Hey, random stranger! Thanks for stopping by to read Embers of the Past! This isn't your typical 'pokémon journey' kind of story – those things are way overdone. Once you get to the second chapter, you'll see what I mean. Read, review, and enjoy!

The night was still. The only thing that interrupted was the sound of footfalls on the damp grass and heavy breathing. She stumbled forward, fear crawling up her spine. What am I doing here? she wondered, panting. A canopy of leaves on branches obscured the stars above from view. There should have been no light in the forest. Yet a dim, green orb of light pulsated somewhere ahead of her. What was it? Why was it glowing? Why did she feel her pulse quicken at the sight of it, and why did a sense of urgency grow within her as she neared it?

Her eyes snapped open and she awoke with a jolt. She sat up in bed, clutching at her forehead. By now, she was used to it, but her heart still pounded heavily in her chest.

Stretching her arms out in front of her, Julia swung her legs over the edge of the bed, slowly rising to her feet. She rifled through her clothes-drawers in search of something to wear, finally finding a blue three-quarter sleeves top and a pair of overall-shorts. She pulled her matching blue socks up to her knees, then, tying her hair into two short, low pignite-tails, put on a white cycling hat with a blue ribbon.

This was it. She breathed in deeply, staring at her reflection in her mirror. A grin pulled at the corners of her mouth. Julia did look like a pokémon trainer.

Checking her bedside clock to make sure that she was still on time, she skipped down the stairs, the memory of her dream already fading. Professor Elm, the local pokémon professor, had a starter pokémon waiting for her and two other trainers, and he had promised to hold them for them only until eight o'clock.

I can't be delayed by even a minute! she decided. I'm going to prove that I'm the most worthy teen in the world to receive a pokémon!

Julia found that she was the only one awake in her household so far, which she was relieved at. If her mother was awake, there would be so much fuss and happy tears that Julia wouldn't find an opportunity to leave until lunchtime! And if Jordan and his dumb quagsire were awake... Arceus forbid that! The last thing Julia needed was for her pain-in-the-ass cousin and McMister the quagsire to delay her with their nonsense!

Finding a loose scrap of paper, Julia quickly scrawled out a note to her mother and left it on the table. Then, with an air of excitement, she turned around and grabbed her bag out of the closet and her newly fixed Pokégear off the counter, put on her scuffed-up white shoes, and, without a glance back, ran out the door.

The breeze that constantly swirled around New Bark town lifted her orange hair as she ran down the street, headed for the professor's lab. The town was small enough for her to make it there in less than five minutes, even after she was forced to slow down and catch her breath. The lab loomed in front of her, a large building with two floors, the upper floor being the professor's living quarters. Julia took in a deep breath, then pushed open the double doors. Inside, the air smelled clean, like a Pokémon Centre. The walls were white, and fancy machinery lined the walls, lights blinking and beeping noises echoing everywhere. Assistants dressed in white lab coats walked around with clipboards. It all felt very professional and strict. Had Julia not known the professor personally, she didn't doubt that she would have been incredibly intimidated. Luckily, professor Elm had been a family friend even before she was born, and 'intimidating' was the last adjective that she would pin on him.

The scrawny young man stood at the back of the room, bent low over a laptop, furiously typing away as Julia approached him. He mumbled to himself, but when she brightly announced, "'Morning, professor! I'm here for my pokémon!" he turned around instantly, an embarrassed expression on his face.

"Well, good morning, Julia! You're here early!" he exclaimed. "I was just finishing writing an email to my good friend, professor Oak! He said he was in town, so I just thought I'd send him a greeting! But I suppose you want your pokémon right away?"

Julia nodded excitedly at him. With a knowing smile, Elm walked over to a large, white machine and pressed a button on it. The lid rose up and away to reveal three Poké Balls. Elm lifted them out and began releasing the pokémon within them in order.

"First of all, we have the grass type pokémon, chikorita." A chikorita emerged from the red beam and squeaked up at Julia, his green eyes widening.

"Next is the fire type pokémon, cyndaquil." The small cyndaquil he released trembled and whimpered, trying to put distance between herself and Julia.

"And finally, the water type pokémon, totodile!" The totodile flexed his non-existent muscles and beamed.

Elm waved his arm and stepped back towards his computer. "Go on ahead, Julia. Take your time choosing the one that you'll get along with best. After all, you'll spend a good deal of time with it on your journey."

Julia crouched down and smiled at the three. "Hi! My name's Julia!" she introduced. "I hope that I can become really great friends with one of you!"

Chikorita bounced forward, his eyes shining. "My name's Chikorita! Can I please be your friend?" he begged.

"No, wait, pick me!" insisted Totodile, barging forward and shoving Chikorita aside. "I'll be a stronger partner! I'll definitely keep you safe!"

"Hey!" protested Chikorita, and a heated slap-fight ensued.

"Cut it out, both of you!" Julia tried to pull them apart, but they were too deeply enthralled in their little battle. In fact, they seemed to enjoy it and began using actual attacks on each other. Julia giggled at them, then glanced over at Cyndaquil. She seemed very quiet and she huddled a good distance away from the other two. When Julia finally managed to make eye contact with her, the cyndaquil held her gaze for only a moment before turning her head away and closing her eyes. Julia sighed, then looked back over at Chikorita and Totodile, who had finished their battle and were now laughing together. She stood up, putting a hand on her hip, and the two pokémon swiftly straightened and looked up at her with the most adoring eyes they could muster.

"Alright!" Julia declared. "I've chosen my pokémon!" She knelt and peered into Chikorita's eyes. "I choose you, Chikorita, as my partner!" With a happy cry, the pokémon leapt into Julia's arms and she stood again. Totodile looked downcast, but gave Chikorita a thumbs-up with a wink.

Elm walked back over from his laptop, looking satisfied with himself and with Julia.

"So, you've chosen Chikorita? The journey may be tough at first, but I am certain that, with enough perseverance, you two will form a close bond!" He handed Julia the Poké Ball that would contain Chikorita and smiled. "Best of luck, Julia!"

Julia clutched the Poké Ball tightly and set down her new pokémon to follow behind her as she walked out the doors and into her journey.

She never would have been able to guess just what awaited her.

"I'd like to order a kid's size pancake breakfast and a chocolate milkshake. Oh, and two straws, please!"

Julia sat in a window booth at Miltank's, New Bark's famous ice cream parlour and diner, Chikorita sitting opposite her. It seemed that his wide smile never faded from his face.

The waitress took down the notes then scurried off in the opposite direction. The diner was relatively empty this morning, meaning that Julia could chat with Chikorita as loudly as she wanted. And because any pokémon's way of communication was mainly body language anyways, half of their dialogue would be lost to anyone listening in.

Chikorita's nature, as it turned out, was cheerful, and he was good at attacking. He really liked cheri and watmel berries, and he was afraid of ghost types. At that point, Julia's order had arrived – the plate of pancakes, which was exceptionally large for a kid's size, was stacked five high and drizzled with chocolate and caramel syrup and topped with whipped cream. If Julia's mother saw that, she'd surely have a heart attack!

Even though both of them were voracious eaters, they both only managed to get through half of the plate of pancakes. After the waitress took it away, they kept chatting, sipping from the milkshake occasionally.

Abruptly, Chikorita stopped talking and stared out the window, his eyes narrowed. Julia looked out and spotted what he was looking at. A boy with crimson red hair slouched by, exuding an icy aura. He gripped a Poké Ball in his hand.

"That guy gives me a funny feeling," growled Chikorita. "It looks like he's up to something."

At that moment, Julia's Pokégear rang. She unclipped it from her bag strap and checked the caller ID. It was professor Elm. Oh, no, Julia thought, groaning inwardly. Did mom give him my number?

Nevertheless, she picked up, but hardly was able to get in a 'hello' before Elm broke into hysterics.

"Oh, it's horrible! Some kid just broke into the lab and stole both of the other starter pokémon! Get over here at once!"

"Hold on, professor!" Julia blurted. "That kid – did he have red hair?" It was a crazy thought, but what if...?

"Yes! Why do you ask? Do you see him?!" The professor then began crying out random jargon, so Julia quickly hung up and tossed the Pokégear in her bag.

"C'mon, Chikorita," she told him, getting up from her seat. "I've got a hunch about that guy!"

Ignoring the waiter who yelled at her to pay for her meal, Julia and Chikorita dashed out the doors and ran up to the red-haired kid.

"Hey, you!" Julia called out. The boy turned, glowering. "Did you steal the pokémon from professor Elm's lab?"

He raised his eyebrows at her. "That's a rude assumption to make of someone, kid. How old are you? Nine? Eight?"

"I'm thirteen," Julia insisted, "and if you didn't take those pokémon, then why don't we have a battle? Because you must otherwise have your own pokémon, right?" She gestured to the Poké Ball in his hand.

"You got me there. Not bad, for a little kid." He smirked, and added, "I accept your challenge!" He tossed the Poké Ball, and from it emerged the cyndaquil, who looked more terrified than ever.

"Okay, Chikorita," Julia told him, "this is our first battle. Let's take this guy out!"

Chikorita leapt in front of Julia, a determined expression replacing his usual cheerful one.

"Destroy these losers," growled the boy. Cyndaquil, still looking afraid, charged forwards with surprising speed and slashed Chikorita with her claws before Julia could even issue a command. Chikorita fell back, hurt but still able to battle.

"Use Pound!" Julia ordered, and her Pokémon rushed at Cyndaquil. However, before he could attack, Cyndaquil ran slightly past him, striking his side and taking him to the ground. He had fainted.

"No!" cried Julia, rushing towards her pokémon and cradling him in her arms. The boy tsked and returned Cyndaquil to her Poké Ball.

"What losers," he muttered, and turned to leave. Narrowing her eyes, Julia returned Chikorita to his Ball as well, then grabbed the boy's arm.

"You think I'm just gonna let you run away with those stolen pokémon?" He jerked his arm free, knocking Julia back onto the ground. She groaned, then looked around the street for help – however, it seemed that, being that it was still very early in the morning, nobody was up yet. The street was deserted, save for a few cars.

"This cyndaquil may prove useful later," the boy said with a grin, then turned and walked away.

"Hey!" protested Julia again, trying to follow him, but she was suddenly stopped by the waiter from Miltank's, who had run out to stop her.

"You didn't pay for your meal!" he yelled at her.

"But – that guy stole some pokémon!" Julia tried to tell him, but was interrupted.

"Of course he did. C'mon – pay up, kiddo!"

Unable to protest further, Julia had to finally go back in and pay for her meal. Elm called her a short while later, and Julia was forced to tell him how she failed to stop him. The professor assured her that she didn't do anything wrong, but she still felt ashamed. She lost her chance not only to save those two pokémon, but also to show Elm that she had what it took to be a good trainer.

As Julia walked away with a heavy heart, she let Chikorita out of his Poké Ball, who insisted he felt okay and that she would totally beat that guy when they next met. Though she continued to mope for a while, the sun shone above head and she reminded herself that it was indeed the first day of her journey across Johto to win all the pokémon Gym badges and, hopefully, become a master of pokémon. Gradually, her spirits rose, until she was finally running towards Route twenty-nine, Chikorita jogging along at her heels. They dashed into the tall grass, defeating wild pokémon and exploring in bushes. There was no feeling of urgency at all. The world was their playground.

However, the day continued and they finally became hungry enough to try making progress towards Cherrygrove town, the nearest town on their way. The heat of a late summer afternoon had the two drenched in sweat, but they were both completely elated.

Once they reached the town, Julia brought Chikorita to the Pokémon Centre to heal him from any scratches given to him by wild Pokémon, then to another restaurant in town. Since trainers usually travelled the region and were either too lazy or unable to make their own meals, cheap diners were built left, right, and centre for kids to eat at with their pokémon.

They proceeded to spend the rest of the afternoon in Cherrygrove town. Julia did not often come here with her mom, and when she did, it was usually for a special occasion, so she felt excited to be there. Chikorita seemed to absorb her energy and mimic it, for he was equally enthralled and excited and he dashed around with her.

It became too late to leave for the next city, so when the sky darkened, they returned to the Pokémon Centre, which provided sleeping quarters for travellers. Julia slept with Chikorita next to her on the pillow, and instead of cryptic lights, her dreams were filled with visions of her and Chikorita battling trainers and legendary pokémon. She never gave a second thought to that boy or the stolen pokémon.

Not until they met again.

"Well, Chiki, it seems that you're pretty close to evolving!"

Julia crouched by her chikorita, whom she had begun calling 'Chiki' for the sake of it being easier to pronounce than his full species name and, of course, more endearing. They were training out on Route thirty-two, past Violet city. It felt hard to believe that she had only been a trainer for a week – the way that she issued commands was natural to her and their standard routine of waking up and having breakfast, training, breaking for lunch, training some more, then finally having dinner and casually hanging out the rest of the evening.

They had been in Violet city for longer than most young trainers and their pokémon. The Gym Leader, Falkner, and his flying type pokémon had proven to be too difficult to defeat yet, and even though Julia told Chiki she could catch a sentret or another pokémon who wasn't weak to flying, he refused and only wanted to train harder. He had insisted that he wanted to be the one to defeat Falkner, even if grass was weak to flying, and with his large, adoring eyes, how could she refuse him?

"Yeah, I think I can feel it!" Chiki agreed, grinning. "I'll evolve into a bayleef and become even more powerful! Then I can put Falkner and his birds in their place!"

Standing up, Julia put on her game face. "Then let's destroy the trainers around here and – "

"Destroy the trainers?" a snarky voice interrupted. "More like, make them piss themselves laughing at your stupidity."

Julia and Chiki turned to face the newcomer, who casually walked towards them, tossing a Poké Ball in the air languidly.

"Looks like we meet again, kid," he grinned. "So you didn't run home crying to your mommy. You get points for that, at least." The boy held out his Poké Ball and challenged, "Now, let's see if you learned from our previous encounter. I challenge you to a battle – one on one; your chikorita versus my cyndaquil."

Julia clenched her fist. She knew that it was foolish, but she couldn't back down from a challenge from this guy.

"You're on!" she replied, then called out, "Go, Chiki!" Chiki, looking doubtful, nevertheless stalked forwards, growling menaces at the boy. He raised his eyebrows mockingly.

"Chiki? Aw, what a cute nickname. Well, two can play at that game." He threw the Poké Ball, then said in the most offensive tone he seemed to be capable of, "Go, Flame!"

The cyndaquil emerged from the Poké Ball, and the moment Julia laid her eyes upon her, guilt surged through her like a Waterfall attack. The small pokémon no longer looked nervous – in fact, she no longer looked, well, anything. Her eyes were dull, and she stumbled forward wearily, nearly falling over. Scratches and wounds, some still fresh, covered what little there was of her body.

Julia stepped forward in horror, and Chiki stood motionless, shocked.

"Wha – what did you do to her?!" she shrieked.

"I tried to train her," explained the boy drolly, "and she couldn't take even a little bit of pain, it seems. As if it really matters. She can still burn 'Chiki's' ass."

Julia's voice became low and furious as she asked, "Did you do this to Totodile, too?"

"Totodile was stronger, tougher. He didn't let himself get hurt, not like Cyndaquil."

Cyndaquil tottered towards her opponent, her eyes narrowing as she began to focus. Julia shook her head and yelled, "Chiki! Please, just knock her out! Use any attacks that aren't grass type!"

Chiki needed no further encouragement and pelted forwards, slamming into Cyndaquil with all his might. Flames suddenly erupted below him; the force of Cyndaquil's unexpected counterattack sent him hurtling into a nearby bush. Julia wanted to cry out, but Chiki leapt from the bush in an instant, not yet ready to give up. Cyndaquil tensed, her entire back covered in blazes. Chiki approached slowly, as if trying to figure out how to attack her.

Her trainer looked annoyed and finally barked, "Cyndaquil, use Flame Wheel!" Cyndaquil cringed when he spoke, her eyes widening in apparent fear and the flames on her back spurting higher momentarily, then rolled forward, encircling her body in fire. Chiki dodged, then retaliated with a well-timed Pound. She was knocked off her course, but rolled around and aimed in his general direction, disoriented by fear and fatigue. And when Chiki struck with another Pound, one of his only non-weak attacks he knew against fire, Julia suddenly felt like she was the one disoriented. Seeing Cyndaquil in her weakened state and constantly getting hit with attacks made Julia want to cheer her on.

No, Julia gritted her teeth while thinking, you need to cheer on Chiki. He's your pokémon, and that cyndaquil needs to be knocked out or she might badly hurt herself!

"Hang in there, Chiki!" she finally called out. She needed to release her tension. Her fingernails dug into her palms so deeply that she felt a throbbing pain in her hands.

Cyndaquil plopped onto the ground at last, unable to work up the energy to roll at Chiki anymore. Her flames dwindled and her eyes closed. Chiki saw his opportunity and leapt up above her, smashing down with a critical Pound.

A squeak escaped Cyndaquil's mouth before she stopped moving.

Julia was mesmerized, relief washing over her. Cyndaquil was knocked out. The boy clacked his tongue in blatant disapproval.

"Weak." He took her back into her Poké Ball and shook his head. "But she'll learn to be strong and stand on her own."

"Return, Chiki," Julia sighed, returning Chiki to his Poké Ball, "and take a good, long rest." Then, seeing that the boy had started to walk away, she yelled after him, "You think that's what pokémon battling is about? Who's stronger?" He glanced back with mild interest.

"Well, you're wrong! It's about loving your pokémon! The bond between the two of you! And having your pokémon just get beat up – you call that training? That's just the cruelest thing you could do to anyone!"

On that last sentence, the boy's expression went from slight boredom to seething with hatred. He threw Cyndaquil's Poké Ball at Julia, which smacked her in the head, then, before she could even register what was happening, he closed the distance between them and shoved Julia onto the ground, making her drop Chiki's Poké Ball. He knelt down and, grabbing the front of her shirt, pulled her forwards so that he could leer straight into her eyes.

"Fuck you," he snarled. "You don't have a fucking clue what I've been through. Paying attention to someone isn't cruel; being ignored, never talked to, never paid attention to, never being cared for – that's cruel." He shoved her away in disgust and picked up his Poké Ball. "You have no fucking clue!"

He rifled through his pants pocket until he found another Poké Ball, a Great Ball, and let out a fearow. He climbed onto its back, growled a command at it, then flew it away. Julia watched, stunned speechless, until they were a tiny black speck against the darkening orange sky. Eventually, she slowly stood up, aware of a pulsating pain radiating up her spine from her tailbone, and picked up the Poké Ball. Never in her life had anyone ever sworn at her. Well, her mom had once, but that was a small, accidental curse when Julia had dropped a plate. In her peaceful town that she seldom saw outside of, everyone knew each other. Everyone was kind to each other and very respectful.

But this boy... What kind of hatred had he felt to feel it was acceptable to abuse his own pokémon? Julia hoped to never see him again.

She glanced at her Poké Ball, sighing. Chiki had been hurt early in the battle; she'd better go heal him.

Violet city gleamed in the evening with vivid shades of purple as Julia walked over to the Pokémon Centre. While she did have potions that she could use, she only wanted to use them when they were travelling a route, where they didn't have the convenience of a Centre nearby.

The nurse, as usual, took Julia's Poké Ball from her, set it on her machine for a few seconds, and repeated her odd phrase of, "We hope to see you again soon!" That disturbed Julia a little bit. The nurse wanted to see her back to heal her pokémon from injuries? Did she want Julia's pokémon to get hurt?

She had walked all the way out onto Route thirty-two when she remembered Chiki. She pulled out the Poké Ball and tossed it, a small smile coming to her face as the red beam emitted from the ball and shaped into a pokémon. She always loved seeing Chiki's broad, infallible grin.

But that smile never appeared. The pokémon that cowered in front of her was not Chiki. It was Cyndaquil.

For a moment, her mouth hung open and she was unable to speak. Her mind raced. What is Cyndaquil doing here? What happened to Chiki?! Then it hit her. When that boy threw his Poké Ball at Julia and shoved her, she had dropped hers, and so, when he had gone to grab his Poké Ball, he must have taken Chiki's instead of Cyndaquil's, leaving Julia with...

Her silence was broken by Cyndaquil, who looked up and whispered in a scratchy squeak, "I'm sorry." Julia stared at her.

"What? What do you mean?"

Cyndaquil took a small, hurried step away. "I'm sorry. I'm not strong enough to be useful to anyone." She began to tremble, her tiny paws clenched into fists. "I'll never be good enough to serve you!"

Had Cyndaquil used Confusion? Julia felt completely thrown off and managed only to make a "Huh?" noise at her.

"That's what happened, right? He traded me for Chiki because he's stronger, right?"

Julia hurriedly put the pieces together in her mind and, finally realizing what Cyndaquil thought had happened, said, "N-no! That's not it! After the battle, we dropped our Poké Balls and you and Chiki accidentally got switched. That's all!"

"So, then..." Cyndaquil lowered her head. "You're just going to go get Chiki back. Sorry. I didn't really think... Nobody like you would really trade their best friend for just another weakling!" All of a sudden, she broke down in tears, shaking. Once again, words could not even catch in Julia's throat for her to choke on. She had no idea what to say, but she slowly came down to her knees and put her arms around Cyndaquil. Cyndaquil squeaked in protest and tried to wiggle free, but Julia just pulled her in closer. The pokémon was traumatized by that boy. How did he manage to break her spirits enough to make her honestly believe she was weak?

"I'm not going to let that boy take you back," Julia found herself promising. "I'm going to save Chiki, too, but I'll protect you."

Cyndaquil pulled away enough long enough to respond, "Why? I'm not worth protecting." The answer put itself into Julia's mouth.

"Because we're friends."

Cyndaquil stared and repeated slowly, "Friends? The two of us?"

How could Julia have said that? She had only just met Cyndaquil, let alone made friends with her. So why did she feel an odd sense of familiarity, like she did know her?

"Yeah, we'll be friends, okay, Cyndaquil?" Julia smiled at her. She couldn't go back on her words now, and Arceus knew she wanted to be friends with Cyndaquil and protect her from that boy, whatever his name was.

Cyndaquil nodded slowly, then dropped back onto the ground from Julia's hug. She fidgeted, not knowing what to do next.

"My name is Julia," Julia introduced, extending a hand.

Cyndaquil swallowed, as if bracing herself, then replied, "My name is...is Flame. Nice to meet you, Julia." She took Julia's hand and shook it meekly, as if she felt belittled by its size.

"Flame, huh?" Julia translated and a vague memory of the boy using that name when he called her into battle returned. Odd. Nicknames were usually given as a sort of endearment, and if the trainer was not fond of their pokémon, an offensive nickname would be more common, like the ever-hilarious 'Butthead'. But Flame was a nice name. Maybe the boy actually did like her and he just thought that insults were complimentary?

"So, then, are you hungry, Flame?" Julia asked, standing up. At Flame's cautious nod, she waved her arm in a beckon and told her, "Follow me. I know a really great place to eat in town!"

Julia kept a slow pace for Flame to follow her at, checking back over her shoulder every once in a while to make sure that she didn't fall behind. They didn't talk much, and the neutral mood slipped into an awkward one. In all honesty, Julia didn't know what to think about Flame. Did she really like her, or was she only being nice because she stupidly said that they were friends? As rude as she thought that was, she realized, to her dismay, that that was the most likely case. Julia, if given the choice, would trade Flame back for Chiki and his happy attitude. Chiki, who always believed in himself and thought that Julia was the best friend anyone could ever have. Flame seemed quiet and repressed.

They came to the diner, named, 'The Hungry Clauncher.' It was busy, but not so busy that the two had to wait for seats. Granted, they did have to sit near the corner with all the televisions for sports-hungry men, but the food there was so good that really, Julia didn't care. Flame sat on the table, being a good deal smaller than Chiki was – small for her species, even. She was quiet as Julia read out some of the menu items, just nodding or shaking her head from time to time. Finally, Julia just ordered the pasta with combusken nuggets. It was what she wanted and Flame didn't seem to care either way.

After another few minutes of silence, Julia decided to make some conversation.

"So, Flame, have you ever eaten here before?"

"Erm, no," she replied, looking away slightly. "Actually, I've never eaten human food, either. Just those little pokémon kibbles. They don't taste very good, though. How does human food taste?"

"You'll find out soon enough." Julia winked. "What do you like to do?"

"Well..." Flame looked up, pondering. "Battle, I guess. That's all I get to do ever."

Julia frowned. Of course. Considering the nature of her trainer, Julia supposed that Flame hadn't been given much leisure time. That was a foolish question to ask.

"But if you mean before, too," Flame unexpectedly continued, "then I like exploring."

That surprised Julia. "Exploring?"

Flame's eyes shone. "Yeah, exploring! When we were all friends – Totodile, Chikorita, and I – we'd get to go outside and run around these mazes in the forest. At the end of the maze was a treasure." Her eyes glinted. "I was always the fastest to finding the treasure, and Totodile didn't like that, so then every time we got to play, I had to avoid him or he'd mow me down with Water Gun. I had to always be faster than him and if I saw him, I'd headbutt him really quickly to shock him and then run away!" She sat back on her haunches, beaming. "It was everyone for themselves!" She looked up at Julia and added, "What about you? Do you like exploring?"

Julia, startled by Flame's sudden talkativeness, thought about it and replied, "A bit, I guess. On every route, I'd look around for dropped items and rare pokémon. I guess you could call that exploring. But if I were a wild pokémon..." She grinned. "Then I'd probably have more time to do that. I don't have a lot of patience for looking for treasure. I wouldn't give up, but I just don't ever have enough time to even start a project like that." Cocking her head sheepishly, Julia sighed, "That's why it sucks to be a human. So, what – "

"What pokémon would you be?" Flame interrupted, her eyes gleaming, before realizing that she had cut Julia off. "Sorry, I got a little too excited," she apologized, "but it's just that you're easy to talk to. Noah only ever let me out of my Poké Ball to battle."

"Your trainer's name was Noah?" Julia asked, frowning. Finally, she knew that guy's name. Somehow, that made her like him even less.

"Something like that, yeah," Flame nodded, seeming to recede a little.

She was quiet again until Julia finally replied, "Well, if I were a Pokémon, I'd be...well, not a ground or water type, that's for certain." Jordan's quagsire had effectively caused her to hate those two types.

"Maybe I'd be...a floette! Y'know, 'cause I'm so cute and unique!"

"The evolution of those little flabébé things, right?" Flame frowned thoughtfully. "But...I think you remind me more of a pikachu." Julia almost laughed, but Flame looked so serious. "You're pretty hasty, and you really like to talk..."

"You're the one that likes to talk, Flame!" Julia remarked. "Look, our food's here!"

The waiter set down the plate of pasta, which was sprinkled with cheese and some fancy-looking herbs. Flame sniffed it curiously, then grabbed a noodle, nibbling on it briefly before slurping it up. She directed her bright red eyes at Julia and grinned.

"This is really tasty! What's it called?"

"This is pasta," Julia explained, "and to eat it, you roll some strands up on a fork like this, see?" She demonstrated rolling up the noodles and took a bite. Flame watched, then shrugged.

"I like it this way better!" she insisted, then sucked up another noodle. Giggling at her, Julia proceeded to explain the meat, praying that cyndaquils were supposed to eat meat. Luckily, it seemed that that was the case, as Flame devoured most of it immediately, leaving only a few small chunks for Julia. After finishing their meal, their chat was revived.

"Hey, Flame, could you tell me what your tr – I mean, Noah, was like?"

Flame closed her eyes and sighed. "Well, he was really strict. He wasn't really mean or anything; he just really wanted us to be strong. When he trained us, he would find three or four weaker pokémon, and have us battle them. Totodile was really good at that..." She frowned. "...but I was only ever able to fight pokémon one at a time. So while I attacked one, the other three attacked me at once." Her eyes now stayed closed as she continued meekly. "If I could knock them each out right away, maybe it could have worked, but it took lots of hits to knock even one of them out, and sometimes I got paralyzed from mareeps. I wish I could be stronger."

"Hey, don't say that!" Julia insisted. "You are strong! A week ago, you totally beat Chiki! And even though you were really tired and hurt today, you still managed to keep fighting!"

Flame opened her eyes and shook her head. "You make me sound like I'm a hero or something. I wasn't tired or hurt – the scratches couldn't all be healed because Noah only used potions instead of going to a Pokémon Centre, and I just didn't want to battle again. I was trying my hardest, but even then, I couldn't beat a grass type that was weaker than me." She lowered her head and whispered, "I'm a total failure."

"No, you're not! You did your best, and that's all that counts!" Julia stood up in her seat and grinned down at Flame. "We'll train together and you'll become the strongest ever! I promise, Flame."

"Really?" asked the cyndaquil. "Th...thank you, Julia!" She leapt up to her feet. "I promise, too! I promise that I'll do my best!"

Julia counted out the money needed to pay for their meal and set it on top of the bill. "It's settled, then. We'll be strong together!" It was a really cheesy thing to say, but Julia felt energy surging through her and a certain excitement. While Flame had seemed timid at first, maybe it was just that she had to warm up to a person first.

They left the diner together, Flame following closely behind, and headed over to the Pokémon Centre. Julia returned to the room she had been staying at and after she closed the door behind them, she undressed, much to Flame's shock ("Wha – ?! You're taking off your clothes, right in front of me?!"), and got into her pyjamas.

"You can come sleep with me, if you'd like, Flame," Julia told her, climbing into bed. Flame, still very red-faced from that experience, just nodded and hopped up next to Julia. She burrowed under the covers before sticking just her head out, mimicking Julia, who quietly giggled at her.

Julia began to fall asleep, but something odd suddenly hit her. That strange feeling before...when she had told Flame that they were friends... Now that feeling came back to her, and she just couldn't shake it off. Being here, next to Flame like this, struck a chord somewhere within her mind. Chiki had never given her this feeling.

She glanced over at Flame, who was already fast asleep. Had they...met somewhere before? That couldn't be. Julia had no memory of ever having seen Flame before, and Flame would have spoken up if she had recognized Julia, right?

Trying to clear her head of these thoughts, another idea intruded in Julia's mind. Was she Flame's trainer now, or would she still give her back to Noah for Chiki? That was too hard to think about right now. Julia squeezed her eyes shut tightly, then relaxed them. She let her mind wander as she finally nodded off.