45--gloomleaf burning
Someone brought it to my attention that I left Chapter 49 ("She Blinded Me with Psyshock") out by accident. So I stuck it in! I apologize to anyone I have hopelessly confused.


45: Gloomleaf Burning

"Breathe in."
Tilla pillowed Ollie's head against her hand as Chad placed handfuls of leaves under to prop her up. Ollie breathed in and coughed.
"Breathe slowly."
"What happened to Deep's Heart, did--" A coughing fit cut off the oddish's voice.
"Stay calm. I just healed your lungs last night and they're still tender." In the drizzly morning Tilla's hand absently felt one of Ollie's leaves, the one going orange at the end. "And your poor leaves. You almost became a roast yourself."
"Did anyone--" Ollie sat up with the support of Chad's hand, coughing weakly on the smoke in the air. Chad felt the coughs rack her round little body. "--anyone die. . ."
"I know we lost a few," said Tilla, looking back at the mat of smoke dividing the pale sky with a billowing void. The rain, too little too late, had slowed the blaze, but would not quench it. The feather skirt on her belt hung wet and bedraggled. "To Team Rocket more than the fire. More and more are trickling in, although several, including Anina, are still missing."
In fact, there was Vixen streaking down through the green, a pale tawny gold in the damp. Seeing Chad breaking through the foliage, she barked, and doubled back. Struggling through the bushes and vines were Raelle and Friana, led by a Gloom. Chad and August helped them through.
"Thank Chah!" Vixen barked, bounding past the charizard. "If it weren't for Anina here we'd still be running in circles. You guys hiked a long way."
"We walked most of the night," said Chad, remembering the coughing, wheezing, foliage-hacking journey in intermittent rain, while carrying Ollie and a Vileplume who had succumbed to smoke inhalation.
Raelle hopped up and hugged Chad's middle, then fell down, unable to keep a hold on his girth. "My guy!" The smile left her face. "What's wrong? Anyone missing. . ."
"Chivonne." He told her what he had seen.
"Where are we?" Ollie's eyes rolled around to look back at Chad.
"Down the Poliwag stream," said Tilla. "We will soon reach the river it meets. I made a cairn on the bank trail leading everyone up here. We must begin moving again soon, or the fire will catch us."
Chad stoked his tail flame brighter against the drizzle. He knew the last thing the Vileplumes wanted to see now was more fire, but he didn't want to be in bodily pain.
"I can't tell you how sorry I am Tilla." He looked to the side at his own flaming tail. His shame.
"You were defending us," said Tilla. "If not for you Ollie would be dead."
"If not for Ollie, I'd be dead."
"Yes. You may not realize the full significance of what she did. She is my heir. This tribe now has a Rafracia to look to after my death. She will channel the powers of the Goddess herself to Deep's Heart for the next few generations."
"What Deep's Heart?" Vernon rose from his seat on the ground, grunting with the effort to get his old legs under him and hoist himself to a stance, heavy head and all. "Look behind us. That's our home!" Tears sprang to the Vileplume's old eyes as he whipped his head away from the distant smoke. "All this time I warned all of you! Our ancestors let Lizardon roam loose and you all know what happened!" The tears pooled in his wrinkles. "We knew never to give him a second chance. His wrath would be the death of Gloomleaf! This is what it takes for you to listen. How many forests must burn!"
Vernon's red flower bowed as he sobbed.
The other Vileplumes were holding hands, pointing, looking back towards the fire. Several began to wail; the oddish, numbering no more than twenty, whimpered and then squealed with cries. Ollie squeezed her eyes shut and looked hard at the ground, letting tears fall on her feet, with the rain that had beaded on her leaves. August, his clothes and hair slicked, looked uncomfortably at the crowd, his teeth chattering. His face was pasty in the rain, his nose and ears red. And yet, he still didn't remind Chad of Dorien at all. But Raelle, like always, stayed away from him. Chad moved his flame out and August rubbed his hands over it. "Thanks."
Tilla let them cry a moment.
"Vileplume."
She let the quiet soak in. The rain had intensified and pearls of water ran off her cream-freckled petals. But in the stark light her velvety red plume vibrated.
"We can never know if Rafracia is proud of us today. But all of you have made me a prouder Rafracia than I ever was. Your persistence has proven every one of you to me, and should have to yourselves. And now comes a new part of your journey--the part without me."
"What?" said Ollie.
"What?" said Vernon.
"What?" said Chad. The others all poured out asking what, and why. Tilla quieted them again.
"Vernon will lead you away from the fire. I will be accompanying Chad and his friends on an important mission. Do not concern yourselves with what it is; that is for myself and my party to know. Just be content with the knowledge that I will be back for you, and then I'll tell you everything. I am doing this for the good of all Gloomleaf, indeed, all the world."
Vernon stepped up to Tilla. Slightly shorter, he nevertheless kept his head level, shading his eyes under the veil of his scarred petals.
"I can't fathom what it is that you confide to Lizardon yet keep from me."
"I have placed our people in your care," said Tilla. "Isn't that more important for you to worry about? Isn't that what you always wanted?"
"I always wanted for us to follow Rafracia's way. You. . ." He trailed off. Chad realized that if he defied Tilla now, chaos might prevail.
"Vernon," Chad heard himself say, "Maybe the fire. . . is my fault. But don't think everyone's been corrupted by me." Chad sighed. "I don't know what you want me to say."
"I want you to shut up, and fly to the Holes of Hell like you said you would," said Vernon. "You can never know you have not corrupted us. Even if you haven't, you have done more than your share of damage to our lives. Rafracia curse you."
Cursed by two gods now.
Vernon spat on Chad's cream-colored belly.
"Vernon!" Tilla cried as Chad flamed it clean, waved the steam away and returned the Vileplume's glare. But it was halfhearted. Hadn't he been there when Chiffy's wing got crushed? When Chivonne got captured? If he wasn't an active evildoer, he was sure a bad luck charm.
"I take leave of you now." Tilla motioned Ollie over to her. "And I take Ollie under my petals. To all my flowers, Rafracia bless you. You have been brave and strong. Vernon is Rafracia in my stead; follow the stream to the river and keep to it. I will be traveling to meet you again as soon as I can. And on the day when you see me running through the forest to you, all secrets will be revealed." Tilla held her arms out. "Rafracia's petals shelter you."
"And you," answered the others. As they bowed, Tilla walked away, holding her head high and murmuring an incantation under her breath. "We are going to get the ball," she said in her lowest voice. "Rafracia guard us." One by one Chad and his soggy company turned to follow her. Chad saw she was crying. "Forgive me. I keep thinking as I walk through this forest how it will be the last I see of it before the flames move in. Rain will not kill them. They will not stop until they have nothing left to burn."

Chivonne got to her shuddering feet; her knees kept buckling. Finally she gripped the thick black bars lining one wall of her cage and hauled herself up, her breath shaking in her lungs. She blinked her eyes awake, unable to let go and rub them. Her head spun. Surrendering back to the floor, she looked around, her legs lying to one side. She knew she had been drugged, but had hoped to wake up before they'd intended.
She was in a round room of dark masonry, halved by thick black bars caging her in. By one part of the wall, towards the back, was a small pile of rocks, and a litter pan. Otherwise it was empty. She had been put in here by Poké Ball, since there was no door. Bracing herself on her hands, she stretched her neck toward one bar, took a breath and flamed, arrowing white heat at it. It remained unscathed.
Creeping forward she tried to reach out. Her hand felt a forcefield just beyond.
Daninger walked in the door, leaving it ajar. The clacking of his black shoes on the cracked masonry floor were the only sounds beside her own quietly burning tail. He held his hands behind his back, staring at her with her hand pressed on the forcefield.
"Up early, aren't we. That wall's for double protection. Just in case, through some miracle, you find a way past the bars. Oh they're flame-proof. The entire cage is."
Before she released the flame building in her gut, she forced her body to stand. The last thing she would do now was give him her dignity too.
Daninger folded his black-sleeved arms across his chest and smiled. She caught a flash of something small, round and shiny in his right hand before he concealed it. "You were probably beginning to think charizards are smarter than people, hm? Well, if that were the case, this would be in your hand." Between thumb and middle finger he held up a strange Poké Ball. The Master Ball. Chivonne let out a tongue of yellow fire.
"Not so fast," he said, wagging his finger. "You're starting to act like your boyfriend. I know just how impulsive he can be. I may know him better than you or he suspects. Regardless, I'll soon find out."
He felt his chin, studying her. His eyes focused on her middle. There had to be a reason why he had not killed her yet; obviously he was going to use her to lure the others.
Daninger twiddled his fingers. "I'll give you a little time to think on all this. Whether or not you cooperate, your plans have failed. Not to mention your boyfriend started a fire that will level all Gloomleaf. But don't fear, the ball of Marius will be safely in my hands before fire can threaten it."
"You don't even know where it is."
"It's safe to assume it's in Gloomleaf; I have all I need to pinpoint where. You seem to keep forgetting, you're up against Team Rocket. We got hold of the Master Ball decades ago. The rest will be easy."
Daninger took from his pocket another, ordinary, Poké Ball. Popping it open he released the strange Electabuzz.
"At ease."
Chivonne stifled a flame as the Electabuzz melted into purple plasma with a smiling face, wiggling like jello by Daninger's feet. That charizard--
"You're probably realizing now that you fought no charizard last night, but this little fellow."
"Are you planning to actually try the two balls?"
"You can't think I'm that stupid. I just happened to have the Master Ball on hand to show you how we handle things in Team Rocket. You probably don't know of the little tests we ran on you while you lay unconscious."
Chills slithered on the backs of her legs. Her tail lashed.
"But you must know what I found out. It's the real reason you're still alive."
It confirmed the settled feeling she had felt but had attributed to sharing pleasures with Chad. She was safe as long as she had this egg inside her. From that egg would hatch a young charmander, worth millions to a human. To her, priceless.
"The egg is mine by the way. But I've provided a nice little nest for you to keep it warm." He nodded towards the pile of small stones. "Rocks of a refractory substance that only melts under white heat, anything cooler and it just swells a little. Perfect for charmander incubation because it holds heat for hours. I have the little one's best interests in mind. Of course it's about nine weeks away now, but that's ample time for the father to fly in to witness the miracle of life. Along with the rest of his female menagerie, and your beloved trainer. "
Chivonne held her middle as Daninger turned to the Ditto.
"Copy Chivonne." As the creature rose from the white light to look at her with Chivonne's own eyes, Daninger pointed back to the door. "You are Chivonne now. Speaking human will certainly help you pull it off. Fly past the fire and go right into Plan A. Her boyfriend should fall for it like charizards would. Only. . .one thing." He looked from Chivonne's copy to the real one, behind the bars. "I suppose you won't be so kind as to give me your partner's name?"
Chivonne Leered at him. Daninger shrugged, swaying his head back to Ditto. "Oh well, you'll just have to act. If it comes up, feign amnesia."
"Brilliant," said Ditto in Chivonne's voice.
Chivonne watched her double leave the room, swishing its slender flamed tail. Daninger left behind her and closed the door.
Her body had recovered from the drug. Examining the cage from floor to ceiling, about 9 feet high, she found a small crack running vertically between the stones, but all her flaming, clawing and kicking could not budge it. Her Rage only exhausted her. She sank in a gold pile to the floor, out of breath. Peering out the crack, she saw the white light of day threading through from the other side.


46: And Make It Double

Chad felt crazy following them while Chivonne remained captured, possibly being tortured. Watching his orange feet tramp the undergrowth, he said, "Guys I gotta split."
"Chasing your lust to Yellow Town, I suppose?" said Vixen.
"If it was just lust do you think I'd risk my life?"
"You did once already."
"Vixen I'm not arguing now. I found my mate. Yes--I love her. You don't need me right now and she does. August could come with me too--"
"Well I am going to argue. What do you think's going to happen? You waltz in there, somehow find the right building, pop in and they hand you her key? You bet they will, they'll put you in with her. It'll be over. This is Team Rocket, Chad, not Chiffy standing guard and Chizmo with his mudpies! Any plan of springing her out of there will require all of us! Even then we'll need a lot of luck!"
Chad puffed steam out his nose, his head reverberating from the blow of common sense. His toes dug in the dirt. "I can't let her stay there!"

"I understand your urgency," said Tilla as they fought through the foliage. "But first, we need the ball. Not only may it be our only way of rescuing Chivonne at all, but Team Rocket is searching relentlessly for it. If we don't go for it now it will be too late."
Chad forced himself to calm down and take their advice. Off behind them, all day as they traveled, he heard the distant roar as the wide curtain of black smoke draped the sky. Despite the opposing winds the smoke smell reached them as the fire advanced, like a great sweeping ghost, falling behind their steps but burning steady.
They headed south, away from Deep's Heart, while Vernon led the Vileplumes east towards the river. As they climbed high hills, blooming with spring growth oblivious to the fire on their heels, Tilla looked down to see the bright plumes of her people traveling away, just visible through open patches in the brush. Far behind both parties, the black wall of smoke rose from flaming trees.
As they descended into a valley on the third morning, the smoke smell faded, giving them fresher air. On the far side of the valley, Chad saw the remains of one or more stone buildings, long collapsed and overgrown.
"Ah you see it," said Tilla, grasping a tree and swinging herself onto the next safe area down the steep incline. "You've good eyes. That's where I'm taking you. Raelle," she called up to the Raichu, "tell August to join us down here. Chad will fly us to the opposite side of the valley in two groups. We don't want to waste time, or risk ourselves on these rocks. We are approaching the Charmountains, some of the tallest mountains in the world, and it gets worse the farther south you go." Tilla chuckled as the company gathered together, leaning on trees for support. "'Worse' is a relative term. I imagine that you, Chad, will absolutely love it when you go there."
"If he gets to." Vixen scratched an itch with her hind leg.
Tilla's petals shadowed the fox from the late morning sunlight.
"Do not talk that way. We need all the confidence we can muster, and fear is contagious."
Vixen sneezed.
Raelle, Friana and Vixen dismounted from Chad, joining the first group at the front of the ruins. An entrance partly blocked by fallen rocks and trees showed a black hole in the mountain. Tilla led them in.
Vixen hesitated in the broken archway. "You're sure the ball is still in there."
"I am sure of nothing. But I left it here and if I'm to get it, now's my only chance. When the fire sweeps through this area it will destroy everything in its path." Tilla sighed. "I wish I could figure out why Lizardon rose against us."
"Wow," said Friana, her eyes wandering all around at the cracked walls, lit by Chad's tail. The fire revealed ancient relief carvings scissored with cracks. Rocks and debris lay in their path, but in some places the hall was clear.
"I admit it's much easier to make my way through here than the last time," said Tilla, "with Chad for light. Vileplumes don't see well in the dark."
"I can," said Ollie, "well, I used to."
"You may have noticed, Ollie," said Tilla, "that colors are becoming brighter to you, though."
"Yes. Before, day and night looked kind of the same. I like it more this way."
"When I'm a butterfree I'm revisiting this valley!" Friana said, in human talk. "What ruins! I wish we could do some excavations now."
"I wonder who built it," said August, hardly looking at the walls. Chad could tell that he too was more eager to go and rescue Chivonne. He supposed Friana couldn't feel the same as he, or August, did.
"There are so many speculations about the ruins in Gloomleaf's deeper parts," the Metapod went on. "Humans tried numerous times to settle in the region. Many ancient civilizations worshipped Pokémon. But they never lasted long; the most common theory is that the resident Pokémon. . .overwhelmed them."
Score one for our side! Chad chuckled.
"Pretty vicious," said August.
"That's the breaks," said Raelle in human language, talking to August for the first time. "Humans'll push us around, but when the chips are down we will win. We were made for this world and this is our land. The Poké Gods watch over us."
"Yeah." August stuck his hands in his pockets and kicked a pebble. The bouncing stone echoed in the cavernous space as Tilla led them on.
They reached the end of the hall and came into a little room. How in Chah's name had she navigated this place in the dark on her previous trip? thought Chad. Tilla crouched by a ruined wall, where rocks had tumbled through a wide crack into a pile. Chad, Raelle and August knelt to help her remove them.
"Nothing seems to have been disturbed," said the Vileplume as they worked. They set rocks aside until they had dug well into the niche.
"Here." Tilla lifted the tiny, metallic ball out of its rock nest. She blew off the dust and held it towards Chad's tail tip; all leaned in to look. The silver ball was barely bigger than a marble. A hairline seam halved it.
"It's so little," said Raelle. "Hard to believe this is the Ball to End all Balls."
"Now to Yellow Town," said Chad.
"If we're sure Team Rocket has the Master Ball," said Vixen.
"Yeah, they say it's been with TR for years," said Raelle. "Just no one knew where."
"It's not just the master ball, Chivonne too."
August nodded. "It's northeast of Deep's Heart. Chivonne was the only one who went there, though."
"I can fly over and spot it," said Chad.
"Is everyone really coming?" said Vixen.
Raelle stepped forward. "Count me in. Time we gave'em their due."
"Of course I'll be on your back," said Friana, "for all I'm worth." She chuckled from her net backpack.
"Hey, you could evolve any day," said Raelle, "You think I'd do this without you back there to be my brain?"
"I'm coming too," said Ollie. Then, in confusion, "Why are we going to Yellow Town?"
"To get the Master Ball and save Chad's girlfriend," said Vixen. "Chah damn me if I'm letting you go traipsing all over the place alone, Chad. I'm in. That is, if we're sure this little silver marble's going to work?"
"Marius was sure," said Tilla. "So was his Alakazam friend, who helped him develop it."
"That would be Kora," said Raelle, strutting proudly as they walked back up the corridor. "I got friends in high places."
"Dangerous places," said Vixen.
"Can someone please tell me what just transpired?" asked the helpless August.
"We're going to Yellow Town to rescue Chivonne and get the Master Ball!" said Ollie.
August laughed. "Uh, thanks, Gloom."
"He don't hear Pokémon talk right," said Raelle as Friana explained things to August.
"Yeah I only heard gloom, gloom, gloom," said August.
Ollie did a jump. "So then I really am a Gloom now!"

Chivonne scrabbled at the ceiling, pulled the bars. She exhausted her fire sack blasting the whole cage, in vain. She knew by now, after several days, that she would die here. Why not take her anguish out with her fire? Out of breath and flames, she slumped onto her side and lay staring at the small pile of rocks where, in only a few more days, her egg would rest. Her only child would grow up fighting for the ones who had killed its parents, almost its entire kind. It would live and die by their hands.
Then she lifted her head. She crawled to the rocks. She picked one up in her hand, and flamed it with the last of the power she had foolishly wasted. In her hand, it swelled slightly, as Daninger had said. As it cooled it returned to its original size. She flamed again, figuring out just what temperature (color) made it swell the most.
Chivonne stood up with her back to the bars and wound her arm. She hurled it against the back wall; it smashed in pieces. She picked up another rock. And another. Slamming them on the wall, the floor, she broke each one into shards.
"So, the proud lady is reduced to childish fits," said Daninger, stepping in as Chivonne flung another rock against the wall, bracing her feet amidst chips and slivers. "I was wondering what the hell all the racket was."
Chivonne whirled around and flamed at him, to make it all the more convincing.
Shortly after he left, Chivonne threw the last stone. When the pieces skittered across the floor and came to rest, she fell to collecting them. She could have done better using her hottest fire to mold them, if she hadn't stupidly wasted it. And it wasn't worth the time needed to recover.
She selected one of the thinnest slivers and inserted it into the crack at the back of the cage. One by one she inserted whatever pieces fit, cramming them as snug as she could. She used more pieces to push the first ones in further. It had to reach at least the middle of the wall.
By the time she finished, her hands were sore and scratched. Her fire sack would not recover full power until she ate, but she didn't want to wait for breakfast, her one big meal a day. No, she needed tonight. She had already lost so much time.
Chivonne backed up, churning up her fire stomach, preparing to do the longest, biggest flamethrower she had ever done--but not the hottest. White heat would melt the rocks. She needed to swell them. And then, brace herself. Who knew what would happen--if it would do nothing, blast a hole or kill her. She had nothing left to lose. The tension seemed to buzz in the wall as her orange heat hosed steadily up and down the crack, stimulating it.
A few minutes later a chunk of the tower wall blew. Rocks flew at Chivonne, knocking her head, shoulder, stomach. She had tucked her wings behind her, but the force of the blast slapped her back against the bars. She dived and rolled to the left corner as a stone struck the side of her head.
Chivonne scrambled over the jagged rocks and, despite bruises and dizziness, was flapping out over the trees without looking back. She headed toward Deep's Heart, knowing she would find them somewhere between here and the burnt-out shell of the ridge and the semicircle. As she flew the dizziness abated, and she felt the slight weight of the egg growing inside her.

It was the 5th day of hiking. Or the 6th? It wasn't Chad's habit to count, but it had been too long. Every other minute he thought of Chivonne's flaming eyes, her tongue on his neck, her body rubbing his. He knew the Marius and Master Balls were important, but without Chivonne, nothing counted.
Last night he had a nightmare that Dorien chained Chivonne in a machine and was torturing her in the pool. In the far end, Chad kept trying to wade through, flapping his wings and flailing his arms, dragged down in the water by weights on his feet. He looked up this morning, emerging from sleep, to see Chivonne gliding far overhead. But then he rubbed his eyes fully open. If real, it was almost certainly the look-alike that Team Rocket had defeated her with. One more reason why he had been smart to not fly after.
Today his stomach overrode everything. He had put hunger aside in favor of maximizing their concealment, and speed, in search of Chivonne, forgetting how long walking took. He'd only had one chance to hunt since leaving Deep's Heart and he had had to cut it short (foregoing an Odoshishi) and settle for digging a Rattata from its nest. The other days had been a mix of Digletts, an Otachi, an Ekans, a clutch of Pidgey eggs and bugs on the side.
August walked alongside him. The human sometimes talked to Chad of Chivonne, as if sensing that he, too, thought her more important than the Master Ball. "They say a Pokémon's personality becomes more like its trainer's over time," he said. "I feel like it's the opposite, like I've taken on traits of Chivonne."
"I read about that," said Friana. "Sometimes they influence each other, meeting halfway. They often form a deep bond, depending on how the Pokémon is treated."
"You read a lot, don't you."
Friana smiled. "I've had a lot of time."
"I know we have to stay hidden," Chad cut in, "but I got to hunt. I'm slowing down."
"You are looking thin in the belly," said Friana. "You poor thing. I didn't even realize that while the rest of us had our fill, you couldn't take to the skies. Why didn't you speak up sooner?"
"We're practically on the outskirts of Yellow," said Vixen. "You could've grabbed something when you flew up this morning."
"I can't catch something in a glimpse. I got to break. I need meat."
"You gotta do what you gotta do," said Raelle, then she added in Pokémon, "Maybe you'll get lucky and find a few humans."
"We can break on the edge of the woods while Chad hunts," said Tilla. "We'll need to take stock of ourselves and of how we plan to locate Chivonne, and the Master Ball. Not to mention, have a little meal ourselves. To those foraging, watch out for stun-stem--I've seen it in these parts. It has long, ragged leaves."
Ollie, who had been traveling slightly ahead, gasped unseen in the bushes and burst through the foliage.
"Humans!" she breathed as she reached Tilla. "Two! Right up ahead of us."
"Shhh," Tilla put her hand round Ollie's back, drawing her closer. "Did they see you?"
"No but I think they heard me. They're very close."
"Chad, Vixen. Get them. They will know about us."
Chad and Vixen broke through the bushes and ran into two startled, black-uniformed soldiers of Team Rocket.
"Chaaaaarrr!" Chad flung himself on one while Vixen flamed at the other, who danced backwards out of forest-fire-safe range. As the creature turned on its two legs to run, she jumped its back. It screamed, flailing its arms and landed, the wind huffing out of its lungs. The others arrived on the scene just as Chad sank his teeth into his victim's jugular and jerked, blood spouting up and raining red on his face.
"Oh my god!" August clutched his stomach and turned, doubling over. He stumbled away up the path, holding one hand out, as if groping for something to lean on. As Vixen pinned the other human face down, Chad heard August vomiting beyond the bushes.
Chad did not want to begin eating then and there, for more than one reason. But saliva filled his mouth as he tasted the blood. He buried his teeth in the carcass. Vixen had clamped her jaws round the neck of her live prey, but had not made the final bite.
"Don't kill him." Tilla held a leaf of stun-stem out to the human's face, momentarily paralyzing him. "He may know the things we must learn."
Raelle winced at the gorging Chad, who had slit the kill down its back to one thigh, and turned back to the man with his face turned sideways in the moist dirt. In human she said, "And I know how to get it out of him." She snapped her fingers. "Chad. Take a break and help us tie him up."

August crept back up through the bushes, and peered around a tree.
"We'll let Chad finish first," Raelle was saying, sitting in a comfortable mousy crouch on the ground. Vines lashed the man's legs and bound his hands behind him, while Vixen pinned his back. "What's the hurry."
"There's lots of hurry, we have to get Chivonne," said Chad, holding a bone in his hand and stripping gristle off with his teeth. August clutched his stomach and stepped back behind the tree.
Chad chucked the bare bone and put his bloody muzzle close to the live man's ruddy, sweating face. "Where's Chivonne?"
"He can't understand you." Raelle grabbed the man's hand. "Where's Chivonne."
"--don't know--" The man gasped, his cheek smooshed against leaves and dirt in the dew-kissed forest. "Let me up, I'm gonna puke."
"Where is she!"
"Aaaaahhh!" he screamed, his voice cracking, as she bent his fingers back.
"No one can hear you. Now start talking or Chad starts flaming." She nodded toward the charizard. "The Ninetales could use a lunch too. Where's Chivonne and where's the Master Ball. We kinda want both, and kinda soon."
"Master Ball--It's with the boss."
"Where's the boss." Raelle twisted his finger and the man's breath hissed in. Chad winced.
"They'll kill me--they'll kill me if I tell! Aaaaa. . ."
"We're gonna kill you if you don't!" Raelle bent his fingers further back. "Chad drag him over to those bones and shit! Maybe he gotta kiss some guts!"
Chad stepped back. Tilla, waist-high in bushes nearby, was looking at Raelle, not the human or Chad, in fear. Friana lay underneath a bush. Chad smelled urine. Apparently Vixen did too, although it was hard to say at this point why she was wrinkling her nose.
"--no, no! Daninger's in the tower. . ."
"What tower."
"--Black tower." He paused for air. "It's masonry."
"Is Chivonne with him."
"I don't know!"
"All right!" Raelle started dragging him by his uniform shirt and he started screaming again. "Wanna see Chad's leftovers?"
"Raelle--"
"What? Chad, he's got to talk."
"There's gotta be another way to do this!"
"Outta my way." She yanked him past Chad, grunting with each tug.
"No!" The man's hands clawed the ground; his legs tried to kick. His body heaved and he vomited. Raelle, out of breath, stopped dragging him and began bending his finger again. He retched and coughed, gaining breath to speak as his face lay in bile. "Chivonne's with him somewhere in there! That's all I know! Don't kill me, please, please!"
Chad stepped between Raelle and the remains.
"Fuck you Chad, get out of the way!" Rivulets of tears glistened on her face.
"I'm putting him out of his misery." He bent forward. They could never let him go and Chad would have no more torture.
Raelle tried to block his opening jaws. "You kill him now we're all dead! Ow--don't push me, get your hands off me--"
"Stop!"
August stood, shaking and sweating, against a tree. "Chad--Raelle--stop it. We'll find the tower ourselves." He swallowed, pale-faced. "You can't kill him."
"No more torture, and no more death." Tilla stepped out from the bushes. "But he cannot be released."
"I can't let you kill him, I--"
"I have an idea. Ollie."
The young Gloom crept out from the vines and their tender spring leaves. She winced at the smells and sights, and cowered under the bush near Friana, but Tilla called her forward again.
"Use your Stun Spore, close to his face. Everyone, hold your breath."
Ollie released a small cloud of golden dust in the man's face. He was obviously holding his breath too, but the dust was directed at him and he succumbed. His arms and legs soon lay limp. Chad dragged him out of the vomit.
Tilla lay him down and softly shooed the others back. "I will give him my strongest dose of sleep powder. He'll be out at least a day." Out from her flower's center wafted sandy-gold powder. The man closed his eyes, and she laid her hands on him, healing his wounds as the powder settled over him, glinting in the sun. To Raelle with her mouth hanging open, she said, "I heal everyone."

"I'm sorry I got carried away," said Raelle as she helped Chad use vines to tie the man to a tree further into the woods, away from any trails or streams, lessening the chance that he would become some Victreebel's lunch. August kept his distance from Raelle and especially Chad, staring at the charizard with the now-huge stomach like he was some horrible monster.
Chad snorted, almost flaming out his nostrils. "Yeah, well, I got carried away too."
"No, you were starving. For me--it's my tail. Just when I think I'm fine, this shit happens." Raelle secured the last thick vine binding the unconscious human. "Damn--it started to feel good."
"It doesn't feel good now," said Tilla, "and that's what's shows you are not a heartless brute."
"It was dreadful but necessary, without you we wouldn't know to head to the tower," said Friana. "Let's just forget about it Rae. I guess Chad'll scout for the tower?"
"I don't know about that," said August as they walked back up the path. "We're in Team Rocket territory and I sure don't want another. . . encounter."
"Get used to it," said Vixen. "All of you, get used to it! Chah! This was only the beginning! Do you have any idea how many more we'll run into before we even reach this building? This is Team Rocket headquarters! We can't just saunter in! If we don't come up with some kind of plan. . ."
"Well I think we need to know where it is before we can plan, and we won't see it from here." Chad spread his wings. "I'll just be a minute."
"Don't--"
Chad broke the canopy surface, and Vixen's voice fell away. Flying out around the outskirts of Yellow Town, he spotted Chivonne herself in the distance. Bellowing, he flew towards her at full speed. They met in midair.
They circled each other and landed on a grassy spot. "Charrrrr. . ." His neck wound with hers. He licked her face, growling, crying. His flame of relief breathed down between her wings. "Chivonne."
She wriggled in his grasp, flapping her wings. He eased up.
"How'd you get out?"
"I. . .I slipped out--he left the forcefield off for a moment! I was lucky."
"Yeah." Chad embraced her again. She stiffened in his arms. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing."
Chad stepped back. Why did he feel so cautious?
Chivonne found her voice again, seeming more comfortable at this distance. "Where's Tilla? I have to tell her and the others something very important. Did they find the ball?"
Chad nodded his head. "Yeah. But all I wanted to find was you."
"Let's go to them--where are they?"
"Not yet." His wings cupped her, he stepped close again, sniffing noses. It was Chivonne's scent; no two charizards were alike. "You seem different. Did they hurt you."
"Yes." Chivonne hung her head and her hands covered her face.
"How?" Chad circled her, touching and sniffing. Her body was still strangely stiff, but unscathed. "What did they do?"
"They. . .violated me."
"What?" The word shot out on a cloud of flame. Chivonne flinched.
"Oh, it was horrible. They took a--a--" she put her face in her hands again. "And that's why I feel so. . .strange." Before Chad could speak she looked up, trembling. "Where's Tilla and the others? I need to warn them! Team Rocket's coming. And they'll do the same thing to everyone! If their physical. . .body. . .permits." A nervous smile played on her face.
His fury and compassion were rippling in and out, like the consistency of Chivonne's statements. Why wasn't he flaming up the place, flapping into the sky in pursuit of the perpetrators?
Because this didn't feel like Chivonne. Not like that shrewd yet so passionate female who would wrap wings and tail with him, stoking his fires--making him feel mighty, and beautiful.
Could this be that lizard look-alike? Could two people be that similar? Chivonne had never mentioned a twin. No, it wasn't possible.
What happened next wasn't possible either.
"No!" From the same direction flew another charizard. Another Chivonne. Before he could react, she drew her feet forward to land. "Stop! That's not me that's a Ditto!"
Chad slapped his forehead. Why hadn't he thought of that!
The first Chivonne stomped over to the second. "That's not true! You're the Ditto!"
"All right, what's his name?" said the second, thumbing at Chad. Chad stepped over and his tail found hers. He squeezed his real mate; he had found solid ground with reality again.
"Okay, okay." The Ditto shrugged haughtily. "But I can beat you in battle again."
Chivonne's arm draped Chad's shoulders. "You're pressing your luck. I'm fresh this time."
"And she's not alone." They separated and faced Ditto, heads lowered, tails lashing.
"No fair!" Ditto fluttered back. "You can't attack me! Daninger's on my side and he'll kill both of you if you harm one inch of my protoplasm you wild Pokémon!"
"Eh shut up," said Chad. He jumped and tackled Ditto easily, followed by Chivonne, who attacked Ditto's legs and tail. They pinned the flailing, flaming impostor on the grass.
"Chad's my name," he said to its roaring face, "and don't wear it out."
Chivonne grinned over at him. "Good line."
Through the bushes ran Vixen. . .Raelle. . .August. . . Ollie. . .and lastly Tilla, as if she knew she could take her time.
"What the hell is going on?" said Raelle.
"Your luck just keeps improving, Chad." Vixen looked at the tangle of orange and gold bodies.
"Who is this third party?" said Tilla.
"Everyone hide," Chivonne cried, removing her mouth from Ditto's shoulder. "Team Rocket's coming now, for Tilla. He sent this Ditto after us. We'll just be a minute with it then we'll fly everyone out of here!" She shouted the last words through a veil of flames spouting from Ditto's mouth. "Chad, we just have to weaken her till she can't hold her shape. She'll turn ditto again--"
"DANINGER!" Ditto screamed.
"Stop where you are!" boomed a voice over a distant megaphone. Chad, Chivonne, Ditto, and the others all looked up at the pink hot-air balloon drifting closer, backlit by the late morning sun.
"So!" Daninger hollered from the goldola of a balloon that looked like an enormous Ditto. One hand held the megaphone, and the other operated the controls guiding the balloon closer. "Ganging up on my ditto, eh? Well I have the power of numbers now! This time there's no colony of stinkweeds protecting you!" He ducked out of sight and came up holding two Poké Balls in one hand and three in the other. "Go!" He threw them over the side. They hailed onto the ground close by, releasing red lights that shaped into a Persian, a Weezing, a Gyarados, an Aerodactyl and an Electabuzz. "Attaaaack!"
Chivonne took flight while Chad held Ditto down, and she flamed down from the skies onto the Pokémon below, managing to hurt the Gyarados and Weezing before the Aerodactyl took her on. While the Gyarados loosed a bubble beam onto Chad and the Ditto who was now changing into another Gyarados, the Weezing, Electabuzz, and Persian chased the others in the bushes.
"Ollie, use your Foul Odor!" cried Tilla. The Vileplume aimed her solar beam as the advancing Electabuzz held long sparking arms out towards the two weed Pokémon. As the Electabuzz fell back in the white light, the air filled with a hideous stench.
"Ah, August," said Daninger into the megaphone as the Persian chased him around a tree, "I always tried to explain to you that you needed more Pokémon!"
That voice, Chad thought as he dodged a bubblebeam from the Gyarados--or possibly the Ditto, and countered with fire that it dodged. Where have I heard it?
Chivonne and the other Gyarados battled in the air. Out of breath, she barely avoided a huge fountain of water shooting from the sea serpent's mouth. She roared, surrounding herself in a shell of flames as it hit her tail. Her flamethrower struck the Gyarados in the face. It shot water out too late, tossing its head as it roared, the flames stripping its skin.
"Rrrraichuuuu!" Raelle leaped on the Persian's back and and her rabbitlike foot dealt it a quick kick to the head. Yowling the Persian wheeled around. It bunched up to pounce; Raelle landed behind it. She darted and hopped, her long feet springing her off the leafy ground, kicking and head butting. The Persian could not keep up with the Agility, but when, bruised and battered, it finally managed to scratch her, it hurt.
"That's it! You're mine Persian!" Raelle leaped dodging the Persian's pounce. She kicked its head again and it sank to the ground, its side huffing and puffing. It did not rise.
August climbed down from the tree.
"Raelle. . .thanks." He held his hand out to her.
Raelle gave him a high five. "No problem. For a human you ain't so bad."
The others had defeated Daninger's Pokémon more or less, even the two Gyarados. Ditto was now a little blob of protoplasm, and neither Chivonne nor Chad wanted to kill it or any of the others. "Now for him," said Chivonne, nodding towards the balloon. "You take one side, I'll take the other--"
"I hope we're not getting too overconfident down there! I have one last Pokémon stored for a rainy day!" He held up a Poké Ball, pressed the botton and released t onto the edge of the gondola. "Because when it's raining outside there's nothing like a little music and a good nap!"
The red light solidified into a pink balloon Pokémon with big round blue eyes. Getting airborne and flapping faster towards the balloon beside Chivonne, Chad saw Daninger sticking something into his ears, then he held the megaphone down to the little creature. "Jigglypuff. . .sing!"
"Jiihhhhgleeepuuuhhhffff, jihhhgleeeeepuffff. . ."
Every Pokémon still awake, fighting or not, began to sag in sleep. Chad, nearing the balloon, felt a sudden wave of dizziness and peace. "Cover your ears!" said Chivonne; Chad was already plugging them with his claws. Still the amplified voice sang through. He tried to fly faster, make it behind the megaphone, but his eyelids sagged, losing sight of the balloon he had been aiming for so strongly; his wings went limp and switched to a glide.
"Jiggleeee. . ."
"You will never match my Pokémon!" Daninger shouted, half drowned out by the megaphone, but his words reached Chad as he spiraled towards the ground, overwhelmed by the song as surely as he had succumbed to the drugged food at the auction. "And why?" Daninger went on. "Because wild Pokémon are pathetic! Undisciplined! Without humans you're nothing! Hell, you even take years to evolve! Surrender now! You cannot win!"
As Chad yawned and collapsed on his stomach with his wings spread over the ground, Daninger's voice haunted him. So familiar.


47: Answers from the Grave

A food smell woke Chad up. He opened his eyes lying on a stone floor, in a stone cage. He looked around; everyone was here, and awake. In addition, a strange woman with yellowish hair sat in the corner, near August. He lifted his neck, which was a little sore, along with the rest of him. Above him he saw a high ceiling, with a big hole in the top, crisscrossed by bars. At least he could see sky up there. Chivonne lay against him, warming his body. They embraced. For a moment it didn't matter that he was trapped in here.
"Yuck."
Chad looked behind him, out the bars. Gloen and Jewel, in Rocket uniform, were taking bags of Pokémon food from a cabinet. An Eevee looked him in the face and sent him down memory lane.
"Charizard love?" it screeched in human speech. "Don't make me puke. There's some species it just doesn't look right on."
"Not you again," Chad rumbled. "Don't you ever evolve?"
"She's just jealous," said Vixen. "Even the dragons are getting more than her."
Evil Eevee bared her teeth at them and elbowed Gloen's shin as he brought a bowl over. "Hey Gloen, it's the same yellow-bellied fatso we gave the big blow job back on Charizard Island fourteen years ago!"
"Well," said Jewel, pouring food into another bowl. She and Gloen slid bowls of the food in, one by one, through a slot in the forcefield. A one-way slot, Chad found when he tried to stick his arm out. "Haven't gotten very far, have you."
"You the one feeding us and cleaning the floors," said Raelle.
"Daninger doesn't let just anyone up here, for your information!" said Eevee. "So go wipe the floor with your flabby ass you stub-tailed freak!"
"Yup, she's jealous," said Raelle. "Cause she's the only one here who ain't evolved."
"Maybe she just has trouble making decisions," said Chivonne.
"Oh like I asked you bitch," said Eevee.
"No more comments from the hors d'eorves," said Vixen and they laughed, if bittersweetly.
"Jewel, Gloen, those Pokétrash are emotionally abusing me!"
"Go suck a Diglett," called Raelle as Evil Eevee trounced out the door and down the stairs, passing a man with dark hair dressed in a black suit coming into the room. Jewel and Gloen finished putting the food away and left, as if knowing he wanted them gone.
"I had you all moved up here with Lunia, because the cage downstairs has minor damage," said Daninger. "Namely, a hole in the wall the size of Indigo Plateau. That was a clever trick you pulled, Chivonne, but it was your last."
Images and feelings whirled into Chad's mind at the sound of Daninger's voice. A dark, rank place, huddling in fear, a sticky floor. . .
Tilla looked down at where her belt with the feathers and pouches should have been.
"Looking for this?" Daninger held up the Marius Ball, then dropped it back into his black jacket pocket. "It's in good hands--we just have to figure out how to destroy it."
Wedged in a narrow door, Raging to break past; fetid water coming up behind him. . .
"Give it back!" Ollie ran to the bars. She tried to squirm between, only to find herself smooshed against the forcefield. Disentangling herself, she ran back to Tilla.
"Settle down, sprout," said Daninger, "and enjoy your breakfast."
"Yuck," said Raelle, slouched against the wall as she stared out at the pellets from between her long feet.
A few of Vixen's furry tails wrapped round her paws as she stared at the small reddish-brown pellets in the bowl. "They actually expect us to eat that? In front of him?" She flicked a paw towards Daninger.
Chad crunched on the pellets in the food bowl, to clear the shadowy wings of thoughts in his mind. Who knew when they would next be fed. Chivonne had already begun eating. It was rough against his tongue, and tasted almost as good as what Dorien had fed him. Fourteen years later, they had apparently formulated a low-fat version. "I have yet to stay at a place with good food."
"Wouldn't be hard to prepare," said Chivonne, managing to smile briefly.
"They don't serve up human on a platter." Raelle, trying a piece herself, called to Daninger. "Hey, guy, could you bring us some water?" To Chad and Chivonne she mumbled, "Coffee'd be better."
"I'll have someone come in to give you water, so don't complain. I'm surprised you're hungry, Charizard." And the voice finally clicked in his mind. Chad almost collapsed. "After all you did chow down on one of my men. I'd recommend a quick bit of Raichu training for you, old boy, if I didn't see that you already have a Raichu. One of mine, in a way."
"Dorien," said Chad.
"Darlock," said Raelle.
"Daninger," said Daninger.
"Goodness, this is evolution at its worst," said Friana.
"What happened to your face?" said Chad. For Daninger bore little resemblance to Dorien, even allowing for fourteen years of aging. Considering how Chad had left it, it looked good.
"I guess you finally stopped putting that junk in your hair," said Raelle.
"Ah, Raelle, you haven't changed, save for a little more round the middle." Daninger smiled, hands behind his back. His gaze lit sharply on Chad. "What I want to know is, why aren't you dead."
"Why aren't you dead?!" said Chad. Raelle translated.
"And who are you?" said Ollie, stepping up between Tilla and Chad. Raelle translated.
"Wild Pokémon are so full of questions," said Daninger. "There's much that they don't know. Well, Charizard, you probably experienced a great peace of mind after my faked death, thinking you'd never see me again. But your efforts turned out to be fruitless. After I barely pulled past my severe burn wounds, I sure wouldn't have won any beauty contests. The publicity surrounding the incident prompted my decision to, with my dear mother's assistance--bless her soul--fake my death. I was drugged and buried with a tube running from the coffin to above ground. It was obviously a closed-casket ceremony. My mother unburied me and sent me on my way. I spent most of my remaining fortune--the money left over after I wasted it on you--on reconstructive surgery."
"I can see why you chose a new look," said Chad. Raelle translated.
"Clever, aren't we. I was never displeased with my appearance before, but a new identity needs a new face. I joined Team Rocket a few months after full recovery and have been with them ever since. After I became Boss I relocated and changed my name to Daninger. Being as "Darlock" was known to the public and the government and would have complicated my marriage contract."
"You probably bumped someone off to get your job," said Raelle.
"I have never bumped anyone off." Daninger produced a Poké Ball from his pocket. He beamed the Ditto, in plasma form, onto the floor. "Others do my dirty work."
Chivonne's hands fisted at her side as Daninger stepped up to her.
"My very gravid charizard," he said, "even you never considered the possibilities when you have a ditto."
"Gravid?" Chad looked at her.
"I found out just before I escaped--"
"As I was saying. A ditto can turn into anything, from you. . .to a gyarados. . .even a nidorino."
Her white-hot fire smacked the forcefield. On the far side of Chad, Tilla yelped as she backed away, her petals barely avoiding a singe.
"You murderer!"
"What?" said August, running to Chivonne's side. Lunia stood up from the corner. "Who?"
"Even now you can't match the intelligence of your own Pokémon." Daninger laughed. "I should have gotten involved with your family earlier, so I could have Ditto kill Brett before he could perpetuate such inferior genes. There!" He smiled, his eyes wide in mockery. "Have I explained it enough?"
"How could you!" Lunia was kicking the bars as August stood slack-jawed, shaking his head. "My father. . ." She slid to the floor and wailed in her crying brother's arms.
"I want to know how the hell you did it." Tears ran down the sides of Chivonne's face; she pushed Chad's arms away. "Brett was no fool."
"When he went to get the groceries, I went to wash my hands. I threw the Poké Ball out the window and Ditto did the rest."
"Rafracia has seen you all your life," Tilla said, with Raelle translating, as Chivonne cried against Chad's chest, wrapped in his arms and wings. "It doesn't matter if we can do nothing to stop you from committing worse. She made you, and She can destroy you. She will take you where you need to be when it is time for you to die. And then," Tilla flapped her petals angrily, "Rafracia have mercy."

It had been five days since Brett's murder had come to light. Lunia was perhaps taking it the worst. "I knew deep inside that he had something to do with it," said Chivonne as they sat through another listless day. "Now everything makes sense."
"He doesn't make sense to me," said Chad. "I used to think, that no one was--really all evil." Chad snorted. "He is. He's a nut. He has to die."
He flapped his wings, which were stiff from disuse, looking to make sure no one was in the way. The cage provided too little room for him to fly, but just enough for Chivonne; she could fly up, grip the bars with her hands and feet and stick her head out to breathe the wind, but she couldn't fit through. Though there was no forcefield, the bars were fireproof. It upset Chad to look up and see the sky, smell the air and think that all of a sudden, his future was gone. He would never fly, make love, taste meat, bathe in lava, or see anything beyond here again. He would never see their charmander grow up.
Chivonne curled up against him, holding him. His body still flamed up when it neared hers. It didn't know Daninger was going to kill it in a matter of days. Still it breathed, moved, digested food, and felt lust.
He and Chivonne retired to one end of the cage, where they put their wings up and around each other for some privacy. "To think," said Chivonne, almost whispering, "that I had such a superiority complex. I didn't realize it, but I thought I was better than trained Pokémon, and humans. Who'd have thought that both would best me. Ditto showed me, and I needed it."
He held her tight, one of his legs in the air, the other under her. "Nobody's perfect."
"I thought I was. I thought I had everything under control. My head was bigger than a Snorlax."
"You--" Chad broke off laughing. "Being smart, gorgeous and talented can do that I think. I know, I've been on the other end." He shrugged. "I used to want the perfect mate. No such thing. But there's you and that's better. We're two flawed freaks enjoying each other, while we still can." He nuzzled her neck; a growl rumbled in his throat.
"And to think, if I'd met you when you were still with Dorien I might have turned you down. I was so stupid."
"I was too. That's how I dropped everything to fly out here and hunt you down. Without even knowing you."
He felt her lower body clench. She curled, hissing in her breath, and sat up, flinching.
"What?" Chad took her hands, wondering if the pellets had made her sick. Chivonne tensed up, bracing her feet far apart. She held his hands and closed her eyes. "Chivonne! What--"
"The egg."
"The egg!"
Her almond-shaped orange eyes opened; she swallowed, going limp as she let go of his hands and stepped away.
In between them lay a pale orange egg, heavily speckled with brown, twice as long as wide, about the size of Ollie.
Raelle stepped in. "Now that's an egg!"
Chivonne had already begun heating it with her tail flame; Chad joined her, keeping it the necessary temperature. He stroked the shell; it felt leathery, slightly flexible.
"Stop!" Ollie ran over. "Don't cook it!"
"It has to be that hot for a charmander to survive inside," said Friana. "Its tail doesn't ignite until it hatches, about nine weeks from now."
"A miracle, at the worst time," said Tilla, shaking her head.
Vixen's nose kept pointing from the egg to Chivonne, and back. Chivonne knelt to stroke the shell through the flames, letting them lick over her hand like water. Chad's nose met hers.
There was nowhere to hide it when Daninger came to visit.
"By the Poké Gods!" His mouth fell open. "That came from you? You're full of surprises. Well, you see now, Chivonne, that you've laid more than one egg. It should have been you who knew that you don't go having babies while getting yourself wing-deep in crises, especially involving Team Rocket. I guess your hormones got the best of you."
"And it doesn't matter to you that this may be the last chance for charizards to save their own?" she said. "What are all your catches worth, once they all die and there's no place left to raid? You're a typical human. Unable to see past the horizon of your own life."
"An anti-catch'em activist to the end." Daninger shook his head fondly. "It is a shame you won't be bringing up baby down in the Charmountains or wherever you were planning to roost. And you, Charizard, party's over for trying your hand at living in Gloomleaf and giving those lickitungs a run for their money." He turned to go, then swerved back on his heel. "Not that it matters to anything in Gloomleaf at this point. You've done your job well. Yes, the fire's still raging. Actually it's more like several fires. Firefighters are trying to get it under way, armed with the best Blastoise Brigades around, but it'll burn into next week." He tsk'ed. "Experts are saying that with all the unburned fuel piled up, most of the region will go up in smoke. Good work." He left and shut the door.
Ollie began to cry. Chad roared, just for the hell of it. "I wish it was him I'd caught."
Tilla hugged Ollie. "We will survive. Gloomleaf burned long ago, so it burns today. There are always some parts that do not burn. We will move on." She looked down at Ollie's tiny but now-bloomed Gloom flower, surrounded by the ray of leaves, of which two more were turning orange at the ends. "As long as the Victreebel don't speed the closing of the door."
Chivonne, still keeping the egg under flame, looked away from the closed door to Tilla and Ollie off behind her. "Tilla. I think I know what's wrong with Gloomleaf."
Tilla cocked her heavy head. "What?"
"I remember--we charizards were in decline from humans well before the war, but there were many left then. We often lit brush fires when we hunted in Gloomleaf."
"Charizards do that," said Chad, looking up from where he kept the egg warm with his tail out in front of him, as if it were a campfire.
"Don't you all see, without those fires the woods grew dense and so did the Victreebel, because their hunting techniques rely on thick forest!"
Chad smacked his forehead. "Why didn't I. . ."
"What a breakthrough!" cried Friana.
Tilla was shaking her red-petaled head. She sank to her seat. "I never imagined. That we actually. . .need charizards?"
"It's a balance," said Friana. "Take something away and it upsets everything. Humans probably didn't realize that by wiping out the charizards they were also wiping out Vileplumes. And the Venusaur, who likely left because they needed more sunlight than the dense woods afforded, and because grasses they eat couldn't grow. And the Meganiumu--probably victims of Victreebel, too little sun, wrong foliage. . . Who knows. If Vileplumes disappear it may hurt more species!"
"Vileplumes survive well in the southern jungles without charizards, or at least without any brush fires," said Tilla. "But they don't have hard winters killing off many of the sprout Oddish. My apologies to Rafracia and especially to Lizardon." She bowed down to the floor. Ollie copied her.
"You couldn't have remembered when charizards flew all over," said Chivonne. "And Chad, you just moved out here."
"It was right under our noses," said Chad.
"Yeah." Chivonne sat down and stared at the flame-wrapped egg. "Now all we have to do is tell some humans who'll believe us, care enough to do something, and have money to do it."
The flare of excitement at finding the solution, even of the egg's laying, fizzled out of Chad's mind as he looked around the group. Nothing they figured out now would ever leave this cage. But looking all around, a warmth of chills showered over him. Everyone here, or almost everyone, was his friend. They would fight for him; and Chivonne loved him. Him. Chad was glad he had left Chah; better this than sulking away alone on some cliff. He wouldn't traded this for anything else. As he warmed the egg with his tail, he felt sad but thankful.


48 Hours

They had surrendered, finding no way out. The forcefield was foolproof. Screaming at the top of their lungs hadn't brought help. Only Ollie and Friana could fit through the bars above, and Ollie couldn't scale the three feet of rock beyond the bars, to say nothing of getting down the outside. Friana couldn't even move.
This morning they all crunched on the Pokémon chow delivered by the (real) Electabuzz, who growled at Tilla's flower. August and Lunia got survival biscuits, and had to share a water feeder with the Pokémon.
"How does it taste?" said Chad to August.
Chivonne managed a smile. "He asked how the biscuit tastes."
"Kinda bland." August smacked his lips, clearing his mouth, then took another bite. "Guess I can lose my gut this way."
"What a shame we don't have any books," said Friana."I would have liked to read Moby Dick. . ."
"Before our death?" Vixen finished.
"I don't think of it that way," said Friana. "I'm sure we won't die. Somehow, some way, we'll live."
Vixen snorted. "How do you do it?"
"Beg pardon?"
"How do you stay so positive. If I was stuck in that shell I'd go nuts."
Friana blinked, slowly. "It's strange, but I feel peaceful. I guess I don't have the energy for getting stir crazy. Before I metamorphosed I thought I might be bored, but it's given me so much time to learn, and read great literature. And watch things. I think that if we all sat still a little while we would notice things we're missing."
"What about Kora?" said Vixen. "Time she noticed what's missing. If she's so damn smart why hasn't she waved her spoons and wished us out of here already?" she said, grilling Raelle.
"Apparently she isn't aware of it," said Friana, before Raelle could pop off. "That or something even more urgent has her attention. Kora informed us she's gone into hiding too. If she knew, she would have freed us already."
"So she probably won't stumble on it."
"Not likely."
"No matter how close we are to our last breaths," said Tilla, "we must never lose hope. There is always hope while one lives."
"What, hope for that Daninger to change his mind?" said Vixen. "Or hope for an afterlife?"
"I mean both. I know we pray to different Pokégods, but all of them give the same messages. One thing is never giving up the fight."
Vixen's gaze lanced onto Chad. "Speaking of Pokégods, now would be a good time for your volcano charizard to wake up and save us, Mr. Chah-will-come-again."
A spittle of flame sparked out Chad's mouth. "Don't mock my religion."
"Please, don't quarrel!" said Friana. "We don't have time or room."
"I can think of no better time than now to pray," said Tilla. "We're all feeling the enormous stress. But we cannot give in. Everyone in a circle, if you would like to join."
Chad and Chivonne scooted over; Ollie squeezed in between Chad and Tilla, smiling up at him briefly before ducking her head, as everyone held hands/paws, with the charmander egg in the center. Raelle and Vixen each placed a paw on Friana's shell.
"To Rafracia, Chah, Rai-blu, all Pokégods, we know you are hearing us. Let us all speak with our minds in a moment of silence."
The quiet moment came and went.
"Does anyone have anything they would like to add. A prayer. A song," said Tilla.
No one spoke, so finally Chad did. "I know the story of the Cave of Ice and Darkness. . . but not enough to really say it."
"I do," said Chivonne. "I just have a good memory for those things. It's not really a story," she said to everyone, "more like a song, with almost no tune. Unless you grew up with charizards it's hard to understand that, but I'll sing it now and you'll know what I mean."

Maybe in despair, I have chosen to come here
Where the sea crashes in waves
Shadows sigh from the mist
to drag me down.
The ocean drowns my fire
It pulls my tendons, jerks my veins,
as water buries my face,
the cave of Ice and Darkness.

Articuno cries from the mountain top
Still alive, I struggle in snow
and fall down numb. My wings are frozen. Yours must carry me,
cave of Ice and Darkness

I will never know your voice
Or see your face, Chah,
in this life. You have never come
To show me you're there. And when fire winks out, taking us away,
none return to tell.
But each morning I awake behind these eyes
It must be you who plants me here
Fledging, whether I glide or fall,
You are in the sky

I stand alone now,
I fly alone
Alone I hunt, but I don't fear
Your fire will kindle me, dead or alive,
Seen or unseen. I hold my future.
A single flame can fill
the Cave of Ice and Darkness.

Chad's eyes were closed; his hand held Chivonne's. If Chah was real, why would he let them die in here? Why did so many bad things happen--to good people?
He saw light through his eyelids. "Friana!" Raelle cried, and he looked to see the Metapod glowing. The top of her green shell split vertically, a widening slit of aqua-blue. Her bowed head, then the rest of her green-blue body emerged in the midst of the radiating light, showing short clawed hands. She opened huge red faceted eyes, and smiled around sharp mandibles. From her head stemmed black antennae. Behind her, two pairs of big blue-white veined wings unfolded.
"Fre-e-e-e-e-e-e!" Friana stood on the tips of her long pointed feet. She flapped her new wings, slowly and stiffly at first, but picking up speed. She fluttered off the ground. "Fre-e-e-e!"
Tears glistened on Raelle's cheeks. "Friana, you're beautiful."
"Thank you! Wow!" Her clear, high voice was still her own, but louder and clearer. She flew higher, turning in midair. "Oh, now I know, Chad! Now I know why you so love to fly!"
"Now you can come with me and Chivonne on our leisurely flights if. . ." Chad slouched, "if, we ever got to take another leisurely flight."
"Friana," said Chivonne. Friana hovered at eye level with the charizard. Chad could glide beautifully, but hovering was outside a charizard's lexicon of abilities. "Can you fly out through the bars on the ceiling?"
"Why--" She looked up, hovering higher. "I hadn't even thought of that yet!"
Friana hovered a moment, then shot up, the indirect sunlight backlighting her wings. She gripped a bar, then stuck her head out, then the rest of herself. "All clear!" she called from the skyward side of the cage.
"Who can she go to?" said Vixen. "I wouldn't round the Vileplumes up for a suicide mission."
"No," said Tilla. "Raelle, you told me that you saw Kora recently. That you spoke to her."
"Kora!" Raelle smacked her paws together. "Man, that's it!"
"How's she going to locate her?" said Vixen.
"Butterfree have some psychic powers," said Chivonne. "And even if she can't contact Kora, Friana, you can speak human. Let the world know what Team Rocket is doing here. If nothing else they will investigate it for August and Lunia's sake."
"I'll fly out to Kora's house," said Friana, "and summon her by psy-waves!"
"Be careful!" said Chivonne as Friana spread her wings again. The wind waved her antennae. "Team Rocket's probably got sentries all round! Make sure you're clear!"
Friana left their view a moment, then called back. "I'm clear! Fre-e-e-e-e!" She fluttered off into the wind with a whip of round wings, leaving the barred ceiling of clear sky to blow an invisible breeze of tingles through Chad's body. His own wings spread. Free.
He remembered she had left her discarded shell. Chivonne was already picking it up. As he watched, she began trying to work it back into one piece.
"Chivonne, you're always one step ahead of me." He kissed her and she paused in her work long enough to return it. He couldn't wait to get cozy in their lair.
"It won't stay together." Pushed into place, it looked just like Friana, apart from the empty eyes, each covered by a clear, yellowish dome. Lie it at the rear of the cage, with its back facing the bars, and Daninger would not know the difference. Friana would have had to fly the coop even if there had been no one to fly to. If one person escaped this, let it be Friana.
Chivonne lay it on its side but it popped back open. "It needs some kind of glue. . ."
"We flowers always have nectar," said Tilla, bowing. "Take some from me. It should hold it well enough, especially since it's still a little moist."
Using a gentle claw, Chivonne transferred nectar from Tilla's flower to the broken edges of the shell. She held it for a few minutes and when she set it down, it held. "It'll dry and crack apart after a day or so."
"Long enough for us to get help. . .or never get it," said Tilla.
"It's suspicious that Kora isn't already here," insisted Vixen. "A supergenius and a psychic rolled into one should have picked up some signal."
"Like we said, even an Alakazam gets tied up with stuff," said Raelle. "Kora's always busy trying to stop accidents before they happen, that kinda thing."
"She could have stopped a few here," said Vixen.
"Like Dorien being conceived," said Chad, laughing. He looked into Chivonne's eyes. "But then we wouldn't have met. Do you believe in. . . destiny, fate, that stuff?"
Chivonne shook her head. "But I believe in love at first sight."
"Me too. I didn't think it would happen to me though."
"With you two around," said Raelle, lounging on the floor and pointing to the hugging pair, "who needs All My Eevee."

Friana flew over Gloomleaf. Below her, the fire had left fields of black and grey. The spindles of charred trees poked up through ash. She saw the blackened rocks of the ridge in Deep's Heart, the only landmark identifying it. The ancient trees and trails were gone. Charizards: known to unintentionally cause forest fires.
A smoky smell still tainted the air, but she saw no fires. However, the winds had been blowing the other way and distant towers of smoke told that trees were still burning beyond the horizon.
Finally she began flying over areas of greenery, where the fire had burned patchwork. She looked around for the other Vileplumes, but abandoned the search. It would not help them to know of their leader's predicament right now, and even if the Vileplumes could defeat Team Rocket's full force, it would not be without heavy losses. They had fought enough.
Friana descended into the untouched forest and thought hard of Kora.
"Open your eyes, Friana."
Friana looked up. There stood the yellow figure with a foxlike face, dressed in a long flowing see-through robe and a scarf round her waist. Her birdlike feet were bare. One three-fingered hand held a silver spoon. Her other hand polished it with a little white rag. Looking Friana up and down as she hovered at eye level, too excited to stand, Kora flicked one of her pointy ears.
"You caught me polishing my spoons. From the urgency of your thoughts I was thinking you should have called on me sooner, then I gathered that you just evolved. Congratulations; you look great."
"You mean you were in your house? We drove by and it was abandoned!"
"I pop in now and then. Remember that physical distance isn't an issue. I'm glad I could provide you with food supplies on your journey. Now calm your wings; you needn't explain. Your thoughts have already conveyed the situation."
"Why--didn't you take Chad and Vixen home that day? Vixen was saying she knew you could have."
"I knew that for Chad to be happy he should meet Chivonne, not go home. And Vixen chose to stay here. Yes, I know Chivonne's name--she is the "last charizard" after all and rather known. When I met him I knew they'd be a perfect pair. If he didn't meet her that day--and I'd gotten a vibe that he would--I would have probably informed him of her."
"You mean you didn't--forsee, that Raelle would forget me and he would see her at Violet Town, and then. . .all this with Team Rocket?"
Kora looked the spoon over, turning it in her hand. She tucked the rag into a fold of her colorful robe. "Even an Alakazam can't see the future reliably. I experience psychic vibrations, and infer. Prophecy negates itself anyhow."
Friana chewed on the sentences. "Well. . .can you help us?"
"It's why I'm here."
"How will we both get--" Friana fluttered up, then back down, and took Kora's outstretched hand. She kept forgetting.


49: She Blinded Me With Psyshock

Chad paced the cage, his tail flame fluttering. He turned the egg on the hot coals, given by Team Rocket to ensure the charmander's survival. When the grumbling Gloen and Jewel had dumped the rocks into the cage, they had failed to notice that the Metapod was empty. Friana had only been gone a few hours, but he was half convinced that she hadn't got past town. Even with Team Rocket down one sentry.
He let Chivonne roll him on his stomach and rest next to him, he closed his eyes, and reveled in the delicious burn. He even heard crackling, smelled smoke.
"Chad! Your tail!" Raelle screamed. Chad and Chivonne whirled around--Friana's shell was on fire. Chad stomped right through it. He lifted his foot, trying to shake it off.
Daninger burst in the door.
Everyone froze. Chad held his wing out to hide his foot while he tried to shake the broken, burnt shell off. Chivonne tugged it off, all while Daninger leaned against the doorframe and watched with bitter amusement on his face.
"Professor Oak does it again," Vixen mumbled.
"He would've found out anyway," said Chivonne, in Pokémon, as she held the ruined cocoon.
"Don't bother trying to hide it you scaly klutz," said Daninger. "I admit we overlooked evolution potential when we caged you. Tell me where the Butterfree went and you may escape this with minimal bodily harm."
"We don't know," said Raelle. "She flew out the bars."
"Ah." Daninger's lips curled in a smile. Raelle backed up till the wall stopped her. "You gave me the I-don't-know once, let's see if you'll squeal now. I've always relished poetic justice."
"Don't let him touch me!" Raelle cowered behind Chad, her stubby tail between her legs; the charizards lowered their heads and Leered at Daninger. "You leave Raelle alone!" cried August.
"Hm, looks like there's going to be some opposition. But what are underlings for?" He pushed back his sleeve and punched a button on his wristphone. "Get me the lab. . . Yes, this is the boss. What's that mess on that table behind you?. . .Well clean it up! Those chemicals are dangerous. But first, come up to the tower with fully loaded tranquilizer guns. Bring ten darts. I need to knock several Pokémon out including two charizards. Now!"
He let his arm fall, the sleeve slumping back over half his hand. "Now we can do this the easy way or the hard way. It'll be a few minutes before those bumbling ruffians make their way up here. If you don't know where the Butterfree went, you probably at least know whom she has gone to fetch. Is it the Vileplumes?"
Raelle stayed behind Chad.
"Tell me now or the Gloom gets it! Has she gone to get the Vileplumes!"
"No!" Ollie squealed, running to Tilla's side. The Vileplume held her hands over the Gloom, flapping her petals at Daninger. Ollie burst into tears. "Please don't hurt me."
"I see we have a reaction from somebody. Next step is a little hedge-trimming." He wagged a finger at Ollie's green plumage. "Let's hope you find the answer before I get down to lopping petals."
"Just like you to pick on the littlest one," said Chivonne.
Daninger folded his arms. "Oh, Chivonne, dear, don't even start with me. I've been waiting for this day. After I'm done with the Raichu and your hastily, poorly chosen mate, you don't want to know how I will make you say anything I want you to. I will keep you alive long after everyone else in there has screamed their last."
Like a lamp blinking on, first the space behind the bars, in front of the others, was empty; then, two Pokémon appeared. "Fre-e-e-e-e-e!" cried Friana as Kora whipped into stance, holding a silver spoon out in each hand. Daninger darted to the door in his polished black shoes, and brandished Pokéballs. Kora closed her eyes. Daninger screamed and fell on the floor, rolling in a fetal position clutching his head. Still screaming, his hand clawed up, grasping the doorknob, kicking through the doorway. He slammed the door. Chad heard him screaming from the other side.
Kora put her spoons neatly away in her robe and re-appeared outside the bars. "Daninger's gone. He's got psychic pokemon with him." She walked over to the Pokéballs lying on the floor, picking up the nearer one and then the one still rolling towards the wall. She pocketed them in the rainbow of her flowing robe, which though translucent never showed any of the objects she put in it. Friana held her hand, and they both winked out. They re-appeared inside the cage.
"What the hell'd you do to him?" said Raelle. "Not that I got anything against it."
"Psyshock." Kora held out her hands. "Everyone join hands. Anyone left out won't teleport. Let me search your minds for a place to hide. Remember, we can't throw them forever. Team Rocket will find us."
"Wait." Chivonne twisted away and scooped up the egg. "Okay, ready."
"I have the perfect place." Kora winked at Chad. "All right everyone."
The cage winked empty. All that remained was a waterer, a litter pan, some stale Poké Chow, and a small pile of quickly cooling lava stones.

"She's attacking right through the forcefield," Daninger was explaining as the three of them pounded up the stairs. "It doesn't block psychic attacks. Don't go in there until we have something to counter. And she could appear in these stairs at any time."
They were ready with two Kadabras, one of whom teleported to the room before hand, only to teleport back and tell its trainer to stop.
"Kadabra says the cage is empty!" said Jewel. "No way!"
"That Kora's ruining everything." Daninger's hand slammed the stone stairwell wall. "But we have two Kadabras. There may be a way to track them."
Daninger had to have the forcefield turned off and the bars lifted. In the cage, he knelt and ran his hand over the floor.
"Kadabras, inspect this cage. There may be psychic traces."
"Kadabra!" said one in an elegant voice, its yellow hands on the clean stone. "Kadabra."
"He's found something," said Jewel. "Good work."

Everyone stood atop a high, bare cliff overlooking mountains and meadows. Here on Chah, seasons had changed too. The spring grasses were already shooting high, frantic to grow and go to seed before the fires of fall--or sooner. With so many fire Pokémon, you never knew.
Chivonne cradled the speckled orange egg while Chad's tail helped warm it. "Where on the island are we?"
"On the cliff on the caves where my parents live," said Chad through a wash of tingles. "I wonder if they're home."
"It resembles the Charmountains a little."
"Whoa. Some drop." Raelle peered over the cliff and scooted back. Friana fluttered out over the edge, beating her wings hard against the pull of the wind. She jjoined Raelle.
"Looks like nothing's changed," said Vixen. "I'm actually glad to be back. Wonder if my den's still there."
"It would need enlarging." Chad chuckled. "Cramming all those tails in--"
"That thousand-year curse is looming ever closer, Chad, just keep it up you old lug." Vixen smiled wryly.
"Speaking of curses," said Kora, "Daninger isn't through. His team has its own psychic Pokémon and they're likely using them to track us. We have little time to hide, and prepare to fight."
A roar huger than Chad's whirled the group 180 degrees, like a gust of wind. Swooping down was a charizard larger than Chad. Lunia screamed and ran behind August, who stared in fascination as Chad roared a greeting and the big one landed before him on the stone, followed by a female charizard. Both grabbed Chad.
"Chad!" Ollie screamed.
"Fre-e-e-e--"
"Calm down," said Tilla, looking on as the big orange beasts exchanged nuzzles and flames of greeting.
The female threw her arms around him. "Chad!" she screamed. Chad couldn't answer through tears and his mother's fast embrace. Chalderon hugged him from the side, licking the top of his head. Ollie winced, and Vixen laid her ears back as Chad threw his head up and roared for joy. His parents hadn't changed. And they hadn't turned away from him.
Chad tried to avoid everyone's eyes as he quickly flamed his face dry. "Chivonne. This--." Chad started over. "Mother, father, me and Chivonne . . ."
Chivonne, the egg in her arms, was already exchanging sniffs with his parents; apparently they had already assumed all that Chad had tried to say. Well, charizards were usually short on words.
But too many unusual things were going on that needed explanation. "My baby. How on Chah did you get back here?" said Chigma.
"And. . .who are all these. . .others?" said Chalderon.
"Kora teleported me back." The Alakazam nodded deeply. "And I met everyone here while I was away. Don't eat them, they're my friends."
Chigma and Chalderon exchanged uncertain looks. Then Chad told how Jade had saved him from Dorien, and his brief few months with that nightmare, but he broke from the topic, preferring to tell how he met the others.
"And Chivonne," said Chad. "It was really weird how we met. . ."
Behind him Vixen mouthed the words, 'Blah blah blah.'
"You won't believe what happened while you were gone," said Chigma when Chad was finished showing them the egg. "Chiffy is still alive."
Chad shuffled one foot. "Well that's good."
"And we don't live in these caverns anymore," said Chalderon. "We hunt here sometimes, but we moved far away after you were exiled." "Right after you flew away that day--everything started going to pieces," said Chigma. "Cherilla's father and Chizmo started arguing all the time--he said Chizmo was trying to tell everyone what to do. And he was. So they left, we never saw them again. After we gave up looking for you, we also decided that staying so close to Chizmo and Chiffy was the cause of this mess. Our new lair is a day-flight past Chubren."
"Is it cozy?"
"Mm-hm." Chigma nodded, her tail flaring. "Chaun's there now--he's grown a bit, and he's talking. You're welcome to move in."
"Thanks but I think me and Chivonne are gonna find our own den." He threw his arm around Chivonne's shoulders.
"Did you ever figure out that fire spin?" said his mother, glancing up at Chalderon, whose fire spin was legendary.
"Nah." Chad swatted his hand. "But it doesn't matter. I can hunt without it."
"Whatever you did," said Chivonne, "you did it right with Chad. You've got to tell us for when our charmander's born." She laughed, nuzzling Chad's chest.
"How's Chiffy been." Chad's wings wilted; he realized how his feelings about his old rival had changed.
"We don't see them much anymore," said Chalderon, "But last time I was hunting there I saw Charissa." Charissa was Chiffy's mother. Chad hadn't seen her since charmanderhood; the stories flying around generally said that Charissa, as a silly 400-something, had mated Chizmo hoping to gain the powers of divine clairvoyance and eternal youth, and flown astray when she realized none of it was working. She had visited bachelors' lairs for years, before winging it with one, never to return to the Chah area. Until now.
"She cares for him?" said Chad.
"She helps hunt. Old Chizmo can barely hunt for himself, forget caring for a flightless invalid. Your mother was actually the last one to see him."
"It's so sad." Chigma shook her head. "He lies around all day. Suns himself outside sometimes. His wing healed, but it still won't work. I hear it hurts when it rains."
"Where's Cherilla." Chad had a feeling she was gone--not that he had any flames left for her. "How'd she take it."
"She didn't. She flew off with that other male from Chook, Chiffy's friend?" She smiled sadly. "The one you said would hold you down while Chiffy kicked you."
"Chunder, yeah."
Chalderon nodded once. "This place is the better for what happened. Hunting's easier, and that terrible tension. . .is gone. We have space."
Chad had an idea. Just fourteen little years ago, he would never have thought these words would come from his mouth.
"We can help Chiffy."
Chivonne gasped. "Chad, that's right!"
Tilla stepped proudly forward, Ollie in her wake, trying to keep the same dignity, but that one orange leaf kept curling in front of her face.

It wasn't too far to the lair of "An improperly healed limb is something I've dealt with before," said Tilla, dismounting off Chad. Chiffy sat down outside his and Chizmo's lair. Chizmo hadn't been as surprised to see Chad as Chad had expected. At least he wasn't leaping at him with outstretched claws.
Chiffy didn't seem too surprised either. But he looked as if nothing could surprise him. The well-muscled young male had fallen long and hard. His toned limbs had softened; his neck had thinned, sticking out from rounded shoulders. He reminded Chad of footage he'd seen of charizards confined for long periods in small zoo quarters. What havoc a few years of grounding could do.
Chivonne set the egg down and warmed it as Tilla approached Chiffy. "Amputated limbs--sometimes I can fix, sometimes not. But this looks workable, even though it's old."
"You mean--" Chiffy looked from Tilla to Chad, "you dragged me out of my nap to say this--flower--can fix my wing?"
"She's fixed me up a couple times," said Chad.
"Tauros shit." Chiffy spat on the ground and started back to the lair. "Go have fun with all your little friends and leave me alone." He waddled back inside, his right wing folded only part way, awkward and askew beside the neatly lying left one. It upset his gait, causing the uneven waddle.
"You come right back out here!" Chizmo bellowed. "I've had enough of your lazing around like a stalagmite in my lair for what seems like a thousand years! Not to mention having to deal with Charissa and her beloved Chodo, that cocky Togechikku. If I have to eat one more Magmar my tongue will drop off. Now you lie right down on that rock. It's only proper you give him a chance to fix what he broke. Don't you want to fly again?"
Chiffy dragged himself back into the light and lay on his paunchy stomach. So Chizmo had finally learned his son's personality.
"Now, Ollie." Tilla and Ollie laid hands on the mangled wing; Chiffy had to shift his wing down so they could reach. Chiffy's wing glowed, the bones stired and aligned themselves, sticks animated beneath the cover of orange skin.
Chiffy sat up and extended the wing, moving it out towards it previous limit, then beyond it into full mobility. He drew it back in, till it mirrored the other one. Stretching both and giving them a flap that he had not given in so long, he roared and leaped in the air. He flew clumsily; but he managed to catch the wind and glide. After a few circles he landed.
"Wings're stiff. But they work, dammit." Chiffy stepped over to Chad, who could have sworn he saw his eyes glisten.
"Chad, I. . .I owe you something."
"Oh really?"
"But, uh. . ."
"Just for old time's sake, let's have it. Not that I'm mad anymore."
Chiffy stepped back. "Yeah, that's right. You wouldn't have met her." Chiffy pointed his thumbnail at her and winked. "Hey there. From the mainland?"
"Give it up," said Chad, "while you're ahead." He flapped his wings in warning; Chivonne growled. She ducked and turned the egg. Seeing it, he looked away from her gracefully bending spine and back to Chad, who folded his arms. He looked round at Chad's parents, Chizmo, and all the assorted species waiting for him to talk.
"All right." He rolled his eyes. "Chad never tried to kill me, the boulder fell by accident, but if he hadn't been standing on it and then tried to take off--"
"An excuse destroys an apology," said Tilla.
"Who asked you?"
Chivonne stepped up behind Tilla and growled past her red plume. Fire feathered forward toward Chiffy's face. He didn't look convinced that such a petite dragon could harm him, but he shut up.
"I never imagined," said Chizmo, looking agape at his son. "Is this true?"
"Daddy. He tried to whip my ass for no reason!" His voice took on a mocking tone. "Like I could just say yeah well it was just an accident? It looked like he did it on purpose, I was trying to--"
"I see something twisting in the air," said Vixen. "Your story. Maybe Tilla should give a twist of her own and un-heal your wing?"
"Okay, okay." Chiffy held out his hands. "Way back then I changed it a little, I--Daddy, what's that word?"
"Misspoke."
"Yeah. Look, I misspoke. I'm trying to straighten it out now. Okay, Chad? Can it be bygone? After all, it was really a long time ago and you lucked out anyway." He whistled. "Cherilla flew my lair! Thank Chah she didn't stick me with an egg, that needle-nosed slut. And I have like, two dads. And I hate Magmar, the spices are killing my stomach and it gives Chizmo gas. Our whole den stinks! So come on, is it over?"
"Please," said Chizmo. "Let this be over so that my dear son can finally make a life for himself, and leave home. I will be indebted to you, Chad."
You're already indebted to me, Chad almost said. But why argue? He had all these friends, Chivonne, and a charmander on the way. Chad stepped over to Chiffy, they held hands and sniffed. Chiffy stepped back first, to where the rock sloped up. His right wing still folded looser and was atrophied, but a few more months could rehabilitate it. He didn't seem in a rush to regain his independence. Perhaps leaving the lazy life took some getting used to.
Chiffy picked at one of his claws. "So, did you ever learn fire spin or are you still gasping away?"
"No fire spin," said Chad, "and I don't care. I've got something I would give up all my fire powers for."
Chiffy shrugged as Chad wound his neck with Chivonne's.
"They're coming," said Kora. "They are tracing us past the ocean, out to this island."
"Who?" Chiffy's left wing perked, the right belatedly following.
Kora took it on herself to explain about Team Rocket, coming, and the why and wherefore.
"Holy Chah!" Flames shot out Chiffy's mouth. "You mean Chad's got a pack of humans on his tail, out for our blood?" He whirled on Chad and Chivonne. "Nice of you to lead them here. Or is that your revenge?"
"Be quiet!" said Chivonne. "Okay. If we have to fight Team Rocket, first we have to determine who's going to fight and--"
"Shut up you priss--"
Chivonne's Rapidash reflexes dodged his swiping hand; she ducked sinuously, spine like a waterfall, whipped up and landed in perfect stance a couple paces back. Chad's roaring fire blanketed Chiffy's face.
"The last thing we need is a fight now!" shouted Tilla. Chad almost countered Chiffy's flamethrower with a jump and ember. . . but he regained his senses. Landing, he squinted through Chiffy's second flamethrower.
"Okay," he said. "Chiffy, if you won't fight with us, you'd better leave. You too, Chizmo. It's going to get dangerous."
"You have changed my opinion of you, Chad," said Chizmo, who with one baleful glance got Chiffy to at least stand still. "If Chiffy doesn't appreciate getting a second chance, I do. Those humans must be defeated, if what you say about this. . .strange Poké Ball is true. I apologize for everything I once said--Chah never gave me the right to curse someone in His name. But if your story is true, then Chah must have blessed you."
Whether the old lizard's change had come more because of Chad's true story told, or fourteen years of close living with Chiffy, he would never know. But now, old wrinkled Chad-hating Chizmo, bowed his head to Chad, as everyone watched. "I will fight with all my little bit of life left."
"Speaking of fighting, they're soon to arrive," said Kora. "We'll need more than just us to defeat Team Rocket; Daninger's likely to bring several of his hires. I'm not trying to pressure any charizards to help, but this fight is not only for our own safety. It is Team Rocket who has organized the poaching of this island. They made a deal with the government to let them capture here every six years."
"If I'm on Chah's side, I will rally everyone I can," said Chizmo. "Now is one of the rare times when we must join forces."
"We need to hide the egg," said Chivonne.
Chizmo motioned them into the lair. "In here."
When Chad returned with arms full of hot coals, Chad's parents circled in the sky, bugling deeply. Chizmo stood roaring atop Chah's rim, above the lair, and Chiffy couldn't be found.
"I don't know where he went," said Chivonne as she and Chad arranged the hot coals for the egg, lighting the dark corner.
"Team Rocket will be here any minute!" called Vixen from outside. Chad caught a glimpse of Friana's wings out there. "Where in Chah is our team?! Flown here, flown there."
"Well we're here!" Chad swooped outside with feet hanging low over the stone, to join the others. Aiming over the cliff's edge, he let out a few small fire breaths, warming his fire sack up. Ollie covered her ears, staring at jumping pebbles through Chad's rock-shaking roar. Chivonne joined his efforts.
"Good. We've got two. The rest of our fire power's flown the coop."
"Don't waste time mulling over them," said Kora. "Group coordination isn't in a charizard's nature. But they're likely more ready than you think. Regardless, everyone else warm up now. We all count."
Kora returned to striking strange poses, holding out her spoons. Her robes swished around her. "I've a feeling I'm going to lose my shirt over this one."
Chad's parents and Chiffy landed outside the lair. The charizards stood letting out flame and rustling their wings on different rocks, spacing out in ones and twos. Chad and Chivonne stood with the other Pokémon; he realized how accustomed they had both become to group, and mixed species, company.
Two more charizards flew in, their wings more visible than their tail flames in the full daylight. They lit on the rocks by Chiffy.
"We heard your call!" the larger of the two, a female the size of Chad--Charissa, said as she folded her wings and nuzzled Chiffy. They gave Chad and Chivonne, and the others, a curious lookover, then Chiffy showed them his healed wing. Chad started telling a lite version of the story. He let Chivonne take over, since she was better with words.
"Everyone ready!" screamed Kora, spoons braced in her hands. "They come!"
In winked two Kadabra and five humans amongst the ones on the ledge. Raelle and Lunia screamed; the charizards swooped from the rocks like orange boulders at the apparent feeding frenzy. Tilla herded Lunia and August into the lair. Ollie ran to guard the entrance.
"Now!" Daninger whipped Pokéballs out; a Gyarados uncoiled between him and the nearest charizard, a sudden hunk of blue filling Chad's vision, while an Odairu jumped with open jaws at another lizard. Suddenly red flashes of light sprouted into everything from Sandslash to Scyther to. . .
"Go Blastoise!" cried a young trainer, and white water rained heavily over the ledge. "Hose these lizards down!"
"Chaaaaarrr!" Thrusting his head up through the watery melee, Chad hurled a flamethrower at the turtle.

Both Kadabras leapt at Kora, who held her spoons out to block, and shot out a Psyshock from her eyes just in time to meet oncoming twin blasts of magic. Three cords of white light--two smaller ones against one thicker one--met with a starburst, nearly unbalancing all three psy's. Kora's robe blew off with a rip drowned out by the psy beams, the charizards roaring, Blastoise hosing, humans and Pokémon screaming.
Daninger bellowed. "Gyarados, the cloth! She's got my Pokémon!"
Chivonne swooped in and grabbed it first but the Gyarados showered her with a bubble beam. As she screamed fire through the spray its huge head rammed through, snatched the end of the cloth and pulled. Two Pokéballs clattered over the rocks. Chivonne and the Gyarados flew backwards, repelled from each other by the parting material.
Ditto tumbled out from a ball as it lay open. Daninger turned away from barking orders to Jewel, and grabbed the other, as Jewel's Pokémon fought Vixen, Friana and another charizard. He released a Jolteon into the fray. "Ditto!" he screamed, red-faced. "Take Chivonne!"
Kora and the Kadabras sent out psychic barrages. Between them the bubble of white lightning grew, loops and strings leaping out. The bubble burst.
Nearby humans and Pokémon alike were yanked up, tossed like uprooted weeds from the blast. Chad's head clenched in a double migraine. Everything fogged away in stars. When it cleared he saw two Team Rocket members strewn on the rocks with blood leaking from eyes and mouths.
The Kadabras had fainted.

Chivonne and Ditto swirled in the air, surrounded by streamers and bursts of fire from mouth and tail. Roaring, Chivonne flew full into her copy and tore with four sets of claws. Her voice rose to a screech; her teeth snapped at the other's neck. Their open, biting mouths darted in and back, necks weaving. Chivonne tried to swoop under but her opponent whirled in midair. It faced her up, down, overhead, almost outpacing her eyes.
"Its reflexes match yours!" Daninger hollered. "All attacks from slash to fire spin! And it is trained! It's only a matter of time before it beats you again!"
Chad, meanwhile, finished off the Blastoise at last. He nearly toppled over on the still body of his fainted opponent, so weak and dizzy. His tail flame throbbed with pain.
"You wimpy, lawless idiots!" Daninger screamed as his Jolteon charged Raelle and Friana. "To think a bunch of wildlings stand a chance against the best-trained animals in the world! There's no runaway flower bed to guard you this time--I see even Kora and her arsenal of dinnerware grow weary!"
The Jolteon launched a swarm of pins at Raelle and Friana. Friana flew up, Raelle jumped to the side. She kicked Jolteon, aiming for the head but getting his shoulder. Losing her balance she rolled back on the hard ground. Jolteon faced her, its spiky fur standing on end as it prepared to launch another round of pins.
"Fre-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e!" Friana's Gust knocked it to the side. It barely held its footing; it whirled at her, growling. As Raelle ran back, Friana flew in flapping toxic spores at its face. The Jolteon took one breath and collapsed on the rocks.
"All right!" Raelle gave Friana a high-five.

Chivonne and Ditto climbed high in the sky, countering fire spins, tail whips, slashes, gusts, throwing themselves at each other, fire lighting their gold hides. The mountain of Chah lay far below. As they tired, they began to descend.
Chivonne, bleeding from several gashes and bruised by a fire blast that her tired body had failed to avoid, knew she was about to faint. She strained to keep awake, and dived, narrowly avoiding Ditto's attempt to pin her down. With a last burst of strength her wings stroked up and she jumped the other's back. Ditto landed and dissolved into purple goo under her just as her teeth found its neck.
Daninger recalled it and ran off. Chivonne, still gaining her breath, wiped blood from her eye and chased him, but she lost him round a bend. The sun-covered rocks and crags blurred in front of her and she had to concentrate to keep from seeing double. She had beaten the Ditto--her own body--only to lose a defenseless Daninger right in front of her.
"Quickly, here!" Tilla was calling Chivonne over; she ran over and held her hand. Chivonne's legs began to buckle, then they stood straight, her tail lifting and regaining flame. Health poured into her, blood and muscle singing. . .but the healing sensation tapered off before completion. Chivonne was okay, but not up to full. Tilla must be tiring too.
"I think he's gone to heal his Pokémon," said Chivonne. "I lost him down around those rocks. Nothing matters but killing him."
"I'll seek him out." Kora disappeared.
"Oh dear," said Tilla, sinking to her rear on the rock. "That's the last one I can heal for now. Large bodies take more energy. No, I'm okay. Just tired."
"I sure hope they don't send reinforcements. I fear that's what Daninger's doing."
"You rest. He can't hide from Kora."
The Gyarados lay fainted hear the edge of the cliff, its tail dangling down but in no danger of falling. A scyther, badly toasted, lay crumpled on its side near the unconcious Kadabras, one if its transparent wings perked up. The humans were nowhere to be seen, except for August and Lunia outside the lair. The other charizards seemed to have disappeared too.
"They have pursued the rest of the trainers and their Pokémon," said Tilla. "As long as they run loose, the fight must continue. But I have little doubt that the charizards can handle it, as their quarry is in hasty retreat. They're probably wanting food now." She managed to smile faintly. Next to her, Ollie sat with leaves wilted wearily.
Chad felt something poking into his brain, wiggling in like a worm. His hands went to his head, but he felt no wound. Now the thing was twitching through his thoughts.
"Something's in my head." He gripped his head, hopping up. "Kora!"
It zipped out, gone as quickly as it had come. Like it had broken in to steal a specific object, and left.
"I don't like this!" said Chivonne.
Down on the rocks by where Daninger had disappeared, Kora screamed. Chad flew round the bend to see her tumble out from between boulders, then disappear. Followed by another Alakazam with her exact build, gait, and face.
"Of course you don't like this!" Daninger called from the next cliff, the base of Golem's Peak, as Kora reappeared with them. Between him and the lair lay the Chasm. Next to Daninger, the other Alakazam held up copies of Kora's spoons.
"My Sunday set," Kora muttered.
"Ditto happens to have set up an invisible wall," said Daninger. "Nice trick you've got there Kora, thanks for letting us borrow it. Oh and Chad, thanks for letting us borrow one of your thoughts too. You showed Ditto right where this was."
He unfolded his arm, revealing the egg cradled in the other. Chad and Chivonne flapped into flight. He lifted it over his head.
"Stay right where you are! Not that you could do much against this wall, as you all look so ready for bedtime. Surrender as I call you by name, lizards, or it's your charmander sunny side up!"
Chad glanced back at the lair. How had he got past Tilla and Ollie?
Of course. Alakazams didn't need to worry about that--as long as they knew their destination. If only they hadn't let Kora run after him!
Vixen bared her teeth at Daninger. "You'd never drop that thing! It's worth too much!"
"He can't understand you," said Chad.
"I know!"
Daninger held the big freckled egg in one arm and took out a Poké Ball. He pointed the beam at Chivonne.
"You were the best Pokémon I ever saw in battle," said Daninger. "But curiosity killed the charizard. Submit your egg will survive."
Before he could think, Chad leaped to block the beam. Daninger smiled.
"Okay, you can go first, Chad, you bumbling klutz with all fire and no brain. How you finally managed to add an actual charizard to your assorted harem there I'll never understand, but apparently Chivonne sees things I don't."
"You--" Chad groped for something to stall him, "you need to die, Daninger."
Raelle was quick to translate. "He said you need to take a tissue and blow your brains out your nostrils, then go screw a Cuisinart."
"Pure genius--but too little too late." Tsk, tsk, tsk, went his tongue. "Go ahead, stall. All my Pokéballs are currently being switched with fresh ones, which I will use to knock out the rest of your sorry asses once I've got the little flame family taken care of. Oh, in case you think this egg is irreplaceable, we could raid this whole island, and we will if you force me to scramble the one I've got. So come. One by one, in an orderly fashion." He held it out again, balancing the eight-pound, oblong egg precariously in his hand.
"Okay," Chivonne spread her wings, springing up, "okay--"
"Shit!" The egg tipped too far and tumbled sideways out of his hand. He tried to catch it, missed.
"No!" Chivonne and Chad were flapping into the air, all their speed too slow in the takeoff.
"Fre-e-e-e-e-e-e-e!" Friana darted in. "Got it!" She beat her wings, releasing toxins in Daninger's face. He threw his black jacket up in front of him, tottered back as she lifted away with the egg, beating her wings toward Chad and Chivonne.
"No!" On the ground Daninger whipped out a pistol, aimed and fired. Three shots rang out as Chad rushed towards Daninger, encountering no invisible wall; at that moment Chivonne met Friana in the sky.
"I was hoping I wouldn't have to use this!" Another shot rang out.
Friana never screamed. She just dropped from the air like a stone. As the egg slipped out of her grasp Chivonne caught both and swooped for the cave. Raelle ran after, screaming Friana's name as Chivonne swept over and past.
"Invisible wall again while I get my Pokémon out!" Daninger screamed at the Ditto. "How dare you let it down! How dare you!"
That was the Dorien he knew.
Chad never reached Daninger. All of a sudden a water blast from a Poliwhirl's mouth hit him in the face, in the eyes. Daninger's switches had arrived.
An Arcanine was unleashed on the Chah side of the Chasm.
"Raaaaiiii!" Raelle, halted just outside the cave, used her agility, confusing the big doglike animal who fire blasted every which way. Vixen countered with her own Fire Blast.
"Friana!" Raelle cried, running for the lair as Vixen and the Arcanine tackled each other. "Friana I'm coming!"
Chiffy nursed his wounds, and Chizmo lay fainted, inside the lair. The air outside filled with Gloom perfume as Ollie, guarding the entrance, stopped a Wartortle in its tracks. It got one whiff and toppled over; confused, it stood back up, holding its nose, and went the other way. It blundered into Tilla, who had just enough energy to release sleep powder.
Chivonne just dodged the roll of a Golem as the Arcanine closed its teeth on Vixen's neck. Chad dispatched the Poliwhirl and flew to her aid. As he jumped the Arcanine from the back, it never knew what bit it.
Vixen sprung to her feet. "I didn't know you still cared."
"You'll never defeat me!" Daninger screamed, boarding his Aerodactyl. He rode up and away, flying towards Chah's peak. "So play with my Pokémon! They're replaceable!"
"Chad get him!" Chivonne roared between breaths as she fire-spun the Golem. "Get him!"
The Aerodactyl dropped below the volcano rim to avoid Chad's long-flying fire as the other Pokémon battled further down the mountainside.
"You idiot!" Daninger gripped the Aerodactyl's long gray neck. "Not in here! Fly up!" But another mouthful of fire from Chad stopped that. He aimed his pistol as Chad as flew over the rim; he shot and missed. Chad swooped in. That bastard was his next meal.
As he entered the dark chamber of Chah, a low rumble broke the peaceful air. Chah himself growled in his throat. Fissures opened up in the black floor below; steam hissed out, billowing up and blocking Chad's vision. He heard Daninger coughing as his flapped his wings to clear the air.
Landing and gripping a narrow ledge with his talons, Chad listened in the quiet after the rumble. A sudden blast sent steam, ash, cinders spearing up. Knocked off, Chad barely got his feet under him to land in the cavern below.
As he propped himself under his hands, he heard Daninger's voice from above. The man stepped out from a pocket on the sheer inner face of the mountain.
"Aerodactyl, attack!"
Chad heard a swoosh of air and then he was on his back, kicking and flaming as the Aerodactyl's teeth snapped at his throat; its feet ripping into his belly as he barely held it off. Only his flaming held back the stronger head and jaws. Screaming the Aerodactyl lunged again; again Chad licked out with fire and whipped his tail. The ground beneath them rumbled again, rocks shifting. They fought within the belly of a huge charizard.
"Aerodactyl, retreat!" Daninger was screaming, but it was hard to hear from down here. He held out a Poké Ball but the beam did not reach.
Chad's last flame pierced the animal's thick hide through to nerves; the Aerodactyl screeched and flew up. Chad pulled it down and flamed for the kill.
Exhausted, he collapsed half on top of the Aerodactyl's still body, feeling blood leak from the gashes on his front.
"Well, Chad, your tail may be almost out but it still makes it easy to aim! I've got one bullet left and it's for charizards only!"
Chad looked up into darkness, only able to see Daninger because light-providing lava was seeping through the cracks in Chah's floor, near where he lay. His stomach--no, his fire sack--felt different. Some wall in there was falling down, opening empty space.
"Wild Pokémon have a lot of spirit." Chad saw him sighting along the barrel, an extension of his arm. He could barely be heard over the volcano. "They have a lot of power--and luck. But it's a known fact that they're jealous of trained ones--and here's why. Without humans on your side, you're nothing. You've shown me you are one spunky charizard. But if you'd obeyed me, you would have lived to see the sun rise tomorrow. Soon as I shoot you, Ditto will take us all home--and you, and Marius, will have lost. I thought I killed you once, well, second time's the charm."
Lava spread higher. Chah is here. He's come awake! Chad's roar joined Chah's as his fire sack filled and the heat rose whirling up his throat higher and higher, gases combining, until from his mouth Chad flung the mass out. It formed a giant whirling spring, pirouetting up towards the man with the gun. Chad never heard Daninger scream as the storm of fire smacked him and the wall, flaring like orange broccoli. Almost as soon as it coiled around Daninger, there was nothing left to wrap.
Chah roared on. As lava bubbled up around his feet, he caught his breath. Then everything went black.
50: Face the Day

Chad could not move half his body.
The left side of his head was stuck fast in hardened lava; so was his left arm, leg, wing, and tail--all except the tip, which flamed just above the rock's level--as far as he could feel, because he couldn't look at it.
With a burst of strength he pulled his head up, but the rock held it still. He flamed the rock hard, and pulled again; it cracked away around his brow and horn. Thankfully his scales stuck to him rather than the rock. He craned his neck and looked down at the empty black mold of the side of his face, from nose to horn to neck, just visible in his tail fire.
He was hungry and sore. Chah was sleeping again, and he heard his own tail quietly burning. There was no question left in him of whether Chah existed. No matter what scientists and books said, Chah lived down there, real as the fire on his own tail. Chah had breathed life into Chad in the egg. Nothing would ever prove him away. He felt a sudden push of tears behind his eyes and nose, and blinked. Had Chah really awakened to help them?
Regardless, Daninger was dead; Chad had killed him.
"With a fire spin."
Flaming the rock encasing his shoulder, he wiggled out of the softened stone almost enough to sit up. His left leg and his tail were buried deeper. He looked over and saw that his tail flame was actually below the level of the rock, but had created a well through which the fire flickered, like the shaft down a thick candle.
Where was everyone? Were they looking for him? Chad bugled a deep, calling roar. Remembering the fire spin that had dwarfed his own body, he tried another. The fire ribbon whirled out, less powerfully than the first, and there was nothing for it to wrap, but once he was free and rested up it would regain strength. It had not been a fluke, but a gift from the Burning One.
"But, really," Chad sighed. "I did what anyone would've done."
"Chad!" Chivonne's voice echoed through. "I see his tail!"
August and Chivonne peered over the rim in silhouette. Chad looked up, dizzy.
Chivonne spiraled down and fell over him in a spread of gold. Her arms squeezed his shoulders. "Chad."
Chivonne's face pressed against the back of his head, her shaking the only clue that she was crying. He wondered how much she had really been through; he knew she had barely scratched the surface with what she had told him. Strange that being freed from it was what released her tears. Bit by bit, she seemed to be waking from her jadedness.
Chivonne flamed her face dry behind him and then moved down, flaming at the lava rock encasing him. Her neck straightened as she called up to August.
"He's fine, he's just stuck in rock! We're getting him out!"
She and Chad made slow progress. He strained to break through, but it was still too solid.
"Where's Daninger?"
Chad told about that as his parents swooped down, August and Vixen riding Chalderon, followed by Chiffy and two others, and they all joined the effort to free him.
"About time I helped you out of this stuff," said Chiffy, "rather than sticking you in it."
Chad laughed.
Chizmo stood not far from his head.
"We heard Chah wake," he said. "He has spoken for you, Chad. There is no higher honor, and no question that you will live in eternal fire."
Chad knew it was Chah's fire spin; he had never seen one like it even from his father.
"Team Rocket's gone," said Chivonne as she worked on his trapped wing. "The intruders are dead, some of their Pokémon escaped, we're not going to worry about them."
August agreed. "Without Daninger, Team Rocket's dead as a charizard in--I mean, dead in the water. We just have to get back and find those balls, Lunia knows where he would keep them--"
"Where's Friana?" said Chad. He had seen her shot down. "And Raelle. . .Ollie. . ."
Chivonne touched his shoulder. "Friana's not doing well. Raelle's fine, Tilla and Ollie too, and Kora--"
"Our egg?"
"It's fine too. Calm down, you'll hurt yourself." She stroked his free wing. Charissa came down with a just-killed Magmar and set the hefty carcass down in Chad's reach.
"For both of you."
"I can't thank you enough," said Chivonne as they dug in. Chad stuffed his mouth with more than he could swallow.
"Don't eat so much you get wedged in even tighter," said Chivonne with a smile.
"Maybe the rock'll crack." Chad grabbed another piece of the spicy meat as she laughed.
"How's Friana," he said once his belly had stopped its scream of hollowness.
Chivonne swallowed another mouthful.
"When you're free, we'll take you to her."
The volcano began to rumble again; the rumble from deep down. Steam spouted with a searing hiss through the cracks.
"Get him out!" roared Chalderon. "It's going to blow!"
"I'll get everyone out of Chizmo's cave!" cried Charissa, flying out.

Chad carried August and Vixen up and out into the nightfall, followed by the other charizards. As they streaked through the air, trailed by fire, Chah's elegant cone exploded in a geyser of ash and steam.
"Here!" Charissa was bellowing. "Follow me!"
They landed by the same shoreside cove that Chad had once slept in while hiding from Team Rocket. The tide was low. August and Vixen dismounted and ran inside over the smooth sand. Coming in after, Chad saw the egg sitting in freshly hot rocks. "Friana wasn't responding when we left to look for you. Their magic's the only thing keeping her alive," said Chivonne.
A few yards to the egg's left, Tilla and Ollie sat with their hands on Friana's prone body. Raelle huddled behind Tilla. Chad stepped over.
"How's she doing."
Tilla swallowed.
"We lost her before we laid our hands on her. Her wound is healed--but she was too long with a bullet in her brain. She was shot in the back of the head."
Ollie began crying onto the Butterfree's body. "No!" Raelle screamed through clenched teeth, paws in fists.
"We are keeping her body alive. She is brain dead," said Tilla. "When we let go, the rest of her will follow."
"She's gonna make it," said Raelle, batting Chivonne's hand away. Raelle looked at Chivonne, Tilla. "She'll live."
"No," said Chivonne softly and Tilla let go.
"Ollie, let go," said the Vileplume.
Ollie shook her head; her leaves were shivering.
"Friana is already gone. Lift your hands and let her spirit be free."
Ollie took her hands away and stood back by Tilla, watching Friana. Tilla put her hand gently on Ollie's flower as Friana stopped breathing.
Chad roared. It smacked off the ceiling and walls and flew back at him.
Raelle pushed in front of Tilla. "Put your hands back on dammit!"
Tilla did not move. Ollie shuffled back.
"You didn't even try!"
"She was dead before I could try."
"But she was breathing! You can still save her! Do it!"
Ollie looked up, hiccuping once, at the silent Vileplume and the screaming Raichu.
"I hate you Tilla." Raelle slapped her.
"Tilla!" cried Ollie.
Tilla did not even flap her petals. She stepped backward, holding her small hands out. Chivonne grabbed Raelle from behind before she could hit her again. Raelle fought, twisting and kicking. "I hate you! I hate you!"
Ollie backed against the wall as Chivonne's arm muscles bulged, holding Raelle immobile but for her kicking feet and twisting head. Chad stared down at Friana's fresh young body. Ollie was backing away towards the cave entrance. Outside the waves crashed, and far off, Chah blasted its thunder. She stopped short in the dark, looking back towards the firelight as if it was dawning on her that the night was no longer her refuge and she could not become an oddish again.
As Tilla walked with Ollie back to Friana, Chad checked on the egg; Chizmo was keeping it warm. "Thanks." Chad took over. Staring down at the egg cupped in the hand of his tail flame, drops of water fell into the soft orange fingers and hissed their deaths. Beyond his blurred vision Raelle bawled.
He noticed Chivonne's tail joining his. She held out her arms and he wound into the embrace.
"I'm sorry I left you with her."
"It's fine." Chivonne stroked the back of his arms. "Better than tearing her away."
He blinked his eyes clear, to see Tilla and Ollie arriving at the body. Raelle sat weeping over Friana. Vixen sat huddled in the corner, scowling out from her tails. One by one, Tilla closed Friana's huge red jewels of eyes. She murmured a prayer Chad couldn't hear clearly, then wandered away, staring outside.
"Why did I stand there roaring. When I could have taken Ollie out of here before it got bad." He'd only made things worse. "I didn't think."
"You can't blame yourself for that, that's ridiculous, Chad, you loved Friana."
"I'll take her outside now." Chad started toward the oddish--no, Gloom. Tilla pulled on his hand and shook her head.
"If Ollie's going to become a healer, she must learn to cope with mourning." Her head turned towards the still-leafy Gloom. "She will see many deaths."

"We can't bury her," said Raelle, still lying by the now-cold, stiffening body as the sky began to lighten outside. Chah once again lay silent, but Chizmo and Chiffy's cavern was probably ruined. "She don't wanna rot in the ground--she wants to be cremated. And her ashes buried. She told me that."
"Rest assured," said Tilla, "that I and everyone here will do all we can to grant her wishes. And you would know best what she wants."
"I want Chad to do it."
"What?" Two puffs of steam snorted out Chad's nostrils. His eyes were sore and his head heavy. Tilla may have healed him, but he, like all of them, needed sleep.
"Chad. Friana liked you so much. She would want you to cremate her." Raelle took his hands.
He and Chivonne flamed clean a space on the floor by the entranceway, moved Friana there and Chad incinerated the body in one strong, long flamethrower. Before he did, Chad looked at her one last time, wanting to remember her as a butterfree. He touched the cold aqua-blue body, and the light, smooth wings.
"I keep thinking Friana's over there, or behind me," said Raelle, staring at the ashes. She cried onto Chad's leg. "What if I go back to drinking and shit. What if I kill myself."
Chad knelt and hugged her. "You won't. I know you, you got past all that. Friana would be so proud of you now. I think she was already."
"I gotta be strong," said Raelle, sniffling. "Friana would want me to. I gotta go on for her."
"She gave you your life," said Chad, who felt funny talking like this. "Live for you."
"I can't, I wanna go home to my family." Ralle started crying again. "And I can't never do that, I can't look in their eyes. Never."
Tilla wrapped the ashes in a pouch provided by Kora. She handed it to Raelle, who slung the leather drawstring over her neck and shoulder and fingered the little bag.
"I'll bury her. I know where she would want it."


51: Inherit the Sky

"If that's really what you want," said Chigma, looking up into her son's eyes as they all stood in front of Golem's Peak. Chizmo's new lair was in a cavern on the Golem's Peak side of the Chasm. "You're sure?"
"Yeah." Chad had thought of staying here, after taking care of everything else, but he wanted to try the Charmountains. Not only would hunting and housing be great, with him and Chivonne the only pair, but he felt wild and fresh with curiousity. He also wanted to raise their charmander where it would do best--the easier the hunting, the better.
And if Chivonne's theory was right, Gloomleaf needed them.
Chigma hugged him. "You make me prouder than I ever was. I know you're making the best choice now too."
"And Chad, you can always visit, as long as I'm around," said Kora, in human speech to consider August and Lunia. "You can bet I'll be popping in to check on you three."
"I have something else to say," said August. "Now that Daninger's dead, Team Rocket will probably fall apart."
The charizards rumbled uncertainly amongst themselves, as if unsure of the significance.
"Do you know what Team Rocket's been in control of?" said Chivonne. "For years, because of Rocket agents working within, the government has secretly compromised its no-poaching policies when Team Rocket paid them to, allowing them to come here every six years and steal charmanders and eggs from your families. They've held a monopoly on the fire lizard black market. But now they have no leader, and we've found their main headquarters. When we alert the police, they should crush Team Rocket. Chah may be free from humans."
Now the charizards were grunting approval. Chizmo gave an old, cracked roar for attention.
"You, Chad, in your few short centuries of life, have accomplished more than I ever will. Not only has your tendency to befriend other species, even prey, been full of resource, but your bravery and spirit won us our freedom. Chah damn me for every time I cursed you. His fires burned for you all the time."
"Well. . . thanks, but you can't forget, your long ago prophecy."
"The eruption Chah poured forth yesterday for you easily equals it," said Chizmo, "and as for my prophecy, I have a confession. I never foretold it."
"What?"
He folded his skinny arms, as if annoyed. "I was a young, inexperienced hunter, one day I spotted a Krabby in a tide pool. So of course I jumped in and grabbed it. With one flamethrower I killed it.
"Or so I thought. I brought it back to my lair, lay it on the floor and turned around to sleep--I wasn't hungry, and thought to save it for morning. Before I even lay down, that thing crawled under me and pinched me in the worst way. My bellow of pain was heard for miles, right before the eruption."
"Well. . ." said Chad.
"Chah still could have felt your pain and cried for you," said Chigma.
"Trust me, it was no prophecy," said Chizmo. "And the shellfish was overcooked."

"Chad, you do the honors."
August handed him the Master Ball and Marius Ball, one in each hand. Both had been in Daninger's study, right where Lunia had led Kora to teleport them. Chad opened the Master Ball and held the Marius ball towards it. He didn't want to get his hand too close, but the Marius Ball moved through the air into the waiting Master Ball like a magnet. The Master Ball clapped closed.
The last time any Poké Ball would close on anything but air.
Then it disappeared into thin air.
"Nothing's happening." Lunia looked around, as if expecting to see Pokémon pop out of drawers and pants pockets.
"It works against the capturing," said Raelle. It was the first time Chad had heard her speak since Friana's cremation. "So Pokémon aren't all springing out. But once they come out, they'll never go back in. Not even if they want to."
"How many people will discover their Poké Balls don't work in the next few seconds, days or months," said Chivonne. "How many young trainers will learn they'll never use them. They'll be out for the blood of whoever did this." She shrugged her golden shoulders. "It's only logical they'll blame Team Rocket. When they make arrests, Team Rocket'll say their boss got hold of the ball a few days ago. Most of them may never learn he died. Especially if he and the others who went to Chah never said where they were going."
"They wouldn't have," said Lunia. "Team Rocket has no middle men, they all dealt directly with Daninger and no one told anyone else their orders. And no one was ever told why Daninger wanted the ball, or even what it did. They assumed it was just worth money. He didn't even want to tell me."
"Well, we better scram," said Raelle, adjusting the leather drawstring thong of the sack of ashes over her chubby shoulder. "And Lunia, you are a member, far as they're concerned. You gotta get somewhere they'll never find you."
"I'll take care of that," said Kora. Amazing, Chad thought, how many things were made easy when you could teleport.
They looked around the study for one last moment before Kora took Lunia and herself away to some obscure faraway town, and took the rest of them beyond Yellow Town. So Chad would fade into anonymity with humans. He wouldn't have wanted it any other way. All he wanted now was to relax with Chivonne, get some peace, fill his stomach, and put the egg down in a home lair.
But there was more to be done.

As everyone rode lizardback to Deep's Heart, Chad saw that Tilla's predictions for where her people would be were correct. The bright scarlet dots of Vileplumes vibrated in the sun against a rippling field of green grass growing up around the black spikes of trees. Charred logs lay like toothpicks on the ground, but there was no missing the rock ridge, the alcove of Deep's Heart. In the distance, about a dozen Venusaurs with a few young grazed in the sun.
"Oh," said Tilla from Chad's back. "There they are."
The Vileplumes cried out. Shouts of "Tilla!" reached Chad's ears and they all imploded toward the ridge, the Gloom outpacing their elders. They backed away so the charizards could land. Chad had his pick of where to land with the trees gone. The riders dismounted into the weeping crowd; Ollie leaped down while Tilla stepped off with more dignity, keeping her balance with a hand on Chad's bony shoulder.
"Tilla! Tilla!"
"Rafracia!"
"Chad brought you safely home!" said one Vileplume whose name Chad didn't know, but who, like all of them, looked familiar. The Poliwrath and Venusaur statuettes had been made up again outside the entrance, and in front of the entrance stone, he saw one of Lizardon.
"I'm a Gloom now!" Ollie said as Anina hugged her. "Gloom, gloom, gloom!" "Viiiiiee!" Tilla's cry quieted everyone. "Rafracia has guarded us on our journey and blessed our return. I missed all of you. Where is Vernon?"
"He just ran in the alcove," said Ollie on the outside of the crowd, as the old Vileplume disappeared into the cave.
"He should be here while I tell of our success on this mission. And to see if we can find an unburned place to live. Of course the trees will grow back. . . but the spirits of the ancestors must be restless and homeless. . ."
"Not at all, Rafracia." Vernon strode up to Tilla and bowed. When he stood up Chad saw that on his front was the symbol of Lizardon, a yellowish and reddish flame.
He took Chad's hand.
"Rafracia bless you."
The other Vileplumes and Gloom murmured agreement.
"What prompted this change of heart?" said Tilla. "Kora, did you visit and tell--"
"I've never been here," said Kora. "Or met anyone here."
"Well it's nice to see you've changed your mind," said Chad.
"Let me tell how well we have all been faring since the fire!" said Vernon. Once everyone was gathered round he stood upon the entrance stone, on which the sun now shone.
"Since the fire, grass has sprouted. We are all feeling better, getting more sunshine--especially the oddish. The old plants we used to eat are still thin here, but growing by the hundreds. As for getting what we need from forests, a large patch to the east is largely unburned. But we prefer to stay here. The best thing of all is--not a Victreebel to be seen!"
"Yes," said the other Vileplumes to each other, "yes. . .no Victreebel--"
"But shelter must be hard to come by," said Tilla. Vernon pointed out new holes dug nearby, close to large logs or burnt trees.
"It's true that living in the open isn't always as easy," said Vernon. "But we have been making up for it with better, deeper holes, plus the burnt trees provide some shelter: it isn't really the open. Chad, please forgive my horrendous treatment of you. Your kind played a part that we were wrong to forget. Only the oddish have kept alive the ancient truth--fire is not our enemy, but a necessary part of Gloomleaf. Rafracia put Nyoroban and Fushigibana here to grow and nourish our forest, but she put Lizardon here to cleanse it." Vernon stepped off the stone, strode over to Chad, knelt and bowed his petals to the grass. Apparently they didn't need to explain Chivonne's theory--the forest had already told him.
"Chad, you and your friends have more than lived up to what Marius would have wanted in his own team," said Tilla as Vernon got up. "We'll miss having you here. You must visit. And whoever wishes to live here may do so forever."
Raelle unslung the pouch with Friana's ashes off her shoulder. "Friana will."
Tilla gathered everyone round for Friana's funeral next morning, just before sunrise. Wildflowers were just blooming among the blackened ghosts of the trees. The Oddish dug a deep, narrow hole in the semicircle, just the place Raelle asked for. "Friana would want a place where the sun shines and kids play," she said. Tilla could not have agreed more, and everyone gathered for the burial.
"We don't know why Rafracia takes some back so soon," said Tilla standing on the stone. "But dear Friana gave her life for someone she will never meet. Her spirit will always live here, free as the flowers in this field."
Off to Chad's left, their egg sat in a fire burning within the stone ring set up on the night of the attack, as if it, too, were attending. Chad remembered all that Friana had told him of Butterfree life. It was early spring. In just a few weeks, newly metamorphosed Butterfree from all over the region would take to the air in flocks and congregate on the shores, shading the sands with their fresh new wings, their thousands of calls crystalizing together as they searched for lifelong mates. Friana would not be one of them.
It wasn't fair.
"When oddish run and play under the moon, Friana, your laughter will blow in the wind. When a new morning dawns and we go about our chores, or sing songs, or dance, we will feel your presence. We will never forget you, and here, you will never die."
Tilla's arm motioned towards the hole. Sobbing, Raelle dropped the bag in and began to push dirt off the fresh pile into the hole. She broke down wailing. Chad helped her to her feet; everyone else joined in and finished the burial. They all came forward with flowers, laying them on and around the unmarked grave. "Oh, Friana," Raelle wailed as the flowers piled up, "Friana!"
When he was younger, Chad had heard here and there that only certain Pokémon had souls. The types that did varied depending on who said it, what tale was told. But Chad dismissed it. Everyone had a soul. Friana's spirit flew among them now--he felt her watching, floating all around. He closed his eyes and almost felt the brush of her wings. A Vileplume had kept one of Friana's papooses, and had given it to Raelle. The Raichu stood hugging the empty sack in her arms.
A gust of wind swooped in, scattering the flowers they had heaped atop the covered hole. Then, once again, the air fell calm. No one moved, as the sun rose behind the trees. After Tilla concluded the ceremony Chad stayed standing there. Chivonne was rubbing his arm, leaning her head on him while the group broke apart, conversing quietly.
"Did you see that?" Raelle was saying. She felt for Chad's hand through her tears and held it tight. "Did you see that wind? That was Friana coming to say goodbye."

"It's chaos and panic in many places," said Kora to Chad one late afternoon, sitting atop the ridge with him as he took a brief breather from watching the egg in the alcove. She, Chivonne and August had informed police about Yellow Town a few weeks ago. Vixen and Chivonne were out hunting. The nine weeks were almost up; when it hatched, they would fly to the Charmountains. "Just because Poké Balls don't work anymore. Humans, alas, become used to their comforts all too quickly. My philosophy is to not get entangled with them to begin with. Stick with what works. In addition to making a huge bust in Yellow Town, they've recovered billions of Poké yens Team Rocket made over the years. August is expected to receive a portion of it for "his" uncovering of Team Rocket. That's why August has to go home again--to manage this money and straighten out some things."
"Like what?"
"I think we ought to wait until your mate arrives before he breaks the news."
Chivonne flew in, full of meat, near dusk. Chad stood up on the rock, and she landed in his lap. Her impact knocked him back; he flapped his wings to sit back up. August and Kora came out of the alcove to join her as Chad's tail laced in hers.
"Chivonne," said August, "I was thinking of giving you half the money I received, but I thought of something better."
"Oh, you did?"
"After they learned about how you uncovered Daninger's plot and led us to Yellow Town, they're changing their ideas about charizards. The fire in Gloomleaf, or really the aftermath, is also helping. Now they realize they need you guys out here. In fact, they're donating some money to the program too, though they said most of that money will be to stop poaching. Yes Chivonne, the Fire-Up program is back."
"Oh!" Chivonne hugged August, and then, as if she had forgotten, she hugged Chad, who was already holding his hands out. "I couldn't have got better news."
"Yeah you could," said August. "They've caught the ringleaders supporting Team Rocket inside the government, restored the anti-poaching laws and banned the sale of all endangered species. The six-year thing with Chah is gone too."
"Couldn't get better news," said Chad, just to see if August would throw him for another loop.
Chivonne's neck curved back as she stretched out against Chad's belly. "I don't think we could get hit with anything better than all that."
"Chad! Chivonne!" Tilla ran out of the alcove into the grass, forgetting to bow to the stone. "The egg is hatching!"

Chad lifted the now-brittle egg carefully from the fire, and set it down. His hands felt scratching inside; it rocked slightly on the stone floor. August went to tell everyone else. Vixen trotted in last, just in time to see the orange hand of a charmander break the speckled shell, then retreat as the animal rested. For long stretches of time there was almost no movement. But finally Chad watched his own charmander fight the battered shell one last time and kick the two halves away, rolling out sideways. Its sides heaved with panting. A charmander had to hatch on its own, determining its ability to live. As it clawed the air, it mouth wide open but making no sound, its tail tip caught alight. It looked up at Chivonne and Chad.
"It's adorable!" Raelle cooed as Chad picked up the squirming orange body. Chivonne cleaned it with small strokes of yellow fire. Lying on its back in Chad's hands, the charmander stared up, its orange eyes unblinking in its smooth, rounded head, crying "Char, char." Its parents answered with rumbles of reassurance.
"It's a girl," he said.
"We'll name her. . ."
"Friana?" said Chad.
Chivonne's mouth curled into a smile and she nuzzled her daughter. "Friana."
"Friana's not a Ch- name," said Vixen. "Does this mean you're branching out?"
"It's about time," said Chad, licking the new Friana, whose hand came down on Chad's snout.
"Char, charmander, char," she cried, sounding demanding. Her seashell-pink mouth opened wide showing four of the tiniest pinprick teeth. "Charmander!"
"Is she hungry?"
"She's starving," said Chivonne, putting a hand on her own stomach. "Let's feed her."
"Excuse us." Carrying Friana, Chad followed Chivonne to the corner of the alcove, where he had once flamed the Victreebels.
"Ohhh she's so cute! What are you gonna feed her?" said Raelle. "Can I watch?"
"You don't want to know what they're going to feed her," said Vixen, "and you certainly don't want to watch."

"Well," said Kora, once the charmander was sated and sleeping in Chad's own arms. "I've never seen a charmander hatch and it was sure worth the wait. But it's time for me and August to go, though we'll be visiting. August?"
"Just a minute," he said as he finished hugging Chivonne. "Well old girl, I know I'll see you again in just a few weeks, but. . . take care of yourself. I know you can."
"I know you can too. Let me know as soon as you hear about what's up with, um, Fire-Up." She smiled.
"I'm sure they'll be wanting to talk to you directly," he said. "I'll let you know how Lunia's doing too. Okay, Kora, let's go."
Vixen stepped into the place vacated by the Alakazam and the young man. She sneezed, then resumed her dignity. "I guess we'll be heading to the Charmountains tomorrow or the day after?"
"We?" Chad said; he and Chivonne looked at each other.
"All right then, don't worry about me," said Vixen. "Leave me here to fend for myself through the real allergy season."
"Oh Vix, taking you there isn't the problem," said Chad in a sweet voice as he looked down at Friana resting on his stomach. "It's having you hang around afterwards."
"Um," said Raelle, stepping into the talk. Her hands fidgeted. "I know you two wanna fly off and like, find a lair, but," and her voice got low, "there's a place--I want you to fly me to." She told him the name of it.
"I know where that is," said Chivonne.

It was the morning after Friana's birth. She was almost a day old. "Well," said Tilla, coming up the rock ridge. Vernon walked behind her. "Are we ready to go?"
Raelle nodded, almost gravely. "Yes."
The place lay far north of Deep's Heart. Chad followed Chivonne's turn toward the large, copse-dotted field. These parts had not burned. He almost landed, but she flew around the field, landing within a copse hiding them from the small Pokémon foraging far up the field. Of course, thought Chad, if they saw two charizards, they wouldn't stick around.
Chivonne held Friana as their passengers disembarked--Tilla, Ollie (who had had her Dance of Flowers a few weeks ago), Vixen, and finally Raelle.
Raelle started to get off Chad's shoulders, but before her foot touched the ground, she coiled back up, clinging to his neck.
"Guys I don't know."
"You can do it," said Chad. "We'll be right here."
"Okay," but Raelle again did not dismount.
"I can't."
"You can," said Chivonne. "Don't be afraid. They're your family."
"They will not hate you," said Tilla. "Think of how happy they'll be. No matter what, no matter how long it has been, they are waiting for you to fill the hole you have left."
With Tilla taking her hand, Raelle finally jumped down.
"Bye guys." And she hugged Chad. "Miss you."
"We'll visit." Chad's hand ruffled the fur on her back. "You think we won't want to see how you're getting on? Introduce us; we'll hang around. You've got some story to tell."
She kissed his nose. "Couldn't have done it without you, big guy."
"He's one in a million," said Vixen. "Likes the smell of Gloom, so I should say one in a thousand."
As she was walking alone across the field, Chivonne stood close by Chad, her tail looping behind his legs. No matter how he enjoyed his friends' company, he wanted to spend most days with just his mate and family.
Raelle kept glancing back before she finally walked in closer to the group of Raichu and pikachu. One pikachu looked up from its seed-gathering--and squealed, "Pika!" pointing.
Several more heads popped up from the long grass.
"Pika-Pika--"
"--pika--"
"Rrraai!"
One Raichu shrieked and jumped up. It bounded in long leaps, its lightning-bolt cord tail swinging, till it collided with Raelle.
"My baby!"
The others ran out towards her through the grass, hugging her. And Raelle disappeared from sight.


52: Epilogue--Lizard by Lizard

Waves crashed on the sloping beach under the noon sun, in late summer. The tip of Chad's tail rotated lazily in front of him as he watched the foam, just visible over the curve of his belly, seeth over sand. Behind him Friana played among the rocks and his huge wings. Chivonne was out hunting.
Yesterday Chad had taken Friana to the lava spring bubbling in the depths of the wide volcano Charolt. With Chivonne looking on, he had gently dipped the charmander in the almost white-hot rock, letting it bubble and flow around her head and neck as her hands toyed with the stuff. Bathing her in Chah's own heat--that of volcanoes--cemented the promise to love and care for her through her years of growth. "I was baptized here too," Chivonne had said.
Vixen sat beside him. "She's still out, eh? Well, I can bug you instead." Vixen seldom came by when Chivonne was with them.
"You told me you were going to get a life out here," said Chad, watching the waves swing semicircles of foam out over the sand. "So?"
"Well it takes me time to settle in. I've only been here about four months?--"
"Five."
"Math genius, huh. I guess being chummy with humans can give a charizard some smarts."
"I'm trying to have a conversation. Does it feel like your home yet."
"Somewhat. I'm glad I made it here before Vileplume pollinating season." Vixen scratched an itch, then took to preening one of her bushy tails with her paw. "It's reminiscent of Chah. Right down to this salty air. I am having a very bad fur day as you can probably see."
"Charmander." Friana landed on Chad's neck from behind. Chad helped maneuver her into a comfy seat on his shoulders. He lay on his stomach on the sand and she looked at the water, leaning on his head, between his horns.
"She looks like you," said Vixen, "only cute."
Friana was gnawing on his right horn. He ducked and nudged her needly teeth off with his hand; they closed on his finger. "So are you going to get a life or what."
"I did see a couple of males around your volcano, on the other side from your lair. I figure I could get off my butt eventually and grab a buddy."
"Good for you." He pried Friana's clawed fingers out of his mouth. "Ouch. They'll find you a challenge, Vix, be prepared."
"Well I figure that if you can get laid, anyone can."
Chad's hand gave her nearest tail a tug. She jumped up bristling.
"That's it. Thousand year curse!"
"Not in front of the youngsters." He pointed up at the little charmander who was climbing on his head, with his assistance so that she didn't strangle him or poke his eye out with her foot.
"Tomorrow, then." Vixen stood up, stretched, and ran up the beach, her limbs gliding her over the rocks. "See you around fireface."

A fluttery breeze whipped the trees down below Chad; their changing leaves batted the air. The nights were cooling but the leaves were still green. The Vileplume pollinating season was just over, when their seeds were fertilized for next spring's oddish. Soon they would sow them.
Chad glided ahead of Chivonne on their flight from the feeding station, which had been set up by none other than the Fire-Up program itself. Contrary to some people's fears, all the charizards in the world had not jumped to abandon their trainers; most preferred to stay. But more than enough of the dragons were willing to give the wild a try, that Fire-up was worthwhile. Contrary to another fear, the program didn't require much money--it just needed to be left alone by people.
Of course, Chad and Chivonne had not eaten at the Fire-Up station. They had hunted in their home range this morning. Slowly, one by one, the charizards were learning to hunt for themselves and four or five would relocate to the Charmountains next year. Charmina was one of them. Still clean after four months and as free of money as Chad, she was also getting on well with Chester.
It would take thousands of years to restore the population. But Chah wasn't made in a day.
August was helping out with Fire-Up himself, working with charizards hands-on as he had always wanted to. And during his last visit, Chad had seen a red-haired, freckled woman working there too, by the name of Charla. She didn't recognize him as the charizard she had once battled in Dorien's gym, and Chad didn't remind her. It wasn't that he feared humans would kill him anymore, but that Charla had given up battling as a cruel practice, and why open old wounds?
Kora had taken care of his DNA-identity problem with her psychic powers. "Going into their database, I couldn't breach the system's safeguards to delete your file," she had explained on her first visit in the Charmountains, "but I was able to alter it. The Mad Charizard of Crimson is now only your distant relative. You're free to announce your union with Chivonne and your involvement with Fire-up to all the world."

The grasses rippling over the field of what had been Deep's Heart were turning tawny, revealing tiny tree seedlings scattered over the vista. Gloom and Vileplumes, out gathering, looked up and waved to the gliding pair; Chad returned it with a roar. But right now they were not stopping to visit Deep's Heart, but another friend Chad had promised to see once he was settled in. Making sure Friana was grown enough, past her most vulnerable age, had delayed him, but not anymore.
It took four days of steady flight to reach the little town of Mauve. Chad landed, and let the squirming charmander jump from his hands and frisk around, stretch her limbs, explore the unfamiliar ground of the path to Jade's house. Steam puffed from her open mouth; breathing fire was several years away. When Friana calmed down, she walked up the path between Chad and Chivonne who held hands above her head.

Small weeds had sprouted in the twin tire ruts carving the wooded path. Passing the front lawn, Chad saw it was overgrown, the flower beds wild--and her car was not in the driveway. He reached the door with flame-gas churning in his fire stomach, and he rang the doorbell twice in rapid succession. While he waited for an answer his tail swished; Friana hopped on his foot for a ride. Chad lifted the foot gently up and down, anything to distract himself from the moment that grew longer and longer. The charmander clung to Chad's broad ankle, laughing. She did not know. She did not know that it had been too long.
Chad rang it again, then tried the knob, found it locked. Chivonne's wing cupped around his back and she touched his arm.
"She can't be gone," said Chad, fighting a whirl of panic. "Yeah, she's old--but not so old that--Jade did everything for herself. She had no trouble getting around--She could just be out on an errand. Or visiting her daughter. . ."
"Well," said Chivonne, "do you know where her daughter lives?"
"Yeah." Chad bent to scoop Friana off his foot and bumped heads with Chivonne, who laughed and took Friana first. "Almost next door."
As Chad led them down the quiet lane, Mo was the first one they met. Chad saw him strolling in the grass, and when the cat saw the aproaching dragons-- he slipped into a quick trot despite his age, looking straight at Chad.
After Chad and Mo stopped hugging, Mo spoke.
"Come with me, I'll take you to Jade. Yes, all of you. This'll be such a surprise for her. I always knew you had it in you Chad."

They had moved her bed and things to the guestroom downstairs, since Jade preferred the airy bay windows to the one small one in the extra bedroom. This afternoon she sat sipping tea after a little gardening. Since her stroke, even weeding flowerbeds was difficult, but the Pokégods damn her if she was giving up everything she loved.
Holding the teacup in both hands to keep it from shaking, she set it in its saucer on the coffee table. Jasmine was coming into the room, picking up Jade's cane.
Her daughter brushed a tear from her eye as she handed Jade the cane. "There's someone to see you."
"Who?"
"An old friend, that Mo found. I sent him--them--around to the back door." Which was closer to here than the front. Jasmine helped Jade to her feet; Jade shrugged her off. Her pregnant daughter shouldn't be holding up an old lady. Leaning her partly paralyzed right side on the cane Jade limped to the back door.

"Chad." And family. Jade hoped the charizard could understand her somewhat slurred speech, but from his face, Jasmine, or maybe Mo, had already explained things. Jade dabbed at her eyes, then collected her composure and stepped outside.
"Char, izard," said Chad in a gentle rumble, holding out his arms, and at first he barely hugged her, but he let his arms tighten a little when Jade hugged back.
"You have a family now?" said Jade, with effort. The smaller gold charizard, who now held the charmander, opened her mouth as if to speak, then closed it when Chad nodded once, deeply. Jade squeezed his hand. "What are their names." A thought of getting a pen and paper flashed in her mind, but she couldn't recall why. Something about reading.
"My name's Chivonne," said the gold one in an unmistakably feminine voice. "And this is our daughter, Friana. I'm honored to meet you; Chad told me all about you. He said you taught him to read."
Friana leaned forward in Chivonne's arms to lick her father's face; he ducked down to give her a brief nuzzle.
Now Jade remembered why she had thought of pen and paper. And now she thought of something else. "Come in. I have something to give you." Although the charizards could not have understood her words that time, they understood her gesture to the door. Chad helped her up the stoop steps and she and Jasmine held the door for the guests; lizard by lizard they entered.
"My mother can't talk as well or move her right leg as easily, but otherwise she is still quite healthy," Jasmine was explaining as Jade went to her bookshelf. "She could live another decade or more, isn't that right Mom."
Jade nodded facing the bookshelf, searching for the volume of classics.
"Chad wanted to see how you are," said Chivonne, "and to tell you that we've settled in a home in the Charmountains."
Jade turned around and looked way up at Chad, the heavy book weighing her arms down. He had indeed grown a little since she'd first met him. "I'm so proud of you, my Blaze. I love you."
As Chad reached out to help her she pressed into his hands the copy of Moby Dick.


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