By now the sun is well into its long descent, taking whatever small amount of heat it contributed to the day with it to the other side of the world. Bright orange and violet mingle in the sky as the first brave stars begin their nightly vigil. They shine down at us from spaces high above the forests, places far beyond the mountains and oceans. They feel nothing, can't even see us from where they burn so impossibly far away. I want to watch them forever, keep my eyes peeled to the sky where things are too far away to worry about. I could get lost in them, counting an endless supply of tiny dots for the rest of my life. If I look up, I don't have to look ahead. I know I can handle what lies before me, but I almost wish I couldn't. I blink hard, willing it all to go away. But we've come this far; we've known all along what could be waiting for us at our destination.
Twinleaf Town lies in complete ruin, burned to the ground long ago.
Leo and I stand at the entrance to Route 1 in stunned silence. We can see what remains of our houses from here, black piles of ash and crumbling ruins scattered about the dull brown landscape. The ground is marred with debris of all sorts, from burnt posts to rusty lawn chairs and unrecognizable PokeDolls. The trees immediately surrounding the town have deep black scars along their trunks. The once well-groomed path is now overly thin and misshapen, with weeds poking up through the ashes to starve any flowers that were once cultivated there. Chimney stacks rise like great spires from the rubble, immune to the power of fire but laughable against time and weathering. The occasional doorframe or stone wall breaks up the emptiness, and from here I can see a bathtub just barely poking out from the remnants of my hometown.
I swallow my anxiety, my steadfast denial of everything I'm seeing, and take the first steps into our old town. Leo doesn't stop or try to race me this time; he stays back and looks out into his childhood home with bleak, uncomprehending eyes. A thick layer of leaves crunches beneath my feet, unused to bearing so much weight. I walk out cautiously into the open ruins, watching every shadow for signs of movement. Scout is close to my side, the sound of her crackling tail accompanied only by the wind. This place means nothing to her, but as my partner she knows and at least partially understands how I feel.
Bending down, I take a small, decaying toy from the ground and examine it closely. Though it's covered in thick grime and has several limbs melted off, I recognize it as my own Carnivine action figure. I feel for a little button on the back, and press it several times, longing to hear it cry out its name. I take a deep breath, knowing full well there will only ever be silence.
Frustrated, I throw the toy back into the pile of debris. Scout perks her ears in concern, but doesn't question me. I'm not sure why it bothers me so much, but some part of me was just praying for that stupid thing to work. I just want a piece of home to function like it used to.
I continue down the little road, my feet instinctively taking me back to where my house once stood. I walk to where the front door was; raise my hand as if to turn the knob. There was a great big wooden door here, with an unnecessarily large knocker and obnoxious doorbell. I waited fourteen years of my life to stand on this doorstep facing the opposite direction, anxious to finally run away to Sandgem with Leo and get my first Pokémon.
I remember my mother telling me I would never survive. She was a shell of a woman, permanently bitter about her divorce and determined to keep me from being anything like my father. She was lucky; I could never grow up to be the man I don't remember. I begged her for years to let me get my trainer's license, to let me take battle classes at my junior high school. But "I would never be able to handle it". She kept me weak, insisted I was unable to protect or take care of myself in any way, shape, or form.
Leo and I decided from an early age that we would run away together. His parents encouraged him to become a trainer, but were never sure if he could deal with the responsibility. Even as a kid he was uncontrollable, always running from one place to the next without ever thinking about what he was doing. By the time he was eleven, he'd broken both elbows, had a minor fracture in his knee, and sprained his ankles several times each. My mother hated him because she thought he was "a bad influence" and blamed it on his parents. Apparently they had "loose morals" because his father was never around, though I guess she thought herself pious because her ex-husband was a "dirty, lying, unfaithful, cruel, demonic, jackass son of a bitch who couldn't treat a woman right for the life of him."
But I always gravitated toward Leo. He was fun, adventurous, and popular. Three things I could never even have hoped to be without him. With my mother, I was a quiet little kid who hated talking and would never stay up past his bedtime. With Leo, I got detention for talking out of turn and could stay up as late as I damn well pleased.
My hand drops down, balled into a fist. My nails dig into my palm until the cold makes it burn.
Ultimately, we did runaway. Professor Rowan made us go back, but he helped us with our licenses and eventually gave us our Pokémon. Pokémon that made us feel invincible. With Leo, my mother was an adversary. With Scout, she was just a nag. The last day I ever saw my mother, I gave her a stiff goodbye and she shook her head in response.
I walk through what would be the door way, imagining myself back at home so many years ago. I can smell something cooking, probably pasta or maybe vegetables. The television is on, and my mother is sitting in front of it. She ignores me. Our cook is the one making dinner, and she gives me a hug and asks how my day was.
We make small talk and I go upstairs into my room. I kick aside some debris, closely examining the remnants of my bedroom. I lift up a board that must have been part of my bed, and try to find some proof that it was mine. I scratch off some of the ash, breathe on the little pieces that fly around. But as far as I can tell I've left no mark on this plank.
I throw it to the side and collapse in the pile. Burying my face between my knees, I wrap my arms around my legs and draw them up towards my chest. All I can smell is the ash. I focus on it, refusing to think about anything else. There is only the smell of fire, and there is only darkness. How terrible it is to use fire. How wonderful it is to burn. I live for the smell of smoke and the sensation of heat, both at my side and in my veins. There is a part of me that longs only to destroy what destroys, to set fire to fire and burn that which burns others. But a much more powerful piece only wants to start the flames and smell the smoke. I cannot hate the smell of ash, because it is the smell of my future. I made a contract with fire the day I chose Scout as my partner, and I must honor that contract until the moment I die.
Heat envelopes me, a great warmth blowing into my face. I look up, and realize that I'm having an existential crisis over the smell of ash. Scout kneels before me, her face a mixture of concern and confusion. "I have to stop doing this." I murmur, which only confuses the Fire-Type more. I shift so that I'm sitting with my legs crossed, and I reach out to scratch behind Scout's ear. She's skeptical at first, but nonetheless closes her eyes and puts her head in my lap.
"I don't understand why all this has happened Jay." I crane my neck, taking in Leo's wide eyes and grim expression. He's playing with the end of his sleeve, something he only does when he's under stress. "I mean…why would the League just let an entire town burn to the ground? How could they not send any help?" His voice breaks, and he doesn't look at me. The setting sun is casting dark shadows across his face, obscuring it from my view as he shifts nervously.
"I wish I knew," I try to speak as nonchalantly as possible, but I can't keep a bit of pain from peeking through my words. "We won't know until we get to Jubilife, probably." I wish I had a real answer for him, that I could just say "Well the entire League is dead so obviously they won't be of much help to anyone," but I can't. Neither of us knows anything about what's happened beyond Sandgem. The rest of the country could very well be thriving; maybe this whole undead mess was restricted to Jubilife, Oreburgh, Sandgem, and Twinleaf. We might be in a massive quarantine and have absolutely no idea. Scout rubs her head against my abdomen, and I can't help but feel a little better from the warmth of her body.
Leo falls silent for a long time before sitting down beside me. We've done this before, just sat on the floor of my room, too tired to do anything mildly productive. But back then my room wasn't on the ground floor, and my furniture wasn't lying in a burned heap all around us. I lay back, and Scout makes a spot for herself beside me. Leo sits cross-legged, watching the sky carefully. His head is in his hands, elbows pressed into his knees.
"Leo," I say suddenly, making him jump. "Where's Prinplup?" I didn't notice until now that the Penguin Pokémon had vanished. He's so quiet that I don't notice when he does much of anything.
My friend raises an eyebrow at me. "In his Pokeball?"
"Oh," I answer simply, feeling a bit embarrassed. Sometimes I forget that other people can actually put their starter into a Pokeball, and just assume they don't have one like Scout. Though after spending four years locked in a cage with the two of them I should really have that down.
After a little while I decide to take out some bread and prepare my sleeping mat. I toss the bread to Scout for her to distribute, and spread my mat out on the flattest part of the pile. I haven't slept on this mat in four years, yet I haven't forgotten how incredibly uncomfortable it is. It's basically just a bright blue yoga mat with a little more padding, and is technically called a "Trainer's Mat." I pull out my tiny pillow and thick blanket too, placing them on the edge of the mat. Scout hands me a piece of bread, and Leo hands me some slices of unmeat. I take both graciously and make myself a small sandwich. Just that will be enough to last me through the night.
I call Tinkerbell out of her Pokeball, and give her a very small piece of bread to nibble on. Starly don't need much food in general, and given her current state, breaking off a piece any larger than my thumb would make her sick. She eats it slowly like me, savoring every bit. Afterwards she sits down next to Scout, warming herself by the Monferno's tail.
Everyone seems to be getting tired, so I give Scout my blanket and pillow to sleep on top of and she curls up on my mat. We return Prinplup and Tink, placing their Pokeballs near Scout. Leo lies down on his mat and mumbles goodnight. I tell him the same, getting myself comfortable for the first watch of the night. I've always taken first watch, with Scout taking second and Leo usually arguing with Prinplup for any time after that.
Going by the light of Scout's tail, I pick out a spot close to the others with relatively little debris. The darkness now surrounds us, the forest almost entirely quiet. The only noise to be heard is that of the Kricketots, hidden from their undead brethren beneath the leaves and the ruins of Twinleaf Town.