Cold creeps up my legs and sets every hair on my body standing straight up. I wince and shiver, gritting my teeth and trying to ignore it. My mind is filled with a sleepy haze, and for a second I wonder where I am. Cheryl curls into a tight ball and I pull her closer to me, burying my face in her freezing hair. Something squeals loudly between us and I feel Cheryl shift slightly. Not wanting to give up on the warmth, I tighten my hold on her and press my hand against her back.
"Ow! What the hell, Jay?" She mumbles as she pushes away from me. I make an incoherent grumbling noise under my breath and wrinkle my eyebrow. The warmth that abandons me when our bodies separate leaves behind a shock of cold. My eyelid flutters open and I take a deep breath half-way between a yawn and a shiver.
She's sitting up now with her arms wrapped tightly around her small torso. Elizabeth and Wynaut huddle together by her knees, shaking and shivering. Steeling herself long enough to get control of her hand, Cheryl digs into her pocket and lets their PokeBalls spill out onto the floor. With bright-red fingertips she presses down on the buttons to expand the balls, and in a flash the two Baby Pokémon vanish inside.
Her legs shake from tiredness as she stands. The sleeping mat creases where she puts her weight on it, the thin blanket sliding slightly. She keeps her balance and crosses the room, disappearing from my sight. Her footsteps reverberate in the otherwise complete silence, accompanied by the typical creaks and moans of exhausted floorboards.
Burrowing under the blanket and scooting closer to Scout, I close my eye and struggle to find sleep again. There is a constant weariness lying at the edges of my mind, and I reach out for it and drag it over me. But the chills are too strong, and no matter how badly I want to sleep I can't. Scout's body is warm against my back, but not enough to hold off the cold.
Cheryl gasps suddenly and my eyelid shoots open. I whip around immediately, slamming my hands into the ground and bringing my knees close to my chest. My hand instinctively grabs for my crowbar, but when I don't feel the smooth, familiar metal I decide I'll be fine without it and stand up anyway. With shaking knees I stumble, my body unprepared for such a sudden movement. But I don't fall, and hold myself up, ready for whatever we're about to face.
She stands against the window with her hands pressed to the glass. A wide smile splits her face as she stares out into the white street below us. A thin layer of snow covers every bare branch and decrepit building, giving the ruins of Eterna City a pure and uninterrupted shine. The sky meets the white landscape with a cold, pale gray, leaving a world of empty ice.
"Jay, look! It's so pretty…" My head pounds suddenly from getting up so fast, and for a second black blobs overtake my vision. I shut my eye tightly and press my hand to my forehead, stepping carefully over our pillows and approaching the window.
Scout eases herself to her feet and pads over to us, yawning and stretching her arms high above her head. She blinks slowly at the whiteness outside, completely indifferent to the cold. Her flame gleams brightly in the window, orange flickering in the pale light.
"I guess so. But it's only going to make things more difficult." I stand next to Cheryl and cover my mouth, stifling another yawn. "I didn't bring any other warm clothing."
She narrows her eyes and takes her hands off the glass. A shiver passes through her and she shoves her fingers into her armpits. "Me neither…do you think we'll be okay?"
I bite my lip and exhale loudly. It's a difficult question to answer. I underestimated how much colder things would get during the winter, as our fall and summer temperatures have been pretty low the past couple years and it was hard to picture how much worse they'd get. Snow will make things harder as well, seeing as I'm not used to walking around in it and if it's thick enough can really slow us down. I don't mind telling her this, but I don't exactly want to tell her we'll probably die either. She knows that already. "We have to be? We'll just have to keep moving and hope for the best. As long as we can find some more food soon we'll be okay, and the snow should make finding water easier. But obviously it's cold, and the temperature at night can get really, really low. I have no intention of getting frostbite, so we should probably try to find another method of keeping warm…"
I trail off out loud but the train of thought continues on in my head. Even if we take extra blankets from her house we have no way of carrying them. In theory one of our Pokémon could do it, but I have no idea how that much inorganic matter will affect a PokeBall. We never really learned the extant of what a PokeBall could hold, and back in the lab we had so few that we feared testing one could hurt us in the long run. Very few electric appliances remain functional, and again even if we found a space heater and a reliable way to power it, how could we possibly carry it with us?
It might not even make a difference. Four years ago we had one of our worst winters in the history of Sinnoh, and we almost died simply because of the cold. We know what this country is capable of, and there's no way Cheryl and I could stay alive without help if things ever get that bad.
The pain of hindsight stings and it again occurs to me that I make very bad decisions. It'd be easy to obsess over all the dumb things I've done recently, but I know at this point it won't do me any good.
Cheryl sucks in a shuddering breath, her gaze still locked on the world outside. "We need to find other survivors." She turns to me and I nod slowly. "What if there are people who have managed to create working societies? I mean, in all those apocalypse movies there's always some safe haven or something…what if there are people who have food and water and heat? If we're going to be collecting gym badges, we might as well try to find other people as well. Maybe they feel just as isolated as we do. Maybe they'd be happy to see other survivors."
I look out at the snow and lean back on my heels. My breath comes out in white wisps, like little ghosts. "Sure. I mean yeah, that was sort of my plan in the first place. I guess that wasn't really much of a plan at all, but finding survivors sounds like a pretty good idea. If there are other people out there, we should seek them out."
Scout makes a small noise and I turn my head to see her. Her eyes are narrowed to slits and her tail waves back and forth apprehensively. I ask her if something's wrong and she doesn't respond. I ask her again and her eyes slowly open back up. She looks at me with nervousness filling her dark gaze and I repeat my question a third time. She opens her mouth, then closes it and shakes her head. Cheryl watches us silently, leaning on the wall beside her.
"I can tell something's wrong, Scout. Spit it out." She shakes her head more vigorously this time and holds out her hands as if to say it was nothing. Her sudden quietness is bothering me, but if she can't tell me it must not be vitally important. I really hope she feels alright, because if she gets sick or hurt I'll worry about her to no end. "You sure?" She nods and flicks her tail up and down toward our stuff.
Cheryl clears her throat and stands up straight. "We should probably pack. I know we're not in top form, but I really think we should get moving. Today we can check out the gym and the rest of town, maybe we missed someone. I really hope we find other survivors soon..."
"I never said we couldn't take care of ourselves. We have enough food and enough water, and obviously we're okay with the cold for now if we survived last night. It's just a matter of long-term things…" She nods quietly and doesn't reply, refocusing her attention on folding our mats and blankets back into our bags.
The gym doors are long gone, leaving behind nothing more than a gaping hole in the side of the building. The pound of Dracula's wings fills the air and she swoops inside, keeping close to the floor. Shockingly lush green covers the ground, crunching loudly beneath our feet. Scarlet paws at the grass and sniffs it with a very confused expression on her face.
"It's fake," Cheryl explains, stepping ahead of me and holding her bat out in front of her. "Gardenia used artificial turf because, believe it or not, this building actually used to have a roof." Scarlet looks up into the cold gray sky and her ears flick in interest. "The flowers and everything were real, but if I remember right they made some strange architectural choices…"
A massive machine sticks out of the floor in the middle of the gym. Rust claws at its sides and the paint is completely gone, leaving behind a dark metal husk of gears and wires. It has two large platforms attached to it, one pointed toward us and the other not visible from this side. Dracula flies to the machine and sits in the middle of it, pulling her wings in around herself and waiting quietly.
The machine is somehow held up out of a dark abyss below. Remnants of a floor surround the platforms, but it's clearly too weak to hold any weight and filled with holes. There's no other way to reach the far end of the gym, with the massive drop cutting us off completely from the opposite side. I consider leaving my things at the entrance so we have better balance on the platforms, but if something happens I need to have my first aid kit with me. So I strap my backpack over my chest as many times as I can and watch Cheryl walk out onto the first platform.
She totters on the rusted steel, holding out her arms and gingerly putting one foot in front of the other. A raised line makes the side of the platform slope down into the depths below, so the only dependable footing is right in the center. She doesn't looks at me as she progresses, her eyes focused on crossing to the middle of the machine.
She makes a short final jump and the center of the mechanism moans. She collapses to her knees as the platforms shudder from her sudden weight. But the shaking ends quickly, and she manages to stand slowly with righted balance. She turns to me and grins. "That wasn't so hard!"
I look down at the uneven metal nervously. I can hardly tell which part of the platform is actually raised unless I shake my head back and forth a bit, and even then it's not entirely clear. It bends down toward the darkness below when I step out onto it, making my heart race and my vision blur with fear. "Uh, I really don't think I can do this," I yell to her with a shaking voice.
She rolls her eyes and puts her fists against her hips. "Oh, come on! Don't tell me you're afraid of heights, too!"
"It's not that, I just- I can barely tell where I'm supposed to stand. The raised part looks exactly the same as the sloped part!" I try tilting my head back and forth to compensate for the lack of vision, but it hardly works. "I can't cross it; you'll have to get the badge on your own."
"Ugh, seriously?" Her voice sounds so incredibly immature and shallow when she says that I can't help but grin. Colin starts to approach her but she tells him to stay back. "Dracula and I can handle it, right girl?" The Crobat nods and smiles, taking off and hovering next to the girl. Cheryl mumbles something and starts to head for the very end of the gym. I assume she knows where she's going; otherwise she'd be asking a lot more questions.
The machine whines as she puts her weight on the far platform. She gasps and I stand on my toes to see what's going on. She starts to lose her balance but Dracula catches her and brings her back to her feet. Her "thank you" echoes against the decaying walls, and the shuddering of the platform beneath her weight fills the air. With one last hop, she makes it to the other side and the machine shakes in response. I can't see her very well from here, but among several rotted wooden stakes her shadowed form bends down and rummages around in something.
For a few seconds the sound of foraging overrides everything else. Then her cracking voice rings out across the gym, and she whips around triumphantly. She's holding something in her hand, something that gleams brightly in the light. "You won't believe what's over here, Jay! There's some sort of first aid kit, and a couple gallons of water! I wouldn't be surprised if there's food hidden somewhere around here too!"
"That's great!" I call back, waving to her from across the room. "Is that the badge?"
"You bet it is! This is so great Jay!" She takes the badge into both her hands and examines it closely. Her chest swells with pride and a smile splits across her face. She says something to Dracula, who nods and returns the happy grin.
There's a sudden, loud gasp behind me, and I spin around to see several warmly-dressed trainers and their Pokémon staring at us in shock. One of them, a red-headed girl with an angry Raichu standing beside her, steps forward with a face full of fury. "What the hell is this?" She hisses, and before I can explain Scarlet has leapt at her Raichu with a massive burst of electricity. I try to call her back, but she won't do it. Her claws sink deep into the Mouse Pokémon's hide, but she roars violently as his teeth cut into her flesh. There's a loud surge of thunder and she flies off him, landing hard on the ground at my feet.
"Sc-Scarlet?" I start, but I stop when I see what the Raichu's trainer has in her hand.
The gun shines in the pale light, her fingers poised to pull the trigger on us.