I lie back in the grass, finally giving in to my body's overwhelming cries of exhaustion. Warmth wraps around my feet and crawls up my legs, fueled by the crackling fire placed carefully in a low ditch. Scarlet purrs softly by my head, her tail sweeping back and forth over the ground. Her eyes are closed and her body is relaxed. She's happy with her new form, and I'm proud of her for it. I hadn't expected her to evolve so quickly, but different Pokémon go through evolution at different rates. Even among members of the same species, evolution for one individual can be radically different from that of another. The professor told me Scout would evolve after only a few weeks of training, but it actually took her several months. Even now, she's been with me for more than four years and still hasn't evolved into an Infernape. Not that I really care, of course.
Scarlet opens one dark eye and fixes it on me, slightly narrowed and glazed over with relaxation. I absentmindedly catch her tail as it swings by, and she pulls it away quickly. She smirks a bit and yawns, teasing me by tickling my nose with her tail. I grab it again and she rolls over, squirming so she lies beside me in the dry brown grass.
Looking up towards the burnt orange sky I notice I'm resting directly below a sharp overhang sticking out from the crumbling wall of the Windworks. Dracula's small feet grip it tightly, her body completely still in the open evening air. She runs her wing over her face a few times and gazes out over us, taking in our ragged group with hazy red and yellow eyes.
"So what are you going to do now?" Cheryl sits close to us with her knees pulled up to her chest and her arms wrapped around them. Her clothes are decorated with splotches of blood, stained probably forever like mine. Pieces of hair wave in the weak autumn wind having wrestled free from her frizzy braid. She isn't looking at me; her eyes are locked on the dancing flames before us.
I sit up a bit and lean my weight on my hands. "Leave. Accidentally start another wildfire. Basically just keep moving and head on to the next town." Scarlet rolls over and moves closer to the fire, sitting down beside Scout at its edge.
"I could help you, you know. Show you the way to Eterna-"
"Thanks, but that won't be necessary. We have a map…somewhere. And besides, worst comes to worst we can have Dracula fly up and direct us out." I yawn and cross my legs, putting my face in my hands. Shadows flicker on my pants, dark stains visible even in the dying dusk light. She shouldn't come with us; she's much safer here where there's electricity and a community of people dedicated to keeping each other alive.
Cheryl's Espeon pads over to her and pushes his face into her lap. She releases her knees and lets her legs loosely cross. "But…I mean won't it be more helpful to have an extra set of hands? If someone gets hurt I can help with first-aid, and it's not like I can't fight…" I raise my head and give her an exasperated look. She goes quiet immediately, locking her gaze on the Pokémon in her lap. She scratches behind his ears and he thumps his tail against the ground, making small squealing sounds and closing his eyes. "No, but, I mean, we won't be a burden or anything…we've been through Eterna Forest before. It was a long time ago, yes, but I'm sure we'll remember once we get there."
"Just because you went somewhere a long time ago doesn't mean you remember exactly how it looks and works now. Hell, I've been through Oreburgh Gate several times and I couldn't even tell you where the main entrance is anymore. Things change in a few years, Cheryl. And, anyway, we don't have enough food for four extra people and Pokémon. We barely have enough for us." I keep my voice low because we're far from alone. The other people from Floaroma are here, talking loudly to each other and heating pieces of hardtack over the fire. Pokémon bounce about in the grass, pretending to battle and occasionally letting loose great bursts of light. A pair of wrestling Buizel tumbles out of the brush and breaks apart on the uneven soil. One of the trainers sitting around the fire turns to look at them and they go right back to playing. She shrugs and laughs when a boy leans over and whispers in her ear.
"I want to go with you." Cheryl turns to me and her eyes drill into mine. I try to avoid her surprisingly powerful gaze but I can't.
I exhale and shake my head quickly. "You can't. It just…you can't, okay? I mean, why would you even want to? You have electricity here. That means warmth and food and light are available to you whenever you need them. There are all kinds of things out there you don't want to face. It's cold and dark and you can literally die at any moment. Why leave behind all that," I gesture toward the town with a flick of my wrist, "for a life like this?" I don't need to point out our scars or the dark stains on our clothes. I don't need to show her the jagged canyon of raw pink flesh dug permanently into my face, or show her how my skin does little to cover my jutting ribs. She knows, as well as anyone else here does, the dangers of the wild and of wandering without a goal or home.
Scout lays her paws on the ground and spreads her legs out in front of her. The fire forms a bright halo around her silhouette, an outline of flickering orange surrounding a dark shape. The sight reminds me of sitting in the lab, in the room I used to call my own, leaning against the wall and panicking because I was about to turn my back on everything I knew. I remember how my partner saved me, how her shadowed form in the doorway brought me back to reality. Without her I wouldn't have left Sandgem and I wouldn't have earned these scars. Not just the ones I got after heading out on my own, but the ones from before then as well. Like the long streak running from my shoulder to my upper arm, a permanent memento of why fighting hungry, undead Starly barehanded is probably the worst idea ever. Without leaving home I never would have known what happened to Dracula or met up with Scarlet. Without leaving home these scars would mean nothing because I never would have taken their lessons anywhere. So regardless of how much pain I've suffered and how much I've lost, in a way it's all been worth it to know I can survive.
I suddenly see exactly why she wants to leave Floaroma.
"I have to leave, Jay. These people, they don't like me here. I have no loyalty to them and they don't have any to me. They think I'm dumb and useless and that I can't take care of myself because I'm from the city and because I'm only fifteen. But that's… that's so stupid! Brandon's twenty-one, and Karina's only seventeen!" Her voice is a harsh whisper, a violent hiss over the crackling flames. "But I know I'm not useless. Trust me when I say I can take care of myself. I have before and I can now. It doesn't…I don't care what they think anymore. I'm done proving myself to them. I just…now all that matters is that I can prove myself…to myself. I just need to know for sure I can do this. That I can survive and see what lies beyond the borders of this town. I want to see what happened to my hometown and to my house and to all the places I used to love when I was a kid…I promise you won't have to babysit me. I promise I have enough food and water for my team and I can bring extra for yours. I promise we won't be a burden." She leans closer to me and puts her hand on my leg, much too high for my comfort. Her eyes are alight with pleading and there's pain in her scarred face. I squirm beneath her grasp and she only grips tighter. "So please…please let us come with you. You're our best bet for freedom right now. I don't think they'll let us leave on our own…"
Her Espeon sits beside her with his hard gaze locked on me. His tail waves back and forth like the tall grass behind him, shifting with the gentle wind. For a second we're focused on each other, his wise old eyes digging deep into my consciousness. I suck in a shuddering breath; struggle to break free from whatever hold the strange psychic-type has on me.
The link shatters when something appears in the upper right of my vision. Cheryl follows my gaze and gasps, standing quickly. The other trainers around the fire rise like soldiers saluting their officer, all looking out into the distance. I get up, my legs shaking slightly, and squint to see the strange forms approaching us.
The fading orange sunlight gleams off their small bodies, each one floating in the crisp air gently but with purpose. They move slowly, gliding toward us as if pulled along by some unseen force. Some are noticeably larger than other but move no faster. They are one collective crowd of strange, floating forms. As they come nearer I notice a few of them are spinning around like balloons stirred by a curious hand. They're dancing, happy to be going wherever they're going.
I put out my hand as the first few approach. They're circular with little fluffy cloud shapes on their purple heads. Each one has stringy legs attached to their main bodies that swing about in the air. Their faces are mostly covered by a yellow X shape, like a big cross of tape over their mouths. The whole group of humans and Pokémon waiting patiently on the ground is frozen and silent in awe, watching the strange creatures drift on the breeze. One moves in front of the sun and floats toward me, its body getting bigger. I can't tell for sure if it's honestly getting bigger or moving closer, but logic tells me it's coming toward me so that's what I trust. I feel a very light pressure against my finger and look straight into the little being's tiny black eyes. It shakes its head against my hand and I realize it's nuzzling me like Scarlet sometimes does.
"I think it likes you." Cheryl stands beside me, examining the Driftloon on the end of my arm with shining green eyes. She's covered in blood and scars, her hair messed up and frayed. Her clothing looks ragged and hangs on her like a sheet. But despite, or perhaps because of, the immediate ruggedness of her appearance I find myself thinking she's beautiful.
I bring my hand closer to my body and the little Driftloon follows. Scarlet tries to swat at him and he rolls away from her, still running his body along my hand. She growls a bit but Scout puts her paw on the Luxio's back. They share a quick glance and then Scout holds her paw out to me. The Driftloon looks at her and then floats away from me, pressing to her matted fur and making a strange squeaking noise. Scout smiles slightly and looks at me with light eyes. I like him. He's good.
Without thinking about it another second, I pull a PokeBall from my pocket and show it to the Ghost-type. He stops nuzzling Scout and looks at it, shuddering a bit. Then he bounces up and down and flips over, his eyes squeezing shut in what I take to be happiness. He snuggles against the PokeBall and I press the button on it twice. A bright light shoots out and consumes him, pulling him into its dark depths. It shakes once in my hand before making a loud click and shrinking down to transport size. I send the Driftloon out again and he goes right back to rubbing against me.
"What should your name be?" I ask the little creature. He flips again, which worries me because now I have no idea what that means.
Cheryl holds her hand out to him and he watches it carefully. She waves a finger back and forth and he follows it as well as he can before getting frustrated and rubbing his head on her chest. She grins and holds him, causing him to go still and shiver. "How about Marley?"
He breaks free from her grasp and I watch him float around us, making circles around Scout and Scarlet. "Why Marley?"
"Well he's a Ghost-type. I remember reading a book with a ghost named Marley in it and I always thought it sounded really nice." Scout swipes her paw through the air and shudders violently when it goes straight through the Driftloon's purple body. She looks at me in horror and I promise to explain type relationships to her later.
"Marley." The Driftloon floats to my face and flips over, watching me closely. "Want to be Marley?" He flips over again and bobs up and down. I pet him lightly on the little white tuft on his head and he squeaks in happiness. "Marley it is."
A loud chime sounds from the other side of the fire and we look over to see Brandon proudly holding a rather large bottle of wine over his head. "I propose a toast. For the reviving of the Windworks and the return of the Balloon Pokémon. I'm assuming everyone has a water bottle or something to drink this with." He goes around in the circle, pouring a small bit for everyone. He smiles when he gets to me and pauses, nodding slightly. "Right after this you get the hell out, alright?" I can tell he's only half joking.
We raise our drinks toward the sky, dying amber light gleaming off worn plastic and rusted metal. Marley hovers between Cheryl and I while Scout and Scarlet sit patiently at our feet. Dracula flies down from above and grabs onto Cheryl's back. She yelps and falls backward, causing the Bat Pokémon to take cover by Scout and Scarlet. I down my drink and offer her my hand, yanking her back to her feet. "By the way, I changed my mind. I think it'll be alright if you come with us for a little while."
She smiles widely and raises her voice more than she should. "R-really? That's great!" She throws her arms around me and squeezes, speaking right into my ear. "Thank you, thank you! I promise we won't be a burden."
I pat her on the back a few times before pushing her away to free my neck. "Right, just, uh, okay. Yeah, just try not to get yourself or anyone else killed." She nods swiftly and continues smiling, nodding up and down rapidly.
I step away from her and reach down to grab Marley. He gazes back at me and squeals, closing his eyes and shaking. I let go and he rams his soft head into my chest; it feels like I've been hit by a particularly light pillow. He settles down and snuggles against my upper arm; eyes still closed but face visibly relaxed. Scarlet glances back at me and watches us with a strange jealousy in her eyes. She gets to her paws and comes over to us, rapidly hitting my legs hard enough to hurt.
Instead of simply scolding her I bend down and rub behind her ears. I was hoping she'd get over her envy streak upon evolving, but apparently she's hardly matured at all. "What am I going to do with you…?" I sigh and keep scratching, listening to her purr loudly.
Brandon gives a short speech about the beauty of teamwork. I sit by the fire and hear it all, hardly listening. As much as I dislike him I have to admit he has a point with the whole "power of working together" thing. Without my team I'd be long dead. I owe them my life several times over, and with every new member I hope our bonds only grow that much stronger.
MARLEY HAS JOINED THE TEAM!