Chapter Two: First Step

I must have fallen asleep because I wake up to a knocking noise coming from the balcony doors. Rubbing my eyes and forcing my heavy eyelids to stay open, I take Chinchou with me, her glowing orbs at the end of her antennae leading me through my dark room. When I part the curtains and unlock the door, I come face to face with a Charizard. It’s not my proudest moment when I jump and fall onto my butt, Chinchou holding onto my tank top so she doesn’t fall. Needless to say, I’m wide awake now. It’s even more embarrassing when I hear a laugh coming from behind the Charizard.

“So, the rumors are true,” the boy says as he dismounts his Pokémon, returning his Charizard to her Poké Ball. “Ms. Zoey Tsai has returned.”

I roll my eyes, Chinchou hopping off of me and waddling to hide behind me. “It’s good to see you too, Raymond.” Raymond Madsen had been one of my travelling buddies during my Pokémon journey, his Charizard (a Charmander at the time we began) having been his starter Pokémon. A lot of my hometown friends had started their journeys around the same time and, though I had begun my journey with a different group, I ended up with Raymond and another pair for the rest of the time. “How did you know I was home?”

“Well…” He comes in and helps me up. Ever the gentleman, the jerk. “Let’s just say a little Pidgey told me.” When he smiles, his skinny face gains shape, and his sad eyes twinkle just a bit. “How have you been, Zoey? Heard you’ve been busy, what with all those contests and getting into the Ribbon Syndicate and all.”

I shrug it off, ignoring the Butterfree in my stomach fluttering about at the thought of him keeping tabs on me. I tell him my accomplishments this last year were no big deal. After all, they had all been distractions to get my mind off of what happened. “What about you?” I try to get out of being the center of attention. I fidget with my pajama shorts, pulling them down more to cover more skin. “What have you been up to?”

“Oh, just doing some things here and there. Mostly racing.”

That catches my attention. Pokémon Racing is actually a fairly new sport with a quickly growing fan base. The sport is fairly simple, mostly just people mounting their Pokémon and racing through different terrains, either capturing flags or completing different tasks. With his Arcanine and Arcanine’s Extreme Speed, it’s no wonder Raymond took it up. I clearly remember his habit of taking Arcanine out for rides past a hundred and twenty miles per hour.

“Oh?” He finally notices the water creature poking her head out from behind me. “You’ve got a Chinchou?” At first, it seems as though Raymond is implying the same thing my father was during dinner, but he kneels down, pats Chinchou’s squishy head, and smiles at her. Chinchou takes an instant liking to him and comes out of her hiding place. “I should’ve known. You’ve always liked cute Pokémon.”

Maybe it’s my paranoia, but I know he only adds in the last two sentences to change the tide of the conversation. I can’t help but feel as though he isn’t comfortable with the black cloud hanging over my head. “Why are you really here, Raymond? It’s not like you to make small talk.” If he’s here to assess my state of mind then it’s better to get it over with.

He stops rubbing Chinchou’s head and tilts his head upward to look at me. “I wasn’t the only one who missed you, Zoey.” He reaches into his backpack and takes out a Poké Ball encased in a ball capsule stamped with three fire seals. I already know which Pokémon is housed in that Poké Ball before he’s released onto the balcony.

Thanks to the fire seals, harmless orange flames burst from the Poké Ball, and from those flames, a Typhlosion―my Typhlosion―rises. At five feet and seven inches, Typhlosion doesn’t exactly tower over me and is maybe a head or so taller than me, but he is, or rather was, the tallest of all my Pokémon. I almost forget how fierce he is. When he sees me, his eyes narrow, the flames on his back blazing. He charges forward and tackles me . . . into a tight bear hug, his face rubbing against mine. Correction, I almost forget how sweet my Typhlosion is.

“I missed you too, Typhlosion,” I say in between laughs. I haven’t laughed this hard since Chinchou tried to learn thunderbolt―let’s just say it was a very funny attempt and leave it at that.

“I’m returning him to you, Zoey,” Raymond says, putting Typhlosion’s Poké Ball into my hand once Typhlosion has released me from the embrace. To emphasize his point, Raymond takes my fingers and encloses them around the capsule.

“But . . . I gave him to you, Raymond,” I protest. However, when I try to give Raymond the ball back, he shakes his head and refuses.

“You gave Typhlosion to me when you were at your lowest point, but now that you’re back, I can see that you’ve gotten better. You may not be at a hundred percent yet, and you won’t be able to get there, at least not by yourself and not when you’re running away from the past,” he explains, and I haven’t seen him this serious since I gave him Typhlosion. “I hope that, by giving Typhlosion back to you, you’ll slowly piece yourself back together and rise up from the flames that brought you down, just like your Typhlosion does every time he gets out of his Poké Ball.”

I don’t know I’m crying until he wipes my wet cheeks with his hands. “Since when did you get this cheesy, Raymond?” But instead of being upset, I’m laughing through my tears.

✿。.:**:.。✿

Breakfast the next day goes the same as dinner had, though my mother is even more enthusiastic and has gone on to cook mountains of pancakes, plateaus of bacon, and a sea of sunny side-up eggs. My sisters are peeking up at me through their eyelashes and glancing at each other every so often with the same mischievous look they always give each whenever they are up to something―I would only find out in a few minutes later that ignoring their sly smiles is not a good idea (as it always is). All the while, my father eats with a vengeance, ripping apart strips of bacon, stabbing his pancakes, and popping yolk after yolk. I don’t bother asking what’s wrong and, of course, my father isn’t stupid enough to repeat his mistake from last night, but he asks something equally as bad.

“So did that boy step into your room last night?”

I almost choke on my cereal, its cinnamon flakes going down the wrong way. “Of course not, Dad!” I count my stars I didn’t stutter, but as Amelia and Audrina start teasing me, I could feel my face turn pinker than a Clefairy. So that’s why they were passing each other their infamous beams. I take a slip of my orange juice to hide my embarrassment. “Why would you think―”

A yawn comes from the stairs, and I’m absolutely mortified. “Good morning, Mrs. Tsai.”

“Oh, Raymond, I didn’t expect you for breakfast. Would you like pancakes?”

If I wasn’t red before, I am now. My sisters can’t contain their laughter, guffawing and almost falling off of their seats. I try to explain the situation to my father, to explain that Raymond hadn’t slept over and had probably let himself in through the balcony, but my father is glaring holes at my friend―Daddy has never liked Raymond or any boy I’m friends with, for that matter, but Raymond has never really minded it or even noticed it.

“Good morning, Mr. Tsai.” In fact, Raymond doesn’t even realize steam is coming out of my father’s ears. Leave it to Raymond to break the peace of morning. “Twins,” he greets Amelia and Audrina.

“Morning, Raymond,” Audrina says in between her giggles.

“Or should we call you brother-in-law now?” Amelia asks, sending both Audrina and her into another fit of hysteric laughter. I don’t dare to look at my father as I try to finish the rest of my breakfast as quickly as possible.

Fortunately for me, my mother doesn’t take Raymond’s bait and is cordial. “What brings you here this morning?” she asks as she places a stack of pancakes in front of him and tells him to help himself to the eggs and bacon.

I ignore most of the conversation, my meal done. I want to stay longer, to have more bacon, but I do not want to stay another minute under my father’s intense scrutiny. I don’t pour any more cereal into my bowl or reach for any more food and bring my dirty dishes to the sink. Instead of turning on the faucet, Audrina’s Slowpoke sits on the ledge of the sink and, when he sees the dishes in the sink, he uses Water Gun, shooting out water and rinsing the dishes. Thanks to Slowpoke and his hobby of cleaning things, he ends up saving us a lot of money on our water bill.

“Why, that’s a great idea!” I hear my mom say, ignoring my father’s protests. “Of course, Zoey can go!”

Wait, what? I turn around to find a crooked smile on the jerk’s face. If there is anything I dreaded more than the twins’ wide grins, it’s Raymond’s crooked smile. Just what has he got planned this time?

✿。.:**:.。✿

We don’t stray far from town, just west into Route 29 and a bit past the tall grass. With Raymond’s Arcanine out, no wild Pokémon dare to pop out at us. And in order to keep me from turning around and going back home, Raymond has put me on his Arcanine against my will. While Chinchou and Meowstic are content with the ride, I puff out my cheeks and hmp at Raymond every time he looks my way. It doesn’t take long for us to reach our destination, and we soon near the Green Apricorn tree. I hear the battle before I see it. A Swampert and Sceptile are duking it out as we arrive onto the raised ledge.

“Looks like Rickie and Jessie have already started,” Raymond comments. He’s about to return his Arcanine to the Poké Ball, but he remembers Arcanine’s passengers and decides otherwise. If Arcanine had returned to its artificial home, my Pokémon and I would have fallen to the ground, and I would not have been so happy. Fortunately, he’s smart enough to help me down before he withdraws Arcanine. As Arcanine returns to his Poké Ball, my Meowstic and Chinchou begin falling to the ground, but I’m able to catch Chinchou before that happens, and Meowstic lands on her feet.

“Hey, Rickie, Raymond’s here. And . . . is that Zoey?”

Before I could recognize the voice, a few others chimed in, and soon the battle is forgotten. A crowd of friends run towards me, and I almost bolt out of there, but Raymond grabs my wrist and holds me in place. “Why run away again?” he asks in a harsh whisper. When he realizes how severe he sounds, his eyes turn apologetic, but nevertheless he does not retract his attitude. “They’re our friends, your friends. Remember, you came back to rid yourself of ghosts. You cannot do that if you avoid everyone who loves you and want only the best for you.”

I can’t argue with him, but his tight grip on my wrist doesn’t prevent me from partially hiding my face behind Chinchou. I sigh, realizing it’s become a bad habit of mine that I do way too much. I make a mental note to improve on that.

As our friends come near, they start tackling me into hugs just as my Typhlosion had, and I start to realize how foolish I had been to even think of running away from them. Their hugs are warm, and their smiles and eyes are happy without any sort of pity. Why have I only assumed the worst ever since my Lanturn’s passing?

Maybe returning home isn’t such a bad idea, after all…

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Chapter One: Home

Despite being nineteen years old, I am still terrified of the dark. I blame it on the horror stories I was told way too often. Despite being of faint heart, my friends had all thought it was funny to scare the crap out of me, and now my Chinchou’s antennae serve as a constant night light through the unrelenting darkness. Without them, I don’t know how I’d survive through the night. Chinchou’s gentle snores coupled with the rocking waves and its calming bioluminescence should’ve put me to sleep hours ago, but I can’t sleep tonight. Tomorrow morning, I will be back in the Johto region and, in the evening, at home. It’s been a little more than a whole year since the last time I went home, right after―

No, I shake my head, trying to rid my mind of the memory before it came. I’m not avoiding anything, I tell myself. I’m just dreading the questions that’ll come, the pity in their eyes, all the memories of― Stop! Stop thinking! I bury my head into my pillow, groaning into it. It’ll be a long night…

✿。.:**:.。✿

The S.S. Aqua docks in Olivine City at 10AM. Sypriana and I don’t leave the ship until a whole hour later because, as always, we slept in. I carry Chinchou in my arms, my Meowstic walking beside me and Sypriana’s Meowstic. The two Meowstic are fraternal twins, mine the female and Sypriana’s the male and older sibling. And after today, who knows when they’ll see each other again―Sypriana and I would be separating at the fork in the road a bit after Ecruteak City, she going to Goldenrod City while I would venture through a few more towns to get back to New Bark Town. My Meowstic had slept in Sypriana’s cabin last night in order to spend as much time with her brother as possible.

If Sypriana notices the bags under my eyes―she most likely did―then she doesn’t point it out on our trek through Olivine. That’s what I like so much about her, she won’t make small talk about things she knows I won’t divulge to her or to anyone for that matter. It was the reason why I left for Sinnoh―everyone kept asking too many questions I wasn’t ready to answer or to even think about.

We make a detour at the MooMoo Farm on Route 39. Their slogan, displayed proudly at their gate, is still the same: “Enjoy Our Fresh and Tasty Milk.” When we enter, the farmer’s young daughters greet me by hopping to either side of me and linking hands, trapping me in their game of Dancing Roselia. I am surprised they remember me. It has been at least five years since I had helped their sick Miltank by feeding it Berries. The farmer’s daughters must be preparing to set out on their own Pokémon journeys now.

By the time the two girls are done with their game, Sypriana has already finished our business here, in her hands two carriers each with 6 bottles. We make our way to Route 38 and sit on the edge of a small ledge and release the rest of our Pokémon from their Poké Balls. There are two extra bottles since our Meowstic split one bottle and my two Vivillon share another. One of the extra bottles goes to Sypriana while she gives me the other, but I only drink half of the MooMoo Milk. I don’t want a queasy stomach today, and so the other half goes to my Chinchou―even if I weren’t lactose intolerant, I would have given Chinchou more of it anyways. Most Chinchou can walk on land without problems, but my Chinchou’s legs are smaller than normal and much weaker. It’s the reason why I carry Chinchou instead of letting her walk besides me. My Chinchou needs as much calcium as she can get, and I’m opposed to most supplements, so it’s a good thing Chinchou loves MooMoo Milk. I wouldn’t know what to do if Chinchou hated milk.

It takes only ten minutes from our rest stop to Ecruteak City. We debate for a while whether to stop by the Kimono Dance Theater to enjoy a show, but in the end, we decide not to in order to reach our destinations before nightfall―at least, that’s the reason we both agreed on. In actuality, it’s more like Sypriana didn’t want me to travel alone at night due to my nyctophobia, and I hadn’t bothered to argue. We leave Ecruteak within fifteen minutes of arriving, and we quickly walk through the grassland of Route 37, but its forestry area is a bit more difficult to maneuver, a few new trees having sprout out in places they weren’t in before and a few of those trees turning out to be Sudowoodo. I’m not surprised when we encounter a few baby Bonsly as well, for this forest seems to have become a nesting ground for the Sudowoodo.

We finally reach the fork in the road, and Sypriana gives me a hug once I put Chinchou down, my Meowstic mimicking Sypriana and hugging her brother. “Don’t dwell on the sad things,” Sypriana tells me. “You’re a part of the Ribbon Syndicate now. That’s a great honor already. And don’t forget you’ve already conquered the gyms of Johto and Kanto. But if you really need someone to talk to, I’m just a phone call away.” The hug lasts longer than I expected it would.

“I’ll be fine,” I assure her, almost promise. My voice almost trembles. I’m not good at saying good-byes. “I promise I’ll call if I need to.”

She is probably waiting for that because she lets go of me then. We say our goodbyes, our Meowstic finally releasing each other from their hug. It breaks my heart that they’ll be apart, but our Meowstic have refused to leave their respective trainers, a choice I am grateful for. I don’t know how I’d react if Meowstic leaves me. She is the first Pokémon I received since―

Stop, stop, stop! I blink back the tears I didn’t know are forming and quickly turn towards my path east before Sypriana could see the state I’m in. She wouldn’t let me leave if she had seen me cry.

It is only out of her range of sight that I let Chinchou walk beside me and Meowstic. I’m not exactly excited to go home, and if slowing my pace for Chinchou to keep up with me keeps me away from home then, by all means, I will walk at my disabled Chinchou’s pace.

✿。.:**:.。✿

I reach New Bark Town before the sun sets, just when the sky turns from blue to shades of orange and purple. Meowstic is on my shoulder, and I pick up Chinchou, hiding my face as much as possible before power walking towards my parents’ house. I don’t want to risk anyone recognizing me and stopping me, and there’s a high chance of that happening because the house is on the opposite side of town away from the entrance by the river that makes up Route 27. Thankfully, I only pass one or two people out on a stroll, and they don’t bother to look up from their phones. It’s when I reach the house about to knock on the door when I lose my nerve. My fist ready to knock stays still in the air, but I can’t force it to move.

As if she senses my hesitation, my mother opens the door then. The sight of someone at the door spooks her at first, but when she realizes it’s her eldest daughter returned home, she embraces me―it’s awkward at first as she maneuvers around Chinchou, but once she finds a position comfortable for all three of us, her hug is warm and soothing. “You’re just in time for dinner, Zoey,” she says.

It’s like nothing has changed.

“Welcome home.”

✿。.:**:.。✿

Dinner goes as always. The only one missing is Ember who’s two years into her Pokémon journey and who’ll drop by tomorrow. Amelia and Audrina, sitting on my right and left, are talking animatedly about how the year has gone for them. They had gone to Kalos a couple of months after I had left and had returned only a couple of weeks ago. Amelia’s Pumpkaboo and Audrina’s Litwick are evidence of their trip, the newest additions to their Pokémon parties. They eat their dinner with the rest of our family’s Pokémon. They are not the only new faces. There’s my two Vivillon, Meowstic, and Chinchou. There’s also my mother’s Lilligant who she had obtained on her trip last month when she visited family in Unova, the Lilligant’s four baby Petilil crowding around their mother. And finally, there’s this weird new one my father found on his trip with Professor Elm two months ago. Father says its name is Mimikyu, and frankly that weird ghost puts me off. It’s bad enough that each of my family members have Pikachu-related Pokémon―Ember has a Pichu, Amelia and Audrina have a Plusle and Minum respectively, my father a Raichu, and my mother an actual Pikachu―but to think that my father actually caught a Pokémon wearing a badly drawn Pikachu disguise with me in mind… I have no idea what he expected to happen. Had he thought I would fall in love with his new discovery despite the fact that I detest all Pikachu ever since one had hit a Poke Ball right back at my face when I was five? And besides, this Mimikyu is not starting out on the right foot, staring at me without break―at least, its Pikachu disguise’s eyes are.

“So, a Chinchou, huh?” my father says once silence fills the room after my sisters finish their stories. “It’s certainly a . . . uh, interesting-looking one, but I didn’t think you’d get another one of those…”

His voice trails off, but I understand what he’s implying. I didn’t think you’d get another one of those after what happened.

My mom understands too because she glares at my father while my eyes are downcast, just watching as my chopsticks poke at my rice. “I didn’t think I’d get one either…” It barely comes out as a whisper, and I look towards Chinchou, my Chinchou with her tiny feet, a bent antenna, and her slightly greenish hue. My Chinchou as she finally tires from standing and sits on the wooden floor. My Chinchou as Meowstic with her blue stubby hands passes her the rest of her Poké Chow. My Chinchou as the Togekiss, Cherrim, and Eevee I left behind here also share their food with her. “But she needs me…” And on cue, Chinchou makes her way over to me and extends her two white fins up. I carry her onto my lap and continue my dinner. The conversation ends.

✿。.:**:.。✿

It’s when I’m alone in my shared room with Ember when it starts to get difficult. Even with all my pictures and earned Gym Badges hidden away, a few stray memories float to the surface of my mind. Togekiss, Cherrim, and Eevee are as understanding as always, Togekiss trying to cheer me up as she flies around the flower petals Cherrim conjures up and Eevee rubbing himself against my hand. “I’m sorry,” I apologize for more than just feeling down. “You three must be having a hard time too.” My eyes shift to Chinchou who slept by my pillow. “And you probably hate me for bringing home a Chinchou. She’s still a baby though, so don’t take it out on her please.”

Eevee jumps off the bed and rushes under it. When he comes back up, a silver locket is in his mouth. I’ve always wondered where the locket had gone, and as I take it from Eevee, it flips open. It’s hard to forget when the picture was taken―it was when I had finally beaten the Elite Four on my third try, the first of my friends to do so―and I smile back at my frozen younger self. Around me in the picture is the Pokémon party I had when I claimed my victory: Togekiss, Cherrim, and Eevee are there, of course; Typhlosion who I had gotten as my starter Pokémon when he was just a little Cyndaquil and . . . my Lanturn. The sight of the last Pokémon brings tears to my eyes.

Eevee worms his head under my head and mews sadly. “Yeah, buddy, I miss her too…” I scratch behind his ears to bring his mood up. “But Chinchou’s not her replacement. No other Pokémon will replace her in my heart.” And I let a tear fall from my eyes, another sliding down my cheek, as I close the silver heart.

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