Volkner, Looker, and I sit cross-legged on the floor of our crumbling refuge with our spoils spread out between us. We spent all day yesterday scavenging for food among the skeletal structures of Jubilife and ended up sleeping in far later than usual this morning. Most of our "raids" ended in disappointment, but we did manage to find a few boxes of white rice, hardtack, and corn syrup. Nothing we want to eat, but plenty we'll have to. Looker doesn't know what to make of it all, his eyes scanning the pile for anything palatable. He opens his mouth and closes it quickly several times, trying to think of some way to make grammar obey him. Volkner yawns loudly and reaches for a bag of rice, reading over the nutritional information on the back.
"I mean, we can kind of survive on this. We'll get scurvy if we don't find some source of Vitamin C, but…" he lets his words fade, realizing he doesn't know how to finish his sentence. He tosses the bag into the pile and falls back to the floor, staring up at the ceiling.
Scarlet purrs in my lap, burrowing her little head into my thigh. I scratch behind her ear, feeling the soft, warm fuzz beneath my fingertips. Scout is never one to show this sort of affection; she's too serious to be a pet. She is warrior, a leader. Never a kitten. The Flash Pokémon rolls over, urging me to rub her stomach. I feel Volkner's eyes on me, and I glance up to see him.
He looks comfortable with his arms crossed behind his neck. His legs are bent, knees pointing toward the ceiling. "She really likes you, doesn't she?" I shrug, looking back at Scarlet. Her eyes are closed, her breathing calm and fluid. Volkner goes quiet for a few moments before speaking again, "I think maybe you should take care of her from now on."
I glare at him, eye narrowed. "What? No. That's a terrible idea," memories of Arthur's bleeding body flood my brain, the brilliant bursts of power signaling each of his evolutions playing over and over in my mind. I can't stop imagining that happening to Scarlet, her tiny body torn apart by the ravenous horde. I let go of her soft fur and rest my hands on my legs.
Volkner watches me carefully, gaze moving back and forth from me to Scarlet. "No, it's a fantastic idea. You're great with Scout, and I don't think Jolteon minds you much either," the electric-type pricks its ears up when his trainer mentions him, dark eyes turned to wary, thin slits within his bright yellow fur. The former Gym Leader pats his partner's back, briefly scratching his hide. "Pokémon are naturally drawn to you, it's no wonder Scarlet's taken such a shine."
"I must…have catnip on me or something," my cheeks flush when I realize how ridiculous that sounds, and I try to mumble a better response. Volkner raises an eyebrow at me, lips leaning into a slight smirk. I look back down at Scarlet quickly, hoping he hasn't seen my face.
"Catnip?" He laughs, and I realize there's something bitter there, beneath his mask of cheerfulness. Every joke, every chuckle has been tinged with coldness, like there's ice creeping on each of his smiles. I flick my gaze back to him, taking in his broken, tired grin. He's much older-looking than I initially thought, with pale purple bags beneath his eyes and small scars crisscrossing his face. He's still attractive, still relatively healthy-looking, but now I see that he's had just as hard a time as Scout and I. I've come to view him as a person barely older than me, younger even. But he's been through at least ten more years than I have, had far more experience with a world I barely understand.
He was a champion. I don't know why I haven't thought of it before, why I ignored such a vital part of him. I couldn't have been older than eleven back then, when I was wholly and unquestionably a kid. My memories of his reign are blurred and thin, fog drifting in the back of my mind. For a short while we were told to see him as a savior, as a revolutionary. Then suddenly he was a liar and a fake, a self-indulgent and foolish king. We hardly cared either way, as Twinleaf was a quiet and isolated town on the very edge of Sinnoh. Occasionally a league officer would come by to badger my mother about taxes (because the written threats never worked) but otherwise we were on our own. Our news came from sputtering TVs born decades before me, sometimes spitting useful information about our world and sometimes telling us about the latest "must-have product!" from Silph Co. My mother watched it all the time anyway, letting a poorly-paid cook raise her only son.
I remember the shift in attitude at school, how we were told to call some strange woman named "Cynthia" our true champion and protector when just weeks before we were swearing allegiance to the "Shining, Shocking Star". They simply told us she'd defeated him in a Pokémon battle, and to this day I don't know why that mattered so much. For whatever reason, a game of luck had chosen our leader. A leader who would abandon and ignore us when we needed her the most.
Scarlet yawns, her mouth stretching wide and baring small, pointed fangs. She blinks up at me, her eyes warm and welcoming. She's irresistible, and I'm pretty sure she knows it. I scratch beneath her chin, and she licks my wrist affectionately.
"See? What did I tell you," Volkner says flatly. He sits up and moves closer to me, watching Scarlet purr with satisfaction in my lap. His blue eyes focus on hers, and he puts his face incredibly close to her. I try to scoot away, but he grabs my knee and looks hard at the electric-type. Rolling my eye, I struggle to ignore his complete violation of my personal space and let him do whatever it is he thinks he has to. "Scarlet, what do you think?"
She stares at him blankly. "Perhaps she is not understanding you?" Looker suggests hopefully, suddenly bringing himself into the conversation. Volkner gives him a withering look and sighs deeply, shaking his head a bit.
"I hatched her myself. How could not understand me?" Looker shrugs and Volkner tries to pluck Scarlet from my lap. She makes a strange, short mewling sound and kicks in the air before letting him hold her. "That's it," he brings her close to his face, and she just looks at him in confusion. He doesn't get whatever he's expecting from her, and he hands her back to me after a couple fruitless moments. Hurt flashes in his eyes briefly, replaced almost instantaneously with a fake, mocking look. "I guess I was right. There is something…special about you," I can't tell from his tone whether he's serious or not, but either way I don't believe him.
"Yeah, right. I don't know. Maybe certain Pokémon are more drawn to certain people," she settles again, curling into a little ball of fur. I know that doesn't make any sense, that if an electric-type is drawn to anyone it will be Volkner. She peers up at me with her big blue eyes, and I smile a bit. I'm still too worried to actually take her with Scout and I, but it's nice that she likes me.
"I guess it doesn't really matter. We're all going the same way, right? Towards Sandgem?"
I sit up and turn halfway in one swift movement, staring at him in confusion. "I thought I told you I was going to Floaroma. There's nothing- I've already been to Sandgem."
He furrows his brows, pale eyes catching the bright mid-morning sunlight falling in through the window. "Yeah, but…you were serious about that? Jay," he laughs a bit, mouth splitting into a smile, "you barely made it through Route 202 intact. You really think you can survive out there? I mean, come on, you set the entire forest on fire and managed to lose an eye. You…you can't seriously keep going alone."
Heat rises to my face, and reflex gets me to my feet. Scarlet leaps nimbly to the floor, watching me in confusion. Volkner's usually a few inches taller than me, but like this I can look down on him. "I thought I made this clear. I'm going to travel Sinnoh looking for survivors. I couldn't stay in Sandgem, and you know as well as I do there's nothing here. Eventually everything south of here will be a wasteland. It's unseasonably cold, and everyone's dead so there's no one to grow anything anyway. There's just no food, Volkner. Maybe if we keep going north-"
"North? And then what? Past Mt. Coronet?" I narrow my eye at him, my face burning with anger. He's still smiling incredulously, but now his words have taken on a darker tone. There's no hint of joking in his eyes, his voice low and intimidating. Even though he's on the ground, I feel as if he's a hundred stories above me. "Trust me when I say that whatever you see here, it's so much worse over there. It's not even the same kind of danger. You think the undead are the worst thing you've ever seen?" He shakes his head, his mouth closing to a thin smile. "Oh, no. Jay, it gets so much worse." All of a sudden he's on his feet, his bright eyes searing into my grey one. "There are indeed survivors. But they won't need you to look for them. They'll find you."
I struggle to find the right words to rebut him, but only end up with a stammering string of messy syllables. "Whatever," I manage weakly, turning away from him and yanking my bag up from the floor. My things start to spill out, and I'm forced to gather them all in humiliation. Cheeks still on fire, I swing my backpack on and motion for Scout to come to me. She hurries over to my side, solemnly obeying my command.
Looker scrambles to his feet and blocks the doorway, spreading his long arms out against the frame. "No, please. You must not go out alone. It is extremely dangerous and you can get hurt! We must stay together…we have done so much!" I try to push past him, but he presses a surprisingly strong hand against my chest. "No, please," he says again, more sternly this time.
"I-I'm sorry," I start, looking into his wrinkled face. It occurs to me that I may never see him again, that as a middle-aged man he may very well be too old to survive the coming winter. My heart stings for just a second, as Looker never did anything wrong to me. He gave us food from his stores, and did his best to protect us. But I can't let anyone hold me back. Not now that I've made up my mind. "Please let me pass."
He tries to argue, but Volkner stops him. "Let him go, Looker," he turns to me, his face resolved, "I can't stop you from doing stupid things. I can try and tell you what I've learned and seen, but you won't listen anyway. You're really stubborn, and that's going to either keep you alive or get you killed." He pauses, looking down momentarily before snapping his head back up, locking his gaze on mine, and gripping my shoulder tightly, "but I like you, Jay. So…try not to die." He turns to Scarlet, who's made herself busy licking her paw and resting at my feet. "Come on then, Scarlet. He said he can't take care of you," she looks at him oddly, her eyes narrowed in confusion. He tries again with a bit more feeling, but she still doesn't respond.
"Scarlet…" he reaches down and holds his hand out to her. She looks at it for a moment before hissing, her back arching. Volkner recoils instantly, visibly stunned. "I-I don't understand. Scarlet, what's wrong with you?" she lets out a low snarl, slowly backing up towards me. I bend down and pluck her from the floor, cradling her in my arms. She relaxes immediately, rubbing her face against my chest. A spark of jealously passes over Volkner's face before he nods swiftly, eyes flicking away. "I…guess she really has taken a shine to you."
I force a smile for her sake, giving her a light squeeze. Looker stares at us for a few moments more before jumping a bit. "Ah, you can't leave without taking some of the food." He leaves his post and collects several small bags of rice and a few packages of instant-soup. He pushes them toward me, and I motion for him to hand them to Scout.
"Are you sure? There are a lot of you…don't you need it more?" I ask, watching Scout waver a bit before balancing under the weight.
"Just take it and stop asking so many questions," Volkner's familiar smirk returns to his face, and after some hesitation I drop my bag to the ground and shove the new supplies in wherever it can fit. It's easier than I thought; our tarp took up a lot of space and we left it behind on Route 202. A cursory glance seems to reveal we have all of our necessities, and I pull my crowbar from its strap just to be prepared.
I start down the stairs, but Volkner calls out for me and makes me turn around. He tosses something small yet heavy and I completely fail to catch it. Scout holds it up to me, and I look up at Volkner in confusion.
"That's Scarlet's Pokeball. Take care of her, you hear?"
SCARLET HAS JOINED THE TEAM.