8--Free Lunch
8: Free Lunch



Chad tumbled back into material form in a much larger cage than the previous three. Cold stone chilled the soles of his feet. The cool, damp air smelled of mildew. How long in the ball this time? He sank to the floor in a heap, still drugged. He heard a puff of air and cool moisture spritzed his nose. He sneezed.

"That should fix you."

Chad's strength began to return. By the time he turned to look, the young man was standing outside the bars, locking him up. He remembered his own auction and let loose a blast of flame. The human had backed out of range; he watched the orange light in fascination, it reflected in his eyes as his mouth curled up, aroused by this power now belonging to him.

"When you wear yourself out, it's time to start training. You're gonna make it worth my money."

Chad's lashing tail swathed his legs in fire. Nothing was fair.

Who knew where Mo was; he was gone. Chad had never heard of money or auctions. All he knew was that it had determined which human could contain him, call him his. It was the youth who had squinted through the forcefield, the one Chad had instantly disliked.

"You're coming home with me today. . . Charizards--not known for their intelligence."

Just see how long that future lunch lasted. Chad would show him who had higher intelligence, and a higher place on the food chain.

He licked his chops. He had eaten nothing since that "treat" this morning. He stretched his wings, reveling in the feeling, and took a look and sniff around. His nose turned him towards the smell of live prey. At the other end of the cage sat a bulbasaur, a pidgey and a paras in complete silence. No doubt they'd been watching fate descend on them. Before long, Chad sat against the wall rasping scraps off little bones, with his swollen belly in front of him, the only Pokémon in the cage. He sighed, enjoying the peace that came after the heat of the hunt. It was about time humans attended to him more appropriately during his short stay. He was flaming his claws clean one by one when he heard someone coming.

"What happened here."

The young man stood with hands frozen in front of him, as if about to form a gesture. "What the hell happened."

Well that proved who was smarter.

He looked bewildered around the cage. Was he disappointed to have missed watching? It was so hard to tell what humans were thinking.

"Where are my other Pokémon?!"

Oh, please.

"You ate my Pokémon?"

Chad belched loudly and patted his belly. "You want to join them?"

"Char-charizard to you too you stupid lizard!" He ran back when Chad sauntered up to the bars with lowered chin. "You flame me, and you're through! You'll be locked up till you starve, I'm the only one living here. I didn't shell out my inheritance for you to feast on my collection!"

"Then why on Chah did you put me here?" It was useless arguing. The kid flicked a switch and came back up the hall.

"Shut up. I have fireproof forcefield up now. And I'll tell you, the utility bill's gonna go through the roof." He kicked one of the bars. "Looks like I don't have to feed you dinner." Pointing to the charizard's nose he said, "You'd better make it worth my money."

Chad's next flamethrower flowered out against the wall. Well, the man hadn't been bluffing.

"You charizards really are stupid. You probably don't understand a word I'm saying. I could call you "Shitface" and you'd listen to me."

Chad roared in his face, feeling the bars vibrate in his hands. The man shook all over.

"You roar in my face I'll beat it out of you in training!"

Chad roared again, glad to get a reaction. The guy whirled and ran back down the hall. "Training starts tomorrow morning. And believe it, I'm gonna work all three of my lost Pokémon out of you."

Chad tested the forcefield. It was off; his flame flowed through. Fire, such a powerful and beautiful material, rendered so useless. Chad looked around but there were no windows, no sign that the sky existed. At the other end of the cage, water dripped slowly from the ceiling, a lonely heartbeat in a large, empty space. He lay down, closed his eyes and blew a long, cool flame. In his mind he saw Cherilla's face.

A pokeball smacked his side; the light sting woke him from dreaming just as it pulled him in. It felt so early. At least he would probably get food, wherever he went.

He re-materialized on a polished, marble-like floor cool under his feet. He tapped it with his talons; it was solid. He looked around a vast, square cavern with a high ceiling and no windows--or humans. Chad spread his wings and took off toward the ceiling. He might still be a prisoner, but it felt so good to fly again! The things he had taken for granted. . .

"You come back down here!"

Chad glanced behind him to see, in a cagelike balcony projecting from the wall, the pale kid with the greasy hair. He just turned back around, circling as close to the walls as his wingspan allowed. An identical cage mirrored the first at the far end of the place. Metal beams crisscrossed the ceiling, like stalactites turned sideways. Near the ceiling he found a ledge about four feet wide, constructed into the masonry, and he perched on it. It had once been a window, laid over with stones. Was it a way out? He took a breath and flamed it, hot and long. The rock glowed red. His hungry, tired body came alive with hope. He concentrated his fire into a thinner, whiter beam, blowing it past pursed lips. The stone glowed into orange, then white, and began to run; he dug his claws in the heat-resistant stuff. It would take time.

"Charizard! You come down it's time for training! And don't even think about attacking me, I got a forcefield round here!"

What? Before breakfast? Chad snorted and leaned against the rock as he worked.

In the cage below (although Chad had a feeling he was in no way trapped in there) Greasy-Hair took out two Poké Balls. He threw them down to the marble floor and they both released big squirts of light upon impact, to form two plump orange creatures with webbed ears and long, black cord-like tails with yellow lightning bolts on the ends. One was a little bigger than the other, but neither stood over three feet.

"Raichus! Run to the beams on the wall!" The Raichus' cute faces looked at where he was pointing, then back at him. "The metal bars!" They looked at each other, then went over. "Okay, you can both go to the same one, it won't make much difference." Greasy-Hair laughed. "Charizard you better come down here on the count of three or you'll get the shock of your life!"

Chad yawned. He really wanted to see what those butterballs could do that would shock him.

"One. . .two. . . three! Little Rai, thunder jolt!"

Chad saw the smaller one spark and flash white like a lightning storm. The booming sound reached him a second later.

Greasy-Hair looked up at Chad, then down at the Raichus. "Stupid Pokémon!" he shouted at them; the shorter one cringed, hiding behind the other. Chad felt angry watching Greasy-Hair scream at them, but at least he wasn't the center of attention anymore. "All right, Big Rai, give me a thunder jolt but TOUCH THE BAR! Show your idiot twin how to do it right!"

"Rai!"

Again, nothing happened.

"Dammit!" came Greasy-Hair's shout, his voice cracking. "He's not touching anything." Chad returned to flaming and clawing the syrupy bog of glowing rock. He couldn't stop or it would cool.

"Oh, I see what you're doing! Well listen stupid, that's three feet of solid rock you got, and even if you did melt it you'd never make a hole big enough to fit your fat ass through! And I'm not giving you weeks to work! I have lots of ways of getting you down!"

Chad's lungs blasted flame; his hands tunneled like a Diglett. He was only inches through, when he heard a spraying sound come from above. The water smacked his tail with a hiss. Chad whirled around in pain, stupefied, as steam clouds billowed from the molten rock. Rain inside? Indeed, water sprayed out conically from points in the ceiling--a human device, but that didn't make it any better than real rain. Chad tried to shelter in the set-in square, but it was too shallow. He shielded his tail tip with one wing, but now he couldn't get into position to flame. Chah dammit! The rock was cooling, the small hollow he'd scratched dulling to red. Still it billowed steam in his face.

But fly back down? Chad stared down at Greasy-Hair from under his tent of wings and hoped his face wasn't showing how he hated rain.

"Damn you, Charizard! You're not getting a bite to eat till you come down and start listening to me! I can leave the sprinklers on day and night--and they can't be turned off from in here! So sit there and steam if it suits you!"

Greasy-Hair took out two Poké Balls and pointed a beam at each Raichu. The sopping wet Pokémon looked only too glad to go in. Then the human himself left through a door in the back of his "cage", leaving Chad perched up there with disgusting sticky water running in his ears, under his arms, between his legs, everywhere.

At least now he was alone.

Greasy-Hair stuck his face back through the door. "This is your last chance before lunchtime to come down."

Chad flamed a fireball into the man-made storm. Greasy-Hair made a gesture at him with his hand and slammed the door.

This might be his only chance. If he braved this "storm" he might never have to face a human again. Chad flew up till his wings brushed the ceiling, wincing as the heavy rain hit his tail.

Close to the ceiling, the streaming cones of water missed most of him. Now he saw the scope of the water spray, and his hands gripped a sprinkler head. Holding himself in one place, he could not fly. He closed his eyes against the spray, wrenched the thing off with his dead weight and flapped to catch himself. The water still gushed out, but in one long string. Feeling clever, Chad circled up and tore out three more sprinkler heads, clearing his work area. He landed back on the ledge, dried himself, and flamed the wall, bringing his tail forward to help. His stomach growled, protesting this expenditure of energy. But charizards could go days without food. And water was no problem. Once rock reached workable temperature he resumed his furious digging. Greasy-Hair would be back to check on his prized Pokémon in a few more hours.

Once, he thought he saw Vixen move near his foot, and glanced down before remembering.

His lungs tired. His flame breaths weakened. Soon he was barely keeping the rock hot enough. Never had he flamed so steadily for so long. He fired his tail up, and although it was not as hot or large as what he could breathe, it gave him a needed break. His shoulders ached and his hands cramped, but he kept on till he had carved out a large, deep space, and still more rock lay beyond. How thick was three feet?

Chad tossed another gummy clump back behind him.

"You should give humans a chance," Chizmo had said. "A trainer would love and respect you."

Love and respect. Two things he sure didn't have on Chah anymore. Not even from Vixen.

Where would he fly once he welded through this wall? How would he get home? Did he want to go home? Could he find some wild charizards here? Never to see his family--or Cherilla--again. . .

Either way, he had to fly wild. But Greasy-Hair wouldn't grant him that, even if Chad decided to start listening. Greasy-Hair reminded him too much of Chiffy.

Chad had to go, so he perked his tail and let it plop over the edge. Let the human clean it.

"Let him eat it," he said as he pulled out another clump of magma which darkened to gray in his hand. "I'd like to shove this down his throat too." Chad chucked it over his shoulder and kept working. "I wonder what would happen if Chiffy was here instead."

As he clawed away another hunk one of his fingers shot through. He pulled the hand out; daylight peeked through the tiny hole.

"HOLY SHIT!"

Chad glanced over his shoulder and saw the kid standing back in the cage.

"All right, that's it! You lousy waste of money, let's see how you like my next solution! `Cause I'm done letting you have your fun tearing up my gym!"

Chad could tell by his voice that the guy realized he could lose his charizard much more easily than he had thought. Chad lowered his head and stared the human down through the veil of water, posturing almost without thinking.

The sprinklers stopped; Chad turned to see the last drops dripping down. Ah, silence again. "All right," said Greasy-Hair, and through the gushing water Chad heard the click of a pokeball opening. "Squirtle, soak that lizard good!"

From Greasy-Hair's cage, Squirtle shot water up surprisingly high, although not powerfully. But water was water. Chad swooped from the rock and dodged the flowing arc, countering with a flamethrower. His fire sack had only begun to recover; but he almost hit the Squirtle. Since water moved down and fire moved up, both were working against their medium. Chad realized that if the Squirtle could shoot water from that cage, there was no forcefield on. And Greasy-Hair had left the door open behind him. Chad dived for the balcony, half expecting a forcefield anyway. But he cleared it and landed, filling the space. As Greasy-Hair shouted, tumbled away from Chad with flailing arms, Chad skipped attacking him and ran out the wide doorway, scuffing his leg, as Squirtle's water smacked the wall.

"No!" shrieked Greasy-Hair. "No!"

Chad landed in front of a hallway too narrow for his wingspan, so he ran. All he had to do was find sunlight. At an intersection, he whipped his head both ways, and chose the left passage--which led to a big window.

He sprinted, as well as a charizard could sprint. He put his hands to the window and backed up. Flaming it broadly, he shattered the glass.

"I don't know why I didn't remember you had a friend!" came Greasy-Hair's voice from the other end of the hall. Chad's foot, poised in the air, fell back to earth as he heard a voice.

"Meowth! MeeeeeEEE!"

"Mo!" Chad whirled around, claws splayed. His keen vision picked out every detail of Greasy-Hair standing in the hallway holding a kicking, swinging Mo by the scruff of the neck, tucking the now-empty pokeball away with his other hand. He gave the kitten a shake.

"Chad," cried Mo, gasping, "Chad--"

"Stop right there and come back now or I start having some fun."

Chad glanced back out the broken window, seeing clouds, trees, buildings, mostly sky. Warm wind rustled his wings and he gave a staccato roar. Steam wisped out his flared nostrils.

"MeeEEEEOOOWWW--"

He whirled back around to see Greasy-Hair yanking Mo's tail. Why hadn't Chad roasted him on the balcony?

"Step back from that window or I twist it again!"

*It's a trick. He'll do it no matter what you choose.* Chad looked back at the window.

Mo had hugged him. I missed you.

He faced Mo again. The kitten's overlarge ears were laid back, his lips peeled over tiny teeth.

"Chad. . ."

Chad held his chin low to show his horns as he marched back up the hall.

"That's right," said Greasy-Hair, "this way and no Leering. . ."

Walking backwards holding Mo like a charm, he led Chad back inside, turning not toward the gym but down another hall. Chad heard a hiss and whirled to see double doors slide shut. He took a breath. . .

"Turn back around and walk. I better not see one flame out of your face."

Chad turned back, posturing again; Greasy-Hair grabbed the hissing kitten's tail and Chad forced himself to relax. He felt like he was walking deeper and deeper into water as he followed them down a hall dimly lit by naked bulbs strung from the high ceiling. Yellow and brown water stains splotched the moldy tiles up there.

Never glancing away from Chad or interrupting his backward walk, Greasy-Hair pressed a button on the wall. Another door slid open for them. In here the place looked much sturdier. The ceiling and walls appeared to be metal, and a quiet hum emanated from everywhere; Chad felt the vibrations through the soles of his feet and in his horns. He inched closer to the human as they continued. Afraid his fire would hurt Mo, he was about to lunge when Greasy-Hair leaped away.

"Back up!"

Chad slowed down. Greasy-Hair wrenched Mo's tail. Mo yowled.

"You are hurting him every time you disobey. You try pulling any fast ones on me, and he's through. Back up three steps."

Chad's feet would not move.

Greasy-Hair shook Mo again.

"Chad--please--"

His blood shrieking through his veins, Chad backed up. His tail flame bloomed.

"That's a good charizard. Now this way. Today you're gonna meet some new friends. I think they'll do an even better job training you than me. Come on. . ." he curled his index finger at Chad like a pale little worm. "Come."

The hall ended at a wide, low square opening, leading into a black space beyond. On either side of, and above, the opening was the solid metal stuff. The guy pushed a button on the right of the opening. An electric pulse made a small zap noise. Still holding Mo, he stepped to the side of the door. Chad ducked his neck to look into an unlit cage. The smell of waste and rot wafted out.

"In."

Chad looked into Mo's huge eyes as he walked past, feeling nothing as he passed the walls. The guy threw Mo in after Chad and another electric blip sounded. Chad reached his hand out to the opening and stubbed his knuckles on a forcefield.

"I will train you, charizard," Greasy-Hair called as he started to walk away. Mo huddled against Chad. "The sooner you start listening the better it'll be for everyone. I'm coming back with your food. This is your lucky week, you only have to do certain kinds of training while I get the gym room charizard-proofed."

He came back and kicked a bucket in; the forcefield activated again. "There's your lunch and dinner in one. Oh, and if any of my other Pokémon are burnt or missing when I come back, you're in for it."

Chad looked around, his nose thick in the fetid smell; he swallowed, touching his faintly nauseaus stomach. If there were other Pokémon in here, they were hiding. He doubted there would be another charizard, but he hoped. Though he'd never had much luck with his own species, here he could make a first impression without his reputation riding in front of him. If he didn't puke.

"It smells," said Mo.

"Yeah."

Mo stretched up on hind legs, his front paws on the bucket rim so his nose just reached it. He backed down, wrinkling his snout.

Chad was too hungry to be discriminating. He picked up the bucket, ducked his head and plowed into the stuff. . .and nearly gagged. It was not only gross, but cold. He held his tail flame underneath the bucket while gently shaking it.

Mo meowed, and Chad scooped some out, plopped it on the floor and flamed his hand clean. Mo poked a claw at the pile, like a mouse was in there. He giggled.

"It looks like poop."

"Yeah it does." Chad looked at Mo giggling and had to laugh too, and he brought his tail tip over. "Back up, lemme heat it. I'll make you a pattie."

From the shadows came a mischievous little chuckle.

"In this place, buddy, you get what's on sale."

Chad swished his tail toward the voice; the firelight illuminated dim, flickery shapes of Pokémon further back. In the foreground stood the Squirtle, who had spoken. He stood with stubby hands on hips and a broad grin on his face.

"So you're the thing he's been grumbling about blowing his cash on. LOOK!" He pointed. "Your tail's on fire!" Chad looked behind him without thinking, though his tail was in front of him. Other Pokémon began laughing.

Chad hated himself when smart rejoinders never came to the rescue. He stuck his snout back in the slop.

"Squiggy, put his tail out." Chad could not see who had spoken from the darkness, but he put the bucket down, leaped toward the grinning Squirtle, swung his tail and lifted his head. With a roar he released a spume of fire. The little turtle scurried back, hands on ears. Chad wasn't just angry. This little guy could put his tail out. There were reasons why charizards chose hard-to-reach sleeping places.

Chad saw that while he had been finishing dinner, other Pokémon had crept out of the shadows. In front of him Mo's big, seal-brown ears lay back as he shrank away from his half-eaten pattie, his teeth bared. Chad realized Mo, with his night vision, could see much more of what lay in that darkness.

"I'm scared."

Chad petted him. "Don't worry, I'll take care of it."

He walked past Mo, lighting the dark with his tail. Was a Blastoise lurking in here?

All around came scuttling, and foreign whispers from species he'd never heard. He puffed out his belly.

"Who's out there? Listen, I'm not going to hurt anyone, I just want you to come out. It would be good if we met."

The Squirtle hopped forward, his feet landing with a slap. "We already did. In the gym, remember?"

Chad forced a laugh. "Yeah--"

"He almost got his butt stuck in the door!" Squirtle giggled his head off. "I never thought I'd see the day when I made a charizard run."

"I bet you never did!" squawked another voice, interrupting the Squirtle's imitation of Chad's gait. A two-headed, long-legged bird stepped into the firelight.

"Freaks!" The Squirtle spit water onto the two heads, who squawked and tried to peck him, then lost interest in favor of checking out the big fire Pokémon who just happened to be giving everyone light.

"So that's a charizard, huh?" A large, armored Pokémon taller than Chad thundered forward on two squat legs. A metallic horn on its nose glinted in the light. It was a Rhydon; Chad had seen them time to time in volcanoes and in fields. "Huh, I thought it would be bigger."

"You wish it was bigger!" said the Squirtle, jumping.

"You wish you was bigger baby."

The Squirtle squirted the Rhydon.

The Rhydon wiped its face and lunged; the Squirtle ran and tripped, landing on his stomach. "Don't fuck with me--"

"Why don't you stop starting with everyone, Squiggy?" said one of the Raichus, its yellow cheeks sparking in the dark.

Squiggy backed away from the Raichu, as if it were larger than it was. He pointed at Chad.

"If the food wasn't so bad we woulda stole it from you!" he said. "Cause of you Dorien's gonna be in a terrible mood all week!" Turning back to the others, he rubbed his light blue hands together. "I saw what he did to the gym!"

"Who's Dorien."

"The one who bought you, stupid?" Squiggy knocked on his own head. "Hello?" He rolled onto his shell, giggling hysterically. Chad was becoming more concerned than annoyed. What had Dorien put this Squirtle through? How long had all these Pokémon been under his charge?

As Squiggy struggled to get his feet back under him, Chad looked out at all the glaring faces. Mo had wisely hidden behind Chad; Chad shrugged at him. "I'm gonna get some sleep, how about you."

Mo was nodding when a thunderous stomp turned their heads right around. The Rhydon stomped closer.

"Where's your imaginary friend."

Chad Leered.

"He's not imaginary, he's a Meowth, didn't you see--"

The big dark armored creature cut the Raichu off.

"I said where is he you orange toaster."

"Up your @$$!" Chad chomped deliciously on the smooth reply. "Be nicer to me, maybe I'll share my personal life."

Chad panned his Leer round the room, then retreated to the corner near the forcefield and curled up for sleep, facing the group. Mo still hid behind him.

Squiggy giggled.

When things quieted down, Chad trusted it was safe as it would ever be to close his eyes. He heard Squiggy's voice going "Whoa..." but did not heed it.

Two stomps in front of his face put an end to that.

Chad had barely opened his eyes when a grinding weight pinned his head on the floor. His limbs came alive, his wings flapping. He roared fire between the legs of the Rhydon.

"I was waiting to see if you was actually gonna go to sleep on me. Stop breathing fire and I'll let you up."

Chad roared again. Mo was mewing in the corner.

"Well it makes no difference to me. I'll tell you the rules of this place standing right here. Rule number one--when I ask you a question you answer me."

Chad whipped his tail against the Rhydon's leg. The foot did not move. "Chad!" Mo screamed.

"Rule number two. You do not talk back to me."

Chad whipped his tail again, firing up the flame, and this time he unseated the animal and pulled his head free. He scrambled to his feet, slashed the air, and thrust from his lungs a big blaze, which did little damage through the thick armor. Rhydon got up and roared, tossing its spiked head. It leaped and slammed him against the wall.

"Fight! Fight! Fight!" Squiggy danced around.

"Rule number three! You do not fight me!"

"You sound like Dorien," Chad squeezed out of his mouth as he scratched and clawed.

"I said don't talk back you potbelly lizard."

Chad flamed again. Rhydon dodged, moving its head; it grazed the creature's shoulder.

"That the best you can do?"

Chad kicked Rhydon away with his strong legs. He skittered clear of it and the walls, rubbed the top of his throbbing head and lowered it, to Leer.

Rhydon regarded him with amusement; it cocked an eyebrow. "You're tough. Like they say, you take a lickin'."

It did not look about to charge again, so he allowed himself to stand at ease. He gently flamed his right elbow to stop the bleeding, where he'd been slammed. "Let's have a truce?"

"Ain't no truces here, but I won't kill you in your sleep. You're worth too much to Dorien."

Chad thought of several things to say as the animal turned away, but he only said one. "Well what's your name."

Rhydon turned around, surprised. "What's yours."

"You first."

"Tanya."

"You're female?"

She stepped forward. "You got a problem with that?"

"No--"

"What're you."

"Male."

"Your name, lizard!"

"Chad!"

"Well `Chad', First rule is, actually, nothing about me. It's to do everything Dorien says. You piss him off, he takes it out on all of us. So quit shitting around his gym and listen up. Or we'll shove your tail up your ass and have a shish ke bob."

As Chad lay his bruised body down to sleep, he heard Squiggy giggling away. "You tell'em Tanya! You tell'em!"




9: Poli-Tag



"So, you're enjoying the company of the rest of my team," said Dorien as he opened the forcefield, buckets on the floor around him. Chad lifted his head, feeling that a night had passed. Smelling food in those containers, he stretched his body and wings (he ached from last night's scuffle) before walking over, watching the young man's face. Why wasn't Dorien hollering his head off?

"I got a little something for you charizard." Dorien tossed an apple on the floor. Chad ran after it as it rolled, and as he bit into the firm red flesh the pokeball hit him. He chided himself for not having anticipated this.

Chad tumbled from the ball, the apple still in hands and mouth, into a medium-sized, dimly lit room, smaller than the other cage but larger than the auction stall. It too had a fetid smell, but that wasn't the worst of it.

He was standing in over a foot of WATER. He flapped up out of the stuff, shaking his feet off. But the room was too narrow for Chad and his 15-foot wingspan to remain aloft.

"That bunch in your cage isn't everyone on the team," Dorien shouted down from a balcony as Chad landed back in the cold, vile water, and stood on tiptoe. He nearly slipped on the slimy floor. The human's voice bounced off the metal walls: "Just because the gym is being renovated doesn't mean you're getting time off, I'm not keeping you out of your ball so I can waste food on you all week. Make one move to attack me up here and I run out and lock you in for the day. I'd like you to meet all nine of my Poliwags."

Chad had thought he was the only Pokémon in the room. Now he noticed small creatures swimming beneath the water, surfacing every so often with a ripple and splash, or a flick of a light blue tail. "Cute, aren't they? Caught them myself in a pond near here."

Chad stoked up his tail to warm himself. His feet were freezing. The Poliwags clustered at the far end of the room, avoiding the foreign, fiery creature in their midst.

"Now we're gonna play a little game."

A translucent blue tail flashed above the water as its owner wriggled along. Chad's scales crawled.

"The aim is to sharpen your motor skills. The rules are simple. You want breakfast? Catch one, keep him alive, give a roar and show him to me. I'll hear you. And if I see one burn mark on any of them the breakfast is nil. Hop to it."

Chad concentrated on one, and thrust his hands in to grab the round blue body. It easily swam away, where its face surfaced to stare with wide, young eyes, its fleshy-lipped little mouth gaping open. It dove back under. "Come on, guys," he mumbled, "I won't hurt you, just let me get someone to show to Dorien?"

"Oh, yeah, I forgot." Dorien whirled around in the balcony's open doorway. "Poliwags! Whichever one of you gets caught eats NOTHING till tomorrow!"

While Chad darted after the quick little wrigglers, splashing himself and sliding on the foul floor, Dorien watched from the balcony. His hand pounded the rail, echoing through the metal room.

"Poliwags! I'd like to see some aggression here? You know how to squirt!"

Water splatted him between his horns. Another squirt hit the side of his tail. Chad whirled around, tail arcing fire in warning as a Poliwag tail disappeared in a ring of ripples.

"You flame'em you don't eat! Poliwags, watch his tail fire--you hit too close and this guy flames by instinct! And I can see who's squirting and who isn't! This is your training too!"

Chad tried to smack his hand down on one and splashed himself in the face. He flamed his mouth and nose clean; the water was full of waste. And these Poliwags have to live in it. He tried putting his hand near the bottom and bringing it up, but none of the Poliwags swam near. He tried lunging, herding them, trying to trap them against the walls. Swimming, leaping and darting, they evaded everything. While they were in their element, he was, well, a charizard in water. Finally his hands clapped down on a slippery muscle of a body. It slipped out of his grasp. Oh how his stomach ached!

Even if he got to eat he would probably spend the whole day thinking about how hungry one of these creatures would be. He did kill animals back home, but this was pointless suffering. Dorien had probably wanted Chad to hear him threatening the Poliwags.

Chad looked up at the balcony. The door was shut and Dorien was gone.

Now that he had stopped moving, the Poliwags' feeble squirts pelted him left and right, bouncing off his wings. Although they were avoiding his flame, one squirt hit it anyway. His tail tip hissed and pain shot through him. Chad spread his wings and flew up to the balcony. "Probably blocked somehow." He tugged on the knob, having seen Dorien open it but not sure how. When tugging didn't work, he nearly gave up, but looking down at the Poliwags, he decided to give it one more try. He tried twisting it, tugging, then pushing.

The door opened.

Chad nudged it the rest of the way and looked out into an empty, quiet hall. Was it a trick?

Dorien wasn't there. Was he really going to go back to the Poliwags now?

Of course, if he got away now he would leave Mo behind. . .

"I can try to rescue him once I'm free," he said. "I can't help him by staying here." He made one more check, bunched his leg muscles and darted through the door.

His hips wedged in the doorframe.

"I'm stuck?" He jerked forward, but couldn't get through. He turned sideways, but his belly was too broad. "No." He tried to squirm out at an angle. No way was he going back in. Not when he was this close. Down the hall he saw sunlight coming through a window. His hands flailed in the air.

"Chah dammit!" Chad flamed his rage. Twisting his neck back he tried to melt the sides, but the material was fireproof. He pounded the walls. "Oh, Chah!"

"I thought so."

Dorien stood way down the far end of the hallway, hands folded over his chest. "Are we done yet?"

Chad blew a fire ball bowling through the air, but of course it dispersed long before it reached the distant human. Dorien cupped his hands around his mouth.

"Back in and don't make another noise till you catch a Poliwag! You're lucky I'm giving you another chance--and trust me, it'll be payback time tomorrow!"

Damn you. Chad gave one more tug, one more roaring flame down the hall as he backed out, chafing his sides again. Inside he slammed the door and examined the raw scales.

The Poliwags were squirting him before he touched down with a splash that nearly got his tail tip. His back and neck were killing him from all this bending over. After what felt like hours, his hands again caught one. He clamped down hard on the squirming thing, brought it up and looked at what he had caught. It was one of the smallest ones, its tail nearly twice the length of its body, which was only about six inches; it had no arms or legs. He looked into its terrified eyes, and thought about releasing it. It squirted his face; he snorted water out and blinked his eyes.

"I'm sorry, little guy."

"Please," it peeped, "I'm so hungry."

Chad made his roar. The water rippled around his legs and the walls.

"Okay," said Dorien, "hold it up." Chad held up the frantically wriggling Poliwag. Dorien brandished a Pokeball, at arm's length. "Poliwag, return!"

It clearly didn't want to, but then Chad's hands were empty.

Dorien held out another ball and pointed to Chad, who pointed to himself.

"We're learning. You know this is the only way you're getting out."

Chad stood waiting for Dorien to stop talking.

"Next time you try to escape me I'll give you a lesson you'll never forget," Dorien said as Chad turned to pure energy. "Get used to these sessions--tomorrow I'm timing you."

Chad felt relief when the ball closed around him.




10: What Kind of Pokémon are You?


The food and water buckets were waiting when Chad came out of the pokeball, back in the big smelly cage. The cold slop, same stuff as last night, had developed a slimy skin. He heated it up and dug into it, remembering the hungry Poliwag and appreciating it more. Mo didn't come over; no one did. He stop chewing and listened, hearing only the quiet, omnipresent humming of the room itself. Was he really alone?

"Hello?. . .Mo?. . . Hm." Chad wondered where Mo was. He thought of Dorien putting Mo through one of his "training sessions" and angry fire churned in his belly.

He was so hungry he licked the bucket clean. He took a few slurps from the water bucket to wash his mouth from that Poliwag pool muck. He had to do his business, but saw no convenient place, like off a cliff. After going on the spot and cleaning up with blue-white fire, he decided this was a safe time to nap; the poliwag-chasing had stiffened his back and neck. He flamed clean the soles of his feet, then a spot on the floor, and lay down.

But he didn't fall asleep. A sensation, so faint he was sure he was imagining it--hummed through his brain, the feeling that he was not alone.

It couldn't hurt to look around. Chad got up to explore, for the first time, the enclosure's full dimensions. He would also get rid of that smell. If he was stuck in a cage, it would be clean.

He flamed the sticky floor as he walked along; the fire crawled along like moss, finding something to feed on. The burning smell was less than pleasant, but no way was he going to catch some disease here. Just when he thought he'd got the worst of it, he found, one by one, three areas by the walls used as latrines. The smell was worst back here; he blasted white fire vaporizing it in a flash of light. He'd always taken fire for granted. Chah damn you Dorien, making Pokémon live like this. The cage was almost large enough to feel like a lair, except for the unsanitary conditions. A lair was kept spotless; any waste, or unwanted intruders, were removed or incinerated.

Since his capture it had been one surprise after another. Nothing felt real. What were his parents and Chaun doing now? Probably, Chad's exile was fading out of immediacy, the dust settling, things starting to feeling normal again. He knew they would never forget him, but charizards couldn't dwell on tragedies; there were meals to catch, enemies to fight, sleep to sleep. Still, the thought of his banishment fading into history formed a lump--or a flame--in his throat. Millennia from now he might only be remembered as a would-be murderer. If at all.

"I'll see you again," he whispered. "Mom, Dad. Vixen. I'll be coming home. Somehow you'll all know the truth."

"Jihhhh. . ."

Chad snapped into a fighting stance, compassing toward the hiss. It had come from a corner extending around a bend he hadn't reached yet. "Who's that?"

As he made his way around, throwing light into the hidden corner, he heard it again.

"Jihhhnngg. . ."

"Jing?" Chad took a step forward, tail in front of him. By the voice it was probably smaller than himself. However, that didn't mean it couldn't shoot water. "Who's there?"

No answer. Chad strode forward and his tail firelight revealed a strange, short Pokémon shaped like a little human. Long, frosty-yellow hair crowned its pitch-black face, and red and purple cloth draped its body. Staring at Chad with eyes set in black, its fleshy red lips opened and a whisper drifted out.

"Jynx."

Chad didn't feel threatened, just uncertain. He stood up straighter and put his hands down. "I'm not going to hurt you," he said, taking another step. "I'm Chad. Who--"

It hissed in its breath, and waved its hands like vines. "Jynx! Jynx!"

"Okay, okay," Chad backed away, hands up at chest level again, and the creature sank down, curling like a leaf in the corner. "I'll let you, uh, sit."

As Chad walked back to his own corner, glad that it was far from Jynx, Dorien appeared in the doorway and tossed Poké Balls in. Out popped Tanya, Squiggy, the two-headed bird, the Raichus, and the last one wiggled and released Mo. Seeing Chad, Mo's face broke into a wide, pointed-tooth smile. He bounded past the others and collided with Chad's leg.

"Chad! I'm glad to see you."

"Me too--"

"Pfaughhh!" said Tanya, her thick arm fanning the air. "What have you been burning? It smells like shit."

"That's exactly what I've been burning," said Chad. "Cleaning up after you guys."

"Awk!" squawked one of the bird's heads. "You should be eating our shit after the mood Dorien was in this afternoon!"

"That's right!" said the other head.

Squiggy giggled and snorted like a pig. "Eat shit! Eat shit!"

Chad snorted flames. "I don't control the guy. Stop blaming everything he does on me."

Tanya stomped the floor. On one side of her the two Raichu glared at Chad, cheeks sparking; on the other the birds gave an angry squawk. Squiggy was barely holding in giggles. Tanya's eyes blazed in the expression that Chad now knew preceded a tirade.

"We'll stop blaming you when you start listening! Dorien was fine today, then we hear YOU roaring and banging and fucking around in the poliwag tank! He leaves, he comes back and he's training us like he's trying to kill us! He said you tried to escape again just like he expected. So? Are you done fucking around?"

"Fuck you," said Chad.

Tanya crossed the floor. "Yeah, I'll show you who--"

"Dinner!"

Dorien hollered at the entrance, shoving buckets and bowls in. "You know what size to take. I'm watching you. Charizard and Rhydon get the big ones."

When everyone was eating, he left. "So how was your day?" Chad said to Mo, heating up his meal. He scooped out some, seeing Mo had been neglected again.

"Dorien made me keep trying to scratch Squiggy, he yelled at me and I couldn't pounce fast enough." Mo looked up at him. "Chad, are you broken?"

"Um...what do you mean?"

"Dorien said he's gonna get a--appointment, to get you fixed."

Chad shrugged. Whatever that meant, it couldn't be worse than Poliwag training.

"I'll take this." Tanya snatched the bucket from his hands. "Thanks for heating it up. Hey does your dick have a fire too?"

"Give that back."

"Bite me." Tanya stuck her snout into the bucket.

Chad put his hands out, poised to claw. "I'll flame you. You give me my bucket!"

The others took their meals and scurried away. "Fight!" sang Squiggy, prancing back with his bowl. Mo pressed against the forcefield with his back arched, a tiny fire reflected in each eye. As Chad watched Tanya set his bucket down next to hers, Mo whimpered, "Please, no fighting." Would Mo have been better off left with the Spearows that morning?

"I said give it back. Right now, please."

"You can flame your little ass off, it won't do shit. I am a Rhydon and Rhydons can swim in lava, baby."

Chad lowered his head in his most aggressive posture. He didn't want a fight, but she couldn't get away with this. "I'm warning you one last time before I roast you."

"Shut up. I like QUIET when I eat!"

Chad made a grab for the bucket. Tanya slammed her shoulder against him, smacking him rolling on the floor. He sat up and his face met her foot as she dealt him a low kick. His horns hit the floor. He was looking behind him, at Mo, mewing, upside down. "I want you to shove your tail down your throat and fuck yourself!" the Rhydon roared. "Make my day!"

Chad wiped the blood from his nose and filled his lungs with the faintly smoky air. He stuck his neck forward, and from his mouth gusted a cone of orange and white, hurtling towards Tanya. It was sure a flamethrower for his personal record. He saw her look up, then smack. Her side hit the wall with a loud crack. She roared behind the veil of flames. When the spell burned out, Tanya lay on her back in a black mountain. Charcoal being her normal color, she didn't look too bad, but she wasn't moving. Chad crept over and listened. Her belly rose and fell; Chad exhaled. Thank Chah.

Tanya opened her eyes.

"I'm sorry," said Chad. "Um, how about that truce?"

She cuffed his face and shuffled backwards, hobbling to the edge of the room on weak legs. At the wall she whirled on him. "You stay away from me charizard!"

Chad heard faraway footsteps. The fluorescent hall lights blinked on. "All right, let me guess, Rhydon and Charizard are having it out. Well you woke me up! You know what that means tomorrow. I need my eight hours!" Dorien looked in. Tanya was limping towards the forcefield, moaning. "Holy shit!"

He whistled and looked past her, at Chad flaming blood off his snout. The charizard's left eye was swelling shut. "You did that? Man, no wonder you were so expensive!" He looked back at Tanya. "Don't you know how to dodge an attack? Or did you start thinking you were invincible again? I told you what charizards can do. Hold on a sec."

Dorien left and returned with potion. "This is just to stop you from moaning and keeping me up. Come over here, `cause I'm not going in." He sprayed Tanya. "Now you know what a fire spin is. Charizard, come here and get the rest of this."

A squirt and his nose began to clear, the eye reopening. Chad thought about attacking, but before he could get a breath or reach a hand out he felt the gentle buzz of the forcefield snap on. It occurred to him that sooner or later Dorien would discover that he could not fire spin. "Now get to sleep and I better not hear a peep out of you freaks. It's Raichu drills tomorrow morning for everyone. Oh, except Charizard. You have swimming lessons." He turned and left.

Swimming lessons.

The fire had destroyed both Chad's and Tanya's dinners. Chad curled up on his growling stomach and watched the others trudge away, thinking about tomorrow morning. While Mo settled against him, still shivering from the fight, Tanya turned around. The kitten buried his head in Chad's finely pebbled flank.

"One of these days I'll stomp your tail out in your sleep. You just watch your back."

She limped around the way.

Squiggy ran after her. "Chad's such a showoff!"

Chad heard Tanya mumble "Fuck you, Squiggy," and the bird twins squawked.

The Raichus were still hanging around near the entrance, probably preferring to avoid Tanya right now. Chad turned to the nearer one, Big Rai.

"Tanya. . . wants to kill me."

"Sure she does," said the Raichu. "She was Dorien's favorite before you came. Not that he was nice to her. But there wasn't anyone here who could really hurt her. Even our shocks don't do much. Now that you licked her, she's scared. She knows."

"You think she'll kill me?"

The Raichu shrugged. "Probably not. You give her light. And you keep the place clean--that's a first. But like she said, watch your back."

Chad decided to take advantage of this chance to talk civilly. "Oh, uh. . .the one in the corner, around the back, who's that Pokémon."

"The Jynx." The smaller Raichu spoke up. "She's always been like that--"

"No she hasn't," said the bigger one. "Dorien. . . tortured her too many times. Almost three years now, she hasn't spoken, or done anything but hide back there. Sometimes she'll try to grab your food. Dorien usually throws something back there for her every few days though."

"What's her name?"

The Raichus shrugged. "We don't know."

"Well what're your names." Chad shrugged.

"Roko. And he's Riuni," said the big one. "Don't get too friendly with us. When Dorien gets that gym done you're not gonna like us very much."

"I wouldn't blame you for what Dorien makes you do."

"Trust me," said Roko, beginning to smile, "there's a reason we all hate Raichu training. Including the Raichu."

"And for our sake," said Riuni, "when he takes you into the gym, listen to him."

They left without a good-night. Chad kept trying to sleep but two words kept his mind swimming: Swimming lessons.

"Chad."

"Hm?" Chad forced open an eye. Mo was poking his neck.

"I think Tanya's coming."

Chad listened. "I don't hear her."

"I thought I saw her back there."

Mo sniffled. Chad petted him.

"Don't let her scare you. You're fine with me."

"But she said she'll stomp your tail out!"

"Shhh." Chad stroked Mo's shivering back; the fur stood on end like a Mohawk. "Shh." He didn't want them waking up; he glanced down the way. "Just go back to sleep."

"But she could stomp our heads. . ."

"She won't, I showed her good. Let's just go to sleep. We've got. . .a big day tomorrow."

"I keep having bad dreams." Mo began to cry again. "When do we get to leave?"

Chad blew out a sigh. "Oh, Mo. What am I gonna do with you." He sat against the wall, let Mo clamber into his arms, and held him. Mo looked up with watery eyes and Chad forced a smile. "I'm not sure when we get to leave but believe me, I'm trying as hard as I can to get us out." He gave Mo a last pet and set him down. "You can sleep right next to me."

"I can't sleep."

"Um. . ." What had Chad's parents always used to do when he couldn't sleep? "If you promise to go to sleep, I'll tell you a quick story."

"I promise." Mo's eyes brightened, and his ears relaxed. He lay propped up against the middle of Chad's curled-around tail, with the flame reflecting in his big round eyes. "I love stories."

"I could fall asleep any minute," Chad yawned. "You gotta promise you won't wake me up again. Unless it's an emergency."

"Like Tanya coming?"

"Yeah. Now lemme think of a good story."

Mo rubbed his front paws, looking at Chad expectantly. The story of Charizard and the Cave of Ice and Darkness kept coming to mind, but Chad pushed it away. There was, however, another story that kept popping up.

"I'll tell you the story of Charizard and the Curse of Water."

"Chah is the mastermind of all the universe. He made all the Pokémon the way they are. One by one he breathed them out. He blew out one breath and out ran Rapidash, riding the flames. He gave it the gift of speed, and that's why Rapidash is the fastest Pokémon on land. He flamed out Ninetales, Magmar, and gave them the gift of fire. He created Arcanine and gave it great strength, fiery breath, and breathtaking beauty when it ran with the wind in its fur. All Pokémon--Meowth, Persian, Rhydon, Blastoise, Gyarados he made them all unique. And then he crafted Charizard in His own image.

"My mommy always said that it's a Persian up there who made everyone," said Mo.

Chad shrugged. "I guess every kind has their own story. But I'm just telling you what my parents told to me when I was a charmander.

"I give you the power of fire like no other!" Chah's voice thundered. "Fly through the skies, be magnificent and majestic! May you and your mate also love each other and grow your kind up wherever fire lives."

Charizard's fire and flying power let him conquer all. He inspired fear when he soared overhead. And he was busy too. He and his mate made many charmanders, and they were all hungry. Soon there were not that many other Pokémon left.

"Insolent Charizard," came Chah's shaming roar. "Ravaging the rest of my creations, well I have a lesson for you!" And Charizard grew frightened and hid in a cave from Him. But no one can hide from Chah. He sees everything and everyone. So Chah met him in the cave.

"Please, it wasn't my fault!" said Charizard as he threw himself down weeping at his maker's feet. "My charmanders grow hungrier every day! Chah, soon we will begin eating each other out of hunger!"

And so Chah called Gyarados up from the sea. He said, "Should creatures of fire grow too bold, douse them with water and blow in the cold."

And then he put a flame on the end of Charizard's tail.

"For your own good have I made you a weakness. Should this fire go out, you will die. So live and eat and multiply, but always remember the danger of water."




11: Charizards Can't Swim (Or: I Wonder As I Flounder)

Chad's toes hung over the tiled edge of the swimming pool. Below him flowed the Blue Death, undulating in hills and valleys.

"This is necessary for you to overcome your fear!" Dorien hollered over the balcony railing. "My team has only Pokémon with no fears or weaknesses! Now into the water! That's it stupid, down the stairs. . .Move the feet!"

Chad put his left foot out over the bobbing liquid, then his muscles locked. All the gravity in the world couldn't force that foot down. It bounced back onto the tiles.

"Do I have to give Meowth some lessons too?"

Chad held his breath and stepped onto the first level. His foot sank several inches into the chilly water, revealing it to be deeper than it looked. His short shin now looked even shorter; the limb swayed and rippled, becoming the water. He pulled it out again just to make sure nothing had actually happened.

"Are you deaf, charizard? I said FEET! That means both of'em!"

He put his other foot in. Beyond this step lay two more, then the final floor. Four levels of torture so he could acclimate himself.

"Next step, please! I'm giving you twenty seconds to get down to the bottom or I grab Meowth! It's shallow and your tail won't go under, I'm not stupid enough to kill you! Hell, you don't even have to swim AND it's a heated pool! So quit stalling and get in! Twenty. . .Nineteen. . .Eighteen. . ."

Chad quickly stepped down to the next step. His foot slipped forward and he gripped the railing, a shock wave of terror running through his body. He gasped to get his breath back and tried to uncurl his hands from the rail as Dorien counted. Two more levels to go.

". . . Twelve. . . Eleven. . ."

What would Vixen say if she were here (and this were normal for charizards to do)? He couldn't look like a wimp or she'd never shut up. (He almost giggled). While letting his hands slide tightly down the rail, he eased his left foot down, beginning to feel the buoyancy. Stepping the right foot down, the deadly water's cold hands felt higher up his body, engulfing him to his hips. Without thinking he spread his wings and growled. He fought the urge to take flight.

". . .Six--Don't even think about it! Five. . .Four. . ."

Remembering Mo sniffling in his arms, Chad stepped both feet down. He let out a flame as the icy water surged up past his belly. Behind him his tail, perked straight up, rose three or four feet above water level.

"Took you long enough! Now get your lazy butt to the other end of the pool! Yes, I mean the long way! It doesn't get any deeper so you have no reason to just stand there like an idiot! Move it!"

Chad looked all around. There was nowhere to fly.

Even if a wall fell away now, would he leave Mo behind in this death building? It's just like lava, only colder, just like lava, only colder, he chanted in his head as he walked. He closed his eyes and pictured the bubbly pools at Chubren. No one was making him do the Metapod act here, that was one good thing.

I'd rather do the Metapod thing all night and day than be in here.

He opened his eyes, saw he was almost halfway through, and he closed them again, not wanting to see himself up to his midriff in water, an island. He waded on, pretending Cherilla was watching from the side, rooting for him. He pretended he was some other male.

"Faster, dammit! My Doduo could swim circles around you! Use your arms to paddle!"

Chad eased his hands in the fluid, trying not to splash. You never knew where the stuff would leap.

"Paddle, dammit!"

Chad put them in an inch deeper. He opened one eye. Three-quarters there!

"Oh boy. Still not listening. Just wait till the disciplinary equipment I ordered comes in the mail! I was hoping you wouldn't need it!"

Almost to the wall--just three or four more steps--

"When you reach the end turn around and wade back here! For your Meowth's sake you'd better paddle! After that, three more laps! You've done half a lap so far!"

Chad couldn't help it. He flew up out of the water and unrolled a long string of fire towards Dorien, spiked with reverse icicles of flame. His foot claws raked the tiles as his body steamed.

Dorien jumped out of his seat. "All right! Be right back!"

No, what had he done?

Holding Mo by the scruff of the neck, Dorien made Chad wade back down the steps. "It's five laps now for your tantrum! You can forget having your breakfast warm!"

`You have forsaken Chah's way, so Chah has forsaken you.' Chizmo's words echoed in Chad's skull. Was this the beginning of long years of punishment, his life spiraling away into the land of Pokégod abandonment? Was he already dead?

No, in the Cave of Ice and Darkness your tail flame was gone. He was alive, for all it was worth. As he waded across the pool, tired and dizzy and forgetting which lap he was on, Chad considered sticking his tail under, waiting out the clench of pain, forging through to the sleep. Only the sight of Mo dangling like a pendulum from Dorien's hand kept him paddling on.

The renovations took two weeks longer than expected, giving Chad a "reprieve" involving "easy" training like swim laps. Chad spent a day or so of those long weeks trapped in a ball, when Dorien battled a guest trainer, and again when he left to battle elsewhere. Going in and coming out of the ball at different times screwed up his sleep cycle for days afterward. "You better be ready to fight for me soon," he warned Chad, "for Meowth's sake." Indeed, Chad had been here almost a month. It felt like one long dream.

Chad woke up at the sound of Dorien's hollering as usual, sore from head to toe as usual. Then he remembered. "Tomorrow the main gym is ready for anything you dish out," Dorien had said last night after feeding Chad dinner. "Fire-proof, scratch-proof--charizard-proof. And I plan to take every yen it cost me out on your ass."

"Three fucking weeks of hearing drills and jackhammers and shit while we trained," Tanya had added. "So listen to him."

"Gym training!" He tossed a pokeball at each monster, and Chad gave himself to the absorption. Listening was just so much easier. But inside the ball, Chad thought of clouds and wind and sun. The memories would not leave him alone. Again the thought came. Dunking my tail in my water bucket.

"Again!" Dorien screamed, red-faced, from the balcony. Standing at the center of the gym, Chad gathered energy for another max flamethrower and sent it out towards the metal ring on a pole. He watched it go and leaned his hands on his knees to get his wind. It came out weaker than the first, but he'd known it would. He couldn't knock those out one after the other.

"You call yourself a charizard? I've had growlithes give me better! But obviously, there's no use wasting potion on you. Your aim is pathetic. And you might not think I've noticed, but I've yet to see a fire spin from your lousy face! That's going to change today!"

Great Chah, no.

"That's our next lesson. I will admit your fire power is pretty damn strong. Clumsy as shit, but what are trainers for. Now I wanna see your fire spin. Now."

Chad let out his best try; as usual, a fiery comet shot from his mouth, big and hot but not a fire spin. It was really a flamethrower variation. He tried again, and a smaller fire flew out. Once again he felt his status slip below par.

"Don't play games with me Charizard! I'm in no mood. No fire spin, no breakfast."
Chad tossed his head, flapped his wings and gave a long, deep groan of despair.

"All right. On the count of three or you're in the pool the rest of the day. One. . .two. . ."

Concentrating on his stomach and lungs, he tried again to force a fire spin up. He only made an even weaker fireball. In rapid succession he puffed out two more and gasped for breath, his throat raw.

"I just want to see your goddamned fire spin! That's it! What the fuck is wrong with you?"

Halfway across the vast gym room, Tanya turned towards him with a hand on her hip. "Chad, just give him one already and he'll stop bitchin'!"

"I can't, Tanya! I never could!" His claws scraped the floor; he puffed steam out his nose. His tail lashed its flame.
"How many times have I said that rule number one in here is NO CONVERSATION! That's an extra hour for you, Rhydon, and Charizard, don't even think what you're going to be feeling the rest of this week. Now you stop standing there waving your tail and give me a fire spin or Meowth gets to join the fun!"

After another series of desperate fireballs, Dorien's eyes stopped squinting, his brows un-knotting as if invisible threads in his face had come unlaced. He watched Chad gather his breath. "You really can't do it, can you?"

Chad shook his head. "Please--don't bring Mo into this." He blinked back tears.

"You lousy piece of shit. I blow who knows how many Poké yens on the charizard of my dreams and what do I get? A lemon? The one dragon in that whole damn land who can't do its own best attack! Don't even think of looking at me for sympathy. If I could chuck you in the trash and get a return I'd do it in a second. You aren't worth the shit from your ass. Now get back to those rings and don't think I'm not going to make you learn it. I paid for it. You will give me a fire spin TODAY if I have to yank it out of your throat. Consider yourself lucky I don't beat you. Now get to work!"

Chad returned to flaming through the rings in a useless attempt to make his fire sack give him one glorious spin. He channeled his anger into his lungs till he could only spit flickers. "WORK!" bellowed Dorien. Everytime he leaned on his knees for a quick break Dorien held up Mo. Chad gasped sparks out his sore throat; his legs shook and the gym whirled.

"WORK!"

Without warning his knees caved. He fell forward and spilled onto his side, and lay there on the floor, unable to gather the will to stand.

"Get up you lazy lizard! I didn't call a break!"

Chad turned his head to look at Dorien. Mo had gotten out of his grasp and sat in a corner of the trainer's cage. Dorien gripped the railing and screamed.

"GET UP!"

Chad got up, tottering from foot to foot. Through stars he glimpsed Dorien running after Mo. "Turn around and face those rings!" Dorien glanced his way, then lunged at Mo. Mo scratched his grabbing hand, a scramble of claws in full attack. Chad felt a surge of energy.

"You little weasel!" Dorien sounded surprised that Mo had used an attack on him. Hopping like a frog, his hands came down on the yowling ball of fur. He slammed the kitten against the wall. Mo screamed and screamed again as Dorien let him crumple to the floor. The Meowth limped through the bars, out onto the new blue edging that girdled the walls for no apparent purpose. Finding just enough room to walk, Mo made his way past Dorien's reach, then looked way down and began mewing for help.

Chad's wings spread, flapping powerfully up to the balcony in a sweep or two; he plucked Mo off the edge. Landing, he held the shaking kitten.

"Are you all right?"

"Put him down, Charizard." Dorien pointed down. "On the floor. Don't think of attacking me, I got the forcefield ready. Just put him down and get back to work."

His hands held Mo tighter, the cat's heart a blur of thumping.

"Oh boy, we're doing it again. Looks like we're back to square one."

Weak in the knees, Chad took off with Mo. Reaching the ceiling, he perched on a beam, oblivious to Dorien's cries.

". . .That's a bad idea, charizard! There's no way out up there! You come down here you wimp or it's swimming lesson number two!"

Chad watched Dorien scream behind his forcefield, holding Mo with one hand and a beam with the other. The entire place was redone with fireproof metal; he couldn't even pinpoint where he'd carved the hole.

"Are we safe up here?" said Mo.

"I don't know." Chad clawed the metal, desperate. He prayed for Chah to crack the ceiling open like an egg. His stomach ached for food, his body ached for rest, his mind ached for freedom.

"All right, you asked for it! Raichus! To the wall! Touch the metal!" Dorien pointed to the wall on Chad's left. Both Raichu bounded over in leaps of long feet. Chad realized this was going to be bad, but how? He started to get up off the bars, leaning forward to swoop away...

"Thunder jolt!"

Electric shock gripped Chad's body. "Chaaaaaaarrrr!" His limbs coiled like vines around the bars. When the shock ended, he tumbled off like a felled tree, barely holding onto the unconscious Mo. Touching down on all fours, he collapsed convulsing, like an embryo cracked from the egg too soon.

Dorien snatched Mo away and kicked Chad in the ribs.

"Get up."

Chad craned his long neck around, still twitching. He tried to breathe. . .

"Get up!"

In a convulsion he whipped his tail at Dorien's legs. Let the human kick his skull in. Then he wouldn't have to do it himself.

The tail fell short and flopped like a fish. Dorien stomped it. Chad exhaled a puff of fire that flashed out. Mo was mewing again.

"I saw that--AND that! You think you can resist me, I got news for you. I'm in charge here. You belong to me. And your life will be miserable till you start listening. Now get up."

Chad lay where he was. Dorien kicked him in the belly. "You waste of money! Everything down the drain for you! Everything!"

"Stop. . ." Mo was crying.

"That's it. I've had it with training today. Everyone stop what you're doing!" He started yanking Poké Balls off his belt.

Chad didn't remember coming out of his ball. He awoke sitting upright--an unnatural sleeping position--with a headache. . .feeling very cold. He was in water to his neck--in the swimming pool. But this was different from doing laps.

He spread his wings--but could only tense the muscles. Something bound them--bound everything. A device had clamped him a sitting position with his hands at his sides.

He strained against metal clasps and chains to look behind him, and could just see his tail. His eyes confirmed what his nerve endings had told him; the tip was only a few inches above water. He could not move it.

"Hm, you're awake early. Good. We can get started."

Dorian stood up in his usual place in the trainer's cage. "Hopefully we'll only have to do this once."

Oh no.

"I have a remote control." Dorien held up a little box thing with buttons. "When we are through you will respect me. Now dunk your nose and blow bubbles."

Chad looked at him like he was crazy.

"I could do it when I was six, dammit! Blow bubbles!"

Chad licked his tongue in the water, hoping that would be enough. The straps and chains allowed him to move his neck down as far as he liked.

With a humming noise, Chad's restraint device shifted in the back. His tail went down an inch, leaving a golden-orange sliver between flame and calmly waving water. Chad stretched every muscle to tear himself out. Nothing yielded; he felt only the injuries Dorien had kicked into him, and the headache from the double Raichu shock. He screamed with fire at the ceiling, crying Chah to the spinning girders. As his echo glared off the metal walls, the machine lowered his tail again. Chad now felt a stinging, his body warning him that it was coming too close. "Chaaaaaaaaarrrrrr!"

"Stick your head in!"

Chad held his breath, closed his mouth, and dunked his snout.

"Again, to your eyes!"

Chad got it in almost to his eyes.

"Not good enough!"

The thing lowered again. Chad screamed as his tail tip hissed with steam. Still lit, but partially submerged, it sent wave after wave of pain. He strained to lift it but the restraints would not let it move. Tossing his head, his flame breath surrounded him in orange, and he felt his bladder let go. Clouds of steam lifted around him.

"I will keep you there until you faint! When you don't listen to me you get punished!"

Chad barely heard him over the thunder of his own voice, couldn't see through the fire and the steam. His eyes filled with dark stars, and his head slumped toward the water. Everything went black.




12: The Squirtle Fire Squad



"You're gonna get it," Squiggy said in his face when Chad came out of his Poké Ball, into the cage. Chad threw a halfhearted grumble towards him and slumped in a heap of limbs and wings, his cheek against the cold stone. His skin was wet and his tail tip throbbed in pain, but he did not bother to dry himself.

"Chad." Mo rasped, purring near his face. He sounded sick, or very worn out. Chad remembered something about Mo on a ledge on the wall. . .

Mo was prodding him but Chad could not lift his head.

"I'm just very tired."

Mo crawled under one of his wings. Chad woke up still tired, but his tail no longer hurt. Dorien might have given him potion. On the other end of the cage, Squiggy was snickering and giggling with Tanya and the Doduo, and he thought he heard the Raichus. Accustomed to a quiet lair, no wonder he couldn't sleep through the racket in here. Only his exhaustion let him droop back into dreaming.

He jolted awake in a tail attack, screaming and steaming. Twisting on the floor like a burning weed, he struggled to get his tail back up to full flame. Squiggy stood several paces away, the empty bucket swinging from his hand. It dripped.

"Not so tough now huh? Charizards are pretty pathetic when you know their weakness," said Tanya stomping up behind the turtle. Squiggy broke into a dance.

"A bucket's all ya need, a bucket's all ya need!" he sang, swinging the bucket. "La, la la la. . ."

Chad towered over the turtle.

"Tanya told you to do it didn't she."

"The hell I did!" roared the Rhydon. "We ain't had a thing to eat since this morning. I don't care what he put you through in the pool, all we know is we had to sit here hungry listening to you! We're sick of it!"

"You tried to kill me!"

"No shit! I keep my promises! Anyway Squiggy was the one who did it."

Dorien would have found Chad with a wet tail, and blamed Squiggy.

Chad whipped his head, torching out a swath of flame from left to right. Squiggy dropped the bucket and dashed behind Tanya.

"You don't know what I've been through. I was free before I came here! Stop blaming what he does on me! And let me live!"

"Oh, it's `pity me, pity me'!" said Tanya. "You charizards kill Pokémon every fucking day, and here you are looking all shocked? Well you just sit down, shut up and listen. You ain't suffered nothing yet! I've been here three years! I was free too! You think I like the bastard? You think I want to fight his stupid ass fucking battles? No--but I do my part for everyone else, to make their days a little prettier! One asshole can screw up the whole damn thing! You're fuckin' up everybody else's life with your temper tantrums! Stop being so selfish!"

Mo sniffled his runny nose in the corner; he listed to one side, as if injured, blinking redshot eyes.

"How much longer do you want to put up with it? Dorien's young. I'm not sure how long humans live, but if three years is a long time--"

"Oh that's the same shit Trish and Toka said when they came. `We can get together and fight back!' Well Dorien got us right where he wants. There's no escape." Tanya shifted her weight to one foot and cocked her frilled head. "You know this ain't twenty questions. You don't have a choice."

"Leave me alone please. I was tortured today."

"Tortured? Just you wait till you're asleep again. Maybe it'll be two buckets tomorrow night."

"If you kill me Dorien'll make your life even more miserable," said Chad. "If I'm worth all his time, he'll be pretty upset if you douse me in my sleep. Maybe I'll give you a little fire in your sleep! `Cause trust me, at this point I have less to lose!"

Tanya flicked a brow. "That's what you think."

"Meeeowth!"

Chad whirled around. Squiggy held a yowling Mo by the scruff of the neck. Mo's paws swiped the air. "Meeowwwth--"

"Maybe he could get a taste of my foot in his sleep!" said Tanya as Squiggy tossed Mo on a fly to her. Mo's limbs splayed out in midair, tail swinging. Tanya caught him and held him up near her face.

Chad let his breath out firelessly. "Let him go, he's sick!" Chad dove at Tanya, snatching the whimpering kitten from her hand.

"Aw, how touching." Tanya didn't go after them. "Listen, this is your last chance to shape up. If you don't, or if you touch any of us, someone'll take care of your kitten for you."

"So sweet dreams!" giggled Squiggy as Chad stroked the sniffling Meowth. The Squirtle gave a wiggle of his blue tail as he strutted away after Tanya.

Chad petted Mo till he fell asleep. The kitten slept fitfully, his nose whistling.

Chah, please let Mo live. He's been through so much. All because. . . of me.




13: Stir Crazy


Chad listened to Dorien's every word, as if his flames were no longer his own. He tried to forget sunlight and open skies, telling himself this was a short, dark hole he would soon pass through. Dorien's punishments lessened; from what he said, he thought the dunking had shocked Chad into obedience. The important thing was that Mo did recover.

Dorien made Chad practice his fire spin, and train against the other Pokémon, often two at a time. Most days he fought at least one bout with Tanya, who put all her energy into it.

But the practice battles had little hostility. The Raichus were friendly enough to talk with, and Tanya seldom threatened him now. Squiggy poked fun at him whenever he got the chance, but Chad could tolerate that, having been poked fun at all his life. No more injuries were dealt in the cage, and Mo even regained some of his old friskiness. Chad knew, however, that every day in this place was affecting Mo permanently.

The same was true for him. Chad had never thought himself moody or prone to outbursts (without provocation). But when he was alone, he often paced the cage, flapping his wings, and without warning he grew mad and flamed the air, or swung his tail. It felt good, but didn't ease the tenseness in his legs to jump as his wings cupped the air and carried him up. . .

The ceiling was eight feet high.

Chad had never thought himself an insomniac either. But although training usually exhausted him, he had trouble sleeping. Oh, sometimes he got lucky and dreamed about Cherilla. Or what's-her-name--Carinae--that burnt-orange female north of Chook, with the long white claws and the whippy tail. He thought about her too sometimes, excluding the day she had rewarded his shy nuzzle with an ember attack in the mouth.

He still had to work for breakfast, either by poliwags, pool or flaming through the rings. If Dorien was in a cranky mood he set out Chad's breakfast with the others'; they would start in on it when they had finished theirs.

"When you win me a badge and start becoming an asset instead of an expense, you can eat breakfast with everyone else," Dorien said one day when Chad caught a Poliwag too late, and Tanya handed him his empty bucket. "Till then you have to earn your keep."

How catching poliwags and wading in pools was helping pay the rent, Chah only knew. Not wanting Chad to lose weight, Dorien gave him tasks to do to earn the lost breakfast back, such as extra "Raichu training".

Generally Chad settled for going hungry.

One day when Chad got an apple with his slop, he took it to Jynx's corner, seeing everyone else was out or napping. Maybe he could get her to talk.

He held out the fruit. "Hi Jynx, want an apple?"

Jynx shuffled her feet, whispers slithering out, "Jynx, jynx. . ."

"Take it. It's good, good for you too." Feeling silly, Chad watched for signs that she saw him, then trudged away. "Bye." At least he got to eat it himself--

Behind him he heard shuffling, and as he turned around the Jynx leaped at him. Screeching "Jynx!" she grabbed for the hand holding the apple, scratching it with her nails. She scuttled around the wall.

Chad peeked around to see her smothering her face in the apple. "Jynx, jynx, jynx," she munched with her mouth full.

"Enjoy."

"Are all humans like Dorien?" said Chad that evening, after dinner, to Roko. Mo was playing, believe it or not, with Squiggy; the two kids had become somewhat friendly.

"No, Riuni had another trainer, right?" Roko elbowed his buddy.

"Yeah. He was the best." Riuni's ears drooped before his expression faded to neutral. "He lost a battle with Dorien, when I was a pikachu. He didn't have the money Dorien wanted for winning, so they agreed on a trade. A lucky oddish walked out of here that day."

"Is there any way, we could get traded?" Though he sure wouldn't wish this on anyone else.

"It won't happen to you," said Riuni. He looked at Chad's questioning face. "You're worth too much. My first trainer said charizards are rare, and getting rarer."

"Why."

"Something about them not breeding enough in captivity. Or the females don't lay enough eggs." He raised his brows. "Did you. . ." His paw made a little swirly gesture, "you ever. . .?"

"No."

His mouth broke out in a smile and he laughed, glancing at Roko. "Well there you go."

"Did you ever?"

"None of your business."

"Chad's a virgin, Chad's a virgin!" Squiggy skipped around the cage. Mo giggled. Finally Tanya hollered, "Shut up or I'll make you fuck him!"

"So where'd you come from?" said Riuni, turning back around from Squiggy. "'Cause you can't be from here. . ."

"The island of Chah." Chad paused, and Riuni nodded. "Why couldn't I be from here?"

"There's no wild charizards left on this continent," said Riuni, scratching an itch with his foot. "My old trainer talked about it a lot because he always wanted a charizard."

"They used to be here?"

"Yeah, the last one was caught like, a hundred years ago?"

Shortly before the start of humans visiting Chah. Chad went to sleep with Mo, wondering how long Chah would be all right. Dorien allowing, he would easily live to find out.

Chad materialized from his Poké Ball onto the gym floor. Dorien stood in the trainer's cage. In all these weeks Dorien had never touched him, except for kicking him in the ribs.

"Today I'm going to find out whether you're worth all those thousands I shelled out for you, AND the gym, plus the time I've blown on your training."

Chad snorted fire out his nose. Why couldn't Dorien quit whacking him with the money thing? No one had made him spend a penny!

"You are battling a guest today. One on one. She called this morning to make sure this gym exists, she's coming any minute and if you win you get the rest of the day off and a treat for dinner. If you lose, I will lose to a girl AND a young trainer. It's safe to say you won't get any treats. So. Warm yourself up now, then into the ball. If you're thinking of killing me and making a break for it, remember this. They put a Pokémon to death if it kills a human being. That is the truth."

Chad tumbled from Poké Ball to the same spot on the floor, facing a stranger in the guest cage at the far end, and Dorien at his back. The red-haired freckled girl, no older than 12, nodded at Chad with respect, and threw down a ball.

"Magmar I choose you!"

A typical-looking (i.e. delicious-looking) Magmar molded into form. Its bodily flames swelled high as it stared at its predator. A battle against his own prey? He wondered if he got to eat it if he won, but knew that was a moot point.

"I can see the cocky look in your lizard's eyes already," barked the girl. "Like trainer like Pokémon."

"Just you wait, this lizard's gonna take your chicken out on the lawn."

"You think I'm an easy lunch," said the Magmar, grinning at Chad. "I've whipped you paunchy dragons before."

The situation clicked. Chad held out his hands, lowering his wings. "I'm in a desperate situation. Please, somehow, tell you trainer Dorien abuses--"

"Charizard! Flamethrower!"

"Magmar--tell her--"

"Ha!" The girl clapped. "He likes to chat. Small talk's over, Magmar give him a fire blast right where he needs it!"

The fire blast launched from Magmar's mouth at too close range for Chad to dodge. It smacked the wind from him and popped him in the jaw. Chad skidded across the floor on his wings.

"Get up!" Dorien hollered. Chad stood up tasting blood; his teeth had cut into his tongue. "Flamethrower now and get in the air!"

"Dorien abuses me!" cried Chad, beating his wings into the air, "He abuses all of us! You've got to help us!"

"Another anti-human Pokémon," said Magmar. "Honestly, charizards are the worst!"

"I SAID FLAMETHROWER!"

Pivoting on his wingtip in flight, Chad sprayed fire down on Magmar. In the classic hunting maneuver he swooped, limbs splayed.

"Magmar dodge!"

The Magmar rolled forward. Before Chad could turn around the creature's arms noosed his long neck. Chad whipped his tail and boxed Magmar with both wings, clutching at the claws on his throat.

"Charizard! Slam him back on the wall!"

Roaring he loosened them and gulped a breath. He flew to the ceiling. Flipping his body, he whipped Magmar off, swung the kicking creature by the arms. He slammed it to the floor far below. Landing hard on the unconscious Magmar, Chad closed his mouth round the jugular, sucked a quick breath that hissed around the flaming flesh.

He clenched his jaws. But instead of the squirt of hot living blood, came the clap of teeth on air. The red light that had been Magmar zoomed toward the open ball in the girl's hand. Panting from exertion, he threw his head back and roared a stream of orange.

Dorien burst from his chair and leaped. His fist sliced the air. "Yes!" he cried over Chad's roar. "Don't worry, you get all the meat you want tonight!"

"You win fair and square, good battle," said the girl, running out into the gym through a door below the balcony. Seeing the charizard had calmed down, she approached as she pulled money from her pocket. She handed it to Dorien who hovered near his door. "My Magmar sure doesn't dig those dragons but I always wanted one. He's nice-looking. Big. Where'd you get him?"

"Saffron."

"Wild-grown?"

"Yeah, how'd you know."

"I can tell." She approached Chad. "Hey boy. How are ya? I'm Charla, nice to meet you." She held her hand out, palm up. Chad put his hand in it and squeezed gently. She laughed. "Good grip. My dad's a keeper at the Cinnabar Island Zoo," she said to Dorien. Chad caught Dorien's look of disbelief as the dragon allowed Charla to rub his pebbled shoulder. "Zoo's got three charizards and I love'em all."

"They can be dangerous." Dorien flipped through the money, folded and pocketed it.

"Nah. You earn their respect they'll never hurt ya. They're great--not high-strung like Rapidash, or hot-headed like Primeape or Aerodactyl. And gorgeous!" she laughed. "Well I think so. They do have their own will--you have to love them on even terms, they can never be totally trained." She giggled as Chad gave her a back rub. "I never met such a friendly Pokémon! You're some lucky guy."

"Dorien abuses me," said Chad. "He tortures me and my friend. Please--you've got to understand me."

"What?" Charla turned around. "Did you say help me?"

"Yes--"

"He's injured," said Dorien, taking out a Poké Ball. "Gotta give him potion."

"Oh, well--yes--" She turned in bewilderment as Chad backed away, keeping her between him and Dorien.

Dorien struck Chad's wing with the ball.

"Well I'll be off to the Pokémon center now," said Charla as Dorien walked her to the door. "Don't suppose you'd ever want to trade him?"

Dorien clipped Chad's ball on his belt. "Dream on."

* * *
"I'll pretend you never tried to avoid me or tell that chick something bad about me," said Dorien as Chad dug into the bucket of cold meat, not bothering to heat it. "You made me money. We're making progress."

Had Chad really become trained? When did this stop being a necessary compromise, an act, and start becoming him?

It might as well be real. I could be here years. And when Dorien finally died, another human could spring up and take him, chipping another 60 years off his free life.

You're free deep down, Chad thought as he downed the last of the red meat. If Chad just caved in, it would bring peace like the drugs at the auction. But giving in to training was like letting his own fire go out.

You can't forget hunting. Scoping out prey and swooping with a spear of flame for the kill, gripping with claws and lapping blood. . .

Dorien came by again and stood with a smirk, hands on hips as Chad stopped licking the bucket. Standing easily within flame's reach, Dorien tossed a bone-shaped, brown object through the entrance. It landed at Chad's feet; Chad smelled right away it was tasty. After a second's hesitation he picked it up and crunched it easily. The meaty, sweet stuff swam in his watering mouth.

"Just a treat to celebrate, don't think this or the meat is going to become a regular thing. I'm now booked for a tournament at the Crimson City Gym coming up in four weeks." His eyebrows wriggled once. "And you're on my team. So this means some extra training hours. If you ever feel like giving up, just remember Meowth's coming too. Think of it this way: if you win you get to eat breakfast with everyone else."

The last bite of treat made him feel foul. Chad wanted to spit it out, but his mouth wouldn't let him.

"So sleep well, we'll be up early tomorrow."

Chad imagined flaming him in the back. He let a lazy lick of blue slither out as Dorien strutted down the hall, his heavy sneakers thudding. He curled up near Mo; Mo had grown. It was strange how time yanked some kinds along, and dragged others.

You can't forget, Chad thought as he drifted to sleep. Basking in sunlight. Flying through blue, aloft on the top of the world. Free.




14: Call of the Sky


For the next four weeks, 6 out of 7 days, Dorien trained Chad, Tanya, Squiggy, Trish and Toka, and the Raichus till they were ready to drop, circling the room with a whip. "You're my team and dammit, for this tournament you're going to be perfect. My dad always said--give'em an inch they'll walk all over you. Pokémon need someone to keep'em busy. Deep down you want this."

Chad thought that was typical for a shallow male to say. Even Chiffy wasn't this bad. Nevertheless, at the end of all those weeks, Chad knew he had improved, though he would probably never fire spin. Everyone was ready--even Mo was proud of his progress, although he knew why he was going.

Chad slumped on the floor, picking through dinner on the evening before the tournament. He saw no way out of the human world. All his fight was gone; he obeyed mindlessly, plodding like the undead through each day. Suicide flirted with his brain now and then, but he couldn't dunk his tail--with the first hideous sting his reflexes yanked it out. He no longer bothered praying for a quick painless death. Chah would not grant it. Every morning he awoke still breathing, heart beating, flame burning. There was no off switch. He looked forward to training, where he was too out-of-breath to think. Anything was better than the gloom that came when, allowed rest, his thoughts caught up with him. In time, that will fade too.

"Are you all right?" said Mo.

Chad swallowed a strip of meat whole. Charizards didn't need to chew much.

"Yeah, just a little nervous." He smiled.

"I can't wait till tomorrow," said Mo. "I can't wait to meet more people." His smile faded. "If I went away, would you be mad?"

Chad tossed the last scrap in his mouth. "No. Did Dorien say something about trading you?" He hoped so, for Mo's sake. Although he knew Mo had kept him alive these past weeks.

"He said maybe. I don't want to leave you, but--" He paced around, looking at the floor. "I want a nicer human to take care of me. Do you remember the lady at the auction?"

Chad searched his brain. "The one who held you?"

"She was nice. I want to live with someone like her, who'll pet me."

Chad petted Mo. Under his hand Mo looked up, eyes brimming.

"Oh, Mo, don't worry. . ."

"I don't want to leave you. But I have to go to Dorien all the time, and I hate battling. I wish we could both go be owned by a nice human. Don't you?"

Chad tried not to indulge himself in wishful thinking. But did he really wish to go from one human to another?

"I'm sure someday it'll happen."

"Maybe at the battle."

Don't count on it.

"Even if it doesn't, don't let me hold you back if Dorien trades you. Dorien is a horror."

"I miss the grass. I remember. . . running around outside here."

"Here?"

"Yeah, I think."

"You mean Chah."

"Oh yeah."

Mo stretched his front legs down in front of him and padded over to where Chad had laid down. His legs were longer, and his fuzzy fur had glossed out. All in a couple months.

What do you remember of home, at all? Chad almost asked, then decided it was best if he forgot. To Mo, this place was home. Chad didn't even feel settled, yet Mo could barely remember anything else.

It wasn't fair.

Chad wandered round and looked in at Jynx as Dorien came by with breakfast and Poké Balls. She was still hunching in the corner.

"Everyone listen up!"

Dorien stood outside, hands on hips, with bowls and buckets around his feet. "We are going to the Crimson City Gym, where you are all expected to do EVERYTHING I tell you to. The smallest thing counts. There will be No chances to escape," he eyed Chad, "trust me, if any humans get hurt, they'll have you put to death. That's what they do to Pokémon who attack people. You'll be on your best behavior for your own good. Okay. Eat up."

Dorien fed Chad along with everyone else, then Chad went into a ball. He realized how tolerant he had become of them, like they were a regular thing.

Cheer up, he thought inside the ball. Humans don't live long. Only 50 or 60 more years and you'll have a new trainer.

Remembering Dorien's speech, and considering Mo, Chad didn't burst out blasting fire upon emerging. Looking around at the spacious, activity-filled room, he wasn't sure he would have anyway. He stood on a cool tiled floor. Here a Chansey pushed a small bus of cups of water and other items, stopping at tables and seats where humans and Pokémon were gathered. Some Pokémon looked injured.

"We are in a Pokémon Center," said Dorien in a low voice, holding Mo in his arms. "So everyone behave." Although Tanya and the others were there too, he was looking at Chad.

"We're here tonight for a pre-battle checkup," said Dorien, showing a nurse his ID. So it was night. Chad wasn't tired since his body had just woken up and eaten breakfast. "I'm up tomorrow morning against Trainer Isabelle."

The nurse smiled around at the motley crew. "Great, I'll see them now. Are they all safe?" Her eyes darted at Chad, Tanya, then back to Dorien.

Dorien now looked at Chad. "Yes."

"Great, I'll see you first." She took Chad's hand and led him to a small room that smelled like alcohol and other chemicals. Dorien Poké Balled the others and followed with Mo.

She asked Chad to open his mouth, "Wow, good teeth," and she listened to his heart, and had him stand on a cold metal platform while she measured him. "Ooh, you're a tall fellow." It was rather novel, though he could have done without the smell. At the end she gave Chad a pat on the shoulder and a Pokémon treat. "He seems fine," she said to Dorien as Chad sucked on the treat to savor the taste. "Except for a couple things," she picked a chart off the counter, "he should be at least twenty pounds heavier. What have you been feeding him?"

"Meat, fruit, Poké chow. Twice a day." Dorien gave her his fake smile.

"How much?"

"Four or five gallons a day."

"That's when I don't have to catch Poliwags or fight Raichu," said Chad quietly. "I know you probably don't understand a word I'm saying. But in case you do. . . Dorien overworks and tortures all of us--and we haven't seen the light of day in months."

The nurse smiled. "Don't worry, you'll be out of here and in that gym soon."

It just wasn't fair.

She turned back to Dorien, whose eyes were warning Chad to shut up. "My, he's talkative. Anyway, you might want to up his feedings by about one third. He is a big charizard, and he's actively training. You know charizards can eat over 50 pounds of meat in a sitting?" She laughed. "Also, I don't recommend general chow--it's cheaper, but it doesn't address each type's nutritional needs. Charizards--they're carnivores, though they'll eat a little fruit. I'm going to write down a couple brands to try." She took a little metal or plastic twig off the counter. It made scribbly marks on a yellow paper as she scratched the tip on it. She handed the paper to Dorien, who glanced at it before folding it up messily in his free hand. Chad's eyes followed the yellow paper. "Char-Chow is the best one, I think, people come back for followups saying it really makes a difference. You might have to look in specialty stores, but I know most Pokémart locations stock it." She squinted her eyes and laughed. "It also looks less like mud."

"Thanks a lot," said Dorien, not looking a hundred percent grateful. Chad got a whiff of nervousness about his master as he slipped the paper into his jeans pocket and took out Chad's pokeball.

"The other thing," said the nurse, stepping back over to Chad. "Now I know trainers can get touchy when I say this, you guys do have to train them hard for these tournaments, so don't take it personally, it's a common problem. Your charizard's heart rate's kind of high and he seems fatigued. These are symptoms of overtraining. After this competition you might want to give your Pokémon a vacation, some time off for their hard work?" She smiled cutely. "It makes them stronger in the long run and less prone to illness, and if you want to cure them of overtraining, a break is the only way."

"You can bet on it." He gave her thumbs up and returned Chad to the pokeball. I wouldn't bet on it.

Chad came back out still in the same room, with Dorien holding Mo and the nurse walking back inside holding a potion bottle.

"You can't forget your potion!" She sprayed Chad. "Good luck, big guy," she said , giving him a last pet on his leathery back. "Let's see that adorable Meowth now." Mo mewed, ears perked, squirming in Dorien's arm.

Chad thought he was starting to understand why Mo so wanted to be owned by a kind human.

Chad was next released into a large space--a gym room, bigger than Dorien's gym. He looked up and saw--

The sky.

"They let each contestant warm their Pokémon up here," said Dorien. "They say it helps to know the place during the real battle, well I'm willing to believe anything. We've only got one hour, so let's get to it. We're the last ones in here."

Chad couldn't take his eyes off the giant circular skylight set like a jewel in the gym ceiling. The morning sky, fair and sweeping, looking down at him through the huge faceted eye of the room. His wings spread and he stretched his neck to the blue and let out a long, mournful rumble, ending with a flame, a torch to the sky.

"Charizard, let's not relapse. I've still got Meowth. Quit daydreaming and face Rhydon. Rhydon, horn attack!"

Chad forced himself to snap out of it. Dorien had warned him, and he believed it. As he practiced various light drills against Tanya, he tried to forget the sky. But the warmup seemed to take forever and he was almost glad when Dorien finally stopped them, opened his bag and took out potion bottles. He sprayed them all, said "Battle's next," and pokeballed them. Dorien saved Chad for last. "Okay, this is it. You know what's expected of you. And I know you're hungry now, but that's what I always do before battle, hunger gives Pokémon the aggression they need. You'll all eat afterward."

In the ball, Chad's mind furled like stormclouds. Sky.

The first thing that hit him when he bounced back into the world was a cacophony of human voices, thousands joining calls to create a din that fell and rose in waves, surrounding him. If the crowd's noise at the auction had been like cooing Pidgeys, this was shrieking Spearows. Chad's eyes felt saturated looking at it all. Those bare rows of stadium seats had sprouted a wiggling lawn of humans, all moving, all calling, all watching. His eyes picked out every detail of every face. Men, women, children, of all shades and sizes. Many waved small flags or other objects.

". . .And Dorien has released a mighty big Charizard. Isabelle's Primeape is chewing its lip at this one," boomed an announcer's voice from high in the stadium heights. Chad looked up. . .and fell under the spell of the sky's eye. Oh, to have one moment to fly fast, pumping his wings hard, diving and turning. . .

"Charizard!" Dorien barked behind him. Chad jumped, exhaling a puff of flame. "Don't look up, look forward!" There stood a creamy-colored, pig-snouted fur ball with muscular brown arms and legs. It flailed its fists in agitation.

"Charizard flame thrower! Go wide, don't let it jump out of the way!"

Chad released a broad swath of fire, barely singing the creature as it leaped away, raging mad now. Chad flamed again.

"Primeape! Tackle it!"

Growling and shouting, it jumped out of Chad's flame again and ran behind him.

"Primeape, no, he's turning around--"

As Chad whirled it jumped smack into his face. Suddenly deaf to Dorien's voice, Chad flamed. His hands snatched at the burning fur. He slammed it on the floor. As it scrambled to get up he jumped on it. It exploded into kicks and punches, still on fire. One punch smacked his brow ridge. Chad leaped back and swung his tail, hitting the animal full in the head. Chad's blood coursed through him. He leaped on the still flailing creature, claws digging, and flamed again--

"Charizard I said get off! This isn't open hunting season!"

Chad caught his breath, and his brain returned. He backed off of the unconscious Primeape.

"Ooh! and Charizard nearly took a free lunch there," echoed the announcer.

"He's wild-caught, and he's got this hunting instinct," Dorien was saying. The other trainer nodded as she beamed in her charred Primeape, looking at Dorien tight-lipped.

The sky, now an early afternoon shade, looked wide and serene as ever. Dorien, standing on the trainer's platform (there were no cages here) held Mo peacefully; the other trainer, on her deck, brandished another pokeball. Chad licked his lips. If only Dorien had fed him! He hoped to Chah that his next opponent wasn't easy prey. That sky was bad enough.

"Poliwrath. . .I choose you!"

The red light spilled and grew into a large round, dark blue Poliwag without a tail. Water gleamed on its body. It stood on strong legs and held up white fists.

"Water and fire! This promises to be good!" the speakers boomed.

So this is what those little cuties in that tank will grow up to be.

"Poliwrath, water blast!"

Chad had barely registered the word "water" when a hoselike stream hit him square in the face. It knocked him on his wings. The water spouted forth, burying him in a cloud of deadly white spume as he scrambled, flapping, to get up. He barely heard Dorien's voice.

"Charizard, get up! Fly clear and flamethrower!"

Chad spread his wet wings but the water rammed him back. The fire he shot out went up in steam. Finally he got airborne and beat his wings at Poliwrath, surprising the animal with his reach. Poliwrath fell on its back, spinning on the slippery floor. Its foamy spray whipped up like a fire hose. Now, to flame.

"I did not tell you to do that!"

"I know what I'm doing!" He sent fire flying into Poliwrath, who was just getting on its feet. The flames encased the screaming creature; the audience went wild.

"It looks like the lizard has bagged another win! I can't imagine ANYTHING standing up to that!" said the announcer.

As Chad stood with water still dripping from his chin, the fire cleared. Poliwrath lay on the floor, black and smoking.

"Oh no. . ." The other trainer held out the Poké Ball. "Poliwrath, return!"

"Whatever she tosses out now is her sixth," Dorien called. "This is it."

Chad didn't care about beating Poliwrath. He was looking up again, remembering fresh grass, lapping from a mountain stream, stooped over a bank in the sun.

"PAY ATTENTION!"

"Well," the girl on the other platform said, "I choose you, Charmander!"

"All right!" Dorien clapped his hands together. "Charizard this battle is ours! Just slash that sucker! Woo hoo!"

The girl was touching a hand to her forehead, as if she had already lost.

Chad watched the charmander form from the squirt of red light. It was a young female, a few years older than his little brother. She looked at him with dark blue baby eyes, waving her little flame tail. "Char, char!" Chad felt a smile breaking out on his face and tried to contain it. "Silly guy," she said. Did she even understand that he had to hurt her?

"Charizard! Slash! Now!"

Chad jumped forward--and landed just short of her. Holding powerfully clawed hands over the baby, he could not bring them down. He turned away and roared deeply. Dorien shouted something he didn't hear.

The other trainer shouted, "Charmander, flamethrower!"

Chad scooted back as the charmander spewed a respectable amount of flame. Of course, it left Chad unscathed. He ran to the side and breathed a little burst out toward her. She countered with another spurt, sensing that the battle had lightened in nature. "Beat you!" In the seats, the human voices grew quieter and deeper, beginning to murmur. Chad ran behind the charmander and flamed again. Laughing aloud, she charged him, waving her tail behind her. He pinned her on her back and rubbed her belly. The crowd began to laugh.

"It looks like Charizard is giving him a tickle!" said the announcer.

"Charizard what the hell are you doing! This isn't ring around the rosy! You have him now! Slash!"

As the charmander slid free, Chad glanced back at Dorien. He was holding Mo in one hand and the tip of Mo's tail in the other, between thumb and index. From his look, and Mo's, it would be worse than a tail pulling if Chad didn't listen.

Dorien pointed.

"Flamethrower."

Chad's stomach turned as he ducked his head to her level. He gathered breath and blew. His throat closed at the last minute, and only a thin orange string trickled out. The charmander giggled and blasted him in the face. The crowd was laughing even harder.

"It is tit for tat!" said the announcer. "Is this a battle or Patty-Cake?"

"They say charizards can be hard to control, even for experienced trainers," said Dorien's smiling opponent.

"This is ridiculous! Charizard, return."

Chad emerged in a back room. He, Mo and Dorien were in some kind of recovery room, whether to rest or prepare for another battle, Chad wasn't sure. He was sure, however, that he, and Mo, were about to get it. Behind Dorien, up in the ceiling corner, a little black box with one eye and a tiny dot of green light stared out--some device that didn't appear to be doing anything. Chad faced his trainer.

"If it weren't for Squirtle putting up a GREAT fight, I would've lost. I wouldn't even be here! And don't you leer at me!" Dorien reached around, twisting away towards the floor, and came up with Mo.

"No--"Mo wiggled like a caterpie.

"I shouldn't have had to rely on a squirtle when I had a charizard at near full strength standing right there!" He held Mo at arm's length and slapped him hard in the face. Chad roared.

"You burn one hair on my body and you'll be trapped here. They'll find you, and my body, lock you up and put you to sleep. For good." He gave Mo a shake and slammed him on the floor. The kitten yelped, rolled over onto his feet, and limped to Chad crying. As Chad scooped him up Dorien opened his mouth again.

"That was a charmander! You had it on its back!"

Chad petted the crying Mo, maintaining the stare with Dorien. He growled through his closed mouth.

"Every injury Meowth has now, you gave him. And you're lucky I didn't wring his neck. You knew what would happen if you didn't quit clowning around, and you had your fun anyway. For your information this isn't a circus routine! This is a tournament! I need this badge! This is the most important tournament I have ever taken part in! If I didn't need you for the final battle I would beat you senseless!"

Chad stroked Mo protectively. He puffed out warning flames, growling and Leering. Dorien's knotted eyebrows relaxed; he took a step back. "Now, if you win this upcoming battle for me you'll make up for everything." His voice quivered. Chad stepped forward and lowered his head to Leer again. "This whole thing will be over today and then you get to go home. So back into the ball."

So, Dorien thought Chad wanted to go "home." Chad slapped the ball out of Dorien's hand. They both dove for it but Chad shoved Dorien away. He raised the ball and crushed it in his fist.

"You can't dare hurt me!" On the floor, Dorien scrambled into the furthest corner. His hands fumbled another Poké Ball out of his backpack. Chad was almost enjoying this. "In the ball--or it's another dunking when we get home!"

Mo was shivering in his hands. Once again Chad had not thought of him first.

"Come on, Charizard." Dorien stood back up and straightened his clothes. "Don't you want to be back in that nice, big gym?"

Seeing the sky, one more time.

Chad put Mo down and let the ball's beam swallow him. Try as he might, he couldn't relish torturing Dorien. Especially not when Mo had to watch.

You wimp, Vixen said in his imagination.

Chad came out from the Poké Ball to an already noisy crowd. He sensed that this battle had been in progress some time. Pokémon ripping each other to pieces for no reason. Just to entertain humans and help them earn their stupid badges.

Glaring, he faced the Blastoise already waiting. Win or lose, he would get this over with. He couldn't stand the sky anymore; that was twice the torture that all the water in the Blastoise's cannons could be. Had he really hoped to fly outside on this trip?

"Blastoise is her sixth, Charizard," said Dorien, "And you're my sixth. Make it good. You can do this. Flamethrower--"

"Blastoise Hydro Pump!"

As Chad let it rip, the Blastoise's cannons shot water. Chad's entire field of vision went white. His tail steamed. Screaming he flew out of the water's reach.

"Flame him from behind!" yelled Dorien. He can't fire backwards!"

Chad swooped in behind Blastoise. His flamethrower hit shell and head. Blastoise roared, spun on him and unleashed another flood.

"Charizard dodge and Ember!"

Chad ducked the stream of water. He pounced forward, splashing on the wet floor, sending fire into his tail. He swung his tail flame, ringing his left side with flame and whacking Blastoise in the legs. Blastoise fell down forward in the puddle of his own water. Steam hissed up.

"That's it!" said Dorien.

Blastoise had turned toward Chad, still lying down. He hit Chad with another water blast. Chad crashed down, weakened. Blastoise got to his feet and stood over Chad, and rained its spray down over the screaming charizard.

"Slash attack!" cried Dorien. "Use those claws!" Chad rolled on his back; stars bloomed in his eyes as he blindly slashed, hitting sometimes flesh, sometimes shell, sometimes water.

"Blastoise get out of there, it's weak now! Back up and water-blast it!"

Chad's horns hit the floor and his head tipped on its side, leaving him with one cheek in the water, the other eye staring at the skylight, as Blastoise blasted him again. Pain shot up his tail with its shrinking flame. He struggled to keep it above the wet floor. Why don't I just die here.

"Charizard get up!" shrieked Dorien. "Get up or else!"

The sky shone through the starry haze. Chad struggled onto his feet; the Blastoise had paused to gather strength. He looked at Dorien holding Mo with warning in his eyes. The whole world screamed at him. He looked up.

Go.

Chad roared at the sky. Even Blastoise stood back watching. Chad once again felt what he was: a wild creature in containment, a charizard in water. He roared again.

"I warned you to quit fooling around!" said Dorien. "If you can have your fun then take it out on Blastoise! GO!"

Chad took flight, flying low; he swooped in on his wide wings straight for Dorien. He reared up and bowled into him, his feet flying into Dorien's chest. A whoop went up from the audience.

"Aaaahh--"

Chad grabbed Mo from the flailing, pale hand. He beat his wings and rose up. As Dorien pulled the Ultra Ball from his belt and wound his arm, Chad turned his head down. Thrusting his neck forward, he let loose an avalanche of fire on the human; Dorien's hair, skin, clothes waved and peeled, alive. His scream rose, like escaping steam. Mo mewed, scrambling in Chad's grip. The crowd was screaming. Chad flew up toward the promised jewel of sky. Dorien's screams followed him, clawing at him, but in a few wing beats he neared the ceiling.

"We're getting out of here."

Below him, the Blastoise was dousing Dorien; screams seared the audience. People overflowed the seats, flooding the arena and dashing out the doors. Many looked up at Chad and pointed.

Flapping hard, Chad put a hand to the glass, testing it out. He dove to the side, took aim and gathered new energy. Out from his lungs tore the best flamethrower he had ever made. It rocketed up and hit the glass panes. They burst. Down showered a sparkling flurry. The crowds below were screaming again. They screamed like glass bursting. Chad's muscles all tensed as he flew up through the hole, hatching. His blood, his mind, screamed like the shrill crowd. He broke the surface--

The black hole below swallowed the pandemonium and rank human smells, shrank to a beady eyeball in the dome as Chad gained altitude, washed in sun, catching the currents and loving them under his wings and body. The daylight made him squint. With Mo in his hands Chad beat his wings hard, giving himself to the sky, and the rush of clean clear wind. It was a cool, sunny day, and he and Mo were the only things up here.

"We're free."

"No more Dorien?"

"No more."

Chad blinked. Out below them stretched green trees, pale buildings, the gray grooves of roads. He took deep breaths of clean air. Free.

Chad dived, then shot up. He twirled in midair, a corkscrew drilling up through the cloudless sky, pirouetting. He tucked his wings and plunged in freefall. Catching the currents, he pulled back up and flew upside down, looping again and again.

"Whoa!" said Mo.

"Yes!" said Chad. "Yes, yes!"

"My stomach hurts. . ."

"Sorry." Chad straightened out to a glide. Out behind him, the gym's silver-blue dome was fading into the blue of the atmosphere.

Then he heard a faint buzzing noise, coming from up in the air too. It was slowly growing louder.

"What's that?" Chad felt Mo's body vibrate with his voice. He saw, ahead and above them, a flying creature. Though distant, Chad could see that it was at least twice his size. The gray thing glided on stiff, stonelike wings, at Pidgeot-like speed. Chad heard a shot and a small object whooshed past him. "Meeeeowth!"

Chad shot almost straight up, angling away and to the side. If it was shooting at him, he would use all the maneuvers he knew. No one and nothing would take him out of the sky now. With the wind beating at his head, he looked behind him. The creature was slowly changing direction. Its constant buzz grew louder, closer. This was not a creature, but a machine.

"No!" Chad flew higher than he could ever remember having flown. "You'll never take me alive!"

Two more shots rang out; the sound reached Chad's ears as something tiny pricked his right wing, near his body. Taking a breath to release fire on it, Chad saw a small, tube-shaped, plastic white thing lodged in the wing. Yes, a bad human thing. He could only guess what it would do to him, as he disintegrated it with a flamethrower.

"What happened?" Mo mewed over the rushing wind and the plane's buzz. "Are you all right?"

"Yeah, I'm gonna lose that thing. We'll be okay."

The plane still followed, from far away. It seemed to be watching. Chad circled to catch the winds again, and flew opposite the plane's direction. So far he felt okay. But that meant nothing.

Sure enough, he began to feel sleepy. "Damn those humans!" Chad said as he lost speed, falling asleep on the wing. "Mo that thing. . . putting me to sleep. We have to land."

Chad flew down through a space in the trees. With luck he could hide. He looked around, bending a neck that felt like a wet noodle. Mo squirmed to get free and Chad let him jump from his heavy hands. "We'll hide under the trees! Come on!"

Chad stumbled after the bounding kitten, who kept coming back to let him catch up. Chad gripped a low rock to steady himself, heard the plane buzz closer, on the ground not far away. The motor chugged to a stop. He thought of setting the forest alight, and remembered Mo. "Get away, Mo, I'll catch up." Dizziness wilted him onto his knees, then his belly. His head hit the ground; Mo and the bushes disappeared through a haze of stars. He heard brush and twigs snap as humans came running, from a way off.

"They're coming. . .Mo, run."

"No, I won't leave you."

The kitten nuzzled his cheek, huddling close. It was worth it, Chad thought as he went to sleep, just to fly one more time.

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