Scarlet purrs softly, her tiny body reverberating against my leg. Her tail weaves around her, lying on the dusty basement floor and crossing over her big blue paws. Her ears are pricked, her back arched slightly. Scout stands stock still beside her, studying our surroundings with careful, thoughtful eyes.
One paw lightly grips the strap of her backpack; the other hangs loosely at her side. The muscles in her back are tense, her head tilted down.
"We're fairly certain this morning's attacks are directly related to the recent disappearance of the Balloon Pokémon at the Valley Windworks. They protected us by defending our fuel supply from the undead. Now that they're gone, the zombies are back," the boy I now recognize as Brandon turns to a decent-sized chalkboard behind him, pointing to a strange collection of circles, crosses, and triangles scattered all over it in faded blues. "That's why I propose sending a group of the most well-trained fighters we have to check the building out and bring the Driftloon back," he gestures to a group of triangles clustered around a long, thick line. "We'll have a few people hang back to make sure everyone stays safe at home. The undead aren't very smart, but sometimes they strike at just the right time to screw everything up. I especially believe we should send over any trainer with rock, ground, grass, or electric-types. The Pokémon at the Windworks were, I think, like, Buizels and Shellos and Shinx and shit. So if we use types strong to those Pokémon we should have an easier time clearing our way through. " He hesitates, putting his hand to his mouth and looking over the confusing mess of symbols on the board. He reaches toward them and then pulls back, quickly turning to look over the small crowd before him with harsh eyes daring them to question his authority.
A tired-looking Roselia sits at his feet, absentmindedly playing with her flowers. She glances up at her trainer while he speaks, watching him explain his simple battle plan. Her body tenses suddenly and she snaps to attention. The loud sound of a door slamming echoes throughout the room, and I swing around to see the girl I met earlier walking in with her Pokémon by her side. Her Espeon seems very comfortable in this dirty room, but the Wynaut in her arms shakes and looks around nervously. Scarlet notices them and springs to life, breaking the awkward, heavy silence of the room to greet Espeon cheerfully. The Psychic-type tries to look mature as Scarlet rubs her face against him, purring loudly. He totters a bit, bracing himself on his right legs.
The girl tries to separate them, casting me a desperate, nervous glance. Ignoring the stares from the rest of the room, I slowly get out of my chair and walk toward her. She smiles at me and I kneel down, taking Scarlet carefully into my hands. The girl and I straighten to our feet, the room watching us in painful quiet. I look at her as we rise, taking note of the yellowed mess of clumsily applied bandages covering her pretty face. Now I see her scars: small cuts in her eyebrows and a long slice along her neck. The lighting here shines in her harsh eyes, perpetually wide and clear.
"Nice of you to join us, Cheryl," Brandon's eyes narrow and he glares hard at us, body tensing slightly. "Why don't you take a seat so we can talk about what we're going to do with…our problem."
I want to hit him for addressing the issue like that. Calling a massive horde of the undead a "problem" is the understatement of the century. Scarlet yelps in my arms and I realize I'm squeezing her. I let her back down to the ground and lead the girl to a new seat. The atmosphere in the room doesn't relax; I can feel eyes bore into my back, sending chills down my spine.
"Actually, why doesn't someone else share an idea? Zack? Karina? Cheryl?" The girl looks away at the sound of her name, focusing on the trembling Wynaut in her arms. "Aw, come on. I mean, it's cool if we just go with my idea, but it's better if we hear a few others." There's a note of malice in his voice, an undercurrent of anger.
"I've got an idea," someone pipes up from the back. I turn to see a short girl with thin, greasy blond hair smirking at us. "Let's send the prisoner in first. Take care of two problems at once." I stare at her blankly for a moment before realizing she's talking about me. I start to speak up, but decide that perhaps its better this way. I don't actually care about this place; my team and I can just fight our way to the other side of the building and run away through another exit. My entire experience with this town has pretty much been a waste of time anyway, so I figure I might as well cut my losses and get out before things become any worse.
Cheryl's face suddenly looks very strange, as if she's been personally attacked. "No! He'll get killed, how could you even suggest that?" Her voice shakes, her eyes wide. "Who knows how bad things could be over there? What if- what if it's…really bad?" She starts to wither beneath the pressure of the room, her tone weakening and her point fading away. The blonde girl's eyes are like daggers, penetrating through Cheryl's quiet resolve.
Brandon clears his throat and I turn back to him, catching a look of bizarre satisfaction on his face. His gaze flicks over me, his lips breaking into a smirk. "Actually, I think that's a great idea. We haven't thought of a good punishment for him yet, and we could use someone to toss out to the wolves, so to speak." Cheryl starts up another protest, but I jab my elbow into her ribcage fast enough to keep her quiet. She turns a confused gaze on me and I shake my head, unable to offer any more explanation. "Alright, so I want Karina, Livia, Jacob, the prisoner, of course, and uh…Cheryl, and me -because what the hell would you all do otherwise- at the exit to Route 205 in four hours. That should be more than enough time to deal with any wounds received from the last battle." He sends the rest of the group to protect the city's perimeter, screwing up impressively few times.
Though I planned to make myself comfortable in an old shack I'd seen by the Pokémon Center, Cheryl insisted she take me back to her house. Scarlet seems happy enough as I follow the girl across the small town, her little body struggling to keep in step with Espeon. He tries to lose her but she's too persistent, her small body bobbing up and down with each bound. Cheryl keeps a few feet ahead of me at all times, never looking back or starting conversation.
She stops on the doorstep of a large, decrepit house covered with corrosion and whips around to face me. Her braid swings over her back, her eyebrows pull together in distress. "Okay, look. I really don't want to be rude or anything and please don't take this the wrong way, but, uh, do you want to take a shower or something? You smell really…just so bad. Like we have an outdoor thing over there that you can use, and you're more than welcome to just…have at it. I know staying somewhat clean is probably not your biggest priority, but my Chansey is just really sensitive to smell and uh..." her cheeks flush a deep red, her eyes avoiding mine. I awkwardly shove my hands in my pockets, trying to decide how bothered I am that she cares so much. "Sorry, sorry. I shouldn't have said anything. I'll just get some rice from inside and make some. Well, more than some. Like enough for most of both of our teams. I think we have plenty in the basement."
I feel Scout's eyes on me and make a point of not looking at her. "Uh, thanks. I think we're all really hungry." I don't think any of us have eaten in over a day. That's not really a problem for Scarlet or Dracula, who won't get any hungrier so long as they're kept in their Pokeballs, but Scout must be starving. My own body is weak and tired, with great claws of hunger digging into the sides of my stomach. A bit of rice could do us some good.
"Wait, so, you're passing on the shower?" The girl's eyes somehow get even bigger, disgust seeping into her expression. She anxiously cracks her knuckles; nervously opens and closes her fists.
I start to confirm her suspicion before realizing that apparently I smell so abhorrent to her that she can't handle it. We really need that rice, and she might let us stick around a little longer if I smell less repugnant. "No, I guess I'll take one."
She smiles in relief and nods, offering to show me how it works. Though I really want food more than anything, I let her lead me into her backyard. There's a decaying wooden structure next to her house, partially closed off at the top by a broken red roof. It stops about twenty-five centimeters from the ground, the dark stone floor showing underneath. A massive tank sits beside the shower, standing strong against the wall.
She starts setting up the shower, attaching a long hose to one end of the tank and some sort of metal object to the other. Her hands work masterfully through the whole process, something she must have completed countless times before. "We get our water from an aquifer just north of here, and then heat that water using Chansey's Fire Blast. There should be plenty of hot water in the tank; I heated it before the meeting because I thought it might help soothe my wounds. But, uh, you need it more than I do." She wraps her fingers around one of the knobs and turns, holding it out a bit so I can see it clearly. "Just turn this toward the wall to start. It's fairly easy. There, um, there should be soap in there already, and a towel, so don't worry about it." She smiles sheepishly at me when she finishes setting the shower up, tucking a stray piece of hair behind her ear. "Okay? That's pretty much all you need to know. Just yell if you need any help."
"I'll let you know, thanks," I try smiling at her, but I'm not sure how well it works. She looks scared for a brief second before she nods briskly, hesitates, then turns around and heads inside. Scarlet starts to trot after her, but Scout grabs her by the tail and yanks the little cat into her strong arms. The Shinx cries out in anger and tries to bite her team mate, but Scout easily incapacitates the younger Pokémon by tossing her over a shoulder. "Stop that Scarlet, you're acting like a child," I tell her simply, annoyed. She continues to struggle in Scout's grasp, kicking against the Fire-type's furry chest. I fish around in my pants for Scarlet's Pokeball and order her to return. She snarls but obeys, vanishing in a great flash of light. Scout waits patiently for orders, but I don't know what to tell her. This doesn't seem like a particularly active place, but I'm still nervous about leaving her alone. Her eyes dart to my pocket, and it takes me a moment to realize she wants to see Dracula again. I smile and let the Crobat out, telling the two of them to watch for danger and keep each other company.
I take off my first few layers of clothing and turn the shower on, tossing my change of clothes on the hot water tank so they'll be warm when I'm done. My eyepatch is the last thing to come off, and I hang it over the wall of the shower so I'll be able to grab it before I get out. The warmth is incredibly comforting, enveloping my body in heat and gently washing away the layers of dirt and blood covering my body. A thin sheet of mud soon covers the stone floor, spilling out into the grass. The soap nearly slips out of my hand, but I keep a decent grip and start to scrub away the weeks of desperate survival clinging to my skin.
A chill makes the hair on my legs and arms stand up straight, and the cold Sinnoh autumn seeps into my warm haven. Through the hole in the roof I can see leaves in a myriad of colors, holding loosely to their branches and occasionally drifting away with the wind. A bright red one swirls into the tiny room, landing in the pool of waste at my feet. The leaf spins around, making wide loops around me. The water pressure changes, the stream of heat weakening above me. I make the most of the last minute or so, mercilessly washing my irritatingly long hair.
I lean outside and shut off the water, snatching my towel in the process. Cold immediately overwhelms me, grasping hard to my freezing skin. I sit down on the bench inside the shower and shiver while wiping myself dry as fast as I can. For a little while I just sit there in the cold, trying to find a moment of calm before heading back outside. This little room makes me feel shut off from everything, but not so much that I'm trapped. Here I can just relax, freezing my ass off but able to ignore the constant stress of survival for just a few safe moments. I pull the towel even tighter around me and lean against the wall, bringing my legs as close to my body as I can for extra heat.
There's something on the other side of the wall, something warm and laughing. I press hard to the damp wood, drawing my body closer to the source of heat. I hear a light crackling sound amidst the drip of water and the whistle of wind. I will go out to meet it, but first I just need a few precious moments of stillness.