36--I never promised you a rose garden
36: The Truth about Vileplumes & Charizards (Or: I Never Promised You a Rose Garden)


The sun had tucked behind the forests into dusk; small purplish clouds drifted across a pink sky. Above them, tall trees strained for sun, drowning the understory in shadow. The plane had not returned. On the grassy patch, Chad folded his tired wings and listened, slipping back into old modes of survival; find water, find shelter, find food. And do it before dark.
"I guess we're starting from scratch," said Raelle, dusting off her butt, where she'd landed after falling off Chad. "We're by a river, that's something."
"Do remember that we have no idea who or what is out here," said Friana from Raelle's back.
"Anything that's living in here's better than what's living out there," said Raelle.
"They might still be coming," said Chad. "We got to move."
On the stream bank, Chad squatted in the reedy grass and ducked his head to suck the stream dry, while Vixen lapped it daintily. As the water chugged into his throat, Raelle poked him.
"Careful your tail. A forest fire would give us away for sure. And probably kill us."
"Nah, I'd fly us somewhere." As the cold water chilled his stomach, Chad wrapped his tail in front of him, which had become almost second nature. After their drink they found a trail through the choking growth and followed it along the stream, deeper into Gloomleaf. Chad wondered what animals had made this trail.
When no sign of human pursuit showed up by twilight, Friana spoke from Chad's arms.
"Humans must have taken the advice of one of their old sayings about Gloomleaf. 'If the Victreebels and Scythers don't get you, the Vileplumes will.'"
"Real encouraging," said Vixen. "So they didn't bother following us because we're as good as dead here anyway."
"Well actually, Vileplumes are nearly extinct in these parts nowadays."
"I am so out of shape," Raelle breathed, her ears drooping as she plodded behind Chad. She fumbled for Chad's hand, and he let her hold it so that he towed her up the gentle hill. Vixen walked lightly on ahead, leaping with a flash of tails over rocks and rotting logs, clearly having the easiest time of all of them.
"Watch your tail, Chad. Everything looks very flammable."
"Yeah." Chad held the flame against his belly. He had never walked through woods so dense. Chad's legs were telling him to rest, but he preferred sore feet to the interior of a Poké Ball or another death sentence. "Uh, Friana, you were saying we're in such a dangerous place that even humans won't chase us in?"
"Dangerous for humans," said Friana. "Your fire will fend off most any threat. If we look hard enough, we can probably find friends among the native Pokémon."
Something small rustled in the leaf litter and creepers on the ground to their left. Vixen trotted over as whatever it was disappeared in the brush. She sniffed the ground. "Nothing, just plants." Her nose twitched.
Raelle walked closer next to Chad as Vixen returned to his other side. "These trees are like, so dark anything could be hiding. Uh, how big are Victreebels?"
"Not sure," said Chad.
"Between five and six feet in height," said Friana. "Closer to six."
"You'll be our bodyguard, right?" Raelle smiled at him, but he felt her fear.
"Sure, unless it's a Gyarados."
Raelle laughed; it sounded forced.
"You people," said Vixen from ahead, "We're never going to find any shelter by next year at the rate you are walking."
"Yeah, well some of us are fat couch potatos who haven't exercised in ten years!" Raelle hollered. Vixen's tails puffed and she marched back to Raelle.
"I can tell you haven't been in a forest in over ten years either! Do you know how many Pokémon probably just heard you?" she rasped.
"My tail's lighting us up for miles anyway Vix."
"Yeah Vixen. Go ahead if you want."
"You wish." Vixen took her place by Chad. Raelle stopped.
"Guys, nature calls. Be right back, okay?" She shot Vixen a glare, then shoved through the bushes down towards the stream.
"Don't go too far," said Friana.
"I gotta go where you can't see me!" she said from the bushes.
"Vixen," said Chad when Raelle was gone, "Can you please be more agreeable? This isn't easy for any of us."
"Shut up. You have nothing to complain about. We're all doing what you want."
"I never made you come!"
"I rescued you. The least you could have done was just gone back to Chah. I stayed with you because I knew you'd be in trouble again before I could say 'DNA.' As soon as you yapped up in the car that night, I knew something was up. You obviously don't want to tell anyone what it is, but I'll figure it out."
"Glad you find me so fascinating."
Something broke through the overhead branches in a buzzing descent nearby, close to the stream. Chad made out a flash of transparent wings and green bodies.
"Raaiiiiiiiiii!"
Chad crashed through the brush towards Raelle's scream, Vixen sprinting ahead of him. "Scyther! Scyther!" came high cries of the creatures who dived at the kicking Raelle, slashing her with knifelike forelimbs. Chad jumped into the fray in a Rage, batting Scythers with tooth and claw as two more joined the original three. He kicked out into the dark; his heel met solid chiton with a crack. Suddenly it looked as if there were over a dozen, all around flashing green and silver, the orange of Chad's swinging tail flame glinting off their shiny wings. As he grabbed Raelle's body he felt something sharp slice into his back. Erupting with a roar he twisted around and whacked the Scyther behind him, finding flesh through the exoskeleton. With a spray of blood it fell, screaming. Chad stomped out the small fire that had started as the other Scythers fled, all except two, one slashed, one kicked. Raelle sat panting on the leafy floor. Blood streaked her face from a gash on her forehead.
Raelle lifted a paw to her cheek and it came away bloody. "Oh God, my face."
"It's a cut on your forehead. You'll be okay."
"Feel dizzy." She lay down.
"Don't fall asleep!" called Friana, who had been left up by the trail. "You could slip into a coma."
"Are you hurt anywhere else?" said Chad as he went to fetch Friana.
"One of them whacked the back of my head real bad."
"Sounds like a concussion," said Friana.
Raelle got to her feet, and wobbled before sitting back down. "Can't balance."
"I'll carry you." Chad bent to scoop her up.
"What about Friana. . ."
"I'll carry you both. You're little guys."
Raelle smiled, eyelids fluttering as she lay in Chad's arm like a charmander. He brought them down to the stream and placed them on soft moss.
"What about the Scythers?" said Vixen. "Two of them are dead up there."
"You and me can have'em," said Chad. "I'm starving."
Raelle groaned. "Don't leave us."
"We'll eat in shifts," said Vixen, "me first." She bounded off. Chad helped Raelle clean her face at the water, and he ran his tail flame along his back to scab over the throbbing gash. Grooming himself, he discovered the blood had run around his tail and down his leg.
When Vixen finally returned, licking her chops, Chad hiked up to see what she'd left him. It was just as well that she had called it first, because he could have eaten both. He polished off the remaining Scyther-and-a-half--and the company picked up again on the stream trail, with Chad carrying Raelle and Friana. Two wounded, one immobile, they walked on.

The night was clear, but the moon was gone. A Houou hooted from lofty branches. Now Chad knew that creatures were watching them. He heard their little movements, and then, their little, whispering, voices.
"Am I paranoid or is anyone else hearing things in the bushes?" murmured Vixen, her tails low as she slinked along, stopping and starting. Each time one of the invisible creatures came close, Chad or Vixen stopped to inspect it, but found only leaves.
"Raelle, are you awake?" said Friana.
"Yeah."
"We'll stop at the first halfway good shelter," said Chad. He would have scouted out a place, but charizards could barely see past their tail flames at night.
From bushes in front of them came a clear, small voice:
"Lizardon!"
Resounding cries bounced from around them.
"Lizardon--oh! Lizardon!"
"It's Lizardon. . ."
"Who's there!" Vixen leaped at the voice. It squealed and Vixen's paws landed on dead leaves. Growling, she shrank back against Chad. "Your idea! This was your idea!"
The voices and rustles faded as the creatures ran off.
"I think they're gone," said Chad.
"I don't think we can take much more," said Vixen.
Chad snorted. "I'd rather die here than by humans." In his arm, Raelle groaned. He smelled fresh blood.
"She's not doing well," said Friana. "We need help."
"Flying us to the nearest town is about the only option," said Vixen.
Raelle stirred, wiggling. "No. They'll kill you."
"I have to do something."
"I'll live. Lived through worse."
Chad's tail chilled, straight up his back as he heard more rustling. He and Vixen backed against each other, growling as snapping twigs, crunching leaves, waving branches closed in. Bigger creatures, maybe four feet high, surrounded them. Vixen's growl broke off, and she threw her head down in a big sneeze, tossing her furry crest.
As the creatures broke through the foliage onto the trail, Chad's tail flame illuminated grayish bodies, beady black eyes, and huge, puffy, crimson petals topping their heads, a flower at least three feet wide. They glared in at them, the shadows cast by their flowers flickering over their faces. One pointed up at Chad, bravely stepping forward with a big foot on a short leg. The Vileplume's mouth fell open.
"Lizardon," it said in a high and husky voice.
Vixen sneezed again.
"Please," said Chad. "Please don't hurt us."
Hearing Chad's rumbling voice, which practically used different wavelengths from the others', the Vileplumes turned to each other and whispered. Chad only heard, "The Oddish were right."
Another one stepped forward. "Before you burn our forest you will face us."
"No, that's not it at all!" said Vixen, sniffling.
"We had to hide from humans--"
"Lies!" said the first Vileplume. "We remember you, Lizardon! Our ancestors taught us the stories." It looked at all of them. "So! Who are your accomplices, Lizardon!"
"My name is Chad. This is Vixen, Friana, Raelle--"
"Are they not your prey?" asked another Vileplume.
"No. And--one of us is hurt badly. We were attacked by a swarm of Scythers. I swear I won't ever hunt your kind or anything. Just please, please let us go. I don't want to have to fight."
The Vileplumes just stood there in a ring.
"He breathes fire when he's angry," said Vixen. "So do I."
"We've come here to escape humans, who are hunting us," said Friana. Several Vileplumes gasped, noticing the Metapod for the first time.
"You say one of you is hurt?"
Chad bent and showed them Raelle, whose head moved, but she barely seemed to notice what was going on. The Vileplumes came forward, wary of the tail flame giving them light. One touched Raelle's cheek, and looked at Chad from underneath its red, speckled flower.
"There's no choice." The Vileplume glanced at its fellows. "This Raichu must see the Rafracia." To Chad it said, "She heals any creature who is wounded. Even Lizardon himself."
With Chad's tail for light, the Vileplumes made faster progress on the return trip. They were leading the four even deeper into the forest. A chilly wind rustled the branches overhead, but the air was still inside the thicket. As they walked along a wider trail than the one Chad and Vixen had been taking, Chad kept hearing, between Vixen's miserable sneezes and sniffles, the rustling of what might be the oddish of which the Vileplumes had spoken. But he saw none.
Chad noticed the trees becoming thicker, ancient. Near a shelf of boulders jutting up in a rough semicircle, their hosts halted the group.
"Ah-choo!" said Vixen.
"We are in Deep's Heart now, our home," said the lead Vileplume. "We would suspect that you're playing some trick on us, but for that Lizardon cannot play tricks."
"In other words, their trust hinges on your stupidity," said Vixen in a nasal voice. Chad looked back at the Vileplume and shrugged.
"Someone must forewarn everyone," it said. "They must not attack."
Vixen twitched her nose. "What happens if they do attack?"
"You would be poisoned to death by toxic pollen. Stay here." He ran down the trail ahead of them. Chad noted that Vileplumes could not run very fast.
"Tilla! Tilla!" it cried. "Nobody fear! Lizardon will not burn us! He himself has come in need of the Rafracia!"
"Lizardon?" More Vileplumes and young popped crimson-petaled heads out from behind bushes and rocks, as if they'd awoken. The two-legged creatures with flowers and/or leaves on their heads shouted at the sight of Chad flooding their home with warm light. "Lizardon?"
"Lizardon!" shrieked the smallest ones, radish-like Pokémon that Chad now recalled from the auction. They ran away over the leafy forest floor, disappearing into the foliage and the dark. "Eeeee!"
"Tilla! Tilla!" The others, taking the oddishes' cues, dashed into hiding, then peered out from concealment, faces shuddering in the firelight, to stare.
"Lizardon." "It's really Lizardon."
One Vileplume threw its face down, hands outstretched on the mossy ground. "Rafracia save me from your fire Lizardon!"
"You can call me Chad." From all around came gasps and oddish shrieks at his deep, foreign voice. The praying Vileplume recoiled behind branches.
"I don't think they get out much," Vixen mumbled. Then she threw her head back and down with another sneeze.
"Do not fear!" The leader of the party climbed onto a nearby rock; Chad's fire illuminated its slate-gray face. "Lizardon is here because he is wounded, and a friend of his is near death! They were attacked by Scythers."
"Impossible!" Another one popped out of the bushes. "Lizardon cannot be harmed by the Scyther's blade."
"And Lizardon has no friends," said another.
"I'm not Lizardon."
Again the Vileplumes recoiled, but most stood their ground, as if realizing Chad wasn't going to attack. Chad knelt and showed them Raelle. "She needs help."
"She has a concussion," said Friana, and the Vileplumes looked about for the source of the high, bell-like voice.
"Lizardon has a Metapod friend!" one called, motioning to the others. Seeing the Metapod held by Lizardon, more came out.
Through all this Vixen sneezed three times. She sniffled and rubbed her eyes with her front paw.
Another Vileplume strode out of the shadows, frowning at the spectacle. Old scars marked its faded body and petals. It walked on stubby legs right up to Chad and pointed.
"Be gone, Lizardon. Tilla will only see you in battle. And so will we."
"Please," said Friana. "Raelle's in need of medical attention. If you have a doctor--"
"Our Rafracia will not see Lizardon." The scarred Vileplume faced the crowd. "As for the other three, they are illusions!"
Vixen sneezed, but came up talking. "Hey, I may be a bitch, but I'm not an illusion!"
"Vixen, please!" said Chad.
"Chad, I feel like shit," Vixen growled over the growing murmur of Vileplume voices. "Something's making me sick. If they won't help Raelle, we need to leave." She sneezed again.
"Viiiiiiiiii!" came a new voice from above. Everyone stopped talking and looked through the branches. Up on top of the rock ridge, barely lit by the flame, stood another Vileplume. "What is this!"
"Tilla Rafracia," said one, and they all bowed their heavy flowered heads, careful to keep their balance. Chad looked uncertainly around at the blanket of flowers all arrowed toward the rock outcropping like it was the sun.
Only a sneeze from Vixen broke the silence. Tilla climbed down the ridge, slowly but expertly, grabbing roots and rocks she must have climbed a thousand times. On the ground she wove towards the fire through her people as they got up from bowing. She, too, carried old scars, and in addition, a belt of vine looped her waist. From it dangled a skirt of colorful feathers and little pouches. She looked up at him; on her cheeks were painted small reddish circles outlined in yellow. Three vertical green lines dabbed her forehead. "Lizardon," she said, "why did you come back?"
Chad bowed his head to her and lifted it slowly. "I. . . guess everyone must have met another charizard," said Chad. "Who did something bad. I'm Chad. I've never been here. We came to get away from humans. On the way in we, uh, got attacked by Scythers. Some of your--friends, picked us up because they said you could help us. I don't want to beg, but I think she's dying." He nodded toward Raelle.
"Let me see her."
He laid Raelle on the leaves and brought his tail forward for light. Tilla's beady eyes, framed by wrinkled flesh, squinted at the fire as she bent over Raelle. The other Vileplumes gathered round, but left a small space, whether out of respect for Tilla or fear of Chad, Chad couldn't tell. Now the oddish came out of hiding, eyes wide at Tilla kneeling before the flame.
Tilla placed her hands to Raelle's yellow cheeks, closed her eyes and whispered something, then Raelle's eyes fluttered open.
"Oh. . ." Raelle found herself gazing straight at Tilla, who moved back. Raelle's eyes fell closed.
"Raelle?" said Friana from Chad's arm. "Can you hear me?"
"She's still tired," said Tilla, "but she'll make it. Before I can heal her further I need to bring her to the alcove. It's right around the ridge."
Tilla led the procession around the great rock ridge. She had Chad lay Raelle down inside a large alcove on a bed of leaves and grass. Tilla reached in one of her pouches, sprinkled a pinch of dust over Raelle, put her hands to Raelle's cheeks and began murmuring again.
Raelle sat up. She looked at Chad, the brightest thing in the room. Then she looked at all the Vileplumes.
"What the hell. . . Friana?"
"I'm here," said Friana as Chad sat her next to Raelle. "We brought you to be healed by the Vileplumes."
"What's. . .that. . .smell."
"Mostly pollen," said Friana. "I also taste a trace of Gloom. Gloom is said to be the worst stench in the world, although one in a thousand likes it."
"Ohhh. . .no lectures right now. My head, feels like a. . ."
"Still hurts?" Tilla finished. "You aren't completely healed. You'll need some rest before we're sure you won't have any relapses. Head wounds are tricky. However did you come to make friends with Lizardon?"
Raelle rubbed her forehead. "Who?"
Chad turned away, not wanting to be a part of this conversation.
Tilla gasped. "Lizardon! Your back!"
Chad remembered the slash wound, which had stopped hurting noticeably. "It's not bleeding. . ."
"It could be infected--that's a horrible gash. Lie on your stomach."
Chad lay down and spread his wings to expose the wound, and when Tilla's little hands touched his back, he felt the throb fade. He wondered if any Vileplumes would spring a surprise attack, but no one made a sound. Tilla pulled a pinch of powder from one of her belt pouches, went over to a back wall, and returned with a tiny wooden bowl. She applied a cool liquid to the scab, touched it again, and when she lifted her hands he looked around at his back to see the wound gone.
"I was tempted to say that I would only heal you if you promised to give up your destructive ways forevermore," said Tilla when Chad sat up, "but that is not my way. I heal everyone, regardless of species, regardless of the past. Pain is blind. We all feel it."
"I swear--I never hurt this forest," said Chad. "Thank you for saving Raelle, and healing me, but you don't have to worry. I was always just Chad."
"I'd say worry more," Vixen mumbled. He nudged her with his foot. Vixen sneezed.
"Are you sick too?" Tilla touched Vixen's back. "You are. Hold still."
When Tilla took her hands off, Vixen breathed in sharply through her nose. "Hey. Not bad."
She sneezed.
"Hmm." Tilla went to the rocks her medicines were on, and returned with another wooden bowl. "Take a sip of this elixir."
Vixen made a face as she swallowed.
"It'll clear your congestion," she said as she set it back on the rock shelf. "You seem to have an allergy to something."
The other, scarred Vileplume stepped up next to the kneeling Tilla. He glared at Chad.
"So you have renamed yourself Chad."
"My parents named me Chad. It's a name of Chah."
"Lizardon goes by many names."
"Chad's not one of them," said Chad. "I didn't even grow up on this continent."
The scarred Vileplume whirled around to the crowd of adults and leafy young. "That proves it! 'When Lizardon flames through the rocky ground. . ." he chanted at the ceiling.
Tilla lifted her hand. "Vernon."
Vernon glowered.
No more questions, no more worry tonight. We all need rest." She smiled. "Lizar--Chad, and his friends, will rest in the alcove. Don't worry, he's not about to burn the forest down. Everyone else, let us sleep. The night belongs to the oddish."
"The oddish?" said Chad as he curled up.
"No more." Tilla put a finger to her mouth, went over to her rock shelves and brought out another tiny bowl. "This will help you sleep. Tomorrow we'll answer all your questions. And find out why you've come. Chad, spread your wings out if that's comfortable, don't worry about the space."
Chad smelled the sweet stuff as Tilla held the bowl out. He scooped a bit with his claw and held it to his mouth.
"Nectar of the Stun-stem flower, a pinch of Gorlara grass. It relaxes you." She put her finger in the bowl and put it in her mouth. "It's safe."
Chad's pink tongue licked it off his claw and he swallowed, feeling it tingle. "Thanks." Soon he felt pleasantly groggy, on top of already wanting rest, and he lay on his Scyther-filled belly, his 15-foot wingspan loosely laid out, nearly the width of the cave. Raelle took some, and Friana went to sleep easily without. Vixen refused, and sneezed.
"Ohhh, my sinuses."


37: The Black Box

Ever since going to Yellow Town, Chivonne knew it was no longer a question of whether it had to be done. Everything she was learning convinced her more that there was no choice. The question was how.
Today Daninger and Lunia were out for the day. They had said it was for a Pokémon convention, but Chivonne knew they hadn't been to any conventions or tournaments for quite some time, unless it was Team Rocket. Daninger had not gone anywhere overnight since the meeting in Yellow Town. She knew why.
August was napping on the living room couch as Chivonne crept up the stairs. Yesterday they had been to a small tournament down in Plum City. A small win, a small prize, August had gone out with a few friends he'd met at the tournament and returned home late. Chivonne knew whom the real money was going to. She felt so stupid for not having figured out earlier that the whole world had become infiltrated with Team Rocket. She would have preferred to wait until Daninger and Lunia left for the night, but who knew how long that would be. She had to do this now.
She turned the knob to Daninger and Lunia's room; of course it was locked, electronically. Chivonne ran down to the basement. August stirred in his sleep. The TV rambled on. Chivonne turned down the volume, watching August; he stirred again as she shut the TV off; he stayed asleep.
Down in the basement, her tail lighting the way, Chivonne opened the little dark gray door to the power switches, reached up and grabbed the main lever. She pulled it. Overhead, motors groaned downward. She watched her tail's firelight, shaped by her shadow, quiver on the walls; she heard only its soft, soft fffff sound. Charizards never knew silence or darkness.
She crept upstairs, passing still-sleeping August again, back to Daninger's room. The door swung open; she closed it and dived for the little black trunk under the bed.
Chivonne took out an unfolded paper clip and started in on the lock. She had seen the short mention in the news of the illegal clone tracked to Gloomleaf and lost there. She had connected it to the apartment crime log she had uncovered a few days before that (the day after her computer search for the mysterious male) of a mad charizard who had attacked a tenant and fled with several others. The reporter had confirmed they were the same. But now, as she picked the lock at last, she was putting it behind her. She had to stop thinking that every charizard-related incident somehow involved Blue-eyes. He is dead.
Her eyes were sore; she wasn't getting enough sleep these days. And this lock was taking a long time. How easy it would be to flame through it all, but normal charizard powers would ruin things. Glancing around the room, she saw no sign that it was bugged, but that meant nothing. She had to assume Daninger knew the power was out, knew that she had something to do with it, and was on his way home. That still gave her at least an hour. She tried not to think about fingerprints as she twisted the wire this way and that. She couldn't do this with gloves even if they had made them for her kind.
She would put aside mating. Any charizard who came near her, near this house, would be in danger. Even if it were Blue-eyes himself, she owed it to him to drive him away. Hormones would not stop her from this chance to save her kind. She would not let them make her selfish.
And ever since Blue-eyes had died, something in her had followed him. Though she knew he was dead, she had still not let go. Time would smooth it over, but until then she knew she could not love.
The lock turned. Chivonne's hands swung the lid up showing a stack of papers and folders. So combustible, yet so precious. Her shaking fingers opened the unlabeled folder on top, revealing printouts of trainer profiles. She saw none she recognized. Were they undercover Team Rocket agents? Or a hit list? Chivonne set it aside and dived into the folder beneath. It contained police records. Some of this stuff must have been obtained illegally. Or how many undercover TR members were there? How far had their money bought the government out? The third folder had only a few handwritten papers, in Daninger's writing.
". . .If I hadn't killed the Mewtwo so quickly I might have found out where he hid the thing, or even how he made it. When you get past their powers, they have little stamina. A charizard would have stood up to it easily. All I got was the name he uttered as he breathed his last: "Tilla." For the longest time I thought it was "till."
To this day we have yet to find who or what Tilla is. Marius must have known her. I shall compile the most complete list I can of everyone in the world who goes by or once went by that name. See folder 5."

Folder 5 contained the beginning of this list. Not many people appeared to have the name Tilla. Behind the profiles were other notes, apparently on what they knew about Marius's life. It was known that in his youth he had spent time in the deeps of Gloomleaf, studying the Vileplumes and documenting their culture. Nothing else definite was in these records, mostly dead ends. Marius had cleverly concealed his past.
One group of records, paper-clipped together, appeared to have nothing to do with Marius but caught her interest. The records of a secretly Rocket-run auction house in Saffron City. No wonder the Pokémon offered there were so unusual and endangered.
That meant the six-yearly trip to obtain charizards from Chah might also be run by, or at least supported by, Team Rocket.
Where did it all stop? What else was run by them? Where in the world could she and August run to safety?
At the bottom of the box was a small diary-like book, with one entry: August's charizard has to go, and soon. She's too smart for her own good, and may already be onto our entire plan. I doubt she is, but I can't take chances. I do not want to have her killed until she has bred. For now, hold out.
It was dated last year, but that didn't put her more at ease. A charmander was potentially worth millions these days. If she did lay an egg, she could guess where it would be sold.
She replaced the diary and as the little brown-covered book bumped against the inside wall of the trunk, something flat and round fell over on top of it. She picked up the disk labeled with a circled B.
Blue-eyes. Chivonne felt the need inside, making her want to wrap herself around something big, strong and warm. She lowered the stack of folders back into the trunk and slid the disk down sideways where it had been. She had promised herself she would forget about him. She re-locked the trunk up and pushed it back under the bed.
How long had she been up here? Chivonne raced down to the basement. The couch was empty. "Chivonne?" August called from the kitchen as she ran down the basement stairs. Her hand landed on the power switch and pushed it back up. Her breath locked, her heart pounded as she heard answering machines beep, motors hum back to life. The lights were on again as she sauntered upstairs.
Was Daninger already back? Unless he knew about the outage, and unless he checked for fingerprints, she had made it through. Now she had to get them out the door. She needed an alibi.
Yes, Daninger had to die. But she must avoid framing August. After all, if they uncovered a clever plot they would not assume it was concocted by a charizard. If Lunia were blamed, that was just too bad, though she wanted to avoid that too. But if they traced it to Chivonne, Team Rocket would track her down, and put her to death for the murder of so powerful a person. As for August, he would automatically be in trouble, as her trainer.
It had to look like an accident.
"Chivonne? You in the basement?" called August as Chivonne came in the kitchen. "Oh, there you are."
"Daninger back yet?"
"Nope." He turned around from the counter, where he was fixing himself a sandwich. "There was a power failure, did you see?"
"Yeah. Wanna go hunting?"
"Sure, lemme finish this and call Jeff, I said I might be going over there later today."
"I'll wait outside."
August took a bite of peanut butter and jelly, crossing the room to the phone as the back door swung shut behind his charizard. "Hungry, huh. Those Odoshishi aren't going anywhere."
When the front door opened, admitting Daninger in his light gray spring coat and Lunia behind him in a windbreaker, August and Chivonne had just left for the outskirts of Gloomleaf. Daninger picked up August's note: Gone hunting, be back this evening.
"If they won't be back till this evening, they easily could have left after the power went down," said Daninger. He didn't want to jump to conclusions, but couldn't help privately scolding himself for overlooking the detail that would render all his surveillance on that room useless. There was no lock to the power box.


38: Lizardon

Chivonne wrapped her arms, and legs, around him.
"Blue-eyes. . ."
"You can call me Chad."
"Oh, Chad," and they rolled on the floor . . .
He heard little voices behind them. A whole line of oddish stood pointing and laughing. "Look at Lizardon!"
He tried to shoo them, but suddenly he could not open his eyes. He felt the lair slipping away, Chivonne dissolving in his arms. A dream! He shut his eyes tight, trying to grab hold and slip back in. It was more than worth it, even with the oddish there. "Chivonne, come back!"
Chad sat up, looking outside. A small crowd of Gloom and young Vileplumes stood beyond the entrance, watching him. Seeing his head rise, some shrieked; they scattered out into the morning sunlight obscured by the buds and young leaves of thickly woven branches. Chad felt the early April chill sweep inside, and stoked up his tail. He was a little hungry, but could put off a hunt. Yes--out here he could hunt again, at least for a while. Thinking of the possibilities, he almost forgot to look around before he got up and stretched his wings. He didn't want to bean anyone. The imitation leather collar still ringed his neck; he unbuckled it and chucked it in a corner, and stretched his neck, enjoying the freedom of movement.
Vixen was gone. Raelle and Friana still slept. "Good morning, Chad," said a scratchy but high-pitched voice behind him. Tilla stood at the far wall, petals already perky, working with her herbs. When she turned around Chad saw that her face paint and feathery belt was gone, and instead a whitish spiral decorated her belly. 'I have you to thank for giving me light to see by when I woke up. Never did I get so much work done so early!"
"No problem." Chad nodded, feeling like he should give her some extra measure of respect. The memory of the Vileplumes gazing with awe in the firelight, bowing to her, flashed back. "Thanks for letting us sleep here. Did you see Vixen?"
"Your Ninetales friend? She went off to hunt. She's not feeling well. I'm afraid she has hay fever. A bad thing when you live with Vileplumes."
One more reason why, if Vixen were Chah, she would give him the Cave of Ice and Darkness if she found out why he had brought them here. A hot thought throbbed back from his dream, of Chivonne solidly in his arms as he twined legs and tail about her. Dreams could feel so real.
As Friana opened her eyes and said "good morning," Chad noticed, behind her and Raelle, the back walls of the alcove. Spanning almost the entire wall were pictures painted in red, black, white, green and yellow, and slate blue. Most scenes depicted large monsters or Vileplumes; one scene had oddish. One was unmistakably a huge charizard, torching trees with its fiery breath.
"Tilla, did you paint that?" He pointed a claw at the wall.
"Tilla did not."
In the entrance stood Vernon. Morning's light showed that his red petals had faded with age, and his face likewise sagged. He, too, had a white spiral painted counterclockwise on his front. "It was painted by our ancestors hundreds of years ago, Lizardon."
"Uh, that's something else I meant to ask. Who is Lizardon?"
"Don't try to put me on. You know very well."
"Vernon." Tilla marched over with an age-defying sturdiness. "If you're so eager to speak that you interrupt pleasant conversations, you owe it to our new guests to tell them the stories."
"Of course." He bowed to Tilla. "What else am I here for."
Tilla went back to her rock "counter", grinding dry grasses under a stone. "Don't do it yet. First I want to see how the Raichu's doing. And we should wait for the Ninetales to return, if she does."
"She will," said Chad.
Raelle's eyes were just opening as she lay on soft grass."Whoa. My head." She winced at her own groggy speech, apparently having worsened her headache. Tilla held a little wooden bowl to Raelle's lips and Chad helped her sit up.
"This will help your headache. I was afraid you had become comatose during the night, but you're a tough one." Tilla chuckled as Raelle drank. "That's quite a wound you sustained."
Raelle stopped to wipe her chin. "Yeah."
"I also noticed you hurt your tail."
"Yup."
"It did not respond to my healing powers. The wound is so old that the body no longer views it as such. I'm sorry."
"S'okay."
"A lot of the herbs you use are also components in modern healing potions used by humans," said Friana. "I'd like to study it sometime."
Raelle felt sturdy enough to get to her feet and have a light walk, holding Chad's hand. Outside, Vileplumes and a few Gloom were gathering seeds, digging with sticks, picking leaves and flowers. Some Gloom hung around by the alcove, to stare at Chad.
"Whoa," said Raelle. "Gloomleaf sure is pretty."
"It's hard sometimes, but always pretty," said Tilla, sadly. "You can stay as long as you need to."
Vernon was standing under a tall, white-flowering tree. "Let Lizardon into your home, he will burn it to the ground," he growled. Tilla faced Chad, standing in his way.
"Vernon our story-teller is blunt and often rude, but he means well. I'm afraid Gloomleaf is too fragile for you to remain here. My people fear your fire, even though you've been very well-behaved. But you may stay for today. After we've answered your questions, we'd love to have you answer ours." Her petals drooped. "I hope you understand."
"Sure I do." He scratched an itch with his foot. Even Tilla kept a few feet from him; he could never feel at home where he was feared. Besides, he needed to move on in search of Chivonne.
Vixen came trotting in, past several Gloom and over to the entrance. Chad saw that all along the top of the entrance, grasses and old dried leaves hung down, a decorative fringe. In the middle of the entranceway, a little to the left, sat a low boulder, partly dividing it into two entranceways, upon which someone could sit or stand. Chad walked up to the rock and ran his hand over the surface. It was worn smooth. On his left, at the far edge of the entranceway, a gray-blue roundish rock sat a couple of feet high. Painted on it were eyes, white fisted hands and a white spiral--a Poliwrath. On the other far side, a Venusaur statuette of roughly equal size sat looking outward, made of rock, feathers and painted tree bark.
Vixen sat next to the middle rock, scratching an itch with her hind leg. She sneezed and grumbled unintelligibly. Chad leaned his hand on the smooth rock and opened his mouth to ask her how her hunt had been. Vernon spoke first.
"When you dare touch the Entrance Rock of Deep's Heart, you bow and show respect."
Not wanting to argue, Chad bowed, and stepped back. He backed away even further when Vernon climbed on it, standing eye level with Chad.
"So," he said, "you want to know about the scenes, the statues, even though as Lizardon you must know some?"
"I'm not Lizardon," Chad said in a tired voice.
"Well perhaps I can jog your memory. I shall tell you a story that every Pokémon should know. The First Story of Rafracia."
The Gloom who had been hanging around gathered in front of Vernon, Tilla and the stone, finding places to sit, along with the nearby Vileplumes. Chad saw that many of them had those white spirals painted on. Before they sat amongst the trees, they leaned on the ancient trunks, bent and touched their petals or leaves to it, and whispered. There was a lot here he didn't know. As they settled down, they stared at Chad less than before.
"Before the world was made, all was emptiness. The emptiness bloomed and became Rafracia. Rafracia dug the world up with her own strong hands. And standing high on it, she fired a Solar Beam from her flower. So strong were her powers, that Rafracia's Solar Beam warmed the world, as it still does every day to this day.
"And then Rafracia made the trees first. Then, she created the very First Pokémon to make the world alive. She twirled her finger and made Nyoroban, the Poliwrath. "Rain your water and fill the world with oceans," she said, and he did. Next, she made a fist, opened it, and from it sprang Fushigibana, the Venusaur. "Use your growth power to raise forests and fields, and sprout new life," she said, and he did. Last, she flapped her great petals and fiery Lizardon, the charizard, flew up from within. "Lizardon, use your fire to take to the bowels of the earth those who must die."
Lizardon breathed fire hotter and hotter, till it began to burn the trees. "Stop!" cried Rafracia. "Stop!" cried Nyoroban and Fushigibana. But Lizardon was resentful that he had been given powers of destruction while his brothers had been given powers of creation. He was out of control and wanted revenge.
Nyoroban and Fushigibana chased Lizardon until he flew away and hid in a dark cave. For a little while, no one saw him. Rafracia created more Pokémon, and they populated the world.
But Lizardon was just waiting until it was safe. When he at last flew out of his secret cave, the world had grown up around him, and there were so many new things to burn. Lizardon laughed, took to the air, and began flaming everything in sight. Creatures died beneath his claws as he fed his hungry mouth. Then he went on to burn more. Whole forests were going up in flames."
The Gloom and Vileplumes seated nearest Chad edged away from him. Chad looked up through the trees, wanting this story over. From the look in Vernon's eyes, however, he was drawing it out as long as possible. Why did charizards always get a bad rap?
"Nyoroban shot a great water up at the terrible orange beast. Lizardon roared horrifically as he tumbled down into the bushes. Nyoroban went into the bushes to make sure that the monster was doused for good.
But Lizardon saw Nyoroban first, and flamed him powerfully. Nyoroban was burnt too badly to fight, and he ran off in defeat.
Fushigibana had seen this happen. Full of anger for the wounding of his brother, he shot a Solar Beam at Lizardon, who only laughed and flamed the Venusaur. Fushigibana ran away into the charred forest with his flower burning. And so, both brothers, the defenders of this world, were defeated.
As Lizardon stood there and laughed, he felt weary from all the battling. Content that there was no one left to challenge him, Lizardon curled up for a nap.
"The Oddish came up from the ground. Their leaves had been singed, but otherwise they were okay. These small creatures got a plan. They began to dig and dig right beside Lizardon. More and more joined in to help, hundreds of tiny feet digging, until a huge pit was dug. Then the Oddish pushed him over into the hole. Lizardon fell with a scream. But before he could fly out, the Oddish pushed the dirt down on top, burying Lizardon alive. They stomped the ground flat with their little feet. And at last the fires burned out. Though Lizardon was mighty and terrible, the Oddish were too many. And when Fushigibana and Nyoroban saw what the Oddish had done, they cried for joy and bowed down to them.
"Rafracia had also seen what the Oddish did. And so she said to them: "You have saved the world I made for you, so I will grow you into my own image. And always you will live together and be strong." And the Oddish grew taller, and big beautiful petals with powers of poison and Solar Beam, sprouted from their heads. And they lived in a tribe that day on. And so it has always been, and so it will always be."
"So what happened to Lizardon?" said Chad.
Vernon folded his arms across his front. "Lizardon remains buried beneath the earth. If he is angered he spouts fire from the mountains, far south of us in the horrific Holes of Hell. Legend has it that his charizard spawn once flew out from the earth and torched the forests, scrubbing the hills barren and black every generation or so. But the Age of Hell is over. That you are here now may be a harbinger of things to come, but I will say no more. The ancestors are always listening. We do not want to anger them with such frightful talk of charizards. For Lizardon forsook the way of Rafracia."
As Chad shut his mouth against the urge to burst out saying that his people had their own version of the world's beginning, he remembered Chizmo's words, You have forsaken Chah's way. It seemed so long ago now.
"Don't let it get to you," said Raelle, standing up and steadying herself against Chad's leg as the flowered audience dispersed into the forest. "Everyone's got their own story of how it goes."
"Even I thought that was a tad harsh," said Vixen, recovering from a sneeze.
Vernon got a vine-woven basket from the alcove and ventured into the woods. Tilla, decked out in her belt and holding another small vine-woven basket, came out to the four of them.
"I will not judge you as Vernon does," said Tilla, placing her cool hand on Chad's pebbly side. "You may be a charizard. But we cannot change the body we're born to, and Rafracia does not make mistakes."
"Thanks," said Chad. "It's been educational." As Tilla chuckled, he asked another question. "Why do you all have swirls on today?"
"Ah." Tilla put a hand to the bark of a huge tree. "It protects against fire, by invoking the power of Nyoroban."
"Oh," he said as she started onto a shady tunnel-like trail through the forest.
"Where are you going?" said Friana.
"A stroll, so I can gather roots and my patients can get some exercise." Tilla motioned for them to follow, especially Raelle. "It's important that you not lie about while you recover. Walking and doing things helps the body and mind heal faster. Do you feel up to walking?"
"Yeah. My hips---whoa, my legs are like, sore."
Tilla smiled. "That's from the hiking you must have done yesterday. You're getting into shape."
Raelle gave her thumbs up. "Hey, I can deal with that."
As Tilla led them out into the woods, Chad said, "Now I read somewhere, that Vileplumes need a leaf stone to evolve. So where. . ."
"And that they can't hold up their heads too long," said Vixen. "And that Gloom stink."
Tilla burst out in a twinkle of laughter. "My, the things outsiders hear. When humans think they know something, they all rush to proclaim it and write it down." Tilla led them to a small clearing, where she took a stick from her basket and started digging with it in both hands. "We have learned how to hide from humans. Of the poor ones that are occasionally caught? The humans claim we dig up Leaf Stones from a vast hidden treasure. A leaf stone makes us grow up in an instant, but it comes with a cost. Our heads are definitely heavy, but we have grown strong legs and backs to hold them up with no discomfort. Sometimes Gloom evolved with Leaf Stones, especially young Gloom, do not develop the strong legs they need, simply because they haven't had long enough to grow. They often develop back and leg pain, poor things. I've treated several in my lifetime. Sadly, there's little I can do besides relieve the pain. You can't force a plant to grow so fast, at least not without bad results. We, like all Pokémon, have been designed by millions of years of evolution. Not a few seconds."
"A theory has been put forward," Friana spoke up in Chad's arm, "that the same magic that's in an elemental stone can also reside in the air and water of certain regions. So that may be what permits Vileplumes and Raichu to evolve in the wild."
"That could be," said Tilla. "Some legends say our first ancestors evolved with Leaf Stones and their seeds sprouted young who matured without them, and our kind took it from there. Either way it takes us about twenty years to flower fully."
"What about Glooms and smell?" said Chad.
"That's a truth. Over those millions of years since Rafracia made the world, we honed our ability to spew toxins on our attackers. We're highly poisonous. But when we're at peace, we don't smell at all. Only the faintest traces of Gloom hang in the air around Deep's Heart and beyond. You don't smell me now, right?"
Chad did not. If anything, Tilla smelled faintly sweet. That could be the herbs on her belt.
He and Vixen helped Tilla dig roots, while Raelle and Friana rested. Vixen was the best digger. Chad started out using his claws, which were not shaped for digging but for cutting flesh, and when he noticed them dulling, he switched to the slower stick. His stomach growled again.
"Do you mind if I ask some questions?" said Tilla as they dug.
"No," said Chad. If he told about how they'd come here, maybe they would see that charizards weren't all bad. It was a shame Vernon wasn't there to hear as Chad, Raelle, and Vixen together told the long tale of how they had come to be flying for their lives into the deeps of Gloomleaf. No one mentioned Marius and the ball. Tilla's basket was full before they were done, and they were winding it up when they all got back to Deep's Heart.
"I've never heard such a story," said Tilla. "And I've heard plenty of stories. I get one from almost everyone I treat and I've been treating patients for over sixty years."
"How long do Vileplumes live?" said Chad. His stomach grumbled and he knew she could hear it.
She walked proudly. "We can live over a hundred. I know charizards live for thousands," and Chad nodded, "but a hundred is perfect for us. I'm near eighty. And never in my life have I heard a story like yours. I feel bad turning you out tomorrow, Chad."
"Don't feel bad,' said Vixen. Chad nudged her with his foot and she yelped.
"Really, it's okay. Come to think of it, I need to go hunt right now. Roots don't agree with me. I'll be back later."
"All right, see ya," said Raelle.
"Do what you must," said Tilla. "But no catching oddish."
"Of course not."

Chad soared out over the dense net of trees in the sunlight, near noontime. Spring growth turned the trees to clouds of green, yellow, pink and fresh pastels. How would he look for Chivonne now? It would have been hard enough without having to stay hidden. Even when he finally found Taupe Town, he couldn't go in.
Would she want him at all? At the moment she had gazed out of the arena and shouted "Blue-eyes," he knew she had been seeing only him. But it may have been distraction, the surprise of seeing another charizard among the audience. He had no reason to assume that when the two of them met again, she would act differently from all the others back home. With her being trained, he might end up being the one to leave. What had he gotten himself into? His flight slowed to a hesitant glide. He had exchanged a chance to return home, for a strange forest where he was the only charizard, all on a half-baked whim. You couldn't love someone you'd never met.

Through a small gap in the trees, he sighted a scattered group of large, plump, pinkish animals browsing young shoots and tree buds with incredibly long tongues that they shot up and grabbed things with. Rather than interacting, they seemed to be eating independently in an area with choice food, a hard thing to find at the beginning of spring. He circled, picking one of the larger ones toward the edge of the group.
He didn't like dealing with trees--there were none on Chah--but he sure wasn't going to pass this up. As one Lickitung looked up, saw him and cried out, Chad swooped in through the hole in the trees. His target lashed out its huge tongue; Chad dodged in midair. It grazed the toes of his right foot, and he felt a tingly stinging where it had brushed. As the others scattered into the forest, this one, unable to escape fast enough, lashed its tongue again. He flapped to the side and flamed the tongue before it could withdraw. As it screamed he leaped on its back, knocking it forward. Roaring, he slashed with his claws. When it still struggled, he sank his teeth into the plump neck and flamed, and flamed again. It collapsed and lay still.
Chad caught his breath leaning over the kill. The agility learned with Dorien had aided him, allowing him to compensate better for having no fire spin to grab prey with. There was something to be said for battle training. As he ripped into the animal's side, sinking his muzzle in the red, Chad felt better about things. He may have acted foolishly, but the hunting in Gloomleaf seemed unbelievably good. And he resolved again to meet Chivonne, trained or not. That look in her orange eyes had told him he meant something to her. Even if Blue-eyes was another male. . . she had acted too much like she was seeing something out of the ordinary. Holding the carcass down with his foot, Chad tore another hunk off with both hands and stuffed it in his mouth, his chin dripping blood. He would show her that he was indeed out of the ordinary.
That is, once he located her.
At first Chad plowed through the meat, tearing off all he could swallow, but once the edge was off his hunger he relaxed and took his time. This forest had obviously not seen a charizard in a while. His prey had not known what hit it. And, he realized, no one was going to fight him for a share. Fearows circled and Persians lurked in the shadows, but none encroached on his space. There were no Arcanines. Excluding the tongue, head and other unpalatable parts, Chad ate it all, down to licking the bones. He flamed his body clean and wandered away from the remains to a patch of sunlight, and lay on his back. When he awoke just past high noon, he could barely get airborne with his engorged belly weighing him down.

"Let me guess," said Vixen, wrinkling her nose at Chad's swollen stomach when he came waddling back to Deep's Heart. "The hunt was good."
Chad patted his middle and out came a deep, disgusting belch. "Excuse me." Vixen didn't look like she was excusing him. "How about you?"
"The usual." She shook her head, still staring. "I'm sorry. Just thinking how much food you shoveled down is nauseating. . ."
"Vix, let me know and I'll bring you any--"
"I told you a zillion times I don't need charity. We Ninetales prefer smaller portions spread out over the day, to the classic charizard binge. Anyway fatten up while you can. Soon those animals'll get wise on you." She lifted her head back and sneezed.
Raelle was coming up the trail, carrying Friana on her back in a net-like papoose, woven with vines. "Hey Chad, whoa. . .you grew." She turned around. "Like it? The Vileplumes made it."
"Yeah, it's neat."
"They're wonderfully adept with their hands," said Friana. "They used a classic technique they also construct fishing nets with. And it isn't even scratchy."
"Feeling better, aren't you." Chad patted Raelle's arm.
"Yup." She gave thumbs-up. "So, heard you can't stay."
"Yeah, but that's okay. I'm heading out. . ." He shrugged, "There's mountains south of here where charizards used to live, I'm gonna try it. Charizards like being loners."
"Oh you think you can get away from little old me?" said Vixen with a brow raised.
"Yeah, I do."
'Whether you want me around or not I've got to get away from here myself." Another big sneeze yanked her head back and forward. "Ah-CHOO!" She groaned. "Before I sneeze my brains out."
"You gotta come visit us," said Raelle. "But I know you will."
"Yeah, you know me too well."
"This way!" Tilla's high-pitched call caught their attention. She was ambling up the path, helping another Vileplume carry a Gloom. "Everyone make way! If Vernon's here tell him to get the Poliwag slime out!"
"He went for food," said another Vileplume rushing over to help them get the Gloom into the alcove.
Chad, Raelle and Vixen peeked round the Poliwrath-statue side of the entranceway to see Tilla placing the groaning Gloom on the bed of grass. It was a young Gloom; its petals were small and its leaves still partly green. All over its body were patches of corroded skin. "My hands are not enough." Shaking her head, Tilla lifted them from the Gloom.
Seeing Chad, the Vileplume who had helped Tilla carry the Gloom up screamed and recoiled to the rear of the alcove. She put her hands to her petals.
"Lizardon!"
"He's not Lizardon; he's simply a charizard whom I healed yesterday and is recuperating. He won't hurt you," Tilla explained as she searched over her rock shelves. "Rafracia's petals!" she said, sifting through pouches and bowls. "I'm out of Poliwag slime. You stay with her, we'll fetch some." Tilla stepped outside and climbed onto the rock.
"ViiiiiEEEE! Anina's life is in danger! Everyone, down to the pond to catch a Poliwag!"
"What happened?" said Chad, running alongside Tilla as they went with the other Gloom and Vileplumes down the path away from the great rock ledge.
"That young Gloom was attacked by a victreebel today on the edges of our territory," said Tilla, hitching her belt up as she ran, panting. "She escaped, but was coated by acid. The only thing that can neutralize Victreebel poison is Poliwag slime. I used it up two days ago; I should have got some yesterday."
Chad stumbled after the other Vileplumes over the path crisscrossed with roots, to the bank of a small pond. He stood on a rock, Vixen next to him, as the Vileplumes and Gloom splashed into the gently lapping waters.
Raelle put Friana down on the rock and stepped in. "Hell, it's cold!" She laughed as she waded deeper.
Tilla and Vernon were talking not too far away as they looked around at the water they stood in.
"Why not call up a Poliwhirl or 'Wrath?" said Vernon. "They'd do it in two flaps of a petal--"
"No 'whirls or 'wraths in this pond today. They would have come out already." Tilla thrust her arms in with a splash, but came up empty-handed. "Even if we sent Chad flying out to the lake, it's too far. Anina will be dead in less than an hour. This pond is the only place in the whole area where Poli's live at all."
"You were thinking of sending Lizardon to the lake? That's a quick way to get rid of him." Tilla ignored him and grabbed at what must have been a Poliwag beneath the surface.
Chad studied the techniques the Vileplumes were using. The Gloom were clumsy at it and a few took a tumble underwater. Most of the Vileplumes were doing it right, but moved too slow. Some had dragged a fishing net out, but were coming up only with a few small fish. He studied the pond's depth. Even the Vileplumes out in the middle were in no further than their chests. Chad jumped off the rock.
"Where are you going?" said Vixen, eyeing him as he stepped over roots and rocks down to the lapping water. "You're not doing what I think you're doing!" Vixen ran after him, stopping short of the water's edge as he waded in, wincing at the cold. "What in Chah are you doing!"
"I know how to catch these things," Chad called over his shoulder.
"You're crazy!"
"Chad--"
Several of the Vileplumes had noticed him now and they spoke amongst themselves and pointed at him standing knee-deep in the weed-choked water, his head ducked close to the surface scanning the murky shallows. He saw a Poliwag and dove; he missed and it squirted him before wriggling off. He flamed his hands dry and grabbed at another one.
"He's getting pretty close, to get squirted!" a Vileplume somewhere behind him remarked.
"I do not believe what I'm seeing," said Vixen. "I do not know him."
"Whoa, Chad!" Raelle, standing belly-deep, waved at him. "Never know what you're gonna do next."
"By Rafracia! Don't risk your life!" As Tilla waded towards him through a clump of lily pads his hands brought up a squirming Poliwag.
"Got it!"
It squirted him, but he squinted and held on. "Way to go!" Raelle shouted.
He shook weeds and water off each foot as he stepped onto dry land, and he held the Poliwag while Tilla used a small, smooth stick, with the bark removed, to rub off slime. "Thank you ever so much. You've got to tell us how you learned that." She scraped the slime off into a tiny bowl held by Vernon, whose glowering eyes only met Chad's once.
"We've got one! Back to Deep's Heart!" cried Tilla out to the pond as Chad released the Poliwag, and watched it swim away. Tilla shook her petaled head, turning up the path to join the other wet plant folks. "I hope it's not too late."

The sun, still high, was clouding over. In the alcove, Gloom and Vileplumes sat around Tilla and the unconscious Gloom on the grass pallet. They murmured prayers, gently moving their petals, as Tilla applied the slime with the stick she had harvested it with. Chad's tail gave her better light to see by in the close space.
"It may be too late," said Tilla, taking the stick away from the Gloom's corroded skin. The Gloom lay drooling, visibly swollen. Her eyes swam, unseeing, in their sockets.
"Every Gloom is precious to us," said the Vileplume who had helped Tilla carry the Gloom up. She rocked forward and back, her face crumpling into her hands. "Why, Rafracia, why are you taking Anina."
"Anina!" some of the younger ones cried, rocking too. "Oh, Anina!"
"She's not gone yet," said Tilla, putting her hand on the other Vileplume's shoulders. "The slime has just begun to work, and she will live or die in the next few moments."
Placing her hands on Anina, Tilla sang a song that all the others quickly joined. Chad didn't know the words, so after looking around at all the closed eyes and bowed heads, he bowed his own head and prayed to Chah to save Anina's life. Were Chah and Rafracia both there? If so, who was really the first to hatch from the chaos of space? Maybe they were names for the same god. If there is one.
He opened his eyes and peeked at Anina. The swelling had lessened and she was stirring.
Chad inched his head forward. "Anina?"
Anina took one look at Chad and her eyes bugged out. She opened her mouth but only a gasping thread of a scream escaped. Moving her limbs stiffly, she tried to scream again.
"Anina!" Tilla and the other one said, falling over her like they were trying to block her view of Chad and comfort her at the same time.
"Anina, you're alive!" said a Vileplume.
"Ah. . ." The Gloom's eyes and gaping mouth were pointed to Chad, who saw no way out through the tight crowd. "Lizar. . ."
"Lizardon--get him out--"
"He saved her!"
"--oh Anina!--"
"Tilla--"
Tilla had already directed two others towards clearing a pathway. She herded Chad and the other three out, single file. He followed, gladly, almost as much for fresh air as for Anina's sake. Knowing she would be okay was enough for him.
Once they were past, the crowd folded back up around Anina inside. Tilla held her dark violet-gray hand out to Chad. Uncertain, Chad took it, and she placed her other hand on top of his golden orange one.
"Anina owes you her life," said the Vileplume. "While she regains consciousness, it would be wise to keep her away from you, as you are quite imposing. But once she is well on the mend, probably by tomorrow, I shall make it clear to her, and everyone in this entire tribe, that you shall be given the Dance of Flowers. Leave you may, if you wish, but never shall we turn you out and you will always have a home here. I saw you. You braved deadly water for her." Tears brimmed in her eyes.
"It really wasn't--anyone would've--"
"I don't think so."
Behind him stood Raelle, with Friana on her back and Vixen nearby.
"Not me. I could barely watch." She clapped the end of Chad's wing. "That Gloom would be dead if it wasn't for you."
"You've got spunk, I'll give you that," said Vixen.
By now many other Vileplumes were stepping out of the alcove, gravitating toward their leader. "Viiiiii!" Tilla shrilled, and all heads turned. "Gather everyone to meet at Deep's Heart!" To Chad, Vixen, Raelle and Friana she said, "All of you--up on the ridge." She pointed.
Chad bent down and Raelle climbed aboard with Friana on her back; Vixen trotted off behind the rocks. It was a tricky flight, and his wings whacked a few small branches on the short flap up. Vixen made her way up after Chad had landed, gracefully leaping over rocks with a flash of her fan of tails.
As the Vileplumes went out and Chad sat atop the rock ridge watching them trickle back in twos, threes and fours, all he could think of was the irony of it all. They were going to throw a celebration in his honor for saving this Gloom's life, and just this afternoon he had slaughtered a lickitung in cold blood. Its meat still filled his belly. Down below him the semi-circle carved out by the rock ridge was flooding with these peoples' red, cream-spotted blooms, some small and leafy, some in their prime, many old and fading. They kept looking up and waving. One even cried out, "Praised be Lizardon!"
He could barely meet the Vileplume's adoring eyes and tear-stained face as he smiled weakly back and waved. A bloodthirsty charizard had no place with these people.
"Good work," said Vixen. "Looks like you finally did something right."
Chad grunted, still looking out at the gathering crowd, which had spread like red lichen out around the nearby trees. There had to be at least a hundred down there.
"Your gallantry has shone through just like I was confident it would," said Friana. "I admit that when I first saw you wading in I felt a little faint." She giggled.
"Should we all, like, head back down now?" said Raelle, peering over the edge.
"No," came Tilla's voice from the far side, the same side that the others had climbed up. She jogged over, her belt pouches bouncing. "Remain where you are. This is only the beginning." She flashed Chad an excited smile; she had painted two yellow-white streaks on each cheek, like a Persian's whiskers. The spiral was gone, though Vernon, who came climbing up after Tilla, still adorned his stomach with the protection of the Poliwrath.
A cool wind swayed the branches overhead as Tilla strode over beside Chad. Vernon stood next to Tilla, placing the Rafracia between Chad and himself.
"Rafracia we praise You on this wonderful night. We thank You for leaving Anina here with us. We praise You."
"Praise Rafracia," said the bodily voice of the audience below.
"Lizardon was a terrible brute who was wisely imprisoned," said Tilla. "But the children of evil can turn to good. Today Chad Charizard saved Anina's life by catching a Poliwag whose slime helped my powers save her from victreebel poison. She would be dead now if not for that antidote." Tilla paused to let the people murmur and whisper; the petaled heads turned this way and that. As Chad's gaze lifted out past the crowd he saw a lone oddish peering with little eyes through the bushes, almost completely camouflaged, watching the gathering. He waited for it to join the others, but it never came closer. Chad realized this was the only oddish he had seen since last night. It was near sunset now. The night belongs to the oddish. He would ask Tilla about that. Or any of the Vileplumes--excluding Vernon. He would ask, too, why so few of these people appeared to be male.
"Chad." Tilla held out her hands to him. "You risked your own life by wading into water to save one of our own. Never again will we fear you as Lizardon. Never will we turn you away from the deeps of Gloomleaf. This forest is your home as it is ours, and we will welcome you to stay or come for refuge for as long as a charizard lives. Tomorrow we shall hold a Dance of Flowers and bring you into Gloomleaf as one of us. Rafracia has shown once again that her true children take every shape. As you are one of hers, so you are one of ours. Let the preparations begin."
As Tilla made the final bow and sang the final song, Chad looked again at the bushes where the oddish had been. It was gone.


39: Flowers for Oddish

"Do nothing." Tilla made Chad and the other three sit in the alcove while the Vileplumes bustled this way and that, preparing for this Dance of Flowers. "You must stay inside until tomorrow morning. This is so that the dance will work fully." She started to turn toward the area of the room with all her medicines and supplies, then sat down beside them instead. "When young Gloom are given the Dance of Flowers, they are kept in here for three days. Legend says it used to be five days, but after three days we start to feel weak from lack of sunlight. These woods have little. For you we are modifying it to one night. After all, we could never catch enough meat for you," she looked at Chad and Vixen, "for three days! Later tonight we'll go through the dance. It is easy." She smiled at Chad one last time and left, calling to someone about going to gather some grass. Apparently grass was in short supply; not a surprise with the dense forest.
"Well this is cool." Raelle sat down against one of Tilla's rock shelves. Chad nodded and curled up.
"Chad, what's the problem."
He affected a yawn and flamed by accident.
"Just tired."
"Yeah, yeah, we can talk tomorrow."

"The preparations are going wonderfully. Soon our songs will begin," said Tilla, coming in from the twilight. "Don't worry, we will teach you all of it."
"Okay," said Chad, and a yawn took over his mouth. He was still awake, partly due to Vixen's sneezing, the rest to his guilty conscience. He curled his tail closer around him. Charizards needed half the day for sleep.
"Chad. At the risk of annoying you, I must thank you again. Our Gloom are so precious to us."
"You're not annoying at all. You're welcome."
Tilla cocked her head. "Something haunts you. What is on your mind."
Agnosticism. "I'm kind of tired." He took a breath, searching for something to say. "Do victreebels attack you a lot?"
Tilla sat down in front of him. She met his gaze with eyes suddenly old, past her drooping petals.
"Victreebel weigh more heavily on our people than even humans. We are a dying race. And they are mostly why."
Chad recalled looking down on the Vileplumes' flowers, so many old and faded heads. So few Gloom.
"A victreebel will never attack a Vileplume or a Gloom, because of our strong poison--nothing can eat us. Anina was attacked because of her youth; they prey on oddish, who lack attacks strong enough to combat them. The victreebel who attacked Anina made a grave mistake." She cleared her throat.
"Whoa," said Raelle, sitting back down with her long feet in front of her. "So they like, kill that many oddish?"
"That many. There must have been a time when we Vileplumes were stronger or made more seed. Down from our ancestors come stories saying that hundreds of years ago we kept ahead of them. Long ago, when charizards hunted here, the Venusaur herds roamed the trails and meadows, and Meganimu families browsed the shady leaves, we were plenty. But they have gone--migrated out or died; and we have been declining for longer than I or my mother or grandmother, could remember." Outside the alcove, wind blew. The Vileplumes inside, cooperating with others out on top of the ridge, were hanging up a tarp woven of vines to block the entrance; it flapped in the breeze as they tried to pin it down with rocks. "If a tribe becomes too few, they must join another, lest they get down to one or two males. There's one male for every three or four females. Vernon was Rafracia to another tribe that joined ours when I was young."
"Scientists studying Vileplumes discovered that before fruition, male seeds make a poison that kill other male seeds before they're done growing," said Friana.
"Whatever the reason, that's never been our weakness. Our weakness is our oddish, and more and more Victreebel compete for less and less oddish."
"What happened, did more victreebels come?" said Chad, watching them work to hold the dividing flap against the wind.
"While we weakened, they multiplied. Rafracia has always moved her creatures along, changing the balance with the passage of time. Oddish are not even Victreebels' choice prey; they prefer larger meals. No Bulbasaurs or Chikoriita now. But in addition, fewer of our seeds sprout and survive the first days. Our tales are our memories. Though some may be distorted, and many are parables, there is a common theme. They all tell of more fruitful times for us."
"But there has to be some reason. You don't seem weak to me."
Tilla laughed, bittersweetly. "We are strong enough to get by day to day. But the smallest change of strength can kill a race over hundreds of years. I imagine that in another hundred, Gloomleaf will have no more Vileplumes." She shook her head. "The oddish you have seen are almost all from this year's crop, bloomed less than a moon ago. A lucky few make it past those first eight years. Very lucky and too few."
"Where do the oddish go during the day?"
"In hiding, underground. They catch insects at night. Unlike us they see very well by moonlight. They could never go about by day, even while guarded by us. The insects they catch are in hiding, and birds would swoop from the trees to prey on them, assuming the Victreebel left any. Victreebel sleep at night."
Imagine living a completely different lifestyle during childhood than you would later.
"That's what the Dance of Flowers does. It brings you out of darkness into the world of the sun. For you it is more symbolic, but that is just as important."
The thought of these people dying out; the stories, the songs and dances and everything. "There's gotta be something to do about the victreebels. Some way to keep them out of the area?"
Tilla shook her head. "They hide as if they've melted into the forest. You've yet to see them make a raid on us."
"A raid?" said Vixen.
"When they become too hungry, a group comes and surrounds us. They attack to kill us so they can get to the oddish, who sleep within our home range. Many die on both sides. They know we are weak, and as their numbers grow, so does their hunger. Victreebels are not evil; they simply have to kill to eat."
"I can understand that." Chad looked down at his still-enlarged stomach. "What I can't understand is, you've been living here hundreds of years, and now the victreebels suddenly get worse?" He shook his head.
Tilla wiped a tear from her cheek. "I'm so sorry to have got you all worked up in this. There's nothing to figure out. Humans rarely catch any Pokémon in this forest. They come into Gloomleaf less than ever, again due mostly to Victreebels. I suppose they're good for something." "Victeebel prefer dense growth," said Friana. "This forest is just warm enough for them too." "Gotta be humans," said Raelle. "Pollution, chemicals, catching Pokémon. . ." "These woods are clean and clear," said Tilla. Chad could vouch for that, as he breathed in the warm air in the alcove; the divide was trapping the heat of his flame. "It's far from any humans. Even poachers rarely come out here. And how could humans make a forest grow thicker?"
Raelle shook her head, her lips tight. "It's gotta be humans. They always screw things up."
"I haven't smelled a single human since we came in here," said Vixen. "I don't know what victreebels smell like." She snorted inward, not sounding like she was going to find out very easily.
"Honey," said Tilla. "It is the most beautiful smell in all Gloomleaf. One whiff of Victreebel and you never forget it. It can turn the head of the smartest Pokémon. It holds you in a spell."
"I've read about that phenomenon," said Friana.
"It has certain healing properties, too. Helps chronic headaches."
Vixen sneezed.
"Also helps clear the sinuses."
Tilla had them sit in a circle, which a few other, old Vileplumes joined too. They sang songs and said prayers until Chad was beyond tired. There had to be a way, he thought, to save all this from extinction. He had to reach the root of it.

When Chad woke up, morning light was peeking in through the tears and ragged ends of the old vine-woven curtain. Tilla and the others were still asleep. No, make that everyone but Vixen. The way her allergies were, he would have heard her snoring.
Lying with her paws close in front of her, she fixed him with a flaming gaze. Yup. She was about to get on his case.
"Who's Chivonne." She spoke quietly, mindful of those still sleeping.
"Who--what?" He snorted fire, and twisted his face up like she was crazy.
Vixen stretched her front legs out before her. "You woke me up last night talking in your sleep. 'Chivonne, oh, Chivonne, come back, come back.' Who is she." She sneezed, then swatted a fly with one of her tails. The bugs were coming back.
He looked her straight in the eye. "I have no idea."
"Liar."
"How do you know she's a she, anyway." He went to peek out the flap, then remembered he wasn't supposed to. At the far end, the elders who would lead them outside were stirring.
"The way you talked. Not that you ever talked to me that way." Chad laughed and stretched an arm overhead to scratch his back. "Yeah, yeah, well with just you around I kinda have to resort to dreaming up the right kind of female."
"You could've gone home."
"I don't regret it yet."
"I don't either." Raelle sat up with a big yawn, for her small mouth. "Love it here. It's like my family, back home." Her ears drooped as she stared toward the flap, the early morning sun casting a bluish light on her face. "Huh. And I thought I'd hate it."
"We should visit your home," said Chad.
Raelle swatted a paw at him. "Already told you I can't."
"I've tried to tell Raelle to go back since I met her," said Friana on her grass bed. "I eventually gave up. But it matters less now that we're here, and out of that dreadful city."
"Good morning." Tilla got up and went to her medicine area. She looked beyond them at the other Vileplumes. "Bring them breakfast," she said. Two brought forward two large bowls each, and set them down before the four initiates. One was filled with nuts, another roots, another seeds, and the last, fresh--killed bugs and worms. Raelle stuffed herself with the contents of the first three, while Chad and Vixen munched on the crawlies. He left most of it for vixen, since Ninetales hunted smaller prey and needed to eat more often. While they ate, Tilla called Vernon and two others over to the rock shelves and they began busily mixing things, their plumes bent over the rocks.
"What are they making?" said Chad.
"That's enough," said Tilla, and each came over carrying a little wooden bowl, Tilla holding two. Tilla's had green stuff in one and black in the other, Vernon's had white, and the other two held red and slate-blue. Each had a brush.
"Cool," said Raelle. "We get our faces painted?"
Tilla smiled. "That and more."
Vixen made a sincere effort to smile politely. Chad hoped they wouldn't overdo it. He looked silly already, being a big orange dragon towering more than two feet over everyone.
Tilla had Chad sit down, and painted his forehead. The others took their turn, adding colors. "Easy on him, Vernon," Tilla said with her back turned as Vernon took the little brush with white paint to his belly, then his cheek. The Vileplume kept his head low so his petals blocked the charizard's gaze.
When they were done, Chad looked around at the other three. They all had a green vertical line topped by five fat red lines radiating out, surrounded by a circle of white dots, on the belly (except for Vixen). One white curving line decorated either cheek, and a little black swirl on the forehead. On their arms were five blue stripes. After the paint dried, the Vileplumes placed flower necklaces over their necks and gave them flowering branches to hold.
The flowers and paint looked different on each Pokémon. Raelle looked the best. Her roly-poly shape and bright cheeks went well with anything. She moved her feet as if warming up to dance; meeting Chad's eyes she giggled, waving her hands in the air. On Friana they had had to skimp a little, there being less room. She lay drying on the pallet. Vixen's paint was barely dabbed on, as if they had sensed her feelings.
Chad didn't expect to appear truly dignified, but he liked how it looked on his stomach (they'd had a lot of room), and Vixen wasn't bursting out laughing. Its appearance mattered little anyway. This was the first time in his life that he was being honored for something that he had done. He had done something right.
Tilla went outside. Chad heard her shout a cue and the animal-skin wall lifted, the frayed bottom pulling up in yanks and tugs. Squinting in the sun, he stared out at a path made of white, pink and yellow tree blossoms, lined on each side with Vileplumes bedecked with flower necklaces that their shoulders barely held up, and small red circles on their cheeks. Drums beat, rattles shook, and every Gloom and Vileplume raised its voice in song. It was one of the songs they'd been taught last night, and as they did their steps down the path, they joined in. Chad sang as quietly as he could, feeling his very bass voice in his throat rather than hearing it over the festive noises. All the flowered people they passed smiled and sang, waving hands and petals in the air to the drums as Chad and Raelle (with Friana on her back) danced toward the wide flower-lined circle at the end. Vixen kind of waved her tails a few times and squinted a smile.
As the Vileplumes circled into the dance, Chad looked out over the cobblestone sea of puffy red petals to spot, in the bushes and vines way off, an Oddish. Seeing him look, it ducked into hiding and the vegetation rustled as it ran away.


40: The Evils of Truth and Love(Or: Rocket Science)

"I'm going away for two days." Daninger cleared his throat, stepped away from the closed door and crossed the big room to his desk, dressed in a black suit as if this was just another business trip. "I want you to do me the favor you've been wanting to do."
Lunia's hands clenched together as she sat on their bed. She watched Daninger unlock the top drawer to his desk, slide back the false bottom and hold up a tiny hypodermic needle. His presented it on the platter of his outstretched hand to Lunia, who forced herself to smile.
"I thought we were going to wait until she--laid."
"I'd wait out the rest of my life the way she's going. Hell, August could wait out his. I know charizards. Just when you think you've got them figured out, they pop you one."
Lunia wrapped her manicured fingers around the capped needle.
"Poison's on the tip. You don't even have to plunge it--just jab her."
She turned it in her hands, smiling, like she could fool herself into really wanting to do this. At this point, she must at least fool Daninger. "Why can't you be here? A million things could go wrong."
"Because. That Pokémon's on guard whenever I'm in the house, and she never sleeps indoors. According to August, and you, she still sleeps in her bedroom when I'm gone. It's too cold out there. Charizards will always take the warmest places to sleep, unless they sense they're unsafe."
"But how do I get close enough?"
"She'll be drugged." From his desk drawer he took a spray can with a little tube attached to the nozzle, and handed it to her. "She'll almost certainly sleep in the house--if she doesn't we'll call it off--just stick the tube under the door and spray. Should knock her out for a few hours."
"Is it--flammable?" The can clanked against the needle as she held them on her lap.
"Of course not. It's safe and clean, and has no smell. Once you jab her she should become delirious and die within an hour. It might be slower, charizards can take a lot. She'll almost certainly be too weak to attack you, but keep a fire extinguisher handy. Her flame's the last thing to go."
Lunia drew in her breath, pulling her hair out of her face. Gray streaked her temples; she needed another coloring.
"Call me if she sleeps outside, gets away or even if you just lose your nerve. You might think you won't, but you've lived with her all your life. I'll do it, another time. Of course that means you won't make elite ranking, but. . ." Shrug.
"I can handle it. Only, what about August?" She shook her head, her forehead lined, and stared at the lamp lighting the room from Daninger's night table. "He loves her. And what in the world do I do with the carcass?"
"Call the Poké Morgue and say she died in her sleep--they won't question it. Charizards drop dead all the time for unexplained reasons. Tell them she's been in the family for three generations--they'll think she died of old age. Most people have no idea how long wild ones live. At any rate, when she dies, call me before you call anyone else. I want to see her for myself."
Lunia's hands felt cold, though she sweated. Daninger swept her up off the bed and her colored-blond hair swung behind her. She kissed him.
"When are you leaving."
"Few minutes. Good luck."

While he's out training, after he puts his Pokémon away, give him a fire spin. Or when he goes out back, flame him and toss his ashes over the rocks. Or--
Chivonne tapped her claws on her desk, resisting the urge to scratch the wood finish. Her charizard instincts weren't helping her concentrate on the task; fire couldn't be in it or she was automatically suspect. It was turning out hard to think of a plan that would work without her usual attacks. The force that her kind solved most of its problems with would only doom her here.
So will waiting longer than I have already. The problem was that Daninger watched her like she watched him. Any plan she thought of had probably occurred to him too. Poisoning, stabbing, shooting, strangling, would frame August or Lunia. She had ruled out doing anything on this property; it had to happen on another Rocket trip, with tons of suspects to mask her plans. Then she could flame him to white flakes. August would help her create a foolproof alibi; she would tell him everything soon, when it was all set.
Oh, why hadn't she killed him at Yellow Town? All the information she needed had been in his room. How much more scared she felt now, than even a week ago. Like a window of opportunity was closing.
"August," she heard Daninger holler from the front door. "I'm leaving on a trip tonight, I'll be back tomorrow evening or the morning after that. Lunia's staying here."
Chivonne flung the door open, knowing surprise was all over her face. She flounced down the stairs as the front door shut and a whirl of cold air whisked through the room. Through the window she watched him head around towards the driveway, then drive away. It was too dark to fly out unnoticed.

Lunia was having her third cup of coffee when Chivonne stepped into the kitchen, claws clicking on the tiles. Lunia regarded her with a look she hoped was neutral, and noticed the charizard's stomach was quite full. What had she killed this time? Looking at the golden claws on her hands, the canine teeth peeking out her closed mouth, and knowing that this afternoon they'd ripped through a living being (when there was plenty of nutritious food here for her) made it easier to think about tonight's task. Kill a killing machine.
The lizard spoke.
"Lunia. . . he left so quickly. Where's he going, do you know?"
Lunia sipped her coffee. "Another Pokémon convention, what else."
"Do you know where?"
"No." Daninger was right. This prying, power-thirsty monster had grown way too big for her britches. Or should that be scales.
Or her Poké Ball. For years Lunia had imagined catching her and throwing the ball into an ocean, a dumpster, anywhere. Daninger had turned the idea down years ago as too risky. And he had wanted to breed her. What was one more charmander egg with all the other rares Rocket dealed in? But just try to tell Daninger he was silly. . .
Lunia's stomach settled somewhat when Chivonne finally took a Poké treat and left the room.
"Good night," she said, and Lunia answered. She had never paid attention to how un-human Chivonne's voice was; it had become normalized in her mind.

Lunia sat up long after the others had retired, coming up the stairs every so often to listen in on Chivonne, peek under her door to see if her tail flame was there. When no noise came through, and the only light showing under the door was that dim flicker, Lunia got the spray can and needle, and got a towel from the closet. Like a deer, ready to flee, she crept up the stairs, lined the towel along the door bottom, and inserted the tube underneath, by the wall.
She knew this was the hardest step, the moment when she could still take the tube back out, put it all away and call her husband to tell him she couldn't do it. She pressed the nozzle and it hissed its gas quietly out. She listened for Chivonne's stirring, but heard nothing. Chivonne weighed about a hundred thirty pounds--too heavy to cross the room without floorboards creaking. Lunia's squatting legs and feet cramped and she sat, switching fingers on the can, looking down at it from between her knees.
The hiss went quiet. It was empty. After a long wait, she removed the towel. She bent and sniffed the air. It didn't make her woozy.
Opening the door to a cool room, she found Chivonne sitting on her bed, with her head down on the sill of one of her windows, resting on folded arms. The curtains flapped in the breeze.
She stood shivering and sweating, watching the animal's sides and back move with breathing. At rest on her polished stone bed, her tail tip flickered low, occasionally furling brighter. It made a very faint fff sound. Glancing down at the needle, Lunia realized she couldn't do it.
Her gasp shuddered in her throat as the gold charizard lifted her head, her swan's neck unbending. Chivonne looked 180 degrees from the wide open window, between her wings, as the needle fell from Lunia's hands.
Both windows open. And Chivonne with her head out. Another of Daninger's half-baked plans and Lunia's raw ignorance.
"Lunia?"
Hearing Chivonne's soft voice, her orange eyes wide in wonder and concern, reflecting her own flame, Lunia broke down. This creature had fed her, played with her, loved her so much, long ago before Mom had left. How had she even gotten this far?
"I can't."
"Can't what?" Chivonne stepped across the carpet, as Lunia watched tears fall at her feet through a blur. She did not resist as Chivonne bent gracefully down, wings tucked, and closed her clawed fingers round the needle. She set it away on her desk as Lunia blubbered into her hands.
"Take it, I can't do it."
Chivonne touched her shaking back. "It's all right. Pull yourself together." She led Lunia to her desk stool and Lunia plopped blindly down. She stroked Lunia's hair. Lunia almost pulled away, but gave in to the childhood comfort.
"I'm sorry."
"It's fine."
Chivonne heard the stairs creaking. August climbed out of the darkness, into Chivonne's firelight. He stopped in the doorway.
"Is someone hurt?"
"I'm sorry," Lunia shrieked through her sobs.
"It was a close call," said Chivonne. "Lunia, it's going to be okay. We'll get you out of Team Rocket. I'll help you but first you have to tell us everything."
"What?" said August, striding to Chivonne in two steps.
"August, I didn't want to tell you yet, I wanted you safe until--"
"Safe from what? I'm 19. Chivonne, I know you've been keeping something from me for a few weeks now. What the hell is going on?"
"Safe from Daninger." Chivonne swallowed a lump in her throat, feeling her own tears trying to break through as she blinked fast. "I did this for your life! You don't know how hard it was for me to keep this a secret." She took his hands as he knelt by the two females. "You have to know now."
So in her firelight, she told them everything.
"Oh God," was all August kept saying.
"How did you know? About Yellow Town and our headquarters, everything?" said Lunia. Chivonne told how.
"I had no idea he was the one who tortured Marius!" said Lunia.
"He said he knew about it, he told me the name Tilla. . ."
"Now you have to tell us all you know. Where's Daninger now. When will he be back."
Lunia threatened to cry again.
"I know I seem like I'm conspiring to take over the world," said Chivonne, "but I just want my kind to fly free again. And other Pokémon. I want to mate and have a family, and live my life. That's all I ever wanted." Sometimes she felt like that lack of ambition was all that still separated her from humans.
"All these years I never really sat down and talked with you," said Lunia.
"We'll have time for that in the future, but only if we get out of this alive. You need to tell us everything, now." Lunia nodded, sniffling. "There's not much you don't know already. Daninger only went out tonight to put you off your guard."
Chivonne cursed to herself inside her head.
"He--we--and his agents have been catching Pokémon from everywhere that Marius was known to have lived. There is no Mewtwo named Tilla so far, but now they're sending out pairs to hunt through Gloomleaf. It's terribly dangerous, but he's convinced that's where Tilla is, and he's probably right."
"How do you know," said Chivonne.
"I watched him torture them." Lunia's lip trembled. "Him and the others. They used the most terrible machines and Daninger ordered them to tell his Electabuzz where Tilla is. The Electabuzz that doesn't go mad when it sees red. The strange one."
Chivonne had known for a while there was something very strange about that Electabuzz. The one time she'd gotten close to it, she had sensed something definitely off. Daninger had kept her away from it.
"Well we're going to end their little operation," she said. "Did they get any information from the victims?"
"There was a Gloom. . ." She shut her eyes. "When Daninger pressed the lever on that torture device. . .it cried out, of course none of us understood it. Daninger had the Electabuzz translate. It can talk. It said, 'Kill me, I will die before I betray her.' Daninger tortured the creature some more, and it screamed piteously, we were all wearing gas masks, though by now it had used all its stench. And it died. It didn't say anything else." She sniffled and Chivonne reached around and handed her a tissue from her desk. "It sacrificed itself."
"Daninger would've killed it anyway." Gloom were among the gentlest Pokémon. She held up the poison needle, studying it an inch from her nose. She shuddered and put it down. "Are they still looking?"
"Yes. Around the edges of Gloomleaf, moving in, there are many agents on it. They have all their poaching equipment and their Pokémon. What'll we do?"
"We don't have much time." She glanced up at her clock; it was almost midnight. She struggled to keep her mind clear, hold the sandbags down on panic. "August, you and I have to get out of here now. Get dressed, we're going to the city."
"What city?"
"We'll worry about that on the way to the station. You'll Poké Ball me for the trip. If I'm dead, I can't be seen." Chivonne had to admit, there was something to be said for Poké Balls. "And pack your camping gear. Light. Don't worry about food, we'll buy it."
"But we're going to the city."
"Just in case." As he ran off, Chivonne looked back at Lunia, huddled and tear-streaked on the little stool, hugging herself. "August and I are leaving as soon as he's packed. We'll at least be safe tonight."
"What do I do--"
"You tell Daninger this. That August ran off in a rage after he found me nearly dead in my room in the morning. And. . .you never got the chance to call the morgue. He took my dying body with him in a Poké Ball."
"Can you. . .do that?"
"As long as a Pokémon's alive. I don't know any other way to explain why the morgue never came. You couldn't drag me out the door and bury me yourself, could you?"
"I'm sure I couldn't. But--you can't just leave me here. If Daninger finds out I've betrayed him--he said he wants to see your dead body for himself!"
"Here are the choices. Stay here and explain, or come with us. I'm not willing to die to get you out of this. If you come with us, he'll know, but we'll take you."
"I have to stay."
"August," called Chivonne, running off into his room to help him pack.
"Got most of it," he said, zipping shut a tightly stuffed backpack. Chivonne took another blanket out.
"August, this is the story. You took my almost-dead body in a Poké Ball and rushed me through the express to the nearest center, where I died. That's what you tell Daninger if he ever catches up with us."
"Do I call him?"
"Never. You're writing him a note."
Lunia came running down the hall as Chivonne and August came running back up. Chivonne yanked her desk drawer open and took out pen and paper.
"Now write a note to Daninger saying you're running away. That you will never forgive him. That you know he poisoned me before he left."
"Okay, wait." He scrawled on the paper, standing over the desk.
"Make it sound full of anguish."
"Yeah. . ."
When he looked at her, Chivonne went on.
"That you can't believe that he has corrupted your family and killed the one person you truly loved. You've taken me away in a Poké Ball to somehow find a cure and believe him, you will."
"Okay," he said, his hand relaxing around the pen, "anything else?"
"That you know there's no hope left in the world, Team Rocket runs everything. But you will save me. Say 'don't look for me--I'll call you.'"
"But he will look for you!" said Lunia as August stood with his hands leaning on either side of the note, shaking his head.
"As soon as he finds out that you're only nearly dead, Team Rocket will track you down. And they are masters of disguise."
"I know. Lunia, don't call Daninger till late morning--that's when August will find me dying and leave with me. Tell Daninger that August slammed you against a wall and forced you to admit that you two are in Team Rocket. That he tried to force you to say what happened to me, but you wouldn't tell. Then he asked you where your branch of Team Rocket is and you said Gloomleaf. He abandoned you at that point and Poké Balled me, packed and left. You say all this from the standpoint of a Team Rocket agent. You have to remain one for now."
"I know." Lunia stood up off Chivonne's bed, pacing. Chivonne stuck the needle into the towel that lay rumpled outside the door. She replaced the cover and put it back on her desk as August lugged the backpacks into the hall. He had donned his jacket.
"Can you remember all this?" said Chivonne. Lunia nodded. As they left down the stairs, Chivonne called, "Then get some sleep, and good luck. You can do this." She watched Lunia go off towards her bedroom before motioning for August to come away from the front door and follow her out the back.
The night was brisk but almost warm. Chivonne longed to fly away, but she couldn't carry August, who weighed more than her. They hiked out past the old Nidoran and Sandshrew pens, through the field. When they reached the cover of the nearest trees, she took one of the backpacks from his arm and stopped while he strapped it on her back.
"All right," he said as he adjusted it around her wings, "we're not going to any city, are we."
"We're going to Gloomleaf."
"But Team Rocket's swarming all through there."
"Only through the edges. Now Poké Ball me. When you get to the far end of this property, by my makeshift lair, just hike down the slope and continue on around the areas we hunt in. If you need me for defense, take me out. We should be past the outskirts by morning. It's unlikely they would search by night but I'm too visible to take chances with."
"How long will we be out here?"
"As long as I need to be to fulfill my quest."
"What quest?"
"To find Tilla first."
August stopped walking, Poké Ball still in hand. "You don't mean it."
"I do. You don't have to do anything. We can part ways as soon as we're clear of here. If you want--I'll fly you to the station." She hoped he wouldn't call her bluff.
August gave her arm a friendly slap.
"I know when you're bluffing."
They shared a short hug before he Poké Balled her. It was a long journey ahead.


41: Metapod Lessons

"I think of all the education that I missed
But then my homework was never quite like this"

--Van Halen, 1984

Cold surrounded Chad as he floundered in the pool; his feet felt no ground. His arms pumped, his hands cupped the water, scrabbling for a grip where there was none. He pointed his nose to the distant flourescent lights as he gasped for air. Off behind barked the human voice.
"Ten more laps! Swim you lazy lizard! Swim!" Paralysis locked his limbs. He was clamped in a cocoon of straps and bars. Behind him, his tail tip hovered barely above the water.
"You are mine! And until you listen your life will be miserable! So swim!"
Chad couldn't move.
Dorien lowered the device deeper. His chin touched the water. Please, no lower!
"Swim!"
"I can't!"
"You swim now or I kill you!"
"No!" Chad tossed his head up, desperate to fill his lungs as Dorien lowered him. "No!" He shut his eyes as the water flowed over his face.
Chad sat bolt upright. He looked around the firelit space. No pool, no Dorien; he was sitting in Tilla's alcove, in Deep's Heart, in Gloomleaf; Raelle, Friana and Vixen slept on moss beds nearby. Chad hadn't had a Dorien nightmare in a while.
The sun was just coming up. Chad had eaten an Odoshishi just before dusk yesterday and wasn't hungry yet. However, he was wide awake. Outside he heard the first birds.
No Gloom, Vileplumes or Oddish were up as he strolled down the trail, remembering Tilla's warning to mind his fire because there hadn't been rain in several days. He remembered something he ought to do, and now would be a good time.
Though his daily forays had so far brought him no closer to Chivonne, he would find her eventually. And when at last he gazed into her golden orange almond eyes, he would have no idea what to do. He knew he wasn't the king of first impressions, but he had blithely glossed over that, preferring to revel in fantasies.
Now was probably the only time to practice. Remembering his safety, he resisted the urge to fly off. He didn't have to walk far to leave the Vileplumes' home range anyway, and find the solitude he needed. On the walk he passed a couple of Vileplumes beginning their day, gathering roots, tubers, insects and seeds. They wore no paint. In the days following the Dance of Flowers, Chad had realized that body paints and festivals were the exception, not the norm (though Tilla often painted her face minimally). Most days the Vileplumes did just what they were doing this morning.
As he walked, he kept hearing something coming up behind him. A rustle in the bushes, a snapping twig. But when he turned around, he saw only foliage. "A rattata or something," he muttered. When he reached the small outcropping of rocks well beyond Vileplume territory, he looked around, making sure he was along, and tried to get his mind in the mood.
He faced an oak tree. A perfect practice model. Smiling, he sauntered towards it. "Hey. . .Chivonne. Wanna share my kill?"
Chad wished he had a mirror to practice his face. The last thing he wanted was to flash her a goofy smile. He re-approached the tree. "So. . .going hunting? Hunting's real good up past the rocks."
Shaking his head, Chad walked back to his starting place and strolled over again, keeping his head up and his gaze level.
"How about those clouds? Looks like rain. Say, I know a place where we can den up till it passes."
It just didn't sound like when Chiffy had said it to Cherilla. Chad trudged back up the path.
"Oh Chivonne." His wings lifting, he ran over and threw his arms around the rough bark. "Chivonne."
Something little giggled behind him. Chad bounced back from the tree, tail flaring. He whirled around--but only bushes were there.
"Okay. Who's in the bushes. Can you at least come out?" Remembering the someone had to be pretty small, he added, "I won't hurt you--I'm not even hungry. I just want to meet you."
From the brush rose a little clump of leaves, topping a slate-gray body with beady black eyes and stubby arms. An oddish. . .with little stubby arms.
"Oh, hi." Chad waved. The oddish stared. Caught away from home and nighttime, it must feel on edge. "Hey, were you the one coming up behind me?"
The oddish nodded and stepped out from the bushes. It stood about two feet tall, counting its leaves. Chad recognized it as the one who had watched from the bushes during Tilla's speech and the Dance of Flowers. Since he slept by night, he rarely saw these mysterious young from which Gloom grew. Who were being killed off by Victreebel. The Vileplumes' weak link.
"Are you Lizardon?" she asked.
Chad smiled. "No, I'm Chad. That was always my name."
"The Rafracia calls you Chad."
"Yeah." His toe clawed at a root in the ground, peeling at the bark. "What's your name?"
The Oddish's eyes popped wider, as if surprised he wanted to know. "Ollie." "Nice name. How come you're out so. . .late, I guess, for you." Ollie watched his claw scratch the root. "I can't see so good in the dark anymore. It's hard to run around and I get scared that something's going to get me. I can't keep up with the other oddish."
"Whoa." He hoped she wasn't sick. The last thing they needed was to lose another one. "Maybe we could go see Tilla."
Ollie shook her head. "Tilla can't do anything." Her five leaves, smaller for her body than the other oddish, drooped as she spoke. One had turned orange at the end and curled down near her face; it failed to rise and flow with the others.
"Well I don't want victreebels to get you." He looked around; he didn't see any. Then again he had yet to.
Ollie stepped closer to his huge foot, closer than any Vileplume, save Tilla and the elders who had initiated him, ever had. "I'm scared of Victreebel." Chad squatted down. "Well if you like, stay by me. Victreebels might not try to eat you if a charizard's there." Ollie, scratching at the ground with her own feet now, stopped and smiled. "I guess not. Uh--why were you hugging the tree?"
"Oh. . ." Chad said a few quick sentences about rehearsing your lines before you met someone important.
"So you're going to hug her?"
"No! I was just being funny."
Ollie's eyes narrowed. "You're looking for a mate?"
"Well. . ."
"I heard animals do that."
"Vileplumes don't?"
"We're plants. It happens by pollen in the air."
Chad leaned against the tree he had become acquainted with. "Some guys have all the luck."
"What?"
"Nothing." Oliie stepped back. "Okay, you can keep practicing now." He could tell she was winding up for another laugh.
"Eh, I'm going to head back. Come with me if you want."
"Can you fly me there?" she said with a sly smile.
It was a short flight. "Okay." He bent down, instructed her to hop on and cling to his neck. When she had a good grip, he vaulted himself up through the trees and broke into clear air and sun.
"Wheee!" Ollie squealed, wriggling like a charmander out for its first ride as Chad glided gently over Gloomleaf. He knew this was one of the reasons Ollie had approached him.
"Now I can't fly very often, I can't let humans spot me," said Chad when he landed them on the rock ridge. Several Vileplumes nearby looked up when he lit on the mossy stones and the oddish dismounted. She shook her leafy head in agreement with him.
"But it was fun. I always wanted to fly. Thank you." She started down the rocks, hopping lightly.
"You're welcome. Now be careful," he said. "Stay around the alcove, I won't be far off." Glancing down at her from above, Chad glimpsed at the center of her leaves a dark brown bulb the size of a golf ball.
Landing, Chad touched the entranceway stone, bowed and entered. Tilla, her face free of paint, was stringing line on a crude fishing pole.
"I saw you with Ollie," she said as she picked up another pole.
"Yeah. Said she's having trouble seeing and stuff."
"She's going through a difficult and vulnerable year. Keeping her by you is smart--Vernon and I have no time to watch over all those oddish. Since you came the Victreebel haven't given nearly as much trouble. They are keeping clear of your fire."
He was glad to be so unexpectedly useful, though he doubted it could turn their fortunes around. "Always glad to help. Did you see Raelle and Friana?"
"They're down the main path, skinning roots." Tilla pointed to the path he had taken this morning.
He pondered ways to separate Friana from Raelle as he walked. Ollie stayed at the alcove, fortunately.
Songbirds chirped and fluttered among the budding leaves; here and there a young Caterpie inched along a limb. Under the ancient boughs Raelle and Friana sat skinning bark off a big pile of roots. Chah! Chad smacked his forehead, seeing not only two other Vileplumes with them, but Vixen.
Maybe he should have rehearsed with the tree for this instead. He approached them, pausing among the woods. Vixen pinned a root under her paw like a mouse, and slashed it with the other paw. A few charred ones sat discarded near her tails, evidence of a failed experiment. "My soaps!" Raelle rocked back and almost dropped her root as she laughed. "'All My Eevee.' That's like the only thing. Oh and my stereo system." "I miss my books," said Friana. "That's my only loss. What about your complete disco collection?"
"Nah, they got cool drums here. Live. Live music rocks."
Chad stepped out from the bushes, untangling his wing from a vine. Raelle turned around.
"Hey Chad."
"Hey. Mind if I cut in?" As he selected a root, the two Vileplumes shifted to the opposite side of the circle. Chad sat himself back from the circle. Many of them might never overcome their instincts of avoidance. He equaled fire.
Hearing someong coming down the trail, he looked and saw Tilla and Vernon, carrying all the fishing poles.
"Vernon and I gave them new lines. Take them to the pond." To Chad and Raelle, she said, "We like fish when we can get it." The two Vileplumes and Raelle each took a pole.
"Friana, Chad, Vix? Coming?" said Raelle. "Chad doesn't need a pole. He can catch'em with his bare hands."
Chad laughed. Vixen muttered something about having to go hunt and slipped away. Three sneezes in a row somewhat ruined her exit.
"I'll stay and finish these with Friana, if she wants to stay." He shrugged and continued scratching the bark off the root in his hands. "They've got to get done."
"Wonderful idea," said Friana. "And when they come back with the fish, you can cook."
"Why not."
"I would throw myself bodily into the open maw of a Victreebel before I partook of a morsel crispened by the fires of Lizardon," said Vernon. The other Vileplumes were silent and Tilla cleared her throat.
"You have a way with words," Chad mumbled, picking off a piece of root caught on his claw.
"It comes with my trade. May I enlighten you with the Song of the Fire to Come?"
Leaf litter rustled behind him. Chad looked back and saw Ollie.
"Vernon," her leaves trembled, "what's the Fire to Come?" Vernon peered down where his nose would have been, at the oddish. "A prophecy. It sings that Lizardon will come again and engulf Gloomleaf in a conflagration rivaling the flames of hell. 'One day when sun shines over all, Out from the peak, a roaring call, Smoke spews up and ash rains down, Fire bursts from the mountain's crown. . ."
"Vernon," Tilla shoved a pole in his hands, "go fish."
The others stepped aside as Vernon walked briskly past them down the trail, petals stiff. Just before the trail turned, he whirled around, waving his petals as a Vileplume does before it attacks.
"Lizardon may have fooled you all for now!" He pointed his pole at Chad's middle. "But hear the ancients! Their songs will ring true! This beast in our midst will be the downfall of our forest! Gloomleaf will burn!"
When he had left Tilla shook her head. "I am sorry you have to hear him that way, Chad," she said. "Vernon is really a good flower. But he is set in his ways, and fearful."
Chad grunted that it was okay. He had met worse.
"Isn't there another way it all goes?" said Ollie, peeking out from behind Chad's leg. "That--Rafracia said that Lizardon's fire . . . cleanses--"
"That is not the real version," said Tilla. "That's a variant that popped up among oddish countless generations ago, and still reaches the young, passed from Oddish to Oddish. Vernon has said that it may have come up when folks wanted to tell them of Lizardon without upsetting them. Come along. You can help us with the fishing net."
When they were gone Chad realized he was actually alone with Friana. He opened his mouth. "Uh, I know you've done a lot of reading on, just about everything, and I was wondering, do you know anything about. . ." He finished the root and grabbed another. "You know. . .charizards?"
"Why yes, I've studied biology and behavior in all types of Pokémon. But what in the world would I know better than you, about your kind?"
Chad mumbled it.
"Beg pardon?"
"Mating dance. . ."
"Hm." Friana smiled. "There's a female somewhere you're seeking to impress? Well, it's only natural. Butterfree mate for life too, we have that in common. But there are no charizards left out here, which I know of."
"There might be one. Only--please keep this a secret. I don't even know if she's here, I haven't seen her yet."
"My lips are sealed."
Chad gave a satisfied nod as he chucked another root into the finished basket. They gave off an earthy smell he liked; charizards did eat a little plant matter now and then, and he munched on one. "I just need a pointer or two."
"I'll gladly school you in all I know," said Friana. "You'll know a female seeking a mate by her smell. This probably arose because your kind live spaced apart and this helps them locate each other. You're probably giving off a smell yourself."
"I know that part." In his mind he heard Vixen cutting in with a remark about him smelling.
"All right. In all the documentaries I've seen, the two don't speak much right when they meet. The male displays his wings, shows off his strength and fire abilities, she shows him hers, and then she leads him in a dance in the air--quite stunning to behold--where he chases her. It's so they can show off their flying skills and learn about each other through body language. Charizards are physically oriented, right down to fire being their element, as opposed to creatures such as Alakazams who have mental powers. Your kind communicates physically, and learns things better hands-on, or wings-on." She giggled. "Of course this has nothing to do with intelligance. People tend to underestimate charizard intelligance."
"Yeah." Chad already knew how a mating dance went, and was glad he didn't have to say much until after the ice was broken. He felt better knowing that, in fact, he had known it all along.
"So I would not concern myself with talking smoothly, but with making my best appearance. You look fine to me. I've seen your fire attacks and they appear quite impressive."
"Maybe in a living room they do," said Chad, shaking his head at a half-skinned root, "but I can't fire spin."
"Fire spin, the charizard's special attack. Why ever not?"
Chad shrugged. "I was always a late bloomer. With fire spin I never bloomed. I can hunt without it, just. . ."
"Just what?"
"Well it sure gave the others someone to pick on."
"You're in quite a different situation here. There are no rivals to ruin your entrance. And you've got a lot of other qualities to charm her with. From what you've told me, much of your poor luck in your homeland came from overcrowding. Charizards quarrel if too many live close together, usually more than a pair or two within many miles. Often unmated youths are driven out first. This keeps them spread apart, so hunting won't be a problem, and helps prevent inbreeding."
Chad had never thought of it from this standpoint. There had been tension at home, with him and his parents living so close to Chiffy's family, plus the ones by Chook and Chubren. Not to mention old Chizmo taking over the volcano. "I never thought of it that way."
"Science explains many underlying causes."
Chad selected another root from the shrinking pile. He was almost done.
"Being as those roots are about finished and we have some time, why don't you practice your entrance? I can give you tips."
So Chad flew Friana to the little grassy clearing. He fanned his wings. He blew fire. He lopped and dived in fancy flying tricks.
"I know I'm no judge, but from what I can tell, there's no reason why she wouldn't be impressed by all that!" said Friana as he flew them back.
He landed back by the roots and sat her down. "Thanks for everything."
"It's been my pleasure. I lie in wait for my knowledge to become useful. Then again, I lie in wait for everything. That's what Metapods are, waiting to become something."
"You are something. You saved Raelle's life. Not everybody would have done that."
"It wasn't a hard decision--when I heard Raelle screaming, and saw her thrown, bleeding, into that dreadful cell. I was a Caterpie then. But we're all just Caterpie, or Raichu or charizards--messy animals eating, mating, dying, worrying about ourselves. I realized that day that I could climb above it and help someone else for a change. We only live so long."

August swung the pack off his back and stretched his sore shoulders. Chivonne put her stuff down and scratched her side with her foot, balancing on the other as she flexed the leg up. They had hiked hard today, far into this vast forest. You could barely see twenty feet ahead of you in the thicket.
"When are we going back for Lunia?" He sat down to empty his hiking boots of debris, started unlacing the right one.
"Not right now."
"Soon, though, right? You know what danger she's in?" He tapped the shoe clean.
Chivonne stood with her neck straight and tall like a dandelion stem, her wings waving lazily. "It was her or us." She looked back through the woods the way they'd come. "She'll delay him long enough for us to reach the deeps."
"Delay him?" August shot up, his left boot still unlaced. "You're talking about my sister's life!" Flung out to either side, his hands let go of the air and slapped his pants.
She spun on him. "Did you really think Daninger would believe that you'd fall for the explanation that I died in my sleep? Do you think he'd bother to explain? I don't know if you know what danger we're in. There was no way you could stay safe anymore--we're both on their hit list. I'm touched that Lunia decided to spare me. But she's made some real mistakes. I did what I could to save the most lives possible, with me being one of them."
"Do you think Lunia can keep it from him." He tied the laces, then leaned his arm on a tree.
She paced over the leaf litter, nose down and tail tip up. "No. Daninger's too sharp. I feel terrible but--we had to pick the least of evils here." She lifted her head again, remembering the feel of Lunia in her arms, as a blond baby.
August looked at her profile in the spots of sun dancing through the branches over her gold scales. She could be so cold and calculating. She had once told him tales of her past at bedtime, and she had become animated, her eyes sparkling with young life; she had even giggled. Out here, he felt like the last human alive. He imagined she had trouble getting chummy with the species that had ruined hers.
"He may have married her only to get at me--I'm a valuable Pokémon. I know he married her for business." She brushed her foot on the leafy dirt. "He never loved her."
"Yeah." And he must know Lunia was not the Team Rocket type, a poor candidate for Daninger's partner. "Chivonne, we can't leave her in that house." He leaned his forehead into his hand. "She's the only family I've got left and she's a good person. She was taken advantage of."
"Right now we have to keep hiking. There's nothing we can do." Chivonne stepped over to him, but stopped herself from touching him. "I won't let you pay with your life for her mistakes. And mine."
Yes, Lunia had also married Daninger to get at this charizard that had wedged itself into her family. It was true Lunia had not been forced to let her hatred get the best of her. But if Chivonne had never been there, August and Lunia would have a mother today. And she had this strange, lurking feeling they would also have their father. Lunia would be living a normal life right this day, perhaps a mother herself, rather than huddling in that house, flinching from Daninger who was coming home any moment.
It was time she distanced herself from them, let their generations flow naturally again. She had never imagined she would have such an impact on the Kaspers, in the wild she'd never thought herself much out of the ordinary.
August took his head from his hand to see Chivonne hunched away, crying. He hugged her, stroking the back of her neck. "What do you mean, your mistakes?"
She knew she could explain, but he still wouldn't understand. Destroying a species or destroying a family: was one really worse than the other?

Chad lay placid on a rock outside the deepest deeps, full of another lickitung in the afternoon shade. His lungs were sore; not from the adrenaline that surged forth whenever he took down prey, but from exertion after eating. He had lit in that little clearing again and tried to fire spin, again with the usual results.
The shadows of branches still sparsely leaved waved over his mountanous belly. The creatures must have learned to keep to cover and watch the skies, because they had become harder to find. But Chad hadn't flown more than a few hours to make a kill. In the attack he had set fire to last fall's dry leaves, and barely stomped it out in time. Even though this could hardly be called a drought, so much tinder clogged the forest that anything dry could catch when he passed. Though minding his tail flame was second nature by now and he hunted using minimal fire, he still felt as if the dry twigs and leaves were laying themselves before him, begging to burn.
His nostrils caught wind of something that opened his blue eyes and sat him straight up. Right then he discovered that the sweetest smell in all Gloomleaf was not Victreebel honey.
It was female charizard.

August poked a stick at the campfire logs; he put meat on the spittle. Near dusk, Chivonne came back from hunting. Yesterday she had told him about "her" mistakes, with his family. But he couldn't fault her for the fragility of one human family; any woman who abandoned her children was a poor mother. Chivonne had given herself a lofty mission and shot for it with all her stamina, while he just watched things worsen. Anyway they had felt better over a roast.
Daninger had always warned August against letting Chivonne hunt.
"Once a Pokémon's tasted blood, it changes. Flesh becomes cheap to them," he had said. August had pointed out that Chivonne had hunted for hundreds of years before settling down with them. "Nevertheless it's easier for her to turn on us. I used to feed my carnivorous ones an occasional meat treat, and then they didn't want Pokémon food anymore. Only flesh." A lot of Pokémon-raising guides recommended low-meat diets even for carnivores, built on centuries of belief that meat made Pokémon revert. But August had found that allowing Chivonne to hunt her own food let her burn energy, expend herself doing what her species did naturally. She was more relaxed at home, and she sometimes provided dinner. Now they were both relying on her skills.
"What is it?" August looked up from the crackling campfire and dinner cooking to see Chivonne straying away, her nose alive at something apparently more interesting than roasting meat.
Chivonne walked back to where he was turning the sizzling morsel. She sat down by the fire, hoping the smoke would drown out the delicious smell of a male that she must have imagined.
She smelled it again; her loins pulsed. She spread her wings. If there really was a male out here she had to get him away. Did he know about Team Rocket? Was he one of theirs? He had to be trained. But she had only ever smelled that scent in wild males. The thought of them forcing a free-flaming charizard to their bidding. . .
"I'll be right back."
"Chivonne come down are you crazy?" He shot up, his hand reaching out as Chivonne flapped her sky-blue wings, ruffling his hair and blowing dry leaves. She shot up toward the treetops as a wave of wind heralding clouds surfed through the spring leaves.

Chad's meat-laden stomach cramped, his legs sore as he crunched sticks and brush underfoot. Branches clawed his skin, as if trying to hold him back. His head leaned forward, his arms pumped, towed by the smell that had grabbed his nose. He could not risk flying with a trainer possibly accompanying the female. But who knew? The golden beauty might have the freedom to fly out here when she wasn't battling. Stop thinking it's Chivonne, he chided himself as a branch of flowers whacked his face. He rubbed his eye and pushed on, far from any trail. She can't be everywhere.

Yet when he approached the rocks jutting up like big gray teeth from the top of the forested hill, on the peak burned a flame, an orange flag flapping from the tail tip of her. There she stood, a golden beacon, watching him weave around foliage that caught on his head and wings. Chad stopped at the foot of the boulder, trying to collect his dignity.
Here she was, alone with him, staring with her fiery eyes. Just seeing her, seeing another charizard after so long, cut so many cords of tension in him. She opened sky-blue wings, and let them fold again, one angling to rub an itch on the other. Her mouth was tightly closed, and it may have been a trick of her firelight playing off her body in the shady woods, but he thought he saw her shaking. She licked her lips and spoke low. Her mouth barely opened.
"Who are you?"
He took a breath. "Chad." Chivonne mouthed his name; he saw her pink tongue curl in her mouth. Her stare pushed him past arm's length, though he saw room on the rock for two. Doubt shadowed his thoughts. She looked not thrilled, but fearful, her chin angled low. But Chah, was she gorgeous. A bird, of molten gold. Almost too gorgeous for him to touch with his own big clumsy hands.
Her wings opened again as the wind gusted through the trees.
"Whoever you are, you have to leave. I can't explain it. Suffice it to say it's extremely dangerous. Humans."
"What about you?"
Chivonne closed her eyes. "I'm already owned."
". . .but. . ." Chad's foot scratched the ground. His tail lashed as he looked back up at her. "Can I come to see you, another time?"
"Of course. But not now. You have to leave this forest--now."
"If it's that dangerous, come with me. Or I'll come with you. Is your trainer--would he--"
"I can't." Her tail undulated slowly. "I'm so sorry. But please, leave--"
"Chivonne, I've been. . ." He flung his hands out and let them smack his sides. He was out of words. Chivonne stepped towards him. "How'd you know my name."
"I looked you up," and her face relaxed, nodding, "after I saw you at Violet Town, remember?"
Chivonne's tail flame grew into a burning bush behind her; her wings flew wide. She pointed. "That was you. . ."
"Yeah."
She shook her head, as if clearing clutter. "No. Chad, you have to go. I promise you we'll see each other again. But not now. Please. You have to leave." She looked up, her wings flapping up.
"Don't go yet! Won't you explain!" Chad flew up onto the rock, but she was already flapping towards the small gap in the forest roof. "Chivonne!" "Don't follow me! I'll come back for you!" Chad's feet left the rock, then plopped back down. Encapsulated in the forest, he watched her catch the winds high over the canopy and soar off, her body streamlining with her slender tail waving behind her. His wings sagged, dragged down by the memory of too many females giving him the same lines. Flaming Dorien, flaming Russell, flaming the map had not been big goofs. . .following Chivonne had. Why had he thought she would be different? Why. . .--
Chah damn me if self-pity stops me now.
He flew up, taking the same trail through the hole in the trees. He saw her in the distance and poured on speed. "Chivonne no!"
She dipped below the trees as if they'd plucked her down. His throat burned with exertion. He rammed through the air. "Stop!"
Ducking into the shade, he saw no sign of her. Her scent was all he had to follow as he flew over the area, over and over. Faint to begin with, it led nowhere. His drum-deep calls trumpeted until dark, when he flew back to Deep's Heart with sore eyes and a sorer throat, angry for acting so foolishly. He was supposed to be hiding.

Tucked into a small space under large rocks, which masked her scent, Chivonne listened to Chad's calling; the deep roars hummed in her gut. Tears rolled down her face. When his long, pleading calls finally ceased, she flew back to August, sobbing. She knew that Team Rocket alone could not have made her drive him away; in her heart, Blue-eyes was as alive as ever.

Tonight was quiet, the chirping cacophany of summer bugs still not woken. Chad sat hunched over himself on a small rock past the main trails to the alcove, hearing the occasional rustles of small beasts--oddish, rattata, otachi. He was glad they stayed too far away to see him crying.
"Chad?" Little feet crinkled the nearby leaves and he felt a tiny, cool hand touch his foot. "What's wrong?"
"Ollie. . . I really want to be alone right now."
"Okay." After a pause, she left up the trail.
Chad didn't want to go back home yet--his heart clung to Chivonne--but after a season or so he would feel ready. He knew by now how long it took him to get over these things.
"Chah, I'm not sure anymore if you even exist. But if you do. . . let's face it, you messed up making me. If you didn't, well, what in the world were you thinking."
A tear splatted his knee.
"That's for Chah to know and you to find out buddy."
His tail flame leapt; he whipped his head around. Carrying Friana on her back, Raelle leaned a paw on the rock. "Sorry I surprised you guy. But we were worried. Ain't seen you since this morning, then an oddish comes running up saying you're crying."
"Vixen here?"
"No, she stayed back 'cause she didn't want to make it worse. That's how she put it."
"I don't think Vixen can control what she says, as well as I thought."
"I'm no psychologist," said Friana, "but she displays some obsessive-compulsive behavior, as well as low self-esteem."
"Yeah, Vix got some problems." Raelle sat down. "So. Chah's . . . a Poké God?"
"Yeah. He made the world." Chad felt strange saying that now.
Raelle leaned back on her hands, her feet drumming their heels against the rock. "We Raichu call him Rai-blu. But whoever it is up there," she shook her head, "he don't mess up. We do." Raelle looked at her lap, as if on the verge of tears herself. Chad didn't need to ask if she was homesick.
"And whatever in the world," said Friana, "could make you think you're a mistake of nature? Here you are committing one heroic feat after another! If you're a freak, you're a freak in the best possible way."
"I'm not special enough to be a freak, I'm not ordinary enough to be normal," said Chad. "Anyway we all have our down days."
"He don't want to talk about it, I guess," said Raelle.
"You want to know?" He held back flame. "A female turned me down."
Friana gasped. "Not the one you--"
"Yeah, her. And I'd rather Vixen didn't know."
"Course," said Raelle. "I didn't know there were char's around here. Who was it?"
"Just a female. Trained. Said humans are around, said I'd better get out of here, turned her tail and flew."
"Tilla said humans hunt around Gloomleaf a lot," said Raelle. "Probably her trainer's out to catch'em and she wanted you safe."
"Think so?" Leave it to Raelle to rationalize it all in a sweep of one sentence. Why hadn't he thought of that?
"Don't know why you want a trained one instead of someone from your island though."
Chad shrugged, flexing his toes. "Don't know myself."
"Is she good lookin."
"That's an understatement."
"Love sees no trainers," said Friana. "I've read that a trained charizard can turn out fine. If she's that ready to mate, she'll probably sniff you out when the timing's better."
"What about her human?" Wasn't that a trainer's dream--two charizards? A breeding pair, no less?
"If she was intelligent enough to have the self-control to drive you off today, then she'll come calling again when it's safe for a rendezvous. She'd be a fool to pass you by."
"That's right Friana!" Raelle grinned back at the Metapod. "So don't think your god kicked out on you. He's up there, believe it."
"Thanks, guys, you're too much." He grunted, heaving himself to his feet. "Let's head back, I'm pooped."
As they got off the rock they bumped into Ollie, whom Chad scooped up and let her ride piggyback to the alcove. One by one they touched hands/paws/leaves on the stone, bowed, and entered.
Chad hadn't changed his mind because of their pep talk--he realized that he had been intending to hunt her down again all along. As he curled up on the comfy bare stone, he said quietly, "I'll see you again."

Standing in Chivonne's room Daninger turned August's note over, to a blank back. It was the boy's handwriting, and his wording: too awkward and choppy to have been composed by Chivonne. Then again he wouldn't have been surprised if she had forged the whole thing. Lunia sat on Chivonne's bed as he picked the needle up and uncapped it. Squinting, he saw the poison gone. What Lunia had already told him was unbelievable, but he would not disregard it yet. He knew that stress made her exaggerate stories.
"So she survived the night."
"Yes. I checked on her before he got up and she wasn't moving. . . her tail flame was very low."
"Well she was alive if he Poké Balled her." He opened Chivonne's desk drawers, rifling through them. Not much besides paper, stationery and stamps, sounds-of-nature CDs and a monstrous vibrator. "And thanks to you he knows everything he shouldn't and he's running loose."
"He put his hand to my neck." Not sure she was lying well, she put her face into her hands, her feet close together. "And squeezed."
"So?" Daninger spun on her. "Did you think he'd kill his own sister? He's a softie, anyone would know that from how Chivonne handles him." Daninger shook his head. She might be easy to coerce, but she'd never be Rocket material.
"I can't tell you how sorry I am that it turned out this way," said Lunia. He wanted to tell her to shut her simpering mouth; he capped the needle hard and slammed it down by the mouse pad and the note. The woman annoyed him no end. He had told himself that conquering Chivonne was worth marrying Lunia. Time would tell.
He had started out wanting to own and breed that charizard. Now he was yanking his hair out just to keep her from ruining his entire life. There was a chance she would pull through, but did he want her to?
"So all you know is he's heading to some city. Never got which one? What region? What station?"
"They said the city."
Lunia closed her mouth and her gaze wandered onto her sock feet.
"They?"
"August and Chivonne."
In the dingy light of the dusty desk lamp he thought he saw her face flush. Not deigning to sit on Chivonne's stool, he stood over his wife. "How asleep was she?"
"All but dead, but her eyes were open. August was trying everything to rouse her. I thought of killing her somehow right then but August kept coming back in here. Then he Poké Balled her." There, keep talking as if you never knew you slipped, she thought.
"It would have been so much more convenient to do away with both, but I knew you'd never agree to it."
"He is my brother. My only family left."
"He could be our undoing--he must be located. We can't let that information out or let her live."
"How are we going to find him?"
"First," he said, lunging towards her and grabbing her by the upper arms, "you are going to tell me the truth."
As she kicked her feet up he got his knee on the bed and slid her back over the smooth, curved stone. Her back slammed the wall, her hands rose, fingers clawing. "Stop!"
"I promised I wouldn't kill August." He leaned closer as she wriggled, her face red and clenched. Strands of hair stuck to her cheeks. "I never said anything about you."
"--no--"
"So start talking." He smiled at her blubbering face. "To spare me the drudgery of dragging the old disciplinary equipment out of Yellow Town's warehouse."


42: Let Me Stand Next to Your Fire

Fearows squawked, soaring high in the cool dawn as Chad landed on the same jutting stone Chivonne had stood on yesterday. Thinking of her brought that fireball deep inside boiling up his belly, flaming through his thighs. All this time she had felt closer to him than she really was; and yet they had never touched.
Chad's cerulean eyes scanned the forest below. Chivonne may have been the "last wild charizard" of this land, but after a hundred or so years her free past might have no bearing anymore on who she was. Did she believe in the honor of battling and loyalty to her trainer, and eschew the wild? Would loving her mean submitting to another human?
He would take the chance. Her spirited gaze told him there was more to her than, say, Charmina. Those eyes were wild. They reached him in a way Raelle, Friana, Vixen, even Tilla did not.
Chad looked up; only a lone pidgey flew overhead, silhouetted against the mottled-white sky. He felt crazy hoping for rain, but the forest's dryness made him nervous. He sat down, his tail wrapping in front of him, and held a leaf over the flame, watching it flash and curl, a live thing wriggling in an ecstasy of consumption. Cherilla, Carinae, all them had been mere sparks. Until he had seen Chivonne, Chad had never known what it felt like to burn.
"She's not coming." But Chad didn't bat a wing. Chah, he had thousands of years. He had become too accustomed to rushing around. He stood up straight and took a deep breath, filling from chest to gut. Lifting his head to the sky, his jaws opened, tongue in the air, and out came a deep roar that shook the rock under his feet.
He expanded with another breath and roared again. Let the trainers come with their Poké Balls. Let the wind and rain gust at him from four directions! He would fight the lot and call till Chivonne came. His roar could be heard for miles. She was hearing him.
Just as he was taking another breath, from the east blew an answering roar, lacking the depth of his, but clear and strong. Chad launched himself off the rock as if it were sinking into water and burst from the trees like a pidgey from hell. He saw the only clearing for miles and circled it; Chivonne's glorious scent wafted up to him, a potion. He lit on a small bare rock, a few steps from the golden one herself. Chivonne was looking straight at him.
I know you didn't want me following you. . . he almost said, but he just stared, feeling his heart pump. An anchor of pulsing dropped into his groin. They needed no words now.
Keeping her orange gaze on him she stepped forward as he approached her. On the grassy ground strewn with low rocks they circled each other, drawn closer by their locked stares. She was petite; her head barely reached his neck. She cocked her head, as if to get a better view of his face. Through the heat and dizziness, he realized she was waiting for him to do something.
Chad fought the urge to roar, until he realized it must be what she wanted to hear. He extended his wings, took another deep breath, helping squelch the rolling boulder in his stomach, and roared, shooting a huge yellow-white feather of fire at the clearing sky. With his next roar, another plume, the biggest fire he could make, erupted from his mouth and leaped up; his tail flame shot taller. He met her eyes again as Chivonne braced her feet. Her neck elongated, wings spread, she pointed her head to the blue and roared her own fire; the storm of flame looped like a bird. A fire spin.
Any concern that humans might be hearing this were stamped out along with the rest of Chad's brain. Chivonne walked over; just before she would have touched him, she flapped her wings and flew up. She circled low over him, eyes twinkling, puffing out flame for splashes of color. Chad pumped his wings hard, chasing her.
Chivonne surprised him with her speed. Chad flew just as fast, but she darted, swooped and turned, outmaneuvering him whenever he neared that gold tail. Delighted, Chad pursued her with a surge of sexual energy; all was a whirl of sky, trees, clouds, Chivonne. Spiraling up she swung her flaming tail, leaving a stream of coils. Chad followed, imitating her acrobatics. Higher and higher the two charizards flew, orange and gold against blue sky and cottony clouds. Chad whipped out a long lick of flame, getting her feet; she faced him briefly before flaming in return. Chad dove through the orange; his hands grabbed. But when it cleared, her hand tagged his back. Chad looked to see her flip while flaming, surrounding herself in a fire ring; a stripe blared along her belly. He glided in, joining the dance. He knew now that she was all wild. Chivonne again evaded his grasp, diving landward. Her tail brushed lightly over the smooth flat rock as she looked back at him. Panting, he lunged--and grabbed her. They tumbled onto the grass.
Out of breath, Chivonne spread herself as he laid her on her back and they rubbed, nipping and biting. She spit flame at his neck and he leaned in. As her arms squeezed his shoulders he entered her, feeling her feet grip his ribs, her hips lift, as he wound his neck in hers, feeling her voice. Tail and tail twined together, wings rubbed wings. Every breath he took fanned his fire, drove his pumping. His tears ran between their faces. "Chad!" she said. "Oh, Chad!" Then there was no thought; only rage, and speed. He was Chah's child, an erupting volcano.
His lungs heaved, like landing; he breathed into the grass above her shoulder. From far away her hand stroked his neck, like a shaking leaf; he swam into peace.
He loosened their embrace so his head lay on its side; then he rolled on his back, pulling her with him. "Chivonne."
He swallowed to keep from crying as he looked up at her eyes. "What happened. . . yesterday?"
Her wings wrapped him.
"I goofed."

"Arrrrgh." Daninger leaned his elbows on his desk and rubbed his temples. Yesterday he had gotten back to the house from helping to escort Lunia to Yellow Town for her imprisonment, and now he had the house to himself. "If everyone weren't so damn incompetent I wouldn't have to waste my time making sure they're doing their jobs." On his computer he clicked up his agenda.
Check Tilla group.
Daninger spun his chair to his right, hit a button on his video phone and typed a number. Typing numbers was faster than speaking them, so he usually used the keys.
"Boss?" came a crackly voice. Jewel was too far away from any antennas or receivers; there was nothing out there in Gloomleaf and they relied mostly on space satellites.
"Jewel. How are you two doing? What have you found?" This was going to be rich, he thought as he put the video monitor on, showing a snowy picture of her face, shaded with her hair hanging forward as she looked down at her wristwatch phone. Jewel and Gloen almost always got sidetracked. Likely they had spent time hunting Pokémon for their own collections; they were Rocket's best and most experienced trainers, but unreliable workers.
"Boss, you wouldn't believe it--"
"Jewel, you're breaking up. How far have you searched and have your Pokémon turned up anything?"
"No--" the screen went gray, then cleared up. "--Charizards in a courtship dance. Yesterday--"
"Roaring their stupid heads off!" said their Eevee. "So the whole world can know they're fucking."
"Where?"
"Way west of here," said Jewel, shoving Eevee away. "First we heard them roar, we knew it wasn't thunder. We only saw them through our binoculars. We thought it was a battle--"
"If this was so amazing why didn't you call yesterday."
Crackup again. "--told us never to phone you unless we were in danger or we found something on Tilla!"
He couldn't argue. What choice had he had? It was between telling them never to call, or losing half his work time to answering their petty complaints and stupid questions. They didn't understand he had over a hundred other people to deal with. He had Jewel give him her best estimate of the sighting, and, "Was one of them gold."
"I don't remember. They looked kind of the same. Do you want us to catch'em?"
He felt his chin. Chivonne could have easily made it out there by now, but not with August. "Yes, if you spot them again. However please stay focused on your assignment." After that, Daninger called several others on the hunt and asked them if they had witnessed the charizard dance. Two of them had heard them, no one else seen them. Daninger warned them to be on the lookout for Chivonne and August.
Next on the agenda: August/Chivonne group. He phoned several people who were hunting in places as diverse as Saffron City, Lavender Town, Vermillion City, Poké City. No one turned up anything, at the Pokémon centers or anywhere else. It had been several days since they'd given him the slip, and August could not have done it so well. That charizard had orchestrated the entire plan. He called them all back in a group broadcast and told them to report back to Yellow Town. They would join the others in Gloomleaf, after they had been given the proper equipment. You didn't just send someone into that wilderness without a few firearms as well as strong Pokémon.
There was nothing he despised more than being fooled by that golden bitch. But there were Pokémon he despised almost as much.
And that brought him to the third task.
He called up his last pair, whom he had assigned to a separate mission for quite some time now. Not surprisingly, they didn't have anything to report.
"Kora has disappeared," the blundering idiot said at the screen. "We don't want to sound insubordinate, but this is just impossible. If we do find her she'll just disappear."
"Keep trying." And he pressed Off. Swinging his chair away he rubbed his temples again. Capturing that meddling Kora would require special preparations. It wasn't really possible to track her; she would have to be lured, then trapped in a ball and released into an environment that would instantly kill her, like lava--before she could teleport. If they didn't find anything soon he would pull those two out of Poké City and set them to working on a plan to lure her in. That might require extra help. "I hate Alakazams."
The phone rang again. Clenching his fingers, Daninger pressed On.
"It's us again," said the guy assigned to getting Kora. "I forgot to mention a good book I found."
"Is that all you called me for?" Daninger pounded the desktop. "What are you doing browsing bookstores when I gave you a job! Read your novels when you're done tracking down that--"
"No! It was written--by Marius Mewtwo! I haven't had a chance to read it, but--"
Daninger switched the call to the big screen. He ordered him to show the book page by page. Daninger read the title, Eight Years with Vileplumes. One of the most boring topics he had ever struggled through. He skimmed most of it. What did he care about a bunch of flower-headed savages? He was about to tell the man to give his tired arms a rest and put the book away when his eyes lit on a sentence on page 3 that jolted up those drooping eyelids.
This proud tribe's leader is named Tilla, although her full title is Tilla Rafracia.
In the indices were maps of a place called Deep's Heart. However, they did not indicate its location within Gloomleaf.
These maps are intentionally inaccurate to protect the privacy and freedom of these shy people. The human race must understand that the best way we can help them is leave them alone, read a footnote.
The location was obscure enough to stop ordinary trainers and poachers, but not Team Rocket.

Chivonne woke up but did not open her eyes. She felt Chad breathing faster, then slower; occasionally a hand or foot twitched as he dreamed. In their lovemaking she had noticed he was inexperienced, rushing in and stroking with raw instinct. After the edge was off their hunger he gladly let her guide him through different techniques.
What would Team Rocket be up to in these coming seasons? Would they find Tilla? Regardless, Chivonne had already chosen to go back to the Charmountains. Chad would agree right away.
And August? She would find a place where he, too, could play out his life in safety, some island Team Rocket had yet to harm, a town beyond their realm of care. She could visit him, watch his own family ripen, follow their line--sure to turn out more truly exceptional humans. He needed to live away from her anyway. August would never try to hold her back from leaving, but she felt slightly guilty, like she were leaving a charmander--even a mate--alone and deserted. She knew the feeling would fade.
Now she felt real again, alive and unburdened, if sad that there was no hope left for charizards as a whole. But many, if not most, of the big flame Pokémon lived most days only seeing their mate and offspring; she and Chad could toss up the illusion that out there it was fine. And if humans grew to destroy the Charmountains too. . .well, she could never have stopped it. She and Chad might be able to keep retreating to safe places through their lifetimes. Beyond your death, did anything matter? She put aside thoughts of their charmanders.
Close up, she studied the details of Chad's orange face; his eyelids fluttered and then lay calm. He was bony around the arms and shoulders, because of his big frame, and for her it only added to his physical charm. And he has a brain. Could she blame herself for this selfishness, for allowing love? Males like this didn't just fly out of the clouds. A century of her efforts had left humanity unswayed; and did she really think she could find this Tilla, a grain of sand on a beach? She would tell Chad only that Team Rocket was after her; she was cutting herself loose. She'd run out of ideas, and she wanted to be a charizard again. Already the Kasper house felt long ago.
Humanity might have given her nothing in her mission, but without it she would not have met Chad. For that she thanked them, and Chah. Her thoughts swam back into waking dreams.

"Rrrrr," Chad rumbled, lifting his head from her shoulder, and it turned to a yawn showing his full set of sharp white teeth. Before he opened his eyes he thought he was back with the Vileplumes, a feeling that winked out as he felt Chivonne; he lay curled against her. He saw no clouds in the dawn sky, but felt exposed to the wind.
Chivonne opened her fiery eyes. Chad's own stomach broke the silence; he shifted to lying on her back with his head between her wings, their tail flames whipped by the breeze. Chivonne sat up and he slid off. "Hey."
"I have to hunt, I'm starving. I can hear you are too."
When they finally unwound their limbs, they took flight. Chad saw a large creature in the forests, a shy hulking shadow in the understory; then it was gone. "Bakufun," said Chivonne licking her chops. "They're nocturnal most of the time; I guess having no hunters around this far in made them careless." They each took separate quarry. After three tries on three separate prey, Chad downed a Scyther and brought it over to her. She was ripping into the tough hide of a badger-like creature twice her size--Chad recognized it now as a bakufun. She had a few nasty scratches on her front, but they were scabbed. Charizards needed large kills to fuel their big flaming bodies, and few meals came without a fight--but he was impressed that she had taken this animal down by herself. After finishing his kill and what she'd left of hers, Chad gave himself a grooming, then he sidled over to lick her clean, and then some and then some more. Chad was on her back nipping her neck when their twined tails lit last year's leaves. They barely stomped it out in time.
Chivonne flew onto the smooth rock and crouched, tail up. Chad mounted her, clasping her small slender body round the hips; his mouth bit her neck and shoulders. Her hands clawed the rock and then reached back to hold his sides, like a cliff, as she worked with his rhythm. She threw her head up, joining her roar with his.
They lay on the rock, as if thrown there. Through ridicule, exile, capture. . .through Dorien, discos and Poké City he had arrived here. And he'd do it again; everything had been worth it. To think he'd once wanted to die.
If Chad and Chivonne had been human they might have overflowed with questions, but to the two charizards, words came more slowly. She could change her mind and fly away tomorrow; they had only just met. But Chad believed in this.
"Do you remember, back in Violet Town when we saw each other?"
"I'll never forget." Her tail tightened on his.
"How come you called me Blue-eyes?"
"Well. . ." Her eyes wandered to the side; her smile dropped off her face. He backed up from her head so he could focus, on the subtle curves of her brow ridges and smooth golden scales. "I thought you were someone else."
"Oh."
"I didn't mean it like that." She paused. "He's long dead. You just look so much like him. I thought I'd seen his ghost."
"I'm sorry."
"Don't be. I'm glad you're real."
"Ditto to you. So, what's up with you and your. . . trainer?"
Chivonne told about August, who knew she was with Chad right now but wasn't into catching Pokémon, and about the battles and shows.
"Good that you can do shows instead of battles sometimes."
"Yeah, I'd rather do a show anyday, but shows aren't perfect either." She giggled. "I remember one stunt show I rehearsed for months, I got it down pat. Then on the opening night, the costume director decides I 'need something' to make me look more feminine. He has them put this big, loopy red ribbon around my neck. I said 'it's going to catch fire,' they said no, just be careful. So I do the loop routine and land with it flaming around my neck. I run backstage, quench it, they have another huge ribbon waiting. After that ribbon caught fire they gave up. I was holding back laughing--It was funny."
Chad was laughing too. "I can see why stunt shows would want you though. Your flying and your fire, are incredible."
Chivonne licked his face. He felt her take deeper breaths."Your fire is incredible. It's okay if you're too tired now, but you have to show me your fire spin sometime." She laughed. "I'm too curious."
Chad's tongue dug at a piece of meat wedged between his backmost teeth.
"I can't fire spin."
"I'm sorry." Her hand stroked his head, back to his left horn. Chills ran through him even as he looked away in embarrassment. "What happened?"
He rolled onto his engorged stomach, feeling the food slosh. "More like what didn't happen. I could never make it come out, that's all."
He felt a flame at his side and Chivonne piled on him, hands moving over his back. "You think that matters to me?"
Chad grinned over his shoulder. "You're too good for me."
She shook her head. "Where in the world did you come from?"
He strained his neck to touch her nose but couldn't. It made her smile, though. "I'm from Chah."
"How'd you get here?"
He told her about the six-year poaching. That led to having to explain about being banished, which forced him to toss out a few words about Chiffy and his dear friends and family.
"Imagine turning on one of your own," said Chivonne, nuzzling him.
"I forgive them." Chad snorted flame out his nose, which made her laugh. "Problem was too many charizards living too close. I guess we all wanted to live right around the active volcanoes." He blew out a sigh; fire rolled out scraggly. "What I wouldn't give for a good lava dip."
"In the Charmountains there are tons of active volcanoes, over a wider area," said Chivonne. "It's estimated to be the largest volcano chain in the world. I'll take you there--I haven't had a lava swim in a while either."
"Neat. Never been there."
"So you haven't been out here long."
"Nope. Actually--" he paused, rubbing an itch, "I came out here because I found out you lived in the area. But I also had to hide. I'm wanted, I flamed a Wigglytuff in an apartment in Poké City."
"Why?"
Chad explained about befriending Raelle. Which necessitated explaining how Vixen had got him to Poké City from his home with Jade.
"Was she your original owner? She doesn't sound like a trainer."
"She wasn't. Dorien was." Chad dribbled his lips. "I'll just say, a real asshole who thought Pokémon have to be tortured before they're truly trained. He bought me at an auction in Saffron City, had his whole gym renovated so he could have fun shocking me with his Raichus and making me swim. He tortured my friend, a Meowth, a kitten at the time--if I didn't do everything he said." Chad looked at his claws, which were making white marks on the rock. "I flamed him to death. At my first battle in Crimson City. They were going to kill me, but Jade worked out something with the owners of the shelter. She bought me and they faked my death. So, humans might be causing all the trouble on this planet, but they aren't all bad."
Chivonne stood up, staring with her eyes wide, her dainty nostrils flared. Her tail flame grew behind her wings and neck; her sides showed her quickened breathing. Chad stood up himself.
"What's wrong?"
"Blue-eyes?"
Was she was one of those folks who saw things?
She pointed to him. "Did you burst through the gym roof?"
"Yeah. . .It made the news. Why, do you remember. . ."
Chivonne leaped onto him; he stumbled back, flapping his wings for balance as she flung her arms around him, sobbing. "Blue-eyes."
When she finally loosened her hold, she told about seeing him on the news, trying to protest, fantasizing about him for years. Chad only shook his head, nothing coming to mind but, "Really? Me?"
"You're beautiful, Chad."
Chad couldn't stop the tears now. This--coming from her.
She bent her head and he mirrored her, rubbing noses and horns. He buried her in his wings.


43: War of the Roses

"Be careful, Chad, see you soon," were Chivonne's parting words; Chad pecked her cheek, then they flew off in opposite directions to attend to those left behind during their rendezvous. Chad looped and flamed in the air as he flew back to Deep's Heart, gliding low and whipping his foot on a branch once. He wanted to trumpet it to the world. Raelle, Friana and the Vileplumes would be happy for him, but he wasn't so sure about Vixen.
"Who cares!"
As he neared Deep's Heart, the smell of honey halted his acrobatics. Honey had no smell. So what was this fragrance feeling up his nostrils, filling his head and drawing him down?
He didn't even like honey!
"So there you are." Vixen sat glaring in the middle of the trail as he ran up. "So the smell finally brought you around? It's about time."
Chad heard distant shouts of Vileplumes; here and there they raced around, as if trying to all find each other. "What's going on?"
"If you hadn't been mooning around who knows where you'd know this whole tribe is under attack!"
"Attack?" He saw no one. "Where? Who?"
Vixen bared her pointy teeth. "Use your nose you big fat lizard--it's sure bigger than your brain. The VICTREEBELS. They're coming to raid us. Hope your Oddish friend's okay, I haven't seen her. If I found you, they said to bring you to the rocks."
Chad ran after Vixen down the trail to the ridge; her long legs and graceful paws easily galloped ahead of his big feet. They found the alcove deserted.
"You know this whole attack's your fault. The victreebels aren't stupid, they saw their chance--"
"Please. Leave me alone. Let me think--"
"If you hadn't gone flying around all night--"
"I said leave--"
"Why don't you--"
"--stop pestering me!"
"--Let me talk!"
There was silence. A long sprint away, near a patch of sunlight, a group of Vileplumes, Gloom, and a tailless Raichu carrying a Metapod on her back were running up to the ridge.
"Now is really not a good time to argue."
"Shut your Bunsen burner for two seconds. We have less than an hour before this whole place is swamped with these things. If you let your fire out of control, you could make the remedy worse than the disease."
"I realize that!" He stood akimbo. "So what about you?"
"We Ninetales control ourselves. We only flame when we need to--unlike a charizard who just torches its brains out. We're not the ones who start forest fires."
Vixen was worse with her words than Chad was with his flames.
"Anything could start a forest fire here."
"Found him!" Vixen shouted unnecessarily as they all trotted up. Raelle gave Chad's leg a hearty slap.
"Where were you, guy?"
"Out having his fun and roaring up a storm. You didn't hear him?"
"Oh give him a break." Raelle swatted her paw at Vixen."If you were so worried about him stop cutting him down."
"I wasn't worried for him."
"Where's Ollie?" said Chad.
"Here I am!" Ollie's leafy head was wriggling through the taller people. She wasn't much shorter than the smallest of the Gloom. Breaking though, she ran over and hugged Chad's leg.
"I saw a victreebel get an oddish once. And my running's so slow."
Chad picked her up. "You're safe here."
Vixen rolled her eyes. "First the Meowth, now her."
"The Victreebel are coming mostly from the west," said Friana. "That's where their main colony is said to reside."
"Well let's get out and attack'em!" Chad gave his big cerulean wings a gusty flap. Ollie's hand tightened on his wrist.
Tilla stepped through the crowd, her feather skirt round her hips. Painted on her belly and, Chad noticed, the belly of every other Vileplume/Gloom, was a yellow and red flame design. A symbol of Lizardon? More Vileplumes were coming around the ridge, attracted to their leader as she began to speak.
"Attacking is not as simple as it seems. All of us can smell them," said Tilla. Chad vaguely wondered how Vileplumes could smell without noses. "But they conceal themselves so well. You can't attack what you can't see. Although they move slowly, they know how to plan. They make it nearly impossible for us to attack until they are upon us, lashing out with enormous vines, and shooting acid. They will show themselves soon, and we must be ready."
"How far can those enormous vines lash?" said Vixen.
"About seven plumes. For the largest and oldest Victreebel, even farther."
"A plume means how wide a Vileplume flower is," said Ollie. That was three or four feet.
"How far can that acid shoot?" said Vixen.
"Nearly twice that," said Tilla. "It melts any flesh it touches, and slowly paralyzes its victim."
Vixen seemed to shrink. Her back and tails bristled.
"So what's the plan?" said Chad. Without fire, how could he defend himself, much less attack them?
"The oddish bury themselves during the day. The Victreebel can locate the leaves, though, and yank them from the ground. Nevertheless they are still safer underground during a raid. Our traditional strategy is simply to surround Deep's Heart and attack outward. We aren't as many as we used to be. We'll do our best."
"And you've got my help," said Chad.
Tilla managed a smile. "We couldn't be more grateful. But you must stay out of our way. Our attacks could bring you down as well."
"You haven't seen Chad in action," said Raelle.
"You haven't seen us in action. Everyone, gather for a song."
Vixen mumbled to Chad that it was totally stupid to "stand here singing while these things close in on us." But as Chad looked around at the Vileplumes, young and old, all painted with the flame design, touching hands and singing, he saw at work a force that charizards could never touch upon: group unity. Whichever way this went, they would go together.
Chad followed Raelle, Friana, and Vixen with a group of Vileplumes and Ollie out to the edges of Deep's Heart. Tilla slowly reached out to touch his wing, holding up her other small hand to shield her face from the heat of his flame. He moved his tail around his other side. "Please be careful with your fire breath. It's true that Gloomleaf plants are resistant to fire--it's why the Bakufun have not burned it down--but even they know they must be careful. If you light anything this entire forest could die."
The honey smell sent Chad's head spinning as they reached the edge of the oldest trees, where a stream trickled over rocks.
"There." A Vileplume pointed a dark gray hand towards bushes just past the thin water. In the shadowy brush, twigs snapped. A dark, shiny, leafless vine shot out. Ollie screamed. A flick of flame spurted from Chad's mouth before he remembered; and then he heard a flapping noise all around as the Vileplumes, lining the bank, waved their petals. Failing to make a catch, the vine yanked itself back through the air. Ollie screamed again.
The bushes across the stream rustled, and out like giant earthworms lashed four more vines. Chad flamed two; they flew back, steaming. From the shadows came alien screams.
"Run downstream!" said one Vileplume to Chad and Raelle. "All non-flowers! We're about to use Sleep Powder!"
Chad and Raelle splashed down the water's edge; Vixen bounded ahead. A vine grabbed her round the middle. Screaming and pawing and waving her tails, she bit the dark wet vine and flamed it. Letting go, she flamed it again. The singed vine broke off, the steaming remnant recoiling to its screeching owner.
Raelle stopped screaming.
Something hot and stinging slapped Chad's wing. Roaring he whirled around to see two victreebels, on this side of the stream. He flamed one as the other shot more acid out; he dodged and the purple liquid bit his shoulder.
"Chad watch out!" barked Vixen, splashing fans of water as she took off.
A vine slapped him from behind. Chad's tail exploded in fire and he jumped, twirling in an Ember. It fell and lay half in the water, as Chad's feet landed with a splash on the stream-coated rocks. Two Victreebels down.
Vixen was sneezing as Chad ran to her, wincing from the pain of the acid. "Something's in the air. Chad, your shoulder."
Chad looked down. The splattered areas were meat, the skin gone. He tried to raise his arm and it resisted, stiff and slow. Flaming the wound did not help. He licked it and his tongue tingled.
"Pfaugh! That smell!" Vixen ran further downstream. "Must be Gloom!"
Chad caught it too as it blew up the stream. So that was Gloom?
It smelled nice. Almost like perfume!
Vixen fell behind. "Go on. . .I have to rest."
A vine slapped the water just behind her; Chad flamed it. "You can't sleep here are you nuts?" But Vixen lay down on the bank and closed her eyes.
"It's the sleep powder!" Ollie cried. Chad scooped her up; but the arm that had been hit wouldn't work. He held her in his right arm and blundered away.
Branches stirred and rustled all along both banks. No more vines attacked, but Chad could tell they were pushing inward, to Deep's Heart.
Vileplume screams erupted way back behind them. Chad stumbled on his feet running over roots. Victreebels, some shorter than Vileplumes, others taller than him, sat behind trees, bushes, or in the open, whipping wines and raining acid over Vileplumes spinning gold powder from their centers. Chad saw one vine tear an oddish from the ground in a spray of dirt and shove it, screaming, in its mouth. More screams came from a young Gloom coiled in a vine and held aloft by one of the biggest victreebels. As the Gloom fought with Solar Beam right in the air, Chad raced forward. Concentrating his flame he sent out a thin rope of fire at the towering green pitcher plant. It made a deep snarling noise as a black hole branded its side. The Gloom fell loose onto the leaves. Chad stomped the flames that had spread onto a patch of debris next to the victreebel.
"Oh--Lizardon--thank you!"
Ducking a vine, Chad ran behind a tree and placed Vixen, still sleeping, in a niche between rocks at one end of the great ridge. "It'll wear off," said Ollie.
Victreebels moved through Deep's Heart, whipping vines and shooting acid. Chad's left arm was numb, and so was his wing where it had been hit. Stumbling down he found that he could not get up.
"I'll get help!" Ollie raced away, leaves bouncing.
"Ollie No!"
A smaller Victreebel turned its eyes, which were below its mouth, and licked its vine out. Ollie leaped away and sprayed her stun spore, knocking the victreebel for a loop. But before Ollie could run the vine whipped out again. It grabbed her by two leaves and lifted her like an uprooted vegetable. She screamed; her feet kicked, as it shoved her towards the mouth. Chad flailed like a Magikarp, rustling his stiff wings and keeping his tail above the debris and he climbed over the ground.
"No! No!" Ollie's feet braced on the Victreebel's wet lip. "Help!" Her hands grabbed the big leaf shielding the mouth and held it down over the lip. It wiggled the vine, trying to shake her off. Acid shot out to Ollie's side through its leaf-lidded mouth. Giving up, the Victreebel started to shove her down past the leaf, towards its inner pool of digestive juices. "No!"
Crawling over on his good arm and weak legs, Chad flamed. The Victreebel tumbled back, screeching. Ollie ran to Chad as the yellow and green creature's leaf feet flapped. It bent forward, showing the big black scar inking its front. It was getting up. Chad flamed it one more time; Ollie screamed again.
"Alcove," he said, barely understanding his own speech on his clumsy tongue. Ollie looked at him with fear, but ran ahead of him as he crawled into the alcove, dragging his nearly numb body over sticks and rocks. She didn't pause to bow to the stone.
"Medicine." She ran over to the rock shelves. "Lemme find you something--"
She cut herself short with her own gasp, staring past Chad.
Chad looked behind him. His tail flame lit up two Victreebels waiting in the far corner from Tilla's medicines. There was nothing flammable over there, excepting the victreebels. Out from both their round mouths, squirts of pinkish-purple acid flew through the air at his sprawled body--at his eyes. He squinted them shut and exhaled from his fire sack, fire rushing past his teeth, his tongue as poison splattered his face and back. His scream ended well after the flame. Opening his eyes he saw the Victreebels thrashing on the stone floor, roaring and squealing. The flames eating their bodies illuminated billows of smoke as their long vines whipped the rocks.
With the last of his strength he let out another flamethrower and it blared out against the back wall. They fell sizzling; Chad collapsed. As his eyesight boiled away into stars he smelled cooked vegetables.

"Me and Jewel caught three Victreebels, during this," Gloen reported on the wrist phone. "Two have fire damage."
"Excellent work," said Daninger. "Have you seen what attacked them."
"I'm getting to that. We heard a charizard roaring during the fight, pretty close by, and it was not Chivonne. It was bigger than her. We know where they probably are. And I'll tell you, there's hundreds of Pokémon out here. We caught a Lickitung--and a Bakufun! This has got to be where they get auction specimens." He turned his head and swatted away a branch in his hair. "Can't hardly see for shit out here though. How can we tell which one's Tilla?"
"You can't. Now stop babbling and give me the coordinates."
He read them off the electronic map.
"You're in the correct area--those are the Vileplumes we're after, assuming Tilla is still living. You two remain stationed where you are. I'm sending a troop to surround the area. Be ready to move in after nightfall, and have your Pokémon ready. Daninger out."

"Don't move."
Chad gladly complied with Tilla as he opened his eyes. He lay on his back in the alcove, hurting all over. Leaves and moss pillowed his head. The varying faces of Raelle, Vixen, Tilla and Ollie peered down at him, like petals of a flower.
"That was quite a poisoning you survived," said Tilla. "My powers, with the help of Poliwag slime, have mostly restored your skin, and the wounds on your back, which were the worst, will heal fully in another day. You're recovering quickly. I've never had any patient withstand such an attack, especially going so long before being treated."
"They say charizards are tough," said Chad through a stiff jaw. "Thanks so much. Will I be able to move?"
"In a few hours, you should have full movement back. I was going to apply my healing to you again, but you're mending well without it."
"Victreebels gone?"
"Yes. We couldn't have driven them out without you," said Tilla, stroking his arm.
"Anyone dead."
"We lost a few oddish. But a mere few's a miracle. Some were injured, but they are also on the mend. This time we had plenty of slime! We attacked powerfully and drove off many, but when you're fighting Victreebel, no power compares to fire. We saw Victreebel retreating before they attacked, once they saw flames from you and Vixen."
He nodded, his eyes rolling in his head over to Raelle as he remembered that last attack had not been kind to his complexion. "How's my face."
"Fine. Tilla fixed you up real good. When I saw you--" she put her hand to her gut and gulped, "but then Tilla just healed you right up, I watched it, it was really cool. Chad, you are like so brave."
He didn't bother to tell them he had been retreating.
"Yeah, Raelle started crying when we found you and Ollie in here and we saw you," said Vixen. "I woke up from the sleep powder when I heard Raelle screaming, 'Oh Rai-blu.' We thought you were dead."
"He saved my life." Ollie hugged his arm.

Chad sat outside on the ridge later on, feeling the stiffness fade. His stomach rumbled, hunger dawning on it. As soon as he felt up to it he would meet Chivonne and have a hunt. After less than a day, he already missed her--and she had to be wondering why he wasn't back. Vileplumes down below dragged the two charred casualties out of the alcove, over to where more yellow-spotted green bodies lay heaped in a pile. Good riddance, thought Chad with a snort. He would miss this place, Raelle and Friana (an admittedly Vixen) but felt fresh and energetic knowing he would soon fly away with Chivonne. He flapped his wings eagerly.
Ollie walked up next to him. "I know Lizardon's not evil. Don't tell Tilla and Vernon, but I don't care what their stories say."
Chad watched three Vileplumes butcher the bodies with stone knives. "So they can be eaten?"
"Some parts."
"Is it good?"
Ollie made a face. "Kind of."
"I'd like to try it. But I also gotta get out for a hunt." Stretching his wings, waving his tail and then wiggling his toes, he felt almost back to his usual limberness, back in control of his body. He didn't know what had scared him more, seeing the poison flying at his face or losing touch with his own limbs. To Vixen, Raelle and Friana sitting down the way he added, "And a little something else. Guys, I guess I'll tell you first." His face flushed as a grin took all control.
"Let me guess, this has something to do with where in Chah you were yesterday." Vixen collected her tails about her in the cool air.
Chad nodded. "I met my mate."
"Who, Cherilla? Don't tell me they brought her over too."
Chad tossed his head. "Cherilla?! Forget her."
Raelle jumped up and down. "Tell me! Who is it."
"Her name's Chivonne."
"What a beautiful name," said Friana. "I suppose she's beautiful too."
"Aw, look at you Chad, you're all smiling," said Raelle.
"I first met her in Violet Town, when we forgot Friana I saw her in the arena but I never got--" He shut his mouth, but it had already gushed out.
"So you met her now?" said Friana, "How sweet--"
"Wait a minute." Vixen's ears laid back. "If I recall, that's the night you started acting like a nut."
If only Vixen came with a remote control!
The fox paced in a circle. "Let me get this straight. You wound us up in the middle of nowhere so you could chase some girl you glanced at for two seconds. What, you saw her once, from thousands of feet away, and changed your mind on the ride back?"
Chad nodded.
"And you're in love now."
The hot flush colored his face again, and he nodded once.
Vixen flung her paws up. "You admit it."
Chad shrugged, fighting a huge smile.
Vixen threw her head back. "WE COULD HAVE GONE HOME!" Her eyes rolled up. "Ah-choo! Ah-choo! Ahhh-CHUUUUU!"
Raelle stepped up, paws on her hips, as Vixen's head rose sniffling. "Stop complaining. Who says you got to follow him everywhere? I am so glad he took us out here. He dragged me out of a hole." She blinked fast at the sky. "I met charizards who woulda flamed your ass a long time ago."
"And what else matters," said Friana, "but love? What's life if you have no one to care about? He gallantly pursued her across miles of dangerous forest--and even braved humans!"
"You read too many romance novels." Vixen whipped her pointy nose toward Chad. "So you were out making a charizard sandwich while the rest of us were surrounded by killer salad?"
Chad nodded. "My instinct was right. It's--love." Trying to pin down another smile, he shrugged at his toes.
"Awww," said Friana and Raelle in unison.
Vixen's nose wrinkled. "You little mankey. Screwing somebody once isn't love!"
"How would you know."
Raelle cracked up slapping her knees, before Chad realized what he'd said. He laughed too. Ollie looked from face to face in puzzlement. When he and Raelle caught their breaths and sighed, they looked at each other. And cracked up again.
Flames shot out Vixen's mouth. "I've had it." She pointed at him. "Males and their one-track minds. Dropping everything--EVERYTHING--to drag US into this. Roaring your brains out just to let the world know you took your weedle out to play, never mind the entire human race is after you for murder, TWICE--"
"Least he knows what he wants," said Raelle, fanning her face from Vixen's flames. "Whew, that's what I call a hot flash."
"Chad Charizard!" called an out-of-breath Vileplume voice, hands cupped to her mouth. "Tilla wants to see all of you in the alcove!"
Chad flew them down, except Vixen who clambered down the rocks and roots. One by one they bowed to the stone, walked inside, and Vernon and Tilla painted the fire design on each belly, and put red on their cheeks.
"Whoa, do I look like a Pikachu again?" Raelle smiled, showing sunray wrinkles around her eyes.
Chad glanced outside as Tilla applied the cool paint to his cream-colored front; twilight was darkening. Not only was Chivonne probably worried, but he ached for her even more. Well, now was the best time to tell Tilla anyway.
"What does it stand for?" he said, pointing to his paint job.
"Fire protects against Victreebel," said Tilla. "Long ago our ancestors fended them off with fire, although Victreebel were much fewer then. Although the stories warn never to invoke Lizardon, when battling Victreebel it has always been our custom to. We don't know why it arose, but it works."
"Lizardon cleans the forest and brings necessary death, Nyoroban battles away fire and brings rain, and Fushigibana renews life," said Ollie.
"That is the Oddish version," said Vernon, stepping out from behind Tilla. "It sounds nice and helps the young make sense of the world, but it is not the truth. You're soon to bloom, Ollie, and so I shall begin teaching you the real stories, such as I told when Lizardon first cursed us with his presence." Chad noticed, in the light of his fire, that Vernon, unlike everyone else, still had Poliwrath's white swirl on his stomach. "Back when the forests were young, Lizardon and his charizard spawn would create terrible fires. Only when Lizardon was defeated and his spawn driven away could these trees grow and live without dying an untimely and fiery death. . ."
"It's not true!" Ollie screamed. Tears rolled out. "Stop being so mean to Chad! He saved my life!"
"Ollie, it's okay," said Chad.
Vernon flapped his petals at the dragon.
"Look at what you've done! Corrupting the few young we have!"
"He didn't! He didn't! Leave him alone!"
"Ollie!" Tilla stepped in as the oddish burst into sobs. "You must never raise your voice to Vernon. Always respect your elders." As Tilla's hands folded over Ollie and petted her leaves, she glared at Vernon.
Chad covered his face.
"No, you've done nothing wrong. Vernon owes you an apology."
"I am sorry," he said, so low Chad barely heard.
"Please," said Tilla, "let us not fight on this night of victory. I will say this again--Chad is not Lizardon and we need not fear him." She gave Ollie a reassuring smile.
"Tilla," said Chad, "I met a female charizard, yesterday. I'm gonna fly away to the Charmountains with her. . ."
"Sudden, isn't it?" Vixen muttered.
Tilla's little mouth popped wide. "Why Chad, how wonderful! Calling up the power of Lizardon works in many ways. You must bring her to meet us before you go. If she will respect us?"
"She will. She's very smart."
Vernon snorted. "Invoking Lizardon is playing with fire. One by one his spawn awaken. Soon the skies will be slashed with their torching tails!"
Tilla smiled at Chad. "Bring her in." Vernon's mouth dropped open and Ollie smiled. "Any mate of yours is an honored guest. She may even bring good luck, for this is a celebration in honor of our defeat of the Victreebel." Tilla lifted rattles in both hands and rotated her wrists, shaking them loudly. "Viiiiiileplume!" she cried. "Everyone gather for the lighting of a fire of victory!"
"I warn you!" Vernon thrust his hands up as Vileplumes streamed out of the cave, some shaking rattles and banging sticks. "We are inviting Lizardon's flames into our very home! He will burn us all!" He ran out, pushing ahead of them.
"Before you go fetch her," said Tilla to Chad, "come with me."
Tilla led Chad through the Vileplumes, Gloom and oddish to the midst of the semi-circle, where sticks sat piled in a thick ring of rocks. The debris had been raked away around the ring, apparently in an effort to reach soil, but the rich compost went down many feet, though it was soily enough to be safe. Now Chad saw where Vernon had been running; he now knelt behind the pile. Chad had learned that because Vernon had been blessed as a Rafracia, his prayers could not be stopped.
"I pray Nyoroban!" He tilted his heavy head back and spread his arms. "Rain down and douse these flames! Do not let Lizardon corrupt us!"
Up from the crowd rose uneasy murmurs. Tilla waited until he was finished. Vernon rose, glared at Chad, looked at Tilla more subtly, and tromped off through the gathering crowd.
"Poor Vernon is still afraid. But this is sanctioned by stories; our ancestors celebrated victories with fire, when they could get it. We will have a fire for the first time in generations. Chad, light the fire."
Rather than use his tail, Chad blew a gentle, steady lick of yellow, just for the satisfaction of using his fire breath and because it looked more dramatic. The fire quickly caught a hold of the tinder. "Vie!" said one; several fell to their knees. All their red-flowered heads leaned in to watch the flames spread eager fingers over the wood with a pop and crackle. They held hands, hugged as the flame-light wobbled on their faces. Some cried out in subdued voices. Others whispered. All stood clear as the wood-burning smell filled the air; Vixen coughed, then sneezed.
Tilla raised the rattle. "Let the celebrations begin!"
As if she had now made the fire acceptable, the Vileplumes began to sing and struck up the drums, sticks and rattles. Raelle leaped and danced. Vixen sat near the edge, poking a paw at the piece of victreebel on a stick that someone had given her. A few Vileplumes, with Tilla and Chad leading, were now striding up with pieces of Victreebel on long sticks to cook. Seeing her people at ease with the novel medium, Tilla turned to Chad.
"Go get your mate, I will announce that you are bringing in a guest. And we will save you some Victreebel."

Chivonne wasn't there when he touched down on their special rock. He roared; her roar echoed from a distance, and soon he spotted her tail flame in the sky. "Where were you," she whispered over his shoulder as they embraced on the rock. His tail flame breathed up her back as hers slipped along his leg; the feeling filled him like a rich warm drink.
"Had a little trouble with victreebels." He told about the attack, and assured her everything was fine, minus a few oddish.
"And speaking of oddish," said Chad, holding up his left hand, "if you promise not to eat them, you can come meet my friends. I should get you back before they finish the roasts. They're waiting for me."
"You made friends with the Vileplumes?"
"Yeah. I've been living with them."
She pointed to his stomach. "They made that?"
Chad looked down. It had smudged, onto her. "Yeah. They're great artists."
Chivonne shook her head. "You've a real gift for making friends with other species."
"Thanks. I used to think it was a curse. Gotta be careful not to get too chummy with everything on the menu." As she laughed he said, "I want to meet your trainer. As long as he promises not to catch me."

"So this is the man," said a young guy about the age Dorien had been. But the resemblance ended there. The way he and Chivonne hugged, he had to be one of the good humans. "You have no idea what an honor it is. Chivonne and went through a lot of blind dates with no success." He looked Chad up and down, as a breeder might. "But she knows how to pick'em. Nice to meet you. Your name. . .?"
"His name's Chad. I told you it would be worth the wait," said Chivonne, in human speech. Wow, smart and talented.
"I'm August." The young man held his hand out. Chad held it in his hand. August took his right hand out, replaced it with his left, and gave a small shake. "A southpaw, huh."
"I can't leave August here," she said to Chad. "Team Rocket is looking for both of us. If we have to, we'll take him to the Charmountains with us, till we locate a good town."
"Fine with me."
August agreed too.
"Can you fly August to the edge of this Deep's Heart? Someplace the Vileplumes won't mind, but where we can reach each other quickly?"
"I know a place," said Chad.

"Not far now to the Poliwag pond," said Chad, "as I call it." He carried August on his back; the young man obviously had experience riding charizards, while Chad had been carrying passengers a while himself.
"You're a strong flyer," said August as Chad glided beside Chivonne over the moonlit woods. "I've been too heavy to ride Chivonne for a while now."
"This is nothing," said Chivonne. "You've got to see his fire attacks."
"Okay, enough," said Chad.
"Chad. . .? I know it's dark, but this forest looks very thick. Where are all the meadows?"
"Gloomleaf doesn't really have any."
"That's not the Gloomleaf I remember," said Chivonne. "I used to hunt these parts when I lived in the Charmountains, and there were plenty of open meadows. This--this is a thicket. I don't see anywhere to land."
Chad flew down to land on the rocks by a pond's edge, maneuvering round the trees.
"The Poliwag pond." He paused, looking at the tender, vulnerable human. Despite ruling the world, they didn't possess a single special attack. "If oddish or something rustles in the bushes, just say. . . you're . . . with Chad and the Vileplumes. That way they won't panic--or attack. The bakufun and lickitungs'll avoid you, the Ekans will too, and the victreebels've had enough."
"Thanks." August scratched the back of his neck, where a creeper had brushed him. "Careful with those tails. Have fun." He waved from a rock. Chivonne took his hand and Chad led her down the throat of the now-familiar tunnel to Deep's Heart.
"This area is unbelievably close," said Chivonne. "And I thought the places nearer Taupe Town were getting dense. I remember this pond. There's something very wrong here."
As they neared Deep's Heart, the campfire's light brought the rocks of the ridge dimly out of the shadows beyond. Chad heard Tilla's voice before he saw her, talking to the gathered group from behind the fire. The orange light flickered softly on her face.
". . . he will be flying with her to the Charmountains, known to some as the Holes of Hell--but heaven to their kind. Though he will visit. Chad has shown us that the children of the damned can redeem themselves. No Pokémon is truly bad."
"There they are!" An Oddish--smaller than Ollie--cried from the edge of the crowd and pointed with all its leaves.
"Chad!" Vileplumes flooded in, red petals swirling around him and Chivonne. Oddish jumped at his feet. Chad swallowed a lump in his throat as Ollie wove through the crowd, umbrella'd by their plumes, to hug his leg with arms and leaves.
"I'll miss you."
"Yeah, me too," said Raelle. "You gotta visit us when you hunt up here."
"And keep us up to date on how you two are faring in your new home!" said Friana, from Raelle's back. "Of course, once I get my wings I'll fly in to visit you."
"We'll be in the neighborhood," said Chad. "Hunting's so good up here we'll swoop in at least every few weeks."
He saw Vernon standing farther away, observing all the Vileplumes and young coming up to Chad and Chivonne. The Vileplume was nodding grim approval. Well, at least all would be pleased. The Charmountains were a few days' flight away, but Chad, like most charizards, thought nothing of such long trips, as it was often necessary for hunting. Out the corner of his eye he saw Tilla coming in through the crowd, despite her fading petals a flower among flowers.
"Here she is," said Chad, squeezing Chivonne's hand. "Tilla, I'd like you to meet Chivonne. Chivonne, this is the leader of the Vileplumes, the Rafracia, who welcomed us in. Tilla Raf. . ."
He trailed off as he saw Chivonne's face. The voices of the others ebbed away as they, too, stared.
Chivonne's mouth sputtered a spark of yellow flame. Her wings spread.
"Your name is Tilla?"
"It is. Are you all right?"
"Oh Chah." Her tail flared tall, shadowing her. She put her hand on her head. "Oh, Chah."
Chad's wing touched hers, not sure if she would faint or flame. "Chivonne."
"Tilla." Chivonne's sides heaved, as if she had just landed from a race. "Tilla. You're in very big danger."
Vileplume voices rose all around. "What--" "--Danger?--"
"Viiiieeee! Vileplume!" Tilla silenced them, flapping her petals loudly.
"How?" Chad was saying. "From what?"
"Team Rocket. Tilla. I came from the Team Rocket boss's house. He has half his poachers combing Gloomleaf for you. He wants me and my human friend dead because we know about it."
"Why?" Tilla was shaking her heavy cream-spotted flower. Then she halted. "Wait," she said. Her eyes closed. "I believe I know."
As she ordered Vernon and four other Vileplumes to drag the vine-woven divide out from the back of the alcove and set it up, she ushered a slack-jawed Chad over to the entrance stone.
"Chivonne," she called, "fetch your human friend. Escort him here immediately. Tell anyone who threatens you that it's the Rafracia's orders. Can you find the way?"
"Yeah."
Vernon watched from the ridge with gaping mouth as she jumped into flight. As his eyes met Tilla's, he resumed laying the weight stones on the divide.
"What is it?" said Chad, leaping from foot to foot like a charmander. "Tilla what's this all about?"
"You probably wouldn't know about. . .Marius Mewtwo."
"WHAT!" Raelle landed with a leap before the Rafracia and Chad. Friana yelped, bouncing in her papoose.


44: The Last Petal Dance

"We will be holding a secret meeting," said Tilla to the crowd as they spilled away from Chivonne leading a live human into Deep's Heart. "I am sorry to cut the festivities short, but this is extremely important. You may finish the Victreebel yourselves." She ran out to Chivonne and August. "Come; in here. Tell me everything you know."
Tilla bowed to the stone and went inside, followed by Chad, Chivonne, August, Raelle with Friana, and Vixen. Ollie touched her leaves to the stone, but Tilla stepped in front of her.
"No Ollie. This is an important meeting. Chad will be out very soon. We need you and the other oddish to run out to the edges of Deep's Heart and guard it. Come back here if you find anything."
Ollie trudged up the trail, leaves drooping. She looked back once, sighing loudly, but Tilla still stood watching. When Ollie was finally gone Tilla entered the alcove.
"I wish I knew more," said Chivonne, in human speech, as they all sat in a circle feeling warmth from Chad's and Chivonne's tail tips. They lit the room well. Chivonne began to speak about living with Daninger--of his plans, and her and August's escape. "I spied on Daninger. I shifted through his old papers. Basically, August and I just know that Daninger's after that Poké Ball and Marius said your name. . ."
"Indeed, he knows me," said Tilla. August, arching his eyebrows at Tilla and then Chivonne, promptly got a translation from the female charizard. Tilla went on as Chivonne translated to August. "You here may feel like my tribe's first non-Gloom initiates, but Marius was the first. He came to Deep's Heart years ago when I was still somewhat young, intent on learning about our ways and writing them down so that the so-called civilized world could learn about us, and care enough to help our kind survive. He lived with us for almost nine years. He agonized over his theories of why the Victreebel were slowly squeezing us out. He studied the Victreebel too."
"I've watched forests change," said Chivonne. "Old trees die, young ones grow in. . . but I've never seen Gloomleaf so dense. It's what's causing your Victreebel problem, Tilla. It's not normal."
"Gloomleaf has always been thick and close," said Tilla. "We have been in decline since the dawn of. . ."
Chivonne shook her head. "I'm about 600. I remember open meadows, sun reaching the floor. Now it's as if something's not clicking--it's grown out of control. It's thickened, suiting the Victreebel."
"Maybe it's the Victreebels changing the forest," said Vixen. "To suit themselves."
"How?" said Chivonne. "They use no tools, they don't alter the land." She looked to Tilla.
"That's right. The Victreebel are merely hunting as they always have. It's what we would do if we were growing in numbers. Marius tried to figure out what was happening, but he had not lived as long as you, Chivonne. You bring us a new perspective." Tilla smiled. "I remember him sitting against a tree, writing or sketching in his little pad. After he left to write his book, and tell the world what he had learned, he came back to visit frequently. He even showed us the book, it was full of pictures. He had taken hundreds with his camera of us, our tools, our decorations and body paintings, even my medicines. He read us his book--he was so a well-spoken. I thought at first that he would consider himself above us--with all his fancy devices and knowledge, and us not even knowing how to read. But he told me he envied us, because of our closeness and our faith. He told me of his peoples' modern beliefs--of science, and how there are no Poké Gods. I feel sad when I think of it. I could never explain to him that it's simply our way. We must live like this to survive. It's not faith--we know Rafracia is there. We feel Her, and all our ancestors living right with us. Once you become one of our tribe, your spirit always has a refuge in Deep's Heart."
Chad saw Raelle wiping a tear. Not long ago, he too had "known" Chah was there. Yet Tilla had also heard of science and the theological debate, and remained unswayed. He felt a warm chill.
"So he came back and told you about the ball too?" said Chivonne.
"Well, for many years he stopped visiting. In his last visit, I learned it was because he had been developing a device that would destroy all Poké Balls for all time. No, it would not stop the poaching, nor the battling. But it was the best single way he saw to stifle their ability to just kidnap us. He told me tales of Pokémon only being released from their balls when they were called on for sport battles, in which they beat each other to exhaustion. He said that was commonplace!"
"Mewtwos are smart," said Chivonne. Friana had taken over translating, as she was less a part of the talk.
"Smart but outnumbered. His last visit was desperate and hurried; it came about ten years ago. He said he had to meet with me in secret, away from Deep's Heart. There in the forest, Marius opened his bag and took out the ball. It was silver, and tinier than a regular Poké Ball. He said that all it has to do is get swallowed by the Master Ball and the two will release a signal to all balls that halt their magic system forever."
"So that's how it functions," said Chivonne. "Only once."
"Yes. He thrust the ball in my hands and told me to hide it where no one, human or Pokémon, will ever find it. Where it would be safe from water, fire, wind and lightning. And so I did."
"You have it?!" said Raelle.
"Oh, Chah," said Chivonne. "Are you the only one who knows?"
She gave one nod. "Even Vernon does not know." Then a fond smile broke her solemnly set mouth. "Sometimes I wonder where Marius is now. And whether he's still working on a way to get both balls. I suppose one of these years he'll be back for it; I hope it's before I die. Otherwise I'll have to pass it on, and right now I have no heir. No one seems to have inherited my healing powers yet."
They all exchanged glances, silently debating over who would tell her.
"Marius--died," said Raelle. "Tilla--I don't know if you want to know what happened."
Tilla bowed her head and murmured very quietly. Chad realized she was praying. When she looked up, her petals lifted to reveal tears streaking the red and yellow paint on her cheeks. "It is not my desire to know, because it could not have been the right way to die," said Tilla, "but it's my duty." Raelle told her, in human, so Friana would not have to translate. "Ohh," moaned Tilla. "Why." Her hands gestured out to Raelle. "What they did to you too. That is the difference between humans and Pokémon. How far they will go for power."
"We have to get you away from here," said Chivonne. "Soon Rocket's going to find this place--"
"Leave? Here?" Tilla furrowed her brows, as if unable to comprehend. "I could not leave any more than I could take myself by the petals and float into the clouds. Leave Deep's Heart?"
The wind outside rippled the divide. Chad turned his head to hear the distant high cries of oddish poke though the quiet woods. Closer and closer the young voices tumbled, down the trail towards the semicircle, where they stirred up Vileplumes as well.
Tilla rose, facing the entrance.
"Tilla!"
A Vileplume flung aside the divide, its tattered edge dragging across the dusty ground. Four out-of-breath oddish ran in on little gray feet, led by Ollie.
"Human!" the littlest one was squealing over the growing crowd of adults just outside. "Human!"
"Tilla--Chad," Ollie said between huffs and puffs. "We were out past Deep's Heart and we saw humans. Lots of them."
"How many?" Vixen growled, tails currying.
"I don't know."
Another oddish rammed forward between Ollie and the others, also looking like this year's sprout. "I saw human! On far away side!"
"Tilla," said a Vileplume, "they're surrounding us!"
"Oh Rafracia!" In the light of the dying fire outside a Vileplume flopped to the roots of a big tree. Two more followed.
"Team Rocket!" Chivonne sprung to her feet with her tail lashing in readiness to fight. "Tilla they're after you! I'll fly you somewhere--"
"Where? They'll see your tail!" said Raelle.
"Our Rafracia ride the spawn of Lizardon?" Vernon shook his fist at Chivonne.
"Viiiiiiiiiii--Vileplume!"
All fell quiet as Tilla screamed the cry belying her age. Those who had bowed stood up, with effort because of top-heaviness.
"The last thing we should do is panic." She stepped out as Chad held the divide aside for her. "Everyone gather round. Charizards, put the fire out."
The rest of the Vileplumes, Gloom and oddish stepped in from the outlying darkness as Chad and Chivonne stomped the embers, making sparks fly.
Chivonne stepped out of the ashes lifting each foot and flaming it clean. Tilla turned to her.
"You say Team Rocket is coming. Perhaps the fire gave us away."
Chivonne's tail flame blazed to twice its size; she took a deep breath, one hand on her stomach. "It could have been anything, they'd have found you sooner or later. I'm so sorry for not having warned you. I'm sure they think they can take us by surprise if they wait a few more hours, and that might the only reason they're not here yet. Tilla," she held her hands towards the Vileplume, as if to grab her, "you--all of us--have to leave. We have to evacuate everyone. If it's not too late."
"Shouldn't be," said Vixen. "The oddish said they're still beyond Deep's Heart. We could slip them though one way, and distract them."
"Where would we hide?" said Raelle.
"How do we get past?" said Chad. "With everybody?"
"We could stay together in one big group," said Friana, "with the charizards in the front?"
"Heading toward the Charmountains would be best, and we've enough strong Pokémon to put up a fight, if we have to," said Chivonne. "Tilla? What do you think?"
All stood quiet as the cool April wind swayed the tent of dark branches. Chad watched them move overhead, the firelight giving them orange underbellies. Out towards the horizons, in the distant dark beyond his own hearing, Team Rocket was closing in around them with teams of Pokémon trained to kill. Blinking, Tilla looked slowly around at all her Vileplumes; all their eyes were on her, waiting for her to speak.
"Anyone who wants to leave is free to. I know of no flower here who would leave Gloomleaf in its time of need, myself included. This is our home."
Chivonne's golden-scaled hand hovered over Tilla's arm, then touched. "Tilla, you don't know Team Rocket. They're not a bunch of rogue Victreebel. They'll keep bringing in fresh Pokémon until they overwhelm this entire tribe, and those they don't kill they will imprison and torture to death."
"If that were so," said Tilla, "then we would die on the grounds of Deep's Heart, joining our ancestors. But we will live past this. All our lives we have fended off our enemies. There are reasons why few creatures ever attack a Vileplume."
"Humans are different. This boss-he's a monster. He'll stop at nothing--"
Tilla put her hand on Chivonne's, halting its gestures. "We Vileplumes are much stronger than you give us credit for. We know how to fight. Tonight, we will."

"Tonight we call the life of Fushigibana; the water of Nyoroban; the fire of Lizardon. We call on the maker. Praise Rafracia." Tilla, painted with the same flower symbol that had graced all their bodies in the dance of flowers, raised her gray arms and tilted her heavy head back, bracing one foot for balance.
"Praise Rafracia," answered the Vileplumes.
"We stand on ground made fertile by the bodies of ancestors reaching back to the birth of the First Ones. The trees are our families; we are Gloomleaf."
"Praise Rafracia," said the Vileplumes; Chad glanced over at Ollie. She spoke with the rest, raising her hands to the trees in the firelight.
"Out from the dark, the evil spirits wake. The rivers shudder; the trees shake. The ancestors quiver in the sap of the trees. They cry from the soil. We call you, Rafracia."
"Praise Rafracia."
Chad said it too. Now he saw a light that was not coming from himself or Chivonne. Nor did it drift in down the trails, like teeth in dark mouths. It came from the middle of every Gloom and Vileplume's flower. Chad looked over at Ollie again. Weak twitches of light peeped from her Pokéball-sized bulb, but failed to catch. Eyes squeezed shut and fists clenched, she tried.
"Rafracia we call you, Rafracia we open to you. Lend us the light of Your flower to fight. The ancestors are waking. . .call, everyone; when we all meet, they will be singing with us."
"Viiiiii. . . ." all the Vileplumes down to the littlest oddish began to murmur. Slowly the individual voices blended, crowding tighter. The open-mouthed note grew louder, tauter, reverberating in Chad's horns; their light, pieces of day caught in their flowers, held dim and steady. ". . .aaahheeeeeee. . ."
"Vileplume!" shrieked Tilla, and the tightening note snapped. The Vileplumes crowded forward chanting Vileplume, vileplume, holding hands, Chad felt a Vileplume's hand take his. Ollie was the next one down. They all began to dance and sing a strange song. To their words rose up a flock of flapping; all the Vileplumes beating their petals.
"Hear those who have died rise to help! They wake from sleep! Let the humans come with their fighters!" Sweat beaded on Tilla's face in the cool air as she rocked with the flap of her heavy petals. "Come now and face us!"
Whatever they were now ready to do, Chad didn't want to get in their way when they released it.
"All my flowers, form a circle and fan out. Vernon and I will be among you. Since the most humans seem to be coming from up the hill, I will lead a team. . ." She named twelve Vileplumes, and Ollie. Ollie's face was full of surprise, and Chad thought she was going to leap for joy, but instead she contained herself and nodded, her mouth closed. "Vileplumes and Gloom," said Tilla, "point your Solar Beams outward; use them before Petal Dance; that way they might be tricked into thinking that once we've exhausted our light we have nothing. Remember; though we have the ancestors helping us, it is not daylight and once we use up our energy it is gone until morning, and we will all feel tired soon. Chad," said Tilla, touching his arm, "you must all keep away when we attack; the air will fill with poison that you have no resistance to. You and Chivonne fly to the hill near where I will be--land, wait at the top, and attack as soon as you see humans--don't go looking; we have to stay together. I will be behind you with part of my group; when you encounter Pokémon you cannot handle, we will fall in to replace you, giving surprise. Anyone who sees a human, save August, attack to kill. Friana, Raelle and August must be protected--go up past the Poliwag pond and hide in the rocks there. Vixen, go with them and defend that area." A curt nod from the fox.
"What about you?" said Chivonne. A few oddish, barely visible in the edge of the charizard light, were shouting and pointing out to the trail over the hill. "They're coming--"
"I will stay with my people. I have given you orders. Fly. Rafracia bless you."
"And you," said Chad as he searched for an opening, then flew. After angry hesitation, Chivonne followed. They lit up on the hilltop, seeing no one.
The wait made Chad restless. Fire built up, pressing for release. Twice he spread his wings to hunt farther down, and twice remembered Tilla's orders. Group thinking did not come to charizards naturally and he found himself scratching his orange talons over the dry leaves in impatience. He growled.
Chivonne paced closer, looking out at the dark, empty trail.
"Why didn't I tell you about Tilla and all this yesterday? This could have all been avoided."
Chad shrugged. "You just met me."
"That's not why. I met you the day I saw you on the news. I didn't tell you because I was dropping it all to go live in the Charmountains with you."
He looked over at her in amazement; his foot touched against hers. She wanted to spend. . .6,000 years. . .with him.
"But how can you know. . . after. . .just a few days with me? How can we both know?"
Chivonne stroked his scaled chest. "It takes a lifetime to really know someone. But to trust someone, to know them well enough. . .At this point I don't screw anyone I don't want for good. And you flew here to meet me after only seeing me once. That's not magic, or vibes, or psychic powers--it's just us. Something in me knew when I saw you, that you're it." She kissed him. "Anyone who gets in as much trouble with humans as you, has got to have the right stuff." They both laughed.
"It's weird though," said Chad, his tongue taking a break from licking her horn. "I'm just average, and you're--gorgeous." Marveling, his hand stroked down the curved back of her neck.
Like tongues her palms licked up and down his ribs. "You're just as gorgeous. You just don't know it yet."
"I take it you mean to teach me."
"You and your one-liners. You're almost as bad as my dad was." She nipped his neck.
"I hope we're not related."

"All right." Daninger paused before speaking again to the video phone. "I'm on my way in. How many Vileplumes would you say there are?"
Jewel looked out again, adjusting her night-vision goggles. "I can't see them all from here. Maybe fifty. I see them coming through the trees."
"All right, let me get the report from the others."
Daninger got a report, then got back to Jewel.
"Any news yet."
"The Vileplumes seem pretty weak if you ask me. But they're moving out. We've lost surprise."
"I'm in the balloon. You'll see me soon due north if you use your goggles. I've got the report and there's over a hundred of the damn things. If it were daylight they would smash us. But we've got a few hours of dark left. If we can stall them, they should run themselves dry."
"What about the charizards?"
"One's Chivonne--leave her to me. There's only one other--if you don't take him out, leave him to me too. Their strength's going to come from those blasted Vileplumes. Kill all the Gloom and oddish you want, but with the Vileplumes you must only take prisoners. We can't risk killing Tilla. That's what we're here for. You have a lot of Poké Balls?"
"A whole sackful."
"I'm coming over with reinforcements, I'll drop bags straight from the balloon. You guys just weaken and capture, weaken and capture." He paused. "You see me yet?"
"Yeah." Jewel looked away from the screen.
"I can see the tails on those charizards, we'll just hose'em down. And stay in your designated area."

As the charizard pair waited in the dark forest, Chad couldn't make out the trails very far. The Vileplumes were gone and keeping quiet, and Team Rocket, wherever they were, had still not shown up.
"Chad, do you see anything?"
"No." He saw a small opening and spread his wings. "Let me fly up a minute."
A geyser shot up and pounded Chad from beneath, slapping his belly and drumming against the cup of his wings. The sting of his tail sent a charge through his body, expelling itself from his mouth with a roar and flame. Diving to dodge it, he dropped back into the trees, fire meeting water with an explosion of steam. The light of his own fire blast illuminated a Blastoise standing on the trail. Chad screamed as a Poliwrath sprayed behind him. Every fire that issued up from his throat dissolved in steam.
Then the Blastoise's body was lit from behind with a huge sun of fire radiating out as it struck the animal's shell. Screaming the Blastoise lurched down, then whirled around on solid legs to face Chivonne. Chad, sprawled on the trail, tried to help her but the Poliwrath had his attention. Every time he tried to get up the water knocked him down. His tail flame sputtered, pain screaming up his spine.
"Poliwrath Freeze Blast!"
The water spraying Chad froze, covering his front in a heavy white shield. He barely broke free in time for more ice to hit him.
"Now!" cried a Vileplume. Six flowers shot white beams, focused on the Poliwrath's back. Shielding himself with the Poliwrath's body, Chad shut his eyes and melted the ice off him. The Blastoise crept up behind Chad, but Chivonne whirled in the air like a ribbon, knocking it down with Ember. Chad flamed the Poliwrath and it screamed. Its face smacked the debris, revealing a charred back. As the Vileplumes' beams dimmed and they lifted their heads, the Poliwrath struggled to stand. Ollie leaped up. Her heel popped it in the head. It slumped down.
"Scyther, Ivysaur, Arbok, go!" A human far down the way threw Poké Balls from both hands. Chivonne took out the Scyther with three fire spins in rapid succession and dodged the Ivysaur's vines, while Chad flamed the Arbok through sheer power and reach. The Vileplumes made their way around the Pokémon to the humans.
"Chad, Chivonne, out of the way!" said one. "We're about to use our Petal Dance!"
The Vileplumes flapped their red petals, fanning toxic spores that poured like gold smoke from the centers. Ollie used her stun spore. Team Rocket coughted; two fell, their bodies snapping vines and branches.
"Time to give this garden a little weeding!" said a woman running up behind her fallen comrades. Her black clothing made her hard to see as she threw a Poké Ball. "Magmar, go!"
Chad and Chivonne flew forward as the Magmar breathed a row of fire, burning up the poison powder. It flared in the air. "Rafracia help us!" cried one, running as Tilla backed away, shielding her face in the hot air.
Chad's big feet landed heavily in front of the Magmar and he roared.
"Not so fast there!" said the woman, taking out another ball. "This place could use some watering too. Gyarados, I choose you!"

"We're surrounded! Mayday!" said a Team Rocket member, phoning in to Daninger. "We are on our last Pokémon. These Vileplumes are whipping our asses! When are you going to take care of your charizard like you said!"
"I have to get her alone," said Daninger, shuddering as he tried to control his temper. "Tell your Gyarados to attack the male, distract him. The Vileplumes can't last forever. I am releasing the Pokemon now. Daninger out."
Daninger opened a Poké Ball right there onto the floor of the gondola. It materialized into the strange Electabuzz.
"You can slough that silly disguise now," said Daninger. Ditto relaxed into a big glob of purple. "Hop up on the edge. You see her? Now do what I told you earlier. You are the only Pokémon I or the rest of Team Rocket has that can defeat that meddling lizard. Now go make me the happiest person alive. I'll be waiting with her Poké Ball."
As the Ditto launched itself off the sill of the gondola, staring out at Chivonne, its body turned to light. The light flexed out in midair as it took the shape of the gold charizard. Sky-blue wings extended and a long tail sprouted backwards, a flame winking on as the light faded, solidifying into smooth gold scales. The perfect copy roared in Chivonne's voice and flapped towards its target.

Chivonne dove in and slashed at the Gyarados. Chad glimpsed the Magmar out the side of his vision running after two Vileplumes. But he couldn't help them now. Swimming through a wall of foam, Chad struggled airborne and placed space between himself and the giant serpent, which seemed hungry for him, despite Chivonne giving it a heck of a hard time.
The Gyarados undulated up into the air after him.
"Chad!" cried a tiny voice down on the ground. "Help!"
"Ollie!"
"Chad the magmar's got her!" cried Chivonne. "I'll handle Gyarados. Go!"
Chad dived back beneath the foliage, toward the cry.
Chivonne sliced the air out of the way as the Gyarados made for her with its mouth gaping open; its whisker whipped her wing. A cone of bubbles spread through the firelit air as she doubled around and lassoed it with a fire spin.
As the Gyarados roared in pain and fell, smoking, breaking into the trees, Chivonne saw another charizard approaching. It was not Chad. For a moment, she thought it was her mother.
It was Chivonne herself. A creature identical to her, from nose to tail-tip, dive-bombed her from above. She just dodged in time, feeling the breeze of its miss.
It looked up and launched a firespin even as it halted its fall. Chivonne dodged--too late.
"Charrrr!"
She knew not to fight it. She worked with it, sending an ember from her tail. Her twin dodged it with reflexes she had never seen before. Breaking free of the spin's coiling grasp, Chivonne evaded another spin. A whip of the other's tail just caught her wing. She and her mirror image spiraled high into the night, fighting.

It was chaos in the dark forest as Chad ran through Deep's Heart. "Ollie! Where are you!"
Tilla and two others battled an Odairu, there a Starmie sprayed another; a Cloyster crashed through foliage after its victims. (Team Rocket, noting the more visible and noisy charizards, seemed to have favored their water types.) As Sandslash, Lickitung, Weezings attacked, Pokémon screamed in pain and battle cries. But the Vileplumes were driving them back.
The Magmar breathed fire into a crevice between two rocks in the great ridge of the semicircle. Ollie screamed from within.
Chad slashed the Magmar from behind. The Magmar turned and gave a fire blast that knocked Chad clearing a trail through the leaves like a plow as he slid back on his wings. Though charizards couldn't be hurt by heat, the force and speed of a fire attack could knock them out like any force. Chad got up, beat his wings making leaves leap and caper. He ran and head-butted the Magmar away from the rocks where Ollie, unseen, was still screaming. The Magmar rolled away. Its clawed foot cut Chad across the side of the face, from horn to lip. He blinked blood from his eye.
Chad's fire breath gurgled up through his stomach, his throat and out his mouth in a flood of orange just as the Magmar released its own fire. The spiky-tailed, beaked animal smashed back against the rocks as Chad's stronger flames dealt their punch. Chad leaped on its stomach, lunging for its neck. They rolled in the flaming leaves.
Ollie crawled out of the crevice and climbed the rock ridge as fire raced over the ground like Rattatas. She coughed. "Chad!"
Chad grabbed the Magmar's throat in his jaws. With a shake of his head and clench of teeth he snapped its neck. Full of hunger, he nearly ripped into it when he heard Ollie scream again.
"Chad get us out of here!" She stood, coughing, on the ridge. "The smoke--"
Chad abandoned the body and, swallowed the blood in his mouth, flew up on the ridge. He lifted the coughing oddish onto his shoulders, and flew free of the blaze as it grabbed onto the surrounding trees. Smoke rose from feathery orange fingers waving from treetops, a black flag flapped from the orange light below.
"I'm taking you far away from here," he called over his shoulder. Ollie stopped coughing and held on tight, but did not answer.

Chivonne swooped, just dodging the enemy's fire spin. It clipped her wing and sent her spiraling to the side; the opponent speared in and cut her down with another ember. Chivonne screamed and barely recovered herself over the trees. Flapping furiously, exhausted, she faced her fresher opponent. Never had she fought such a quick Pokémon. She knew at that moment that she was going to lose.
Again she tried to fly for it, but the other charizard just chased her with equal speed. Zooming up with the ditto breathing fire on her tail, Chivonne knew this might be her last free flight.
"Chivonne!" Chad swerved towards the female as she clawed at her opponent with all four limbs. They circled in a fury of wings, tails, claws and fire, and Chad couldn't tell which was which. Until one turned her head.
"Chad help me!"
"I'm coming!" he screamed as a Poké Ball flew at Chivonne and swallowed her. Her opponent caught the ball and soared off.
"Noooo!"
He flew after the enemy charizard in hot pursuit. Chad felt a bullet whiz over his head, and another one, lower down, passing to his left. Two gunshots went off. Ollie screamed as Chad heard the reports, sounding from where the charizard was flying to, keeping above the crossfire. Someone was guarding that creature, someone who had come for Chivonne.

With Chivonne's Ultra Ball in hand, Daninger radioed everyone. "This is a general broadcast. Everybody pull out. The fire is going to overtake you if you don't retreat. As for Tilla, forget her for now. We have everything we need."

Chad swerved away, gaining speed as his wings flapped powerfully. He could not pursue her while being shot at, not with Ollie on his back. He would have to land her. But the blaze below grew, gorging on years of fuel; he flew over a sea of orange. Where were the Vileplumes? Were they getting away?
"Where is everybody?" said Ollie.
"I don't know--"
Something bit into his left side, near his stomach, and the gunshot sounded a moment later. Chad roared.
"Chad are you all right?" Ollie's feet squeezed his neck. "Are you all right?"
"Chaaaaarr!" Chad crumpled down as a second bullet stabbed his wing. Trying to keep it straight, agony shot to his back like white fire. Roaring in pain, a flaming wreck, he steered them clear of the fire before he crashed into an island of unburned woods, surrounded by the smoke and the fire's deep voice. It had really happened. His wing was broken.
"Get us out! The fire!" Ollie's voice cracked.
"I can't fly."
He saw, through the shimmer of heated air, the wound. The bullet had shattered the bone. Ironically it would be this non-fatal wound, rather than the hole in his stomach from which he poured blood, that would trap them here.
He smelled something. That same foul. . .but somehow good. . .smell he'd caught wind of during the victreebel attack. "Ollie?"
Ollie, trembling with fright, was making her kind's signature stink. "Ollie it's gonna be okay."
Ollie ceased her odor attack, gathering control of herself.
She coughed. "We're gonna die."
"I know."
Crying she knelt over him. "Rafracia. . ." She placed her hands on Chad's bleeding body as the flames rose around them, creeping in like moving walls. She cried. Then she coughed. The breeze made by the fire rustled her smouldering leaves. Like a mighty charizard, Gloomleaf roared, a deep drum as Ollie prayed.
"Great Rafracia, with big red bloom, let me grow into a Gloom." She coughed. "Great Rafracia, shine your light, guide me safely through the night."
Prayer wasn't a bad idea. Chad let his eyes fall closed as the blood breathed from his gut. Chah. If you exist, you wouldn't give me so much, only to bring us to this. You wouldn't let Ollie die here. It's my fault, not hers!
It wasn't fair.
Chad bent his neck towards his chest and folded his wings around the oddish as her small voice spoke. Soon she would faint and burn to dust in his hands. He could do nothing but listen to her, for the last time. Soon he himself would bleed to death. He hoped he would go first.
He realized he could no longer feel the wounds. Was he past the point of sensation? Opening his eyes he looked at his now-perfect wing, every scale mended. He flexed it, unable to believe it was really--healed. The weakness from blood loss was receding, strength filling his limbs, like inhaling after holding one's breath. He saw Ollie bent over him with her eyes still closed, her little hands barely able to reach around her body to lean on his fully healed stomach. "Great Rafracia, with big red bloom, let me grow into a Gloom," she coughed in the searing hot air, "great Rafracia. . ." Two coughs. Ollie leaned her weight against him and her feet slid out from under her.
"Ollie." He touched her back. "Ollie."
Ollie rolled over on the smoking leaves, face down. Chad scooped her up and flew out of the shrinking orange room, into the dark sky. Below them Gloomleaf roared, blanketed in orange. Gloomleaf burned.


Okay...the final parts are coming up! If you haven't given any reviews up to this point, you might as well save them for the end.