Scout and Scarlet take up the back of our group, moving carefully with their eyes focused on the sky. They know by now to expect danger to come from above; flying zombies are always faster and more dangerous than walking or running ones. Scarlet's pelt prickles with nervous electricity, her ears twitching in anticipation of danger. Brown leaves crunch under her careful paw steps, the air filled with the crackle of their breaking shapes and the snaps of her sizzling fur. She holds her tail high and straight, the end swaying slightly in the cold wind.
The city around us has been devoured by age and ruin. The buildings are covered in chipped paint and topped by collapsing roofs. Less hardy structures crumbled, their beams and walls having long succumbed to the power of decay and disrepair. There are massive potholes dotting the pavement, stretched yearly by aching ice during the harsh Sinnoh winter. Any shadow of life is gone; there are no sounds but ours and the wind, or occasionally the moan of an empty home. The air smells crisp and empty. With each breath I can taste the sleeping forest, reaching exhaustedly into the city with graying vines and rusty shrubs.
Simple and utilitarian, the dark gray road ahead of us splits into a decrepit old neighborhood to the right and an equally battered city square straight ahead. Silent storefronts wave signs at us that cling to their wooden posts with tireless determination. Murky windows reflect the cool white sky with its tumbling dark clouds, as if they've been carefully painted by an impressionist testing out his new grayscales.
Colin stops where the road divides and turns half-way around. His tail sweeps through the air, curling towards him and stretching back out several times. Cheryl gestures for him to turn right into the neighborhood, and he scampers ahead unquestioningly. A freezing gust howls through the clustered buildings, and I shove my hands inside my armpits for warmth. My eyes sting from the cold, the rest of my face covered by Dawn's thick, bloodstained scarf. I can taste its mustiness against my lips, and the smell of mysterious gore clings to my nose. Hair that desperately needs to be cut hangs down and bothers my eyelashes every time I blink, but I'm too cold to hide it away inside my hat.
Marley hovers beside me; his presence equal parts comforting and unsettling. A low, strange noise escapes from his spherical form every once in a while, drifting on the wind and somehow reaching my well-covered ears. Dracula circles above us, though I won't leave her there for long. I'm not concerned about a possible swarm so much as I don't want her to freeze. She has fur, but it's very thin and I doubt it can give her much protection from this bitingly cold air.
This kind of weather is not unusual for early December in Western Sinnoh. I figure we'll see some snow soon, if the clouds are any indication. I hope Scout will be enough to keep me warm, but I'm not so sure. Even if we pile all of our supplies on top of us (which would be terribly stupid for a vast number of reasons) I'm certain we'll still freeze at night. I really don't want to die of hypothermia, so we'll need to come up with a good solution fast.
Cheryl stops immediately in front of me and I nearly slam into her, breaking my train of thought. She doesn't seem to notice, her attention apparently too focused on the crumbling house in front of her to worry about me not watching where I'm walking.
I step to her side and follow her gaze. A two-story home stands before us, its paint chipped and worn off. The door is closed tightly, the windows long shattered. It doesn't look very different from any other house we've seen, yet Cheryl cannot take her eyes off it. She sucks in a deep breath and clenches her fists, squinting in the cold. When she speaks, her voice is muffled slightly by her dark green scarf.
"Is this what it was like when you went back to Twinleaf?" I take a careful look at her face, at the deep scars reaching toward her right eye and the dirt coating her skin. Her eyebrows droop below the line of stray hairs across her forehead, and her irises look dark and large.
"I'm not sure what you mean." I admit, and irritation spreads across her face for a second before relaxing back into her cold, forlorn stare.
"Like," she puts her hands by her face and looks into her palms, her voice growing a bit louder. "Like there's…just nothing. Like you've come home to a place you've never been before. And you don't know why but you feel like this place is so alien but you know it used to be the most important thing ever. Like you don't belong here anymore."
The images of Twinleaf Town flutter into my mind's eye. The decaying grasses. The piles of useless scrap that used to be my home. The pieces of my bedroom scattered atop a mountain of ruin. I felt like I could remember everything I ever did there, sitting inside the ruins of my childhood home. But at the same time I knew it was not where I grew up. It was a ghost of what it once was, no, worse than that; it was a dream. Sitting there, with my knees pulled up to my chest and my memories flowing back in full force, I came to see that the place I knew could no longer exist in this world. It just didn't fit.
Televisions, refrigerators, radios, heaters, warm blankets, warm beds…they have no place here. Nothing of the world before the outbreak should still exist in the world after it. Every piece of Twinleaf I came to cherish never was, and never will be again.
"Yes…yes, this is what it felt like." Her eyes flick up to me, then back to the house. She takes a deep breath and takes a couple steps toward the door, her feet crunching the thick layer of leaves covering her front lawn. I reach out and grasp her hand, just hard enough to get her attention. She whips around and turns a cold, determined pair of bright green eyes on me. I swallow hard. "Are you sure you want to go in there? It won't be anything like what you remember, and if you get hurt I don't know how much of a help I can be to you. You said earlier you didn't know why you wanted to come to Eterna, and if you want to just…skip this whole place and move on I will completely understand. If you can't handle what's inside, I…" I pause, not sure how to say what I want to say. "I don't want you to freak out about it."
She starts to get angry, yanking her hand out of my grasp and holding it up like she's going to hit me. But the rage quickly fades from her face and she lets her arm drop limply to her side. "I know. I have to be able to handle it. And…I want to go in. I'll never stop wondering what I missed if I don't go inside now. Just…stay with me, okay?" I nod quietly, and she turns back toward the door.
She grasps the doorknob and takes a deep breath before slowly turning it. It screeches loudly and she flinches, but doesn't move away from it. The door cries out as she pulls it open, the bottom of it scraping along the tired concrete. Colin pads over to her side and looks up at his trainer. She puts her finger against her lips and gestures for him to go inside. He vanishes into the darkness, and she follows close behind. I return Dracula and Marley to their PokeBalls and call Scout and Scarlet to the front.
Cheryl's bat gleams in the pale gray light that pours in from holes where the windows used to be. Scout's flame further banishes the darkness, waving and flickering in the cold. Our footsteps are loud against the floor, and creaks echo throughout the foyer. Cheryl walks slowly, her hand lightly skimming over a dusty counter to her left. It leaves behind a long trail of clean, reddish-brown wood. She stops every couple of meters to examine some old artifact, usually something broken or covered in holes.
An old plate catches her eye, and she looks over it closely before setting it back down. I know she isn't paying very close attention for enemies, so I gesture for Scarlet to move in front of her and keep watch. The Luxio's thin body slides past Cheryl's dark legs, little pieces of light sparkling in the dark. Her eyes gleam, but even she knows this is no time for playing around. She doesn't try to bother Colin as much as she usually does, as it's obvious he's focused on the old house as well.
Part of me is jealous. The most I got when I went home was a pile of rubble that barely resembled the place where I spent most of my childhood. Cheryl's house is mostly intact, and in fact appears to be one of the sturdier structures on the street. She calls me pathetic, but compared to me she's had it easy.
Holy shit. A deep, terrible nausea builds in my stomach. How could I even think something like that? She's put up with me for so long, and I know the pain she's seen, and yet I can still honestly and wholeheartedly believe I've been worse off than her. She said I treated other people like shit, and maybe this is why. No, not maybe. This is why. I can't keep acting like everything I've done is so much more monumental and horrifying than what everyone else has done. It's only going to make her hate me more. As much as I tell myself I don't care, as well as I can convince myself she's wrong…I know she's right. This is as hard for her as it is for me, and it's taken me way too long to realize that. What happened to her doesn't matter; what matters is how it's affected her.
"What?" I say, much too loudly. She blinks several times and raises her eyebrows in surprise. "Sorry, I just…I was just thinking about something."
"It's fine…" she shakes her head and takes a deep breath, looking away from me for a second before looking back up. "I was just wondering…did you leave Twinleaf to go on the gym challenge?"
"No, I left because it was a burnt pile of-"
"No! Not then, before the outbreak. Is that how you got Scout, and your PokeDex, and all those PokeBalls? Because you wanted to take the gym challenge?"
I knit my eyebrows at her skeptically. "Yeah…why?" The gym challenge was really just an excuse for little boys and girls to get a Pokémon. New trainers were told we could defeat all eight gym leaders, but really it was impossible after the third or so. From what Leo and I came to understand, the Gym Leaders were told in advance what skill level their challenger was. If they heard you already had a few badges they'd use strategies and teams only a real prodigy could defeat. So it wasn't really a challenge so much as an excuse to get out of the house and do some traveling.
"I always wanted to take the Gym Challenge. My parents were nervous about me going out on my own, but I was starting to wear them down…" she stops and takes in a deep breath before going on. "Anyway, I was wondering if maybe you and I could do it? Obviously we wouldn't be taking on all the gym leaders and we probably can't even get to all the city-states, but we could try to collect all the badges. It'd give us some sort of tangible reason for doing all this." I start to remind her of my goal in all this, but she interrupts me. "Tangible, Jay. 'Looking for survivors' is not a tangible goal. 'Collecting gym badges' is."
"I don't know, it sounds kind of…impossible."
"Please, Jay?" She suddenly grabs both of my hands and looks into my eye with big, wet, green ones. "It would be really fun. It's something I've always wanted to do, and didn't you? When you were a kid?" It's strange to hear her imply I'm not a kid anymore, but I guess I should really be used to that by now. "Even if we find out it really is impossible, can we at least give it our best shot?"
The look on her face is difficult to say "no" to. It's a look I haven't seen since we left Floaroma, and one I've hoped I could see again. She's hopeful, happy. Even though I know it's probably futile and stupid, I nod slowly and roll my eye. "Yeah, I guess we can try."
She smiles so much I can see it in her eyes, and even though I know it's only for a second, I can't help but feel like this small act has helped me redeem myself to her.