested this yet."
"Is that safe for you to do, since you're alone?"
"I would not shut down immediately, if that is your concern. I would have a few minutes to return." The AI looked towards Arven and smiled. "I am not especially concerned about the risk. I believe I would be able to safely test my limits. Although I have considered perhaps training a pokémon to return me here if that was to occur."
"So you could shut down and not die?"
The AI patted his hand before resting his own over it. "I am not alive. Although, I was deactivated during that battle. The programming that makes up my unique self was unable to function. It was as though I was an observer. That itself is a form of shutdown. It is different from complete data termination."
"The thing you were trying to avoid."
"Yes. If I was to leave Area Zero now, this body would lose function, and I would be able to exist only in constant sleep mode. I would regain control of it when exposed to the unique environment here. Although..." He trailed off and looked back towards the sky. "Right now I enjoy simply existing here as I am. Though I believe it possible for me to leave, and I do wish to see the rest of Paldea, perhaps even the rest of the world, it is not yet a priority. In time I will doubtless grow restless. But I have so very long to think of such things."
Arven wiped away a few stray tears. "You've got all the time in the world, don't you?"
"I wasn't designed to last forever. Someday, my data will deteriorate and I will entirely cease to function. In your terms, I will die. But that is not for a very long time."
The AI has such an interesting perspective. On the one hand they're sentient, sapient beings. On the other hand, they're outsiders to everything including their own memories. Everything they know is distilled from the memories of creators who they came to oppose. And being able to view that downfall from what's at once both an inside and outside perspective must be dizzying.
"Destruction is a part of life. That was something your father taught me, and although he took it to an irrational extreme..." The AI shook his head. "It's still a true observation. Someday even the universe itself will cease. But that, Arven, is what makes existence so precious. It's why we need to find adventure in all corners of the world. It's why we cannot take existence for granted."
Celebi nodded, something Arven could see from the corner of his field of vision.
"You agree, huh?" Arven asked, scritching Celebi behind one of its antennae. "I guess every day is an adventure for you. Going all over the timeline, seeing everything that ever happened." He looked back at the AI. "There's a legend that says that Celebi has seen or will see every moment of creation. But it's being awfully mum about everything if that's true. It also won't tell me if there's more than one Celebi."
"I know perhaps less about it than I ought, for one who's studied time travel." The AI held out a hand, and the pokémon hopped to it. "Oh! I'm honored."
"Didn't expect that to work?"
"The pokémon here seem to disregard me, for the most part. They seem to recognize that I am not alive. It's very useful for research, as it permits me to observe them without the notion that my presence may be disruptive. They know I exist, but from my observation it seems to be in the way that they know a rock or a tree exists."
"Maybe that's why the other Miraidon listened to you, if it didn't see you as a potential threat to its territory."
"That is something I've considered," the AI mused as he brought his other hand to pet Celebi. "The Guardian was part of the Paradise Protection Protocol as well, so perhaps it saw me as kindred to itself. Do you know what became of it?"
"The Guardian? That's the other Miraidon?"
"Yes. Turo had designated it the Guardian of Paradise."
Arven scoffed. "Figures. I don't really know what happened to it. Juliana caught it and turned it over to Clavell, but after that I don't know." He frowned and laid back fully, staring up at the sky over the crater with a deep sigh. "That thing killed my dad...but I can't really bring myself to hate it. He brought it from a distant time, took it away from its home, and forced it to be a lab subject. No wonder it lashed out. It was angry, probably scared...I can't really hate a wild animal that's working on instinct." His eyes wrenched tight for a moment. "But Clavell would understand that too, so I don't think he would have it put down or anything."
"I wish I could have met Clavell myself. Not under Turo's guise, but as I really am."
"You can. Come back with me, or use the flute, and you can. Heck, you can come back with me, then use the flute to come back here later!"
The AI drew Celebi close to his chest to pet behind its head, and it nuzzled up to him with a soft sound. "I cannot. I have not yet seen what I want to see. This world, any world, is entirely new to me. Even being where I am now, near the top of the crater, was very rare for me. And either way, staying here or returning to that time, I will first need to make those adaptations that will permit me to function in the outside world."
Arven rolled on his side to face the AI. "I can wait! I can wait as long as it'll take!"
"It may take a day. It may take years. I am certain it can be done eventually, but exactness is an unknown factor." Transferring Celebi to his far hand, he reached out to Arven. "And then I wish to see Paldea, the Paldea of the distant future. I do not know what awaits me over that ridge. If humans still exist, even that is something that will be a surprise. Perhaps," he said with a smile, "they may have evolved into something new. I may be an oddity to them, some remnant of a bygone species. Or perhaps pokémon have overtaken the planet again, as they had once ruled in the distant past."
The boy flopped onto his back again. "I don't remember anything about my mom, but dad told me once that she studied the distant past. I wonder if there's some world out there where she got to see it like you did."
"Perhaps. There are many worlds, I think. But my studies, Turo's studies, didn't afford for knowing much about them." He smiled and settled back on his free hand. "I sometimes envision what might have been. Things that did not happen but could have."
"Yeah, you said you had thought about what could have happened if dad survived." Arven muttered, folding his hands behind his head. "What else do you think about?"
"Many things. Although the ones I ponder the longest are, paradoxically, the ones that distress me. It is very confusing to me. Thinking of what could have happened if your father had not expelled the rest of his research staff leads me very little. But when the notion struck me that the Guardian could have killed you..." The AI gripped Celebi a little tighter. "...Indeed, I have had what you would call nightmares of that. Of being bound to that machine, forced to watch the downfall of Paldea, unable to even cry out..." He shook his head. "I understand that it is a very human thing to be plagued by such falsehoods, regardless of how much the mind understands that the events never happened."
"Catastrophizing," Arven nodded. "Intrusive thinking. You get a terrible thought stuck in your head and you can't get it out."
"Would I be correct in assuming that you experience these things as well?"
Despite his unusual position, Arven managed a shrug as best he could. "Everyone does. But yeah, I probably have more of them than the average person would."
The AI frowned and mimicked a sigh. "...I do worry. You deserved to have a happy childhood."
"If I had, it would have meant that he wasn't far gone enough to do what he did, and he never would have created you."
"It would make no difference to me. If I was not created, I wouldn't know that I hadn't been created."
Although it always seemed to be bright daylight in the crater, a passing shadow over the both of them gave the impression of fading evening. Arven stretched his back from his prone position with a long exhale. "Heh. I kinda guess you're wondering something, aren't you?"
"I am wondering many things."
"I meant about me. Why I'm here."
"Yes, that is what I meant."
Arven laughed, an oddly clear sound, but when he spoke, his voice was sober and downplayed. "One thing in particular. Why, if I could have gone anywhere, I guess 'anywhen', why I picked saving you over..." He turned his head away, "over saving him."
Celebi wriggled out of the AI's hand and perched on his far shoulder, away from Arven's direction, leaving the AI a clear view of the young man. "Oddly, I feel I understand," the AI said. "As much as you love him, I understand why you would want to...let the past rest."
"I struggled with it for a while. I asked Celebi if I was making the right decision."
The AI laid back in imitation of Arven's position, Celebi floating to the space between them. "I imagine you must have. I would not have blamed you for choosing him."
"Yeah but...changing the past is dangerous." Arven looked back towards the AI and unlocked a hand to pet Celebi. "And plus...Well, he was kind of what you'd call a supervillain, wasn't he? He didn't deserve to die, and I'm not saying that he did, but like you said, you don't know if he could have changed. He could have gotten worse."
"'Could have' is an interesting concept, isn't it?" the AI mused. "The possibility existing for something to happen. But possibility still leaves uncertainty. And there are very few certain things in this or any other world." He reached out his own hand to rest it over Arven's wrist. "I know that you must have had great difficulty making this decision."
"Yeah, I honestly feel really selfish..." Arven was smiling broadly but in a way that creased the corners of his mouth and furrowed his eyebrows. "He didn't deserve to die but I'm also saying he didn't deserve to be saved either." His voice wavered and he blinked rapidly. "I don't know how much of that is what's really right to do, for the timeline or the future or Paldea or anything, or how much of that is me wanting to punish him for how he treated me."
The AI squeezed his wrist gently. "You seem like you want my approval. Is that correct?"
"I don't know...I don't know..." Arven murmured. "Maybe I am. God knows I've asked Celebi enough times, and it's a neutral party. It doesn't have a stake in this, and it's a divine spirit. And still it doesn't feel enough." He shook his head, the arm still behind it wobbling from the movement, and drew his knees up as if he meant to stand but remained where he was. "Yeah, I think maybe I am. Your approval, your forgiveness, your condemnation, whatever you'd say to me. I shouldn't be this obsessed with what you think just because you look like a man who ruined both our lives."
"Yeah, you're not alive. I know. Whatever you call it, our existences."
Another gentle squeeze. "I was going to say that I can't give any of those things. It was your decision, and you've already gotten this far with it. Clearly you made that decision a long time ago."
Arven scoffed. "You'd just have to go and say that, wouldn't you?" His voice was thick again, with a choke to the back of it. "Here I am trying to get you to stop living, whatever, existing, in his shadow and I can't get out of it myself." He fumbled around with his left hand, grabbing for the AI's and squeezing it as hard as he could. "And I'm going to have to leave, and then Celebi will leave, and I'm going to be alone, and you're going to be alone, and you may never see another person for as long as you exist, and I'm never going to get that jerk out of my head, and--" and he stomped his feet but still didn't stand, and covered his face with his other arm, and he broke down sobbing out the tears he had been holding back for the past several minutes.
The AI shifted to his knees and leaned over to Arven, saying nothing but offering his hand. But Arven rolled away from him, curling into a ball and drawing both arms over his head, trying to pull in staggered breaths to steady his shaking. The AI remained where he was, arm outstretched, waiting for the young man to take the lead.
Celebi shook its head, in apology or sadness or some indiscernible emotion felt only by mythical fairies, it was impossible to tell.
After either too much or two little time had passed, Arven's unsettled breathing returned to normal, and he sat up and turned towards his companions. "I'm sorry," he said with an unusual flatness, fists balled in the dirt beneath him. "That's happening more and more lately. When I go back, it should get better."
The AI drew closer, brushing his lab coat aside so as not to impede his grounded movement, and hesitantly raised a hand to Arven's shoulder. The young man didn't react. "Arven, you came here to ask me to return with you, and as of now I cannot do that. I wish to continue my research here, my grand adventure, and I would need to augment my body so that I can leave Area Zero, a process that will take an as-yet unknown amount of time to achieve."
"I know, I know..." After a moment between them, he brought his hand to cover the AI's. "I feel like ever since I got here, everything has been moving in circles. We talk, I break down, we hug, we talk, I break down again...it keeps going."
"Brave Arven..." The AI smiled, turning his attention to Celebi. "Arven said that he can stay as long as you permit. How long is that?"
The fairy rose up and swirled around the both of them, giving no solid answer before flitting off.
"Heh...I guess that means it wants to stay for a while. I wonder if it's been here before," Arven mused.
"Perhaps I'll see it again in the future, even without the Time Flute." The AI cocked his head and smiled sympathetically. "Arven, I recounted what I've told you for a reason."
"And what's that?"
"You understand now why I cannot return with you. I may make use of the Time Flute at some point, but as of now, I am unable to predict that decision. I cannot say either way at this point." He met Arven's eyes. "I will always treasure the Time Flute no matter what, not because it is a mythical artifact, but because you gave it to me."
Arven glanced over where Celebi had gone but couldn't see it. He wanted to say something rude, something that would create some barrier between himself and the AI, and a comparasion between the flute and a child's crude handprint drawing came to his mind, but he had to bite it away. He wanted to hear what the man would say. After all this time, after every dream and nightmare he had to pursue to make their meeting happen, he couldn't fall back on his old ways.
"Brave Arven, what I treasure most is our time. Above everything else, I'm grateful I could see you even once more. And however long Celebi grants you, even if you could remain here for years, it would still be limited." His lower lip trembled, smile gone. Though he was incapable of producing tears, for everything else, his grief and regret was as plain as that of any human. "Arven...there is something I want to tell you."
"Well..." For a moment he looked away, eyes flashing blue again before resuming their normal brown. "I realized some time ago, when speaking to you and Juliana during your quest, that even if I never did meet you in person, I knew you well through the professor's memories. And...I realized that I had come to love you, as a parent would."
Arven sniffled, staring at the ground. "You'd probably be a better dad than he was."
The AI pulled Arven close in another hug, threading a hand in the young man's hair to rest secure on the back of his head. "You deserve an unsullied future. One of the brightest days, of the grandest adventures. You are bold and wonderful, and you are far better than you believe yourself to be."
The young man shook his head, finding the embrace indulgent and overwhelming and at once everything he wanted. "I can't think in those terms. I can't think of myself as a success. You said that I helped save Paldea but I couldn't even save my own father, and when I had the ability to do so, I still made the decision not to. And that's going to sit with me the rest of my life."
"Arven. You cannot save everyone."
"Then let me save you!" he protested, pushing away from the AI at arm's length and scrambling to his feet. "Come back with me! I'm sure you can modify yourself to survive outside Area Zero there. And the machine doesn't work any more, like I said. Clavell sent a big group down there to make sure of that. You could meet him in person like you wanted!" He gestured frantically, randomly, broadly. "You could see Paldea, and you could live at the lighthouse with me and Mabostiff, and I'm sure you'd love to see the world, and everyone would think you're great. You're a hero, after all. You did way more to save Paldea than I did. A-a-and if you love me like a father, then you'd want a chance to live that out, right?"
The AI remained where he was, kneeling position and bowed head giving him the presentation of utmost regret. When he looked up at last, his sad smile confirming what he had already said. "Arven, again, I must refuse. I may come to change my mind, but you knew that was a possibility. That was why you diverted to get the Time Flute, after all."
Arven sniffled and took a step back, arms falling to his sides. "I know..."
"When I say no, understand that I may choose to remain here, even with the Time Flute. However, I cannot say for certain now. But, Arven, no matter what the future holds..." His smile brightened. "...Know that I'll forever be grateful that I met you."
"There's really nothing I can say to change your mind, is there?"
"Arven, know that right now, as I am, I am happy. I'm happy where I am, seeing the future I dreamed of, exploring Area Zero, researching the creatures of this distant era." That smile had broadened, and his eyes flashed blue longer than before. "Someday I'll be able to leave here and see the outside world at last, with my own eyes, not limited to a remote screen. And that...that will be the second happiest day of my existence, behind only today."
Arven drew in a deep, shuddering breath.
"And I know that happiness will not last. But, Arven," The AI drew a hand up to wipe away a tear from Arven's cheek, "neither will your sadness. You will find joy in your life. You already have, haven't you?"
"Then why does it always go away?" Arven whispered, having meant to answer at a normal volume. "Why do I feel so bad all the time? It's like I wasn't meant to be happy..."
"Of course you were...oh, my boy, of course you were..." His expression fell into deep concern, and his hand trailed down to cup under Arven's chin. "Don't ever doubt that."
Arven backed up, away from the touch, standing tense and shaking. "Seeing that face, hearing that voice saying those things, I can't take it."
The AI nodded slowly, knowingly. "As much as I resemble him, however, I am not your father. I spoke his words before and made it clear that they were his, and I have spoken my own as well. Right now, I speak to you only as myself, something I could not do before." His smile returned, the same soft expression he had displayed when he had taken Arven's hand the first time. "I am not him. And you know this. But I understand that emotions make it far more complex."
"Then how do you deal with them? How does it seem like you understand emotions better than humans do?" Arven wiped at his eyes with the palm of his hand.
"I'm not certain that I do. I often find myself confused with what I feel. I know, for reasons I explained earlier, that an Iron Jugulis does not view me as a threat. And yet every time I see one, I feel an urge to flee, to conceal myself." He gestured to the depths below. "I know that if I remain far from a dropoff, I will not fall. And yet I grow apprehensive if I look down, even if I am at a safe distance. Logic and emotion are not enemies, as humans seem to believe."
"Yeah but that's just self preservation. If you get damaged, there's no one to fix you, and there's got to be some injury even the crystals can't help you with."
"Maybe so. But beyond that. I do not understand many of his memories. His emotions often conflict with the events. He would perceive things contrary to the stimuli at hand. I believe you may call it...delusional. Paranoid, perhaps. And so I don't understand. How he could dismiss the safety of an entire region, even the world beyond it, for the sake of his paradise, but still have compassion within him to give his life for another. How he could think nothing of the destruction he would have caused, but still harbor deep love for you." The AI shook his head. "He did love you. I know that for a fact. It was hooded with delusion and obsession, but he did love you."
"He sure didn't show it," Arven muttered. "You hugging me one time is more affection than he showed me in years."
"I know. That is the conflict that evokes the most confusion in me. To love someone and treat them so poorly...and yet it is my understanding that this behavior is commonplace among humans."
Arven looked away and wrapped his arms tight to his chest. "Yeah, it is. Mom left too."
"I know. Arven..." The AI took a step forward. "Even if we do see each other again, I would hope by then we have both advanced out of the professor's shadow. That we are able to find that spark that fuels us to seek out the fullness of existence."
"I feel like he's always going to be looming over me. No matter what I do. But..." The young man turned back but didn't face the AI just yet. "...he said I looked more like my mother. When you see yourself, you're only going to see him. I can't even imagine what that must be like."
The AI chuckled, something Arven hadn't thought he was able to do. "I am me. I am not him, even if I was built in his image. I look like him, but I look like myself. I sound like him, but I sound like myself. To me, it is only as important as I make it." He paused. "...Although perhaps having no one else around is a factor. If I was mistaken for him regularly, perhaps I would have a different view of that. But now, in this isolated corner of the future, I have no such qualms about bearing his likeness."
"Is that another reason you're staying?"
"No, simply addressing your point. I apologize if it came across that way. I do not wish to mislead you any further."
Neither of them spoke for a minute or so until Arven approached and took the AI's hand. "You were getting at something earlier, weren't you? About the future."
"Yes, I'm glad you caught that. I was unsure when an appropriate time would be to re-approach the subject." He seemed to relax a bit, and gave Arven's hand a squeeze. "I believe that, should we meet again, we must do so on a better footing. That we must be able to find our own ways in this world first. That we have to exist on our own."
"We have to learn how to be our own people."
"Yes. And so, I will take this opportunity to speak to you about your father. Anything you wish to know. Although I do caution you that you may find some answers potentially upsetting."
Arven sighed. "...I feel like, right now, there's nothing I want to know. But I also know that if I don't ask something, I'll never get another chance. Or I might, you don't know yet...." He sniffled. "But even if you do come back, you're telling me you won't want to talk about him."
"I may. That's another thing I do not yet know. I wouldn't refuse you that information, regardless."
"Well..." Arven slowly, smally, swung their hands in the air, only a few inches to and fro. "I wouldn't want to make you do anything you didn't want to. He did that to you too much."
"That is kind of you. But in this time we have right now, I am encouraging you to ask."
The young man closed his eyes tight, tighter still, until he saw bursts of white. "I...where is he buried?"
The AI nodded slowly. "...I will show you. Let us talk further on the way."
They remained hand in hand, though mostly in silence. Occasionally, Arven would ask small things disjointed, and he would scoff at himself for asking something unimportant. "I know I'm going to break down when I get there," he said at last. I know I'm going to be sick. So I feel like I can't really ask you anything huge until after that's over with."
The AI smiled softly. "I understand. When he died, I felt overwhelmed, not simply for the contradiction in his death--how could someone who thought nothing of the destruction his plan would cause in the world still give their life to save another--but for the loss itself. I know that he was far from a good person, and how dangerous he was. But I still missed him."
"You still do. I can tell."
"Yes, very strongly. That is another emotion that confuses me. But that is my burden to bear, not yours."
"You shouldn't have to go it alone," Arven reminded him.
"Nor should you. You've spent three years searching for a way to reach me..."
Arven stopped, even knowing that the more time spent to get to where they were going, the worse he would feel, and released his grip on the AI's hand. "It's...not like I don't talk to anyone. Like, Nemona is dogsitting Mabosstiff right now. I felt like it would be too complicated for him to understand seeing you." He sighed. "Kinda tricked myself into thinking 'have to give him a bath after he runs around on the beach all day' would be the thing I'd dread most today. Well, that was a lie."
"I am glad to know they are both well."
"Nemona told me that she'd really like to battle you someday."
The AI shook his head. "I released all of the Paradox pokémon upon my arrival here. This is where they belong, after all."
"Yeah, but if you..." Arven sighed. "...You already know what I'm gonna say."
"Yes. I understand."
"I wish you wouldn't understand everything. You're too damn perfect." But he was smiling as he said it. Sadly, but smiling just the same.
The AI reached for his hand again. "Shall we continue?"
"No time like the present."
This time, Arven asked nothing, and the AI offered nothing, so they walked in silence, until the AI stopped at a ridge deep in the cave, nearby to what remained of the fourth research station. "Arven. We are here."
There was nothing marking the spot, no name or anything else. It was simply to the side of a path, overlooking the Zero Lab. Even the giant crystals, grown so much since Arven's era, had yet to encroach on the immediate area.
The AI knelt down near the edge and bowed his head. "I come here to think sometimes. I wonder what he would have thought of my actions. Of my research, of my development as an individual."
"He's really...the site's so plain." Arven continued to look around, expecting something else, a word, a name, a date, anything, but there was nothing to set this barren place apart from any other part of the cave.
"At the time, there was a plaque in this spot, something discovered by explorers from a prior age. It has since been moved. I do not know where it is now or if it still exists. But this is where he is laid to rest."
Arven stared at the spot, at the bare dirt in the twinkling light, and couldn't quite believe it. "...I know you wouldn't lie to me again, but it's so..." He knelt down as well. "There's nothing left of him now, is there? It's entirely empty by this point."
The AI nodded. "I have not examined the area but I believe that would have to be the case. It is unlikely that any physical remains still exist."
"So he's just...gone." Arven's mouth turned down on reflex, the corners twitching slightly, and he braced himself to sob but it never came. His voice remained calm and quiet. "He's gone. He's gone..."
"Arven. How do you feel?"
Arven took a deep breath. "I don't know. I don't feel much of anything right now. I thought I would have a breakdown but right now it just feels like I could be looking at any other patch of ground. And it's weird but..." He swirled his finger in the dirt. "I feel like even if it looked unique, even if it had his name, I'd feel the same way. He's not here."
The AI rested a hand on Arven's shoulder but said nothing.
"I'm gonna...test something." The young man leaned forward and wrote that name, the name that had dogged him all his life, in the dirt, then slowly rose to his feet and stared down at it. "...There's no weather down here. How long will that stay?"
"Likely not long," the AI told him. He had moved along with Arven and stood with him, his hand falling to Arven's arm. "A few months, perhaps, before some pokémon disrupts it. But it is only writing. If you wish, when that happens, I can write his name again."
"...It's not like he's there. It's just a spot like any other now." A low, staggered breath. "I thought I was gonna lose my mind here but I just feel hollow."
"I'm glad you're all right."
"Didn't say I was all right." Arven looked skyward, even though it meant only seeing the roof of the cave. "But it'll be ok. Things will be better when I get back."
"You said that before, in regards to your mental state. How so?"
"I...don't know. I guess when this is over I can go back to school or something. I feel like it can't get worse, at least." Without looking down, he kicked idly at the ground, not trying to erase the name but not avoiding it either. "I hated him for so long but he was still my father. And now there's nothing left of him but us."
Neither spoke for over a minute.
Arven shook his head. "...It's probably better if I don't know how he died, right? Like, the specifics of it."
"What do you know of what happened?"
"Not much." The young man stuffed his hands in his pockets and let his head droop, but didn't look at the name he had written. "The Miraidons were fighting and the...'Guardian', you called it, attacked the other one, and he jumped between them, and took some sort of fatal blow. That's about it."
The AI mirrored his posturing, with his hands in his lab coat pockets, though with his head down he took in how Arven had written the name. "Correct. I do not know if he knew that the blow would be fatal, as his calculations on the Guardian's power had been much lower than the physical output..." The AI seemed to sigh, "but he had to have known that he was risking severe injury."
Arven sighed. "An act of compassion either way. I wouldn't have thought he'd be capable of something like that."
"In truth, neither did I."
"Heh..." The one sardonic chuckle faded and silence remained between them, until at last, Arven turned towards the AI. "He was a terrible person. But he was still my father, you know? I know I shouldn't still feel any sort of bond with him, but I can't shake what could have been."
"I understand. I still hold his genius in high regard, but I find it difficult to separate it from the man who..." He shook his head. "Who treated me as if I was not a sapient being. But...as I said, it is entirely possible that he could have been capable of change."
"And just as possible that he would have gotten worse."
"Yes. But still I wonder what he would have thought of me. I value, perhaps, the idea of his opinion greater than I would have valued his opinion itself."
"Sometimes I wonder that too. Um..." Arven looked down at the site again, for a few seconds before looking away from both it and the AI. "...he didn't suffer, did he?"
The AI rested his hand back on Arven's arm, just where he had. "I know that he was afraid. But at the end, he seemed to be at peace."
Arven glanced at the marked ground one more time before gesturing with a nod of his head that they should continue back to the surface. "It's hard to imagine that he would ever be at peace."
In the silence, Arven felt an odd contentment, a warmth in him that he hadn't felt in years. The feel of the AI's hand, the knowledge of his closeness, brought to mind a distant memory, something that had fallen by the wayside in the years he had searched for Celebi. "...You know...the last time I was here, with my friends...We didn't go back to Uva right away. We took the long way home, seeing all corners of Paldea together. Heh, I think they didn't want me to be alone."
"A sensible and compassionate thing to do."
"Yeah. But one night, the four of us were around a campfire, and I remember...Juliana fell asleep against my arm. It felt a lot like your hand does." He stopped and turned, slow enough that the AI's hand could stay put. "Not so much in the touch itself, but in how it feels, you know? The emotions and trust and closeness behind it." He smiled, just a small one, but enough to convey his thoughts. "I guess that sounds really stupid, doesn't it? But I can't even think about you being alone here. You're one of the nicest people I've ever met, and the thought of you being alone forever is...it's nuts. Being alone for so long did a number on me, and that was with other people around..."
The AI seemed to understand. "Humans are social animals. However, I am not human. Remember, you are only the third person I have spoken to face to face. I have spent the past three years on my own." He shifted a bit, and brought his free hand to his chin. "I do miss conversations and such, but I do not require interactions for my health or self regulation."
"That's probably why you go to talk to him, even though you know he's not there."
"Hm, yes, that is possibly a factor." That smile still looked odd to Arven, seeing it on a face he only remembered as serious and distant. "But I believe I have a sentimental nature as well. More akin to you, I think."
"Heh...Sentimental, obsessive, whatever you wanna call it."
"I prefer sentimental, if that is all right with you." The AI pursed his lips, and his eyes briefly flashed with that familiar blue light. "Brave Arven...I wish to ask your permission for something. If I do return to your time, I will ask you again, as the context will entirely change, but..." He gave Arven's arm a gentle squeeze.
"Yeah? It must be really serious." Though he suspected what it might be, and braced himself.
"I believe it is, or something I take seriously. Arven, I may not have anybody to truly speak with, not anybody that would return the sentiment, but regardless I often speak my thoughts aloud, and I would..." the AI smiled brightly as he looked deep into the young man's striking blue eyes "...like permission to call you my son."
It was what Arven had anticipated the AI would ask, but hearing it said still caused a powerful, uncomfortable sensation to rise in him, and he averted his gaze. "That's even what I came here for, isn't it?" But faced with it, the potential for his proposition becoming real, it felt unmistakably wrong. "...Even though I said you'd probably be a better dad than he was...I even said you could come back and be a father..." He swallowed hard before continuing, the words choking in his throat. "I guess hearing it now, hearing you actually say it..." He shook his head. "...you'll understand if I say no. My dad was so bad to me, and even worse to you. The thought of someone else in his position is just..." He waved a hand, indicating some concept beyond words. "...I'd rather you be something else to me, something better. And I'd rather be something different to you." Despite the impact the words had had, he smiled, and looked back at the AI. "I'd be honored if you think of me as your friend."
The AI's own smile had dropped into a solemn expression, and he nodded slowly before drawing Arven into a tight embrace. "My friend. Brave Arven, my friend..." Though he drew no breath, though no tears fell, he shook softly as if wracked with sobs, and it was clear to Arven that the AI was weeping in joy.
Arven wiped a tear away from his own eyes before wrapping his arms around the AI, laughing softly. "Haha...how you doing, buddy?" He shook his head before resting against the AI's shoulder. "No, that's not right. Haha, I need to think this through, don't I? Something more formal or...I don't know! I just feel..." He hugged a little tighter. "I feel better right now...But I know it's not going to last."
"I know, but neither will any sadness. You'll smile again, my friend." The AI continued the hug with one arm, but brought the other around to tilt Arven's head up to face him. "Arven, you can have a wonderful life. You have within you the ability to do anything you want in life. You are not defined by your past. I know it has shaped you, and it has hurt you, but it does not decide your future."
"You're a product of your creation, same as me, though."
"I was denied my freedom for so long, but I am now free to be my own being. To do what I please. To have the existence I want. Arven, that is what I want for you. You can grow out of your father's shadow and finally fully blossom." His hand slid to cup Arven's face, stroking his cheek with a thumb, before falling to Arven's shoulder, the other hand likewise bracing the young man at the upper arm. "I want the best in the world for you. But time itself cannot heal you. And unlike me, you cannot stand alone."
"That's not..." Arven tried to protest, but fumbled with the words. "I'm sorry."
"Brave, kind Arven," the AI addressed with an odd firmness to his voice, something more akin of the man he was modeled from, who would have never spoken such compassionate words. "I am concerned for you. For my friend. You have spoken of things getting better when you return, but I fear that this is only your expectation, that you believe once you've completed this mission you gave yourself, your mind will clear." He shook his head. "And it does not work that way. Not for one such as myself, and not for a human either."
Arven turned away as best he could, even with the AI's hands on his shoulders. "I can't even imagine the rest of my life. But I'll tell you...even if you don't come back..." He looked back with a tight smile. "Somehow, knowing that he just doesn't exist any more was kind of a wake up call. That his influence won't last forever. As long as I live, I'm still going to have that impact he left in me. But it's...it doesn't have to rule me. And I know that a little better than I did before."
The AI tilted his head slightly, giving him a look of care that seemed to have lifted just a bit, but the creasing around his eyes betraying that he still held that concern. "I still want you to get help. Humans cannot be at their strongest without the aid of others. You're not alone and you should never think you are."
To hear something so frank as that brought Arven's eyes shut tight, and he expected that the gesture would have loosened tears but no tears were there to fall. "...I guess I have to keep telling myself that, huh? I have to keep reminding myself that he's not going to be there forever. Physically or anything else." He took a half step, signaling that he wanted to lean against the AI, who complied, drawing a hand up to the back of Arven's head. "It's weird to know that someone can just...stop existing. I don't exist in this time either, but I probably shouldn't think too hard about that."
"Likely not. And someday I will not exist either. The world is always changing. It is always something new and vibrant no matter what has happened in the past. I'm glad you can take comfort from that."
Arven's impulse was to ask if the AI would decompose like a human, but he figured he was better off not knowing that either. Instead he sighed and enjoyed the embrace. "I feel like Celebi is going to come for me any minute now."
"However long you're here, I'll always treasure this as the happiest day of my existence." The AI's voice was soft, whispering in Arven's ear as if bidding a child good night, and the memory of some long distant era passed through Arven's mind of some rare time that his father had read him a bedtime story. "My dear friend, until my last moment, until I cease entirely to exist, I will love you dearly."
Arven tightened as if anticipating the need to hold back a sob, but nothing came. "I just feel...good," he murmured. "For the first time in a long time, I feel clearheaded. And I know it's not going to stay that way but I can enjoy it while it lasts."
Be it summoned by his suspicion, his emotions, or perhaps he had picked up on its presence, Celebi came into view, approaching from a distance and seemingly wary of its surroundings. It carried the Time Flute, something it did with ease despite the size of the thing. But seeing them, it kept away, giving them space.
The young man slumped slightly. "Yeah, it's here..."
"Yes. I could sense its approach." He kept Arven firm in his arms regardless.
"Yeah you can sense life energy or something...haha, I'll never understand all the answers."
"It's more that I pick up on the biometrics of any living being in my vicinity, but I suppose this is not the time for an explanation." From his tone it was evident that he was smiling again. "Arven, please, stay strong. Stay bold. Stay curious. The world is a wonderful place..."
"I don't want to leave you alone." the young man murmured. Somewhere in him, he knew that he could have stayed in that moment for hours if given the chance, there in the AI's tight embrace. "Keep that flute safe. Even if you never use it, keep it safe."
"Always, always..." The AI patted Arven on the back. "Remember, I don't have the same social requirements that humans do. I will be fine alone. And I don't yet know what lies beyond the Great Crater."
"I hope you have fun out there. I hope you have the best existence you possibly can."
"And you as well."
Celebi drew closer, and held out the Time Flute.
Arven scowled at the fairy. "Why do you have to interrupt?"
But the AI accepted the offered flute, putting it neatly in his lab coat pocket. "Thank you. I will treasure it always."
Without a direct response, Celebi landed on Arven's shoulder. Even without words or gestures, it was enough to alert Arven that it was time to leave.
"You have all the time in the world and you randomly decide when people need to leave, huh?" the young man grumbled. After a beat, he hesitantly withdrew and took a step back, looking the AI up and down. "...I'm sorry. I have to go."
That sympathetic look on a face Arven remembered as so harsh was something that would always sting at him. The AI was not his father and never would be. But it would be all right, because the AI would always be his friend. And that was even better.
"Um..." Arven started to say something, but hesitated. "You said I could ask any question. I want to ask one more."
"Anything in the world, my friend."
At first, Arven averted his eye, but drew in a deep breath and stood straight, finally taking in the full sight of the AI, of that form that so powerfully resembled someone who no longer existed, but past that. The resemblance was only skin deep, or whatever the AI was constructed from, and beyond that shell, this was an entirely different and new person. Arven could be an entirely different and new person as well. "...How are you?"
The AI's eyes widened, and for a moment he trembled in the same manner as he had when he had sobbed on Arven's shoulder, before bursting into a broad and sunny smile, an expression so far removed from his creator that for once Arven had no thought for the original man. "I'm doing wonderfully. This is the happiest day of my life."
"Your life, not your existence?" Arven asked from quivering lips.
"I've never felt more alive!" the AI exclaimed, his joy echoing through the cave. "Arven, I have you to thank for everything. Because of you, I have my freedom. And...you have yours." He took Arven's hand, clasping it tightly. "My friend...You have the world before you. You have all the future and all its possibilities ahead of you. Please do not waste the opportunities that affords you. Life is an adventure, if you're able to grab hold of it."
The AI's happiness was infectious, and Arven grinned broadly as he took a step back, Celebi reading his movements and beginning to summon up the way home. "I hope to see you again someday," he said, letting his hand linger on the AI's for a moment more before taking another step back. But if I don't..." He saluted in a familiar salutation, two fingers out and touched to the bridge of his nose before extending his arm out to the side, the same gesture the AI had made before leaving through the time machine all those years ago. "Farewell, my free friend!"
The AI returned the gesture with a bold smile, and they spoke the final echoing line together.
For just a moment, Arven was alone. Even Celebi's presence didn't penetrate through, and he sat on his knees with his eyes closed. There was no echo of their shared words, and when he opened his eyes there would be no dear friend nearby.
But when he finally did, there was a light in his eyes, a bright passion that he hadn't felt in years.
The cave was just as he had left it a few hours ago, the smaller crystals still lighting the way, the nearby research station still standing, the looming Zero Lab visible in the depths below. He caught a glimpse of an odd plaque, and lingered on it for a moment, feeling a bit of a jolt in his stomach. But it was nowhere that would hurt him any more.
Celebi drifted by his field of vision, as if asking permission to leave. "Yeah, you can go," Arven dismissed. "Thank you again. And don't forget your promise to him--if he tries to play the flute, you promised you'd make it work and bring him back here."
The time spirit spiraled in a small dance, something Arven took as an affirmation of their promise, before vanishing in a glimmer of light.
"Off to some other time, huh?" Arven mused to himself.
He was alone, but he didn't feel alone. Soon he would get Mabostiff back from Nemona, maybe say hi to Juliana before going back to the lighthouse. He wasn't sure what he would say about what had happened. He wasn't sure about a lot of things.
But as he got up and headed towards the light of the land above, leaving the depths of Area Zero and everything it contained behind him, he felt like it didn't matter.
He was his father's son. But he was so much more than that. And whatever the future held, whatever awaited him over the rest of his life, he would be there to face it.