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Pokémon Continental Divides

Starlight Aurate

Inquietum Est Cor Nostrum
Location
Route 123
Partner
mightyena
Hey hey! Here to review Chapter 10! (And by review, I just mean leave compliments that make you feel good because I don't know how to give constructive crit XD)

I didn't expect Brendan and May to be in this fic! They always strike me as a more "kiddy" aspect of RSE and seeing them in this adult realistic-setting is a surprise lol

I love the description of the temple. And the fact that the regis are playing a part in this story! That's something I don't see much of so I'm glad to see it here.

This was a nice quiet chapter; the exploration through the temple was fun. I was hoping Steven's blood would wake up Regirock, but oh well. Thanks for posting this!

Only two questions I had:
The last chamber has been much bigger.
had?

Steven and Harrison crouched across from each other, their hand lanterns forgotten on the floor beside piles of sand a stone slab
Sand and a stone slab?
 

canisaries

voted most likely to be edgy
Location
the middle of nowhere
Pronouns
she/her
Hey! Here for Catnip, a bit late, sorry about that. Here are my thoughts on Chapter 1.

She had first noticed him—her?—among the crowd in the park, a skinny, hooded figure in all black.
My absolute first thought is Bet-Boy from TPP lore, but then I remember there are like 200 people on Earth tops that even know what that is.

This morning it had been something about MGMA—Magma, the Masked Group for Mass Action
I will have to be honest, I would have considered just regular Magma a better name for a group than this. But I'm also not particularly familiar with the naming convention of gangs slash environmental extremist groups (???), so I dunno.

Then Luna flattened her ears and growled. Faster than Natalie could follow with her eyes, Luna spun and snapped her teeth at nothing—and the nothing screamed, high-pitched and human-sounding.
Flattening ears is a sign of fear or submission in canines (and apparently also hyenas), so it felt kind of off here when she does rather aggressively go for the ghost anyway and there's no other indication of her being scared (such as whining).

"What do you have? Drop it."
luna gives it back instead of making natalia chase her for 20 minutes, absolutely unrealistic

She hoped the pinprick wouldn't get infected. Sucking her fingertip,
stay in school natalie

"No, I …."
Four dots instead of three, in case that was a mistake.

He smirked again, and this time Natalie saw it with fresh eyes. She wanted to laugh again. He was flirting with her and she'd taken it as a threat.
this would be me tbh

Did she want this to go further?
well... you could also just start as friends...

When he finally released them back into the wild, Natalie had cried.

"Aw, don't worry, Small Fry," he'd said. "You can catch your own someday."
aw. this is really sweet

---

General Comments

I found myself not really having a lot to say about this, which is actually a good thing considering how I tend to pick up negatives much more than positives. But there are positives, and I will give them!

This chapter establishes a lot in very little time while still keeping things very natural, which is a sure sign of talent. Things flow into each other intuitively and the parts that are more expo-dumpy don't even come across that way until you put specific attention on how densely you're being given new information. It does make the narrative seem a bit aimless at parts, but typically the human mind is, and this can be to some extent chalked up to a close 3rd person narrator, even a style of flow-of-thought. This is most apparent with Natalie's mind straying to her brother once she's entered the bar, but it's still rather low on an objective scale of contrivedness. It is also pretty important character- and storybuilding exposition, so it gets some leeway anyway. We writers know that story just needs to happen sometimes.

You also kept my attention during what seems to be flirtatious smalltalk, which is something hard to pull off without sounding like you're trying too hard to be relatable or witty. As a very bitter person, most things romance elicit a gag reflex from me, but this avoided that pretty much as well as is possible with me. These people seem real.

A detail that stuck out to me as quite neat was the encounter with the banette. It makes perfect sense for it to be able to turn invisible, being a ghost, and yet I've rarely seen it. The pin also adds a level of realism and fleshing out to this creature, which I like seeing in pokéfic - "giving texture", as I call it in my head. Making pokémon feel more like breathing (well, maybe not with a ghost) creatures than plastic toys.

I'll wrap this review up by mentioning that I think this chapter could have worked well as a one-shot, something you can rarely say about individual chapters. I'm not saying it should be, at all; I just felt like pointing it out and giving credit to how well this ties itself up in a package.

Alright, that's it for my thoughts. HMU on Discord or drop a reply if you want elaboration on some points. Good luck with writing onward, though it seems like it's advancing nicely already. See you around.
 

OldschoolJohto

Don’t underestimate seeds.
Pronouns
She/Her
Partner
solrock
A few review replies! I responded to some of these things in DMs, but I wanted to make sure I've covered all my bases and said proper thank yous. So ... thank you! 🙏

I'm sorry, as much as I love super complex stories with really interesting characters and thought provoking themes...I can't resist a well written battle scene and you've just written one of the better battle scenes in a while.
Welp, clearly me too! And thank you!

If you want more Güd Fites, get caught up on Salvage!! Grek is my current gold standard for beeg fite.

it's hard for us to root for any of them.
Yes! I was excited for this moment. I loved feeling that way when characters finally began to collide for real on Game of Thrones, and it was fun to give a taste of that here.

Mark's scene was also great, because I think it's the first time we've seen him this vulnerable.
Yes! Mark is my not-so-secret favorite because he's this heavily armored character on a slow slide towards greater and greater vulnerability.

</3 Why can't they just get along ;c
Perhaps someday!

I actually hadn't asked, gym leaders are allowed to just sign away lawn?
No, they don't have that kind of legal power in this setting. (Well, Clay probably does because he's a landowner. Maybe others would as well.) But they do have political clout! Lots of people look up to Roxanne and are willing to do what she says is right, and I think she has the ear of a lot of powerful people, too (like the school district).

And thank you for the line-by-line reactions here! They're always optional, but I know you've mentioned struggling with them before, and I appreciate the effort.

Thanks again! I did address most of these in DMs, but I thought I'd put some of those answers here too in case anyone has the same questions later and in case I missed anything.

Banette can sound human? It's certainly a skin-prickling introduction to our cloaked and unknown adversary. Showing the enemy little by little does wonders for the imagination.
The first human-sounding scream was the trainer, and the second inhuman one was the banette!

For some reason, I imagine that you have revised your first and early chapters, perhaps fine-tuning them from time to time? I don't seem to have read about that explicitly somewhere, but it looks to me that this is a carefully crafted chapter, sporting a recent edit date (which may have just been for bookkeeping, too).
I can't tell if you're playing coy or not but, yes, I am "always editing." It's usually just small grammar fixes, but sometimes, like here, I do rewrite entire scenes or chapters. This isn't the first or the last time. (If you're curious, most of the old version is here.) I'm glad it shows that I labored over it, though, because I sure did! :D

The line reads curiously, and I'm unsure whether I'm reading it right!
Yeah, I'm honestly still not wild about it. I might eventually redo it.

Ok, this seriously feels natural, as embedded.
Great to hear! A lot of these transitions were suggested/improved by @kintsugi during beta reading. Since you said in a few places that you were wowed by transitions and felt unsure about how to do them, I can say that when I'm checking for sentence flow, there are a few concrete things I'm looking for: does the sentence structure highlight the main idea of the sentence, or is it buried? Does the reader's "eye" naturally follow where the character would be looking? Do thoughts arise and end in response to sights, smells, sounds, and other in-the-present information that the character is noticing? Are there any words referring to something from a previous sentence in a way that's unclear? (Frequent offenders are "it was" and "there was" statements. What does it refer to?)

(Maybe plenty other gyms do this, too. Maybe few do. Maybe there are varied gym challenge structures.)
I think it's relatively normal for gyms in this setting. Though you're right, surely some of them do have a different structure, and some of the gym leaders are definitely harsher than Roxanne is.

Mm, such naming. 👀
[Deepwater, and Devon, very nice; it (subtly?) rhymes in my pronunciation of it, and has a very nice ring to it.]
Oh, that's neat! I suppose in Natalie and Mark's world, they encounter similar environmental challenges that we would. Large-scale pollution accidents are definitely a major concern.
Hahahaha, yes, I've shamelessly dumped in a lot of real-life content. This story is where I process all my feelings about the real world. It's more fun with pokemon in it, which means I can take in more bad news than I might otherwise be able to stomach. This isn't the first or the last time Mark and Natalie reflect on thinly-veiled real-life environmental issues: Chapter 8 also mentioned a refinery explosion that happened in my city last summer. 🙃 Whoops.

think most people see the problems from their vantage, and don't necessarily look closely, sure. It's possible to have people who actively fight for a cause they believe in, having once done the soul-searching, but perhaps not having done proper research or having updated their knowledge lately. And most of us probably notice the problems that affect us, but don't really make the concerted, enduring effort to make a positive difference...
Absolutely. I never feel like I'm doing enough, and it's very possible I'm not. This story also has some questions about ... okay, so you did a thing, but was that enough, or was it right?

A bipedal fungus imbibing fermented goods, eh?)
Thanks for noticing, haha! Yes! Fungus baby gets extra fermentation as a treat.

Mark thinks Natalie has the base character material to make a real impact. That's a pretty nice appraisal coming from a stranger.
It's true! Probably the nicest compliment he offers anyone for a while.

Hopefully without too much star-crossed friendship, based on the prologue note and other things
🙃

Very nice artwork at the end, it's good to put a rendition of their profile/countenance to the characters! [Do you draw these]
I did indeed draw all the things, haha! (I'm also on Instagram, same username.) Though there is one piece of guest art by Wolflyn linked at the bottom of a chapter.

We've heard mention of MGMA, Magma, and nothing solid about who they are or what they are for yet (nor about Team Aqua!), except for the sense that they may be a group to be watchful or wary of.
It does take a little bit to get there. Because Natalie is our main character and she knows nothing about this stuff, we are also stuck wondering about a few things for a while. But I promise we do get answers eventually.

I totally get what this means! At least, the idea behind it! Though I'm wondering if someone would look hard, and then do a double-take? I have probably done this myself; it just seems interestingly out-of-order!
Good call! I've already updated this.

Ah, environmental hazards on the job. Lovely. Can't fully avoid them. Is there optional personal protective gear?
Haha, now I'm picturing Hilary with some dainty gloves and maybe a face mask. Maybe some trainers would go that route! But I think most wouldn't. I think training comes with the expectation of a certain amount of wear and tear. But! The next chapter definitely features some PPE.

Oh, I wonder how mightyena does that--whether it be cloaking itself, (moving quickly), or de-materializing (I would imagine the last one is primarily for ghost-types).
In this setting, dark-types can't quite teleport--I don't think they can straight up leave a space, but they can step in and out of what I picture as a sort of parallel plane, nazghoul-style. Psychics teleport differently--in one physical space, then in another--so they can't track dark-types in that other plane. I think ghosts might be able to zigzag in and out of that plane, too (like using a dark-type move) but mostly they can just turn invisible.

(*waves* Hello, fellow loud thinker!)
Haha, me too.

Oh, neat! Here's the only scene change/break in this chapter. (I'm also happy that someone uses a short line as a scene break in a serious work!)
Yeah, it's the easiest thing that all my platforms and my word processor all recognize!

Clues little by little, that's perfect. I had expected that Mark had gone looking to do something, and actually did not expect his bike accident might have been a reactive defense.
We never see this scene, but a line in Chapter 5 offers a little bit of clarity. He was definitely an aggressor as much as anything. This is what he left the bar to go deal with.

First comment--how did Mark not know the Devon Horizon oil tanker spill in Slateport?
He grew up in Unova! He knows some of the local history, but definitely not all of it.

A month to travel from first to fourth badge feels kinda fast.
The badges don't have to be completed in badge order here. Gym leaders usually scale up and down to give challengers a fair challenge at any level. (Though, again, this will vary from gym leader to gym leader.) Natalie's badges, in this order, are Mauville and Dewford. She's planning on getting her badges from Rustboro and Lavaridge next.

Thanks again for your thoughtful responses! I enjoyed seeing all the various thoughts these chapters sparked for you.

Hey hey! Here to review Chapter 10! (And by review, I just mean leave compliments that make you feel good because I don't know how to give constructive crit XD)
Pff, you're fine. Just knowing what landed well is constructive! Thanks again for catching those typos. They've been fixed.

I didn't expect Brendan and May to be in this fic! They always strike me as a more "kiddy" aspect of RSE and seeing them in this adult realistic-setting is a surprise lol
They each got mentioned in passing in chapter 7, but I wouldn't expect you to remember since I originally posted it in April. I first entered the fic scene writing Brendan/May, so they were also some of the first characters I experimented with (unsuccessfully) aging up in original fiction when I was in high school. They're actually younger here than they have been at some points in my mind, lol. Also, funny enough, in my first fics they were the protagonists, while Mark and Natalie were secondary characters. I'm not even sure whether May will be a chapter POV character here; I like the idea that the player character is sort of AWOL, busy being a bigshot trainer, which is why the Aqua/Magma conflict looks so much simpler in the games than it does in my setting.

Thanks for reading! Glad it sounds like this one was a fun read.

My absolute first thought is Bet-Boy from TPP lore, but then I remember there are like 200 people on Earth tops that even know what that is.
Sadly, I'm not among them! I'll have to look this up later!
I will have to be honest, I would have considered just regular Magma a better name for a group than this. But I'm also not particularly familiar with the naming convention of gangs slash environmental extremist groups (???), so I dunno.
Yeah, that's fair. I almost always refer to them as just Magma in the rest of the story, but the Aqua rename is still a little funky. It kinda is what it is here. Most activist organizations I can think of have names that are either acronyms or thematically relate to what they do. Since my Aqua and Magma have different goals than they do in canon, it felt weird to me that they would be unironically calling themselves that.

Flattening ears is a sign of fear or submission in canines (and apparently also hyenas), so it felt kind of off here when she does rather aggressively go for the ghost anyway and there's no other indication of her being scared (such as whining).
Good call! Fixed.

luna gives it back instead of making natalia chase her for 20 minutes, absolutely unrealistic
LOL! You're so right. Maybe in a future scene!

stay in school natalie
Really though. There's plenty more where that came from.

Four dots instead of three, in case that was a mistake.
It's not, but thanks for checking. It seems like there are several conflicting conventions for ellipses and the main thing is just being consistent, though all seem to agree that when it ends a sentence, you do still need that fourth period. Starlight says she was told that's not true in fiction, but everything I've seen says to do it, so I'm gonna keep doing it.

well... you could also just start as friends...
Why start as friends when you can start as enemies? Just give it a minute and they'll, uh, shift gears real hard.

But, real talk: I imagine hookup culture is predominant among trainers who are interested in sex/dating. They're all such moving targets, in it for the adventure and being able to brag about their expliots--I mean badges!--later. Gotta catch em all? D: Hookup culture hurts my feelings, but Natalie strikes me as the kind of person who would puff herself up and insist she doesn't care and, oh of course, is totally fine keeping things casual, for real!

considering how I tend to pick up negatives much more than positives.
Same! It can be hard not to. I think it's natural when you know the author can and will read your responses. If I catch a typo in my paperback, who's gonna do anything about it?

This chapter establishes a lot in very little time while still keeping things very natural, which is a sure sign of talent.
T_T <3 That's lovely to hear.

This is most apparent with Natalie's mind straying to her brother once she's entered the bar, but it's still rather low on an objective scale of contrivedness. It is also pretty important character- and storybuilding exposition, so it gets some leeway anyway. We writers know that story just needs to happen sometimes.
Yeah, there is a lot of information to wade through here. In a previous version, it was a little more spread out, but I decided it was better to do all of it in chapter one and get the ball rolling much faster instead. I agree that some of these are pushing it. Maybe sometime I'll be a little smarter and will be able to distribute it even better. For now, I'm glad it sounds like it worked out anyway, despite the high volume of it.

You also kept my attention during what seems to be flirtatious smalltalk, which is something hard to pull off without sounding like you're trying too hard to be relatable or witty. As a very bitter person, most things romance elicit a gag reflex from me, but this avoided that pretty much as well as is possible with me. These people seem real.
:quag: Great to hear! Yeah, I think most of my readers would say that romance is not their cup of tea! Bless you all for muddling through. May it comfort you to know that for most of what's here, they're either distrustful of each other or outright fighting. This is where most of the flirting is concentrated. It is still a love story, but there's not much to show for it, lol.

A detail that stuck out to me as quite neat was the encounter with the banette.
Thank you! I'm really rediscovering my love of the little fuckers. <3

I'll wrap this review up by mentioning that I think this chapter could have worked well as a one-shot, something you can rarely say about individual chapters. I'm not saying it should be, at all; I just felt like pointing it out and giving credit to how well this ties itself up in a package.
Ooh, that's lovely to hear! Some of these chapters are more cliffhanger-y than others, but it is nice when one wraps up in a neat little package. Endings are definitely an area I'm working on improving, so I'm glad to hear this one was solid.

Thanks again for making time for a thoughtful response when I know you've also got a lot of Real Life stuff going on. 🙏
 

kintsugi

golden scars
Pronouns
she/her
Partner
silvally-grass
most of my crit went through on the beta, so now I just get to talk about things I like and aggressively shitpost; back in my native element.

I really liked the atmosphere that gets set up here. I don't particularly know what the Joseph Steven Stone Jr. chapters are particularly building towards--tonally they feel like your writing of course, but thematically it's a lot different from the Mark/Natalie fair--but it's definitely interesting. Son of oil exec wakes up lava god to make more petroleum or something is about as logical as climate cult waking up lava god to make more land, so I mean,,, I'm sure nothing bad will happen and everyone will be fine! It's not like archaeology in fiction is usually framed as "these things were sleeping for a reason" and nature balancing on a razor's edge probably isn't a theme in Hoenn, especially your Hoenn.

anyway, writing that out made me realize I want this version of the coffeeshop AU, thanks, good fic, update more:

And poor Brendan here! Noticing a running trend of people doing dumb things to impress men who don't actually care about the real them; that's great, that's fine, everything is fine. Some good characterization on him and Harrison even if it stresses me out to look at lol. Love the details about him hiding behind the camera like a turtle. Some other fun details--the translation of the braille to constellations (since! really! the regis knowing braille raises so. many. questions), the progression through flygon traps, the fact that Brendan and co are silly and don't think of them as traps but instead think the people who built enormous, stable, underground cave networks with impenetrable, hyperintelligent locked doors would be idiotic enough to lock their doors with clay, really, what were you thinking here.

Steven's claydol, Mazda, floated patiently in the center of the room like a chandelier, beaming light from each of her golden eyes.
The skarmory held out one wing at an odd angle, ice crusting the green feathers—
this shiny-hunting motherfu--

The skeleton still wore wireframe glasses and a few strips of frayed cloth, but sand spilled from between the exposed ribs and grinning jaws. Brendan jolted, and Harrison clapped a steadying hand on his shoulder.
Learning a lot about glasses while writing this review actually! This stood out to me since I think wireframe glasses in particular would indicate fairly recent--we've had corrective glasses for roughly eight centuries but to get specifically wireframe involves a lot of advancements in metallurgy and I can't find a real date but it looks much closer--1600's maybe? So! The regis being sealed away is a relatively recent development? 👀

But Steven must've seen something else in him. Brendan had once watched him pick geodes from among the ordinary rocks, knowing which to leave and which would split neatly to reveal a glittering core. Steven was looking at him now like he could see what was written on his heart, and he smiled in anticipation of Brendan's answer. Whatever he saw, that was who Brendan wanted to be.
The ending lands much stronger here--good shit.
 

OldschoolJohto

Don’t underestimate seeds.
Pronouns
She/Her
Partner
solrock
@kintsugi Thanks for your help in the beta and for the good, good shitpostery.

back in my native element.
Indeed. It's super-effective.

I don't particularly know what the Joseph Steven Stone Jr. chapters are particularly building towards--tonally they feel like your writing of course, but thematically it's a lot different from the Mark/Natalie fair--but it's definitely interesting. Son of oil exec wakes up lava god to make more petroleum or something is about as logical as climate cult waking up lava god to make more land, so I mean,,, I'm sure nothing bad will happen and everyone will be fine!
Yeah, the deeper in I get, the more I'm like, "Oops, these pieces will take more work to fit together than I initially thought." But I'm positive!! They will!! Eventually!! I'm hoping it'll help once Steven starts smashing into Mark and Natalie with his lovely collection of silver spoons shinies pokemon he worked really hard for. But the idea so you can shitpost me onto the right track, maybe is that the shit Steven is stirring up will become a big enough problem that Mark and Natalie will have to set aside their differences and deal with this. My problem with Magma/Aqua has never been that they're radical and violent (though maybe blowing up a pipeline was not their best idea) but that they're too busy slapfighting to pay attention to their common enemy. This next arc should be about the three of them tripping on each other and getting in each other's way. Eventually. Hopefully. So many balls in the air whydididothistomyself.

Noticing a running trend of people doing dumb things to impress men who don't actually care about the real them; that's great, that's fine, everything is fine.
My brand, distilled to its truest form.

the translation of the braille to constellations (since! really! the regis knowing braille raises so. many. questions)
Credit for this idea goes to Wolflyn! I thought it made a lot of sense, given that Hoenn also has a strong stars and space theme. And a group of people that basically worship meteors.

Learning a lot about glasses while writing this review actually! This stood out to me since I think wireframe glasses in particular would indicate fairly recent--we've had corrective glasses for roughly eight centuries but to get specifically wireframe involves a lot of advancements in metallurgy and I can't find a real date but it looks much closer--1600's maybe? So! The regis being sealed away is a relatively recent development?
Yes! I was researching this one too, hahaha. The idea is that the tomb raiders were there relatively recently (though still not within the last hundred years) but the tomb itself is way, way older.
 

Flaze

Bug Catcher
Location
Chile
Pronouns
he/him
The plot thickens.

Truth be told I'm still wondering what the whole thing with the Regis is going to add up to cause I know you wouldn't be showing us this if there wasn't going to be anything of it. So I like that there's this little supernatural plot developing in the background of the bigger, more important socio-environmental-political plot we normally follow.

Brendan as a character was established effortlessly for me, in that I could understand where his characters was coming from and got a good idea of who he was even before the story dove deeper into it. Now that might just be me overthinking it but it speaks volumes of how you go about adding as much characterization in your dialogue as you can as well. The guy feels like he's aimless, not only is he the son of a renowned professor but he's also friends with the new champion and I wouldn't be surprised if he feels he's just unremarkable when compared to May, it's something I can relate to a lot as someone that's also been surrounded by amazing people. It makes you devalue your own self worth pretty fast.

This fact, clearly doesn't go over Steven's head. While I'm sure he doesn't mean any ill, it's obvious Steven realizes that Brendan has a little crush on him and it's something he's definitely using to keep Brendan as his eyes and ears of the operation. So he's taking advantage of the poor guy's feelings, what a classy act. Though that does make me wonder if that has anything to do with Brandon as well, the two of them seem like they value different things when it comes to archaeology, Steven does it for the thrill of discovery and the idea of actually doing something he loves even if it means risking his life, while Brandon plays it safer and probably wouldn't have trouble turning back on his own. Basically Steven is, or wants to be, Indiana Jones and Brandon is...an archaeologist.

On the subject of Indiana Jones. You really bring life to the ruins and the general tone of the chapter, despite the setting, was very much like that of an adventure novel with both humor and action that coupled with the description of the ruins made for a really immersive read.

Now, for some line reactions because those are always fun right?

The skeleton still wore wireframe glasses and a few strips of frayed cloth, but sand spilled from between the exposed ribs and grinning jaws.
Sound like he's seen better days.

Brendan shivered, but when Steven caught his gaze, he forced a smile.
Ah, you asked me before on discord when I noticed Brendan's crush, this was it. I'd force a smile for Steven too (?)

He paused to rap his knuckles on the metagross's foot
You either meant wrap here or Steven has another hobbie we're not being told about. Either works for me really.

Steven had stepped back into the tunnel to avoid coming nose-to-nose with Brendan.
Damn it Steven, you're not making it easy for the poor guy here, man.

he squinted and realized what was sticking out of the sand halfway between them and the doors: a skeletal hand.
"Sup"

but it was impossible for Brendan to keep from knocking into Steven as he worked, shoulder hitting thigh and knuckles striking knuckles.
Kinky (?) I mean in my head that seems like a very precarious and uncomfortable position ngl

"Just a little," said Brendan, cracking a smile. "Probably making Harrison's job harder, but at least you look good."

He froze, watching for Steven's reaction. What on earth had made him say that? In his head, it had sounded funny, maybe, but out loud ...

Steven flashed him a polite smile but did not meet Brendan's eyes. "Well, better not give him additional reasons to complain. All yours."
Ooooffff, back up, back up, you're gonna crash and burn there, dude.

Brendan glanced back at the narrow, sand-choked tunnel they'd entered from. "It won't be able to get out. It's trapped here."

Steven shrugged. "I didn't bring any extra pokeballs. Did you?"
Now this is the first time I did think Steven as being an asshole and I like it because his facade kind of peels off here. The best part is that neither he nor Brendan actually take notice of that, you know, that Steven is willing to leave a pokemon dying out of convenience.

I'm glad Brendan worried for it though. He's a cinnamon roll and deserves to be protected.

Whatever he saw, that was who Brendan wanted to be.
Oh no. Brendan, buddy, compadre, you're worth a lot more than that man.

Anyways, really good chapter. Can't wait to return to the regularly scheduled mayhem.
 

OldschoolJohto

Don’t underestimate seeds.
Pronouns
She/Her
Partner
solrock
Flaze! Thanks so much for your thoughts, you kind soul.

Truth be told I'm still wondering what the whole thing with the Regis is going to add up to cause I know you wouldn't be showing us this if there wasn't going to be anything of it. So I like that there's this little supernatural plot developing in the background of the bigger, more important socio-environmental-political plot we normally follow.
I really thought this chapter would blow the entire thing out of the water because I expected everyone else to make the same cognitive leap I did! Hopefully the next few chapters will start to pull these two lines together a bit better.

Brendan as a character was established effortlessly for me, in that I could understand where his characters was coming from and got a good idea of who he was even before the story dove deeper into it. Now that might just be me overthinking it but it speaks volumes of how you go about adding as much characterization in your dialogue as you can as well.
Ahahahaha excellent! That's the goal! I loved hearing your take on all three of them. It sounds like I hit the notes I was going for.

Sound like he's seen better days.
Welllllll he's lost a lot of weight, at least! 🙃

I'd force a smile for Steven too (?)
Hahaha, it would be hard not to! He's pretty! And he's nice!!

You either meant wrap here or Steven has another hobbie we're not being told about. Either works for me really.
I meant
Rap
verb
strike (a hard surface) with a series of rapid audible blows, especially in order to attract attention.
But a Steven Stone rap battle would be amazing. It might even exist somewhere on the wide, weird internet!

Steven is willing to leave a pokemon dying out of convenience.
To be fair, if he doesn't have a pokeball, what exactly is he going to do? It's not practical to cry about a situation he can't fix.

Anyways, really good chapter. Can't wait to return to the regularly scheduled mayhem.
I'll do my best to deliver! o7 Thanks again!
 

love

Memento mori
Pronouns
he/him/it
Chapter 10 review

In the preview window, the chamber looked like the surface of the moon, beautiful in its austerity. He wondered if this was how the first astronauts had felt.
I don't know if this is just me, but since the footprints were described as "dark" it kind of threw me off when they were compared to the surface of the moon, since the surface of the moon is bright. I felt like that was just, like, an unintended clash of ideas.
Otherwise, I think the first paragraph of description is pretty good.

From there, he saw no one in the main chamber, cast in the warm half-light of the tripod-mounted lamps.
This sentence seemed odd to me. As though "no one" were cast in the warm half-light, if you get what I mean.

the walls were irregularly shaped, a line that wavered and doubled back on itself as if drawn by a child's hand.
It was not totally clear to me what it means to say that the walls are doubling back on themselves. Are we talking about winding corridors?

As he passed under the carved archway in the center of the room, Brendan slowed and craned his neck.
I feel this might be one of those "cart before the horse" scenarios, since we are describing the action before the subject. It doesn't bother me all that much, but it may be worth pointing out.

Anyway, I thought the prose overall was pretty good! At present I find myself questioning why you chose to have this scene take place from a new character's perspective rather than Steven's (we already have a lot of perspectives going on...), but disregarding that, I think you did a really good job of hinting at Brendan's crush on Steven, until by the end it was more than obvious. For example:

Brendan didn't have to look back to feel the dark pressing behind him. Ahead, Steven stood upright and shining like a blade cleaving the shadows.
Also:

- The classic infectious smile from Steven
- Brendan's somewhat awkward compliment when taking the photograph
- The way he rushes to get the first aid kit without being asked

And there was some other stuff too, but you get the idea. I think you did a good job conveying his perspective. This includes his hesitance and anxiety in exploring and his desire to play things safe, from the way he reacts to the skeletons to the way he kind of dissuades Steven from proceeding at some points, and most obviously during the part where they turn their lights off. At the same time, I suspect that Brendan has a sort of kindness/empathy that the others don't; he reflects on how terrible it must have been for the ancient people to die, and when they K.O. the flygon, one of his first thoughts is if it's going to be okay, whereas Steven seems more or less indifferent.

Anyway, that's my analysis.

Also, it's gotta be rough being a pokemon. One minute you're in stasis, the next you're in the middle of a sandstorm and some guy is yelling at you to shoot ice beam at something you can't even see.
 

Pen

the cat is mightier than the pen
Staff
Partner
dratini
Brendan's POV feels very effective to me for the way it introduces ambivalence and tension into this cave exploration. If we were getting this from Steven's POV, there wouldn't be any real conflict until the very end, when he'd be sad he can't stay and keep poking at the ancient rock god. Whereas for Brendan, the expedition is fraught from start to finish. His impressionability allows us to get a sense that the crew is messing with something bigger than themselves, that won't end well. And the chapter arc is ultimately well grounded in Brendan's character arc--his choice to see it through, even though a part of him knows it's a bad idea.

I really enjoyed seeing Steven through Brendan's eyes. We know how petty and image-focused Steven is, but Brendan doesn't, and his uncomplicated awe and acceptance of Steven's veneer gives me a sense of double-vision as a reader--seeing what Brendan sees and what he doesn't see about Steven (particularly at the end, when Steven outright manipulates him.) The whole chapter has a bit of a theme of surfaces, failures to read. Brandon is able to translate well enough to get them through the doors, but he doesn't understand why the barriers were there in the first place. There's a lot of decisions being made here that don't really get made by understanding the core of things.

Steven's a little frightening in this chapter. Brendan's POV makes him feel larger-than-life, but we know his wisdom score is not as a high as his charisma score, and the gulf there is worrisome. The final scene where Steven tries bloodletting to wake the regi is jarring in a good way--the supernatural moments in this story are understated, but feel especially powerful since the rest of your prose is so determinedly focused on the mundane. It will be interesting to watch the supernatural elements grow more prominent (as I assume they must, as the ancient forces rise.) This chapter reminds me of A Song of Ice and Fire in a lot of ways--the potential cataclysmic supernatural threat that all the characters are going to be too busy waging politics against each other to confront.

Steven's claydol, Mazda
. . . oh no, is this another car nickname help

Steven turned and burst out, "Birch! There you are." He flashed Brendan a grin that he couldn't help returning. "Can you believe this? Secret tunnels! This place keeps getting better and better."

Even kneeling in thousands of years of dust, Steven looked like a clothing ad. He'd traded his usual suit and tie for more practical attire, but all of it was sharply creased, and the Stone family crest glinted green and silver at his breast pocket.
I'm not sure what in the words you chose does it, but Brendan's narration feels like it comes alive when Steven shows up. It's a nice shift.

But he recognized the kindness, and he also saw Steven's point; he'd worn the same pair of shoes from one end of Hoenn to the other, and it showed. The soles had begun to peel away from the canvas uppers.
OSJ CORE

But he'd loved those shoes and their mismatched laces, one red and one black, from when he and May had swapped. He'd tried threading the new boots with the old laces, but they'd looked even worse against the shiny, dark leather. The colors had become almost unrecognizable with sun bleaching and grass stains. In the end, they were just ratty old laces, and he wasn't so sentimental he couldn't throw them away.
This does a nice job setting up Brendan's choice at the end. He's already symbolically allowing Steven Stone to dictate who he is.

"Gods of gods? And then ... huh. A participle, best as I can tell."
This rings so true to when you're trying to parse a sentence in a foreign language.

But, bizarrely, not even Steven's pokemon could penetrate or shift the rock surrounding the door or the cliff.
I like this little hint of the supernatural, forces older and more powerful than Steven Stone and the best equipment pokemon money can buy. It feels somehow ominous precisely because you don't make a big deal of it.

By the dim light of the not-quite-risen sun, new glyphs shone bluish on the stone wheel, completing the circle.
Very LotR mood

"But he died in here." Looking around with fresh eyes, Brendan noticed for the first time a stone lectern against the wall. Scrapes in the sand marked where it had been recently dragged from the mouth of the tunnel.
Moria vibes
View: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0HPeNPOOamw


He paused to rap his knuckles on the metagross's foot. "One for luck." He winked, an eclipse of one blue eye before he dropped below, the beam of his headlamp jouncing with each step.
Steven being so extra.

"Birch." Harrison said it like a command, making Brendan stop short of taking the next step down. "Don't let him do anything stupid down there."

Right. As if anyone let Steven do things.
The exchange is really strong. I like the tweaks you made.

"The bottom is right here. Four more and you can jump down if you want."

He didn't.
I really enjoy all these subtle character moments where you can see how different Brendan is from Steven.

The tunnel entrance was a dim square that looked no bigger than a postage stamp.
Nice image.

"Birch, will you do me a favor?"

"Of course," Brendan said reflexively. Then, "What is it?"

"Would you turn off your headlamp for a moment?"

Brendan swallowed. "Sure."

The very moment after he switched off his light, Steven switched his off, too.

The darkness was complete. It was nothing like the nights he'd spent on the road with May. Even on the darkest nights, the stars and moon had shone overhead, and the air had been alive with sounds of lotad and zubat calls. In the tunnel, there was only dead air and dust. He couldn't even hear Steven's breathing.

Brendan stepped forward and reached for the wall, anything to keep him from drifting away into the endless black. He gripped his headlamp hard, not sure how much longer he could stand—

Steven whispered, "Amazing."

Brendan snapped his light back on. He had to cup a hand over it to protect his eyes from the sudden brightness.

"It's like the rest of the world doesn't exist! No emails down here." Steven laughed, his smile a white crescent. "Turns out the secret to inner peace was right under our feet all along. How long do you think it would take for them to hunt me down and find me here?"
This chapter really does double duty in both building up Brendan as a character but also continuing Steven's characterization from his first chapter.

When the flash went off, Steven startled away from the door. "Ah, I'm in the way, aren't I?"

"Just a little," said Brendan, cracking a smile. "Probably making Harrison's job harder, but at least you look good."

He froze, watching for Steven's reaction. What on earth had made him say that? In his head, it had sounded funny, maybe, but out loud ...

Steven flashed him a polite smile but did not meet Brendan's eyes. "Well, better not give him additional reasons to complain. All yours."

"Right. Gods forbid we make him grumpy," Brendan said, too earnest by half. He ducked behind the camera like a squirtle tucking into its shell.
This awkward exchange is so good.

It was smaller and paler than the ones he'd seen before, the antennae more pronounced.
This was a cool little detail!

"I'll release it when we get outside."

"Sure, good idea. Now could you please help me with this door? It's quite heavy."
Hah, Steven couldn't care less anything not related to his end goals.

The moment before he raised his hand, Mazda cried out in alarm.
I like how you integrate the psychic pokemon.

When Brendan opened his mouth, his protest not yet fully formed, Steven spoke in a softer voice. "Brendan. Why do you think I chose you? You're an explorer, like me."

It wasn't true. Brendan had been scared down in that tunnel. He would be alright not knowing the answers if it meant not going back there.

But Steven must've seen something else in him. Brendan had once watched him pick geodes from among the ordinary rocks, knowing which to leave and which would split neatly to reveal a glittering core. Steven was looking at him now like he could see what was written on his heart, and he smiled in anticipation of Brendan's answer. Whatever he saw, that was who Brendan wanted to be.
Welcome to the Good Decisions Club, Brendan.
 

OldschoolJohto

Don’t underestimate seeds.
Pronouns
She/Her
Partner
solrock
Review replies! Thank you so much, @Pen and @love! You're both such gems--real ones, not fool's gold. I was feeling off-kilter today, so these were a really nice treat after a long, weird morning. ❤

Thanks for catching those dangling modifiers! I'll make adjustments and patch soon.

I don't know if this is just me, but since the footprints were described as "dark" it kind of threw me off when they were compared to the surface of the moon, since the surface of the moon is bright.
Oh, that's an interesting point! I was thinking less about the brightness of the moon and more about the dark craters and the monochrome austerity. I can see how it's a confusing mixed metaphor though. I'll tinker with it.

It was not totally clear to me what it means to say that the walls are doubling back on themselves. Are we talking about winding corridors?
No, the walls themselves are wavy, like, endoplasmic reticulum-style. I'll try to find another way to convey this.

Anyway, I thought the prose overall was pretty good! At present I find myself questioning why you chose to have this scene take place from a new character's perspective rather than Steven's (we already have a lot of perspectives going on...)
I didn't think it would be as interesting to watch Steven strutting around smugly as it would be to watch his faithful helper doubt and fumble. I also felt like it would be useful to see an outside perspective on Steven. The reader is getting lots of signals that he's a selfish jerk, and I wanted to complicate that image a little.

I don't think this is the last new perspective character we'll get, but I do think we'll see both Brendan and Steven again.

Also, it's gotta be rough being a pokemon. One minute you're in stasis, the next you're in the middle of a sandstorm and some guy is yelling at you to shoot ice beam at something you can't even see.
I know. Justice for Walton, for real.

Thanks again for taking the time to read!

The whole chapter has a bit of a theme of surfaces, failures to read. Brandon is able to translate well enough to get them through the doors, but he doesn't understand why the barriers were there in the first place. There's a lot of decisions being made here that don't really get made by understanding the core of things.
Ooh, I hadn't thought of that! A great point. Really, most of the characters we've seen so far are struggling to get past the surface of things, Natalie in particular. Lots of snap judgments being made based on first impressions.

. . . oh no, is this another car nickname help
It's alllllllll cars and Indiana Jones jokes. (Sakara stones, Henry Walton, Indie, Harrison [Ford].)

Steven's a little frightening in this chapter.
🙌

The final scene where Steven tries bloodletting to wake the regi is jarring in a good way--the supernatural moments in this story are understated, but feel especially powerful since the rest of your prose is so determinedly focused on the mundane. It will be interesting to watch the supernatural elements grow more prominent (as I assume they must, as the ancient forces rise.)
Yeah, I wrote out a lot of lore backstory the other night, and the gulf between the eco-noir starting point and the Ancient Gods and Magic shit we're heading towards freaks me out a little. Glad to know it's landing here. Hopefully I can keep that balance rolling forward alright. If I just pad the magic with enough coffee and boots ...????

This chapter reminds me of A Song of Ice and Fire in a lot of ways--the potential cataclysmic supernatural threat that all the characters are going to be too busy waging politics against each other to confront.
I'm taking this as an enormous compliment. That's very much the goal! The ice zombie plot has always reminded me of climate change, so it's not completely an accident that some of that vibe is here. And certainly, Brendan Birch feels like he knows nothing.

I know. Truly, shamelessly. This was the first image that jumped to my mind re: Brendan, and that was when I knew I had to write some scenes for him. Fuck hair and eye color. All I want to know is what kind of footwear every character has and what they're drinking. The true galaxy brain moment will be when I inevitably have somebody go the full mile and drink coffee out of a boot. Brace yourself.

Thank you as always for the incredibly thoughtful analysis! AND for helping me clean this one up. I think it was funkier than some of the others, but I'm really satisfied with it now. ❤
 
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SparklingEspeon

Insquisitabilitating
Pronouns
She/Her
~Review of Chapters 1 - 10~

Hello! I’m here because Drowning has taught me that Team Magma/Aqua fics Can Be Cool… and also because BLECs, but 90% the first one.

I have to say, my first thought at the idea of a Team Magma acronym was "Marauders Actively Generating Mass Arson", but “Masked Group for Mass Action” is also interesting. ORCA definitely sounds cooler than Aqua IMO, but I feel that it's more tangentially related to Team Aqua than it is directly. Still interesting nonetheless, though.

My one biggest praise for this fic and my one biggest gripe are two sides of the same coin, so I'll cover them both in one go. First, the praise: I'm absolutely digging the more realistic interpretation of the pokemon world. As much as the canon games paint the pokemon world as some wacky, zany utopia where Nothing is Ever Wrong and Your Favorite Animal Friends are always there by your side, fics like this one show that you can absolutely mix the not-so-real pokemon with real world problems and limitations and still get a tonally consistent result. There are little snippets of how gyms and pokecenters work in a realistic way, the environmental issues plaguing the world, the cesspool of a company board that makes up DevCorp, etc. And of course, MGMA and ORCA seem exactly like the kind of extremist riot groups that are active today - something I imagine was likely on purpose. But that brings me to my biggest negative: MGMA and ORCA are great and all, but they're Team Magma and Aqua in namesake only - and technically not even that, if you want to get nitpicky. Assuming that this is going to follow the basic outline/climax of Pokemon Emerald, I legitimately do not see how these teams go from gang activity and riot-stamping to awakening rampant legendaries to wreak havoc on Hoenn, and it'll be a huge scope creep if not built up to slowly IMO. And if that's not what happens and this goes a completely different way, then cool, but I'll feel that it's strayed so far from the Team Magma/Aqua of the games that you might as well just slap a completely original team name on them and be done with it. It's nothing dealbreaking and I am definitely still interested and want to keep reading, but it's something that occasionally bugs me about this premise.

But the differences from the canon teams are certainly nothing to turn one's nose up at! I think it's really amazing how you've hyper-realized these two teams into something that could legit exist in real life, and I like your interpretation of many of the major members even if we've really only seen a few so far ;-; , and the silly names they have for each other ("Pirate", "Captain Ahab", "Corner Pizza",etc.). It's also interesting seeing the "gang" direction in which you've taken these teams. The Evil Teams always seem so elegant in the games, and granted, some of them are mostly elegant corporations or just bloody scary ones like a realistic Team Rocket would be, but I think it's particularly appropriate you made these two activist teams more like a street gang than anything. Aside from getting the overall feel of an IRL gang across, it gives off the idea that they're underdogs - and sure. They may be a bunch of armed, dangerous goons, but they are underdogs.

Tabitha is... interesting. As usual, I have trouble imagining him outside of his ORAS design, but the apparent genderswap helped a bit in that regard lol. He's a delight to read, though! Definitely one of your more vibrant characters. I do have to wonder, though - is he actually trans/nonbinary, or is it a fad of some kind? I'd assume the former, but Mark seems to have worked with him before and wasn't aware of this. And it may also be Mark's bias, but wow he's a right arse. I guess it comes with punkifying the team, but I would not want to work under him at all.

And yet, for all the realism, I feel like CD still has a fair few supernatural components to its plot. There's Zinnia, who is hella creepy and apparently has supersonic hearing powers, that whole thing with Steven Stone, Brendan Not-the-PC, and the regis, and the fact that it looks like Steven's crew may just have unknowingly gotten ahold of the mystical Red Orb. That inclines me to believe the story is definitely going to end on a legendary-scale battle, and considering how much things have changed... the journey there will be something for sure.

OML I love your pokemon names. “Delorean” is gold ...Or I guess platinum? IDK what metagross are made of, at the end of the day.

Also Mauville Electric should be Manetric Electric IMO missed opportunity there

The ending of Chapter Seven was a shocker – I did NOT expect Steven to look like that, lol. I am not very well-versed in politics so I have no clue which politician you're trying to emulate with his portrait (Trump... ?), but I think what gets me about the drawing more than anything else is that Steven looks much, much older than he should be. Generally, I headcanon Steven as younger side of his twenties? Still very much in his youth, and as many things have changed for CD, I don't think that is one of them. As drawn in that portrait, he looks late 30s, at least. Which makes sense, since most politicians who hold important positions are definitely on the older side of 30, but it still shocked me a bit.

I think it's a bit too early in for me to be spotting out a definitive theme with this fic, but I think I'm beginning to notice a recurring question - how extreme must your actions be before the people in charge take notice? And how long before the pros outweigh the cons? Do the means justify the ends? I think it's apparent in the riot going way overboard near the start, MGMA's attack on the DevCo pipeline, and the lengths to which MGMA and ORCA will go to to tear each others' throats out. There's also kind of a side theme of people in power not having the public's best interests in mind, like the police at the start and DevCo's anti-environment stance.

And then at the center of it all, there's Natalie, who at this point rightfully has no idea what to do. I mean, I'd be reeling too if one of my siblings went missing and I found out they were spearheading an eco-terrorist group, NGL. And it doesn't seem like Archie actually does much to help or interact with her even though they're siblings - he just lets her hang out on the Ultimatum like a glorified prisoner, I guess. But still. It seems like she's temporarily sided with ORCA, probably because her brother's at the helm of that side and she just saw MGMA commit a terrorist attack, but I'm wary of being that fast to take a side. It seems like ORCA's got some dirt they're hiding as well - they're classified criminal gangs for a reason, after all.

I feel like I don't have much to say on Natalie in general. She seems mostly like an author surrogate, with the sole layer of her missing brother to give her some depth pre-story. Her current thoughts and feelings at the time mostly reflected mine (note: mostly), and I feel like her moments of agency in the story are fleeting and in-between. She makes the choice to join the protest, and she makes the choice to go after Mark on the battlefield, but in between that she spends a lot of time getting dragged around and fought over between MGMA and ORCA, which. Again. You can't really blame her, because 90% of IRL people would probably be doing the same thing in that situation, probably less than she does. But it doesn't make for the most compelling character IMO. It feels like her arc is only beginning, and I hope that as the MC she gets a more active role in the plot going forward.

Oh, but I'd be remiss if I didn't cover Mark too. He's seemingly your other MC (Maybe one of three if you count Steven... ?), and honestly now that I think about it it's interesting how much he seems to be the other side of Natalie's coin. He's strongly convicted in favor of the environment, has that same sense of hopeful idealism that Natalie has, has a sibling that he hasn't seen in a while, etc. But in many ways, he's an opposite to her too. While Natalie is passive and hasn't really made choices unless she really has to, Mark is very active and motivated. He's the one out there, breaking up the riot, he's the one helping MGMA vie for DevCo's attention, etc. He also seems to possess more grounded views about what's going on, and an understanding of what it takes to be in these teams. While Natalie is sinking herself deeper and deeper into it without realizing what it's going to cost her, Mark is actively trying to push her out. And it looks like they'll be ending up on different sides of the conflict as well... I like this theme of opposites that's going on TBH. It very much is a divide, just like the name implies.

Overall, I feel that this is a very unique take on Pokemon Emerald! I definitely appreciate the different and more down-to-earth take on the pokemon world that you have here, as well as the more political aspects of it too, such as the riots and DevCo being a typical corporation. I sometimes feel that it's an emerald adaptation in name only, though, and so far I feel that we're only really about 25% in by the end of Chapter 10. But regardless, the worldbuilding and your interesting takes on all the characters from the base game have me curious and wanting to read more soon!

~SparklingEspeon
 
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OldschoolJohto

Don’t underestimate seeds.
Pronouns
She/Her
Partner
solrock
@SparklingEspeon - I have no idea how long you've been stealth reading over there, but it feels like you just barreled through 50k, and I'm really impressed. Thanks so much for reading and for taking the time to share your thoughts!

and also because BLECs,
I'm not at all gonna begrduge you some BLECs. Get it! It's mutually beneficial.

I have to say, my first thought at the idea of a Team Magma acronym was "Marauders Actively Generating Mass Arson", but “Masked Group for Mass Action” is also interesting. ORCA definitely sounds cooler than Aqua IMO, but I feel that it's more tangentially related to Team Aqua than it is directly. Still interesting nonetheless, though.
Hahaha, that's another interesting idea! I don't think Magma's main schtick here is arson though--certainly no more than ORCA, who also has a history of setting things on fire. Even if it were, they would tell themselves it was about their higher purpose, and their name would reflect that.

Assuming that this is going to follow the basic outline/climax of Pokemon Emerald, I legitimately do not see how these teams go from gang activity and riot-stamping to awakening rampant legendaries to wreak havoc on Hoenn, and it'll be a huge scope creep if not built up to slowly IMO. And if that's not what happens and this goes a completely different way, then cool, but I'll feel that it's strayed so far from the Team Magma/Aqua of the games that you might as well just slap a completely original team name on them and be done with it.
I sometimes feel that it's an emerald adaptation in name only, though,
I'm really not using Emerald as my playbook. It's an original story set in Hoenn, not an adaptation. Certainly, I've taken inspiration from RSE and from ORAS--there will be a few more beats that are reminiscent of the games--but Divides is its own thing. What I'm here to do is to tell a story about a divided U.S. Hoenn dealing with (and failing to deal with) the threat of climate change. I really like the imagery of Magma, Aqua, Kyogre, and Groudon to tell that story, but it's going to remain an AU driven by original characters and concepts. That said, you're right that we're on a slow slide into more magical territory. I think you're right that ramping up slowly is the way to go! I'm not sure how far into the story I really am--it could easily take me more than my estimated word count--so there's lots of room to figure out how these things will play out.

OML I love your pokemon names
Hahaha, thank you! I have a lot of fun with them. I like using names as a way to say something about their trainers, like a leitmotif.

The Evil Teams always seem so elegant in the games,
LOL it's fascinating how the same canon can inspire so many different takes!

I do have to wonder, though - is he actually trans/nonbinary, or is it a fad of some kind?
Pronouns change! That doesn't mean it's a fad or less real. For some folks, it takes a while to land on the right thing because it can be hard to know what's right until you sit in it for a while. Some folks' pronouns fluctuate from day to day or moment to moment, and that's just part of who they are. For Divides!Tabitha, he's definitely a man. He was just in a more transitional period last time Mark saw him. They're obviously not very close, so Mark wasn't up to date. I just wanted a justification for why this male character had a feminine name, and that struck me as a good explanation.

And it may also be Mark's bias, but wow he's a right arse. I guess it comes with punkifying the team, but I would not want to work under him at all.
Since we're seeing him through Mark's eyes, "takes one to know one" definitely applies. I don't think I'd want to work with him either though! Hahaha.

I did NOT expect Steven to look like that, lol. I am not very well-versed in politics so I have no clue which politician you're trying to emulate with his portrait (Trump... ?), but I think what gets me about the drawing more than anything else is that Steven looks much, much older than he should be. Generally, I headcanon Steven as younger side of his twenties? Still very much in his youth, and as many things have changed for CD, I don't think that is one of them. As drawn in that portrait, he looks late 30s, at least.
Well, and like I said the notes for that chapter, I don't really picture him the way I decided to draw him. Divides!Steven doesn't strike me as super mature. I think he's in his early to mid twenties, and I think he's a pretty man. I just thought it would be fun to draw him as Don Jr. because I see a parallel in how they relate to their fathers' business shit. Daddy issues all the way down.

I think it's a bit too early in for me to be spotting out a definitive theme with this fic, but I think I'm beginning to notice a recurring question - how extreme must your actions be before the people in charge take notice? And how long before the pros outweigh the cons? Do the means justify the ends? I think it's apparent in the riot going way overboard near the start, MGMA's attack on the DevCo pipeline, and the lengths to which MGMA and ORCA will go to to tear each others' throats out. There's also kind of a side theme of people in power not having the public's best interests in mind, like the police at the start and DevCo's anti-environment stance.
I think you're spot on! Those are definitely themes I'm thinking about for this world and these characters.

It feels like her arc is only beginning, and I hope that as the MC she gets a more active role in the plot going forward.
It's true that she doesn't have a ton of agency at the outset of this story. She almost immediately gets in very, very over her head and gets swept up in it all. As the reader proxy, there's a lot she doesn't know about what's happening, and that makes it hard to make coherent decisions. For now, I expect her to start making some bigger moves soon. Maybe sometime I'll be smarter and I'll find ways to rework the beginning to give her more opportunities to make choices, but for now it kinda is what it is. (Though I'm open to hearing suggestions!)

it's interesting how much he seems to be the other side of Natalie's coin.
Who would ever do that? ;) Yes, you're exactly right! They're got a lot in common. Too bad they're not seeing eye to eye right now. I also think that Mark is maybe not as in control of his role, his actions, and his choices as he might like to believe. Certainly, he's not completely at ease with everything he's been involved in.

I'm glad it sounds like you've been enjoying it so far overall! I really appreciate hearing how characters are coming off for you and what your predictions are for the future of the story. It'll be interesting to see what you make of what comes next! Again, thanks so much for taking the time to write such a long, in-depth response.
 

TheGOAT

Banana Bomb
Location
Houston, Texas
Pronouns
Him/his
Chapter 1: The Dive

The street behind Natalie remained empty no matter how many times she looked over her shoulder, but the hairs on the back of her neck prickled all the same. Still there. Somewhere.

She had first noticed him—her?—among the crowd in the park, a skinny, hooded figure in all black. If she—they?—had worn a knowing smile and followed Natalie with their eyes … well, it was a park battle. Spectators came to study the competition. The opposing sandslash had given Natalie plenty else to think about. After, the stranger in black had dispersed along with the crowd, and Natalie had forgotten them as she stepped forward to collect her winnings.

Later, leaving the bodega with supplies for a quick meal, she'd thought she'd spotted them again under a bus awning across the street. But it could've easily been some other stranger in a hoodie, so when a bus cut them off from view, Natalie shrugged it off. She started back for the hostel, planning her dinner and also, of course, thinking about her brother—until she caught sight of the reflection sliding across the display window to her left. That hooded face hung behind her, a smoky blur hovering at their shoulder. When she turned, the figure had already vanished, even though there was nowhere for them to vanish to.

If someone was following her, Natalie knew better than to lead them back to her hostel. The trainer's ed "city safety" modules had suggested going to the police or alerting someone on the street of the situation, but there wasn't a soul in sight and her Gear watch felt like an unsafe distraction. Maybe it would have been smarter to have holed up in a cafe somewhere and waited them out, but it was too late for that now. The souvenir shops and food stalls of the tourist strip had given way to looming apartment buildings converted from the shells of warehouses and factories. Long twilight shadows were creeping in, but Natalie kept her head high and kept walking.

I've got my pokemon with me.

She'd said that to Dad the last time they talked on the phone. It was meant as a reassurance but, as always, she couldn't hide the exasperation from her voice.

Dad had gotten more paranoid than ever about "the urban crimewave" as Natalie approached journeying age. He'd fought her leaving until Mom came down on her side, and even after five months on the road Natalie still woke up most mornings to find a new article about violent crime in her inbox. This morning it had been something about MGMA—Magma, the Masked Group for Mass Action—along with his usual terse reminder to be careful.

Natalie touched the pokeballs at her belt—three plus a newly-caught whismur who'd be worse than no help in a fight. But between the others, she'd be fine, probably. She didn't have anything to compare this to—she'd never had a battle before without a referee or witnesses. Natalie was glad she'd only used Samson back in the park. Her tail wouldn't know her other pokemon, so at least she'd still have the element of surprise in her favor. That was worth something … right?

The problem was … whoever was following her definitely had pokemon of their own. She hoped they didn't have more than three. Or other friends waiting and watching.

No, don't think about that. If she gave in to fear, she wouldn't have a chance.

What did they want from her anyway? Money, she guessed. Not that her casual running shorts and stained backpack screamed money. Maybe it was enough to be short and freckly. Maybe they'd decided she was an easy target.

At that thought, anger burned her fear away and stopped her in her tracks. So, what, was she supposed to just wait for them to ambush her? No way. She'd proven it before and she would prove it again: she could fight back.

Turning sharply on her heel, Natalie threw down Luna's pokeball and called out, "If you want something, come get it!"

A moment later, she felt her mightyena wind past her legs. They stood together in the middle of the empty street, Luna swiveling her ears as she settled into a watchful crouch and Natalie fumbling to unclip the mace keychain her father had insisted she carry. She steadied herself. But the surrounding shadows revealed nothing, and there were no sounds but faraway cars.

Maybe she'd shown her hand too early. Or maybe she'd let her imagination run away with her.

Then Luna bared her teeth and growled. Faster than Natalie could follow with her eyes, Luna spun and snapped her teeth at nothing—and the nothing screamed, high-pitched and human-sounding.

The stranger flashed into view on the other side of the street, cursing, their partly-hidden face like a half-moon in the darkness. But Luna turned away, swiping at an invisible pokemon. Shadows licked around the mightyena like flames, patches of blacker darkness against the deepening twilight.

Natalie's voice caught in her throat—how could she help when she couldn't see what Luna was fighting? The sandslash in the park had at least left furrows when it went underground. There was no way to tell where this thing was going to appear. To Natalie's surprise, the stranger in black made no move either. Maybe they were also new at this.

Snarling, Luna whirled and bit again, this time catching a mouthful of shadow. The shriek that followed this time was distinctly inhuman. Luna furiously shook her head, and for a second Natalie glimpsed the thing caught in her jaws: doll-like with floppy arms and a gleaming crescent of teeth.

Then the thing slipped from Luna's grasp and melted into the darkness again. As Luna whipped her head from side to side, searching, a cold wind swept down the street. Then the stranger winked out of sight.

Natalie waited, her mace keychain in a white-knuckled grip, but the shadows didn't stir again. When Luna sat back down on the pavement, Natalie knew they were finally alone.

"You okay, Luna?"

The mightyena gave a hesitant wag of her tail as Natalie approached. When Luna raised her head to be pet, a scrap of something dark still hung from her mouth.

"What do you have? Drop it." Natalie tugged it from Luna's mouth, noticing only then that her hands were shaking. It was a piece of fabric, rough, scratchy and—

"Ow! What the hell?" She tilted the fabric scrap to catch the gleam of a straight pin under the streetlight. As she held it under the light, the pin began to smoke and dissolve until there was nothing to show it had ever been there but the dot of blood welling from Natalie's finger.

A banette. That explained the disappearing act but gave little comfort—they were nasty, living bundles of junk fabric held together by needles and malice. Natalie struggled to imagine what kind of person would want to raise one. She hoped the pinprick wouldn't get infected. Sucking her fingertip, she rolled up the fabric scrap—carefully, in case there were more pins—and tucked it into a backpack pocket.

Then she knelt to Luna and pulled her close, digging her fingers into her fur. "Good girl." Sweet, smart Luna, who had eaten a pair of her sneakers in middle school but who always knew when something was wrong. Lightheaded, Natalie held on tight and listened to her thundering heartbeat, trying to slow her breathing. She only let go when Luna started whining and licking her face. Natalie had to push her off, laughing despite her still-jittering hands.

You're okay. Of course she was. Bullies didn't know what to do when someone hit back, and Natalie had given them a reason to pause before they tried that again. Walk it off.

"Let's get out of here, Luna."



Retracing her steps should've been easy enough, but none of the landmarks looked familiar in the dark. Had she crossed Pine Street, or had it been Spruce? The streets in this part of Rustboro curved and didn't let out where she expected, not like the neat grid downtown where her hostel was. Luna trotted cheerily at her side, but Natalie couldn't stop glancing over her shoulder anyway.

When she finally happened across a bar, light and voices spilling from the open door, Natalie's heart swelled with relief. She wasn't in the mood for a drink, but she relished the thought of a place full of people where she could sit with the Nav app and figure out a route home. A neon sign proclaimed the bar On the Rocks. The sandwich board outside listed daily specials and a request to keep pokemon in their balls, so Natalie gave Luna another scratch behind the ears before recalling her and heading inside.

The walls were cluttered with a mix of local sports team banners, vintage liquor posters, and weirdly nautical decor. Among other oddities, Natalie spotted a ship in a bottle and a mermaid figurehead wrapped in string lights. The patrons gathered at the tables were locals—mostly dock-hands, day laborers, and union folks, not trainers. On the Rocks probably wasn't in the guidebook, a world apart from the flashy cocktail bars and clubs downtown, but Natalie liked this better. She wondered if her brother had ever come here, whether anyone knew him.

There was a lot she didn't know about her brother's life. Much of what she did know she'd gleaned from reading between the lines of the emails he'd written to Dad—she'd still been "the kid" when he was writing, as in, Say hi to the kid for me. On visits home, he'd humored her, taking her out on the bay for a pokemon ride or schooling her at checkers, but they hadn't talked about anything real. Was campaign work what he'd wanted or just something he'd fallen into? What did he remember about his mom? Did it matter to him that she was only his half-sister? Had he ever been in love? She'd imagined dozens of conversations ... but his imagined answers were flavorless and unsatisfying.

Mostly she remembered watching him train. Bubba didn't invite her along but he also didn't stop her from following him to the scrap yard. Sometimes he squared off with other trainers and made her sit at a distance. She watched from the sagging seat of a truck missing the hood and all four wheels. Other times he set up targets from the old steel drums and set his pokemon on them. Bubba trained a mightyena, too. Where Luna was clumsy and eager to please, Justice was still half-wild, missing part of one ear and prone to snapping when startled. Justice could vanish out from under a falling piece of scrap, reappear on the other side, and bite it in two all before it hit the ground. Natalie could tell they liked her cheering for them even though they both acted like the whole thing was no big deal.

One trip home, he'd brought back a poochyena. Hers. Officially, legally, Luna has been just a pet until Natalie turned eighteen. But that hadn't stopped him from teaching Natalie how to train: when to give treats, how to establish authority. "She sees you as her pack. You've gotta give her a reason to listen to you."

The loud scrape of a barstool jolted Natalie out of her reverie. Right. A quick rest to figure out where she was going, avoid any more strangers in black, and then back to the hostel to finally get something in her stomach.

As Natalie scanned for a place to sit, preferably a booth or a table where she could set down her pack and still see the door … she noticed with a jolt that someone sitting alone at the bar had turned his head to watch her. He was too tall and broad to be the stranger who'd followed her, but she wasn't imagining his staring. When she caught his gaze, he smiled crookedly, an unmistakable challenge.

Belatedly, she realized she knew him, sort of. She'd only ever seen him wearing a white button-down—it hadn't occurred to her until now that it must be part of the uniform—and he was almost unrecognizable now under dim light and wearing a flannel open over a t-shirt. But he was definitely the trainer from the gym, the serious one.

She'd never seen a gym trainer battle like him before, like it was personal. And then, sudden as a skidding car, he would recall his pokemon, sometimes even if it looked like he was going to win, and wave the challenging trainer ahead. Natalie had heard that the gym leader herself was known to occasionally award badges to trainers who had actually lost to her, if they impressed her, but this was something else. He seemed bored, boiling under the surface.

They had never spoken—Natalie had only watched his battles from the sidelines—but there was no doubt that he recognized her, too. His smile made her wonder again whether the stranger in black had more friends watching her. But a gym trainer? Maybe not. Then again, what were the odds of running into him here after what had just happened?

Natalie took out the scrap of fabric and squeezed it tight as she strode towards the gym trainer. She tested the words in her mind: Recognize this? Or maybe, Care to explain?

But he spoke first, his tone lazy and almost playful. "So, you following me now? I can offer advice about Roxanne if you want it that bad, but I don't think it's worth that much effort, to be honest."

She ground to a halt. He thought she—?

He leaned back against the bar. "Or you looking for a fight? Doesn't count for anything if it's not inside the gym, you know."

"No, I …." He was as surprised to see her as she'd been to see him. Of course. What had she been thinking? Natalie laughed in relief, feeling her face color. Dad's articles had gotten to her. "I just got a little turned around on my way home."

The gym trainer raised an eyebrow. "Big detour."

"It's been a long day …. Almost got mugged, actually."

She must've looked as tired as she felt because the gym trainer's face softened. "Oh. That sucks."

"It wasn't actually a big deal." Even as she said it, she started to feel calmer. Under the string lights and surrounded by chatter, the incident already felt far away, easy to explain. Now it made for a good story—after all, nothing bad had come of it. Raising her chin, she added, "Scared them more than they scared me, I think."

"I bet."

He smirked again, and this time Natalie saw it with fresh eyes. She wanted to laugh again. He was flirting with her, and she'd taken it as a threat. What was wrong with her? Maybe she could use a drink after all. Some normalcy.

"Mind if I sit?"

"Go ahead." He flipped shut the book that lay on the bar next to him.

Natalie snorted. "You were reading in a bar?"

"Yeah." He shot her a look that added, duh.

When Natalie moved to set down her backpack, she realized she was still clutching the weird fabric scrap. She shoved it back down into a pocket, stealing one last glance at the door.

"No one's gonna fuck with you in here. You're okay," he said, not unkindly.

She shook her head. "I know. I was just thinking my dad would kill me if I became another headline." When she hopped onto the stool, she discovered to her annoyance that her feet didn't touch.

"Area girl fatally murdered by crime. Details at eleven."

"Right." She grinned. "I'm Natalie, by the way."

"Mark. Cheers, Natalie." He raised his glass.

She glanced at the chalkboard menu and her eyes immediately glazed over—too many options and none of them familiar.

"You probably want a Red River," Mark said after a few moments. "Cheapest thing that's still drinkable."

"Alright. Thanks." He was right—cheap was what she was after. She considered food, but balked at the price listed for a sandwich. She'd drink slowly then, and when she got back to the hostel she'd make her own sandwich. Natalie flagged down the bartender and then said to Mark, "Must be nice getting paid a salary to battle."

"Don't be too jealous. I'm hourly."

He took a long swig of his beer. Natalie cut a sideways glance at him, watching how his Adam's apple bobbed when he drank. She'd never planned to talk to him, and it was strange to be sitting so close after a week of observing his battles. He was different from what she'd thought. Even his accent was unexpectedly Unovan—she hadn't picked up on that before.

Gods, no wonder he'd assumed she was following him—she had spent the better part of a week looking at him. Not that he seemed to mind it now.

Did she want this to go further?

Her drink came and she was grateful for something to do with her hands. She took a long drink, taking a moment to imagine how the rest of the evening might play out. It hadn't been a bad night, actually. She'd won her battle in the park and earned some cash. Then she'd fought off an attacker—an invisible one, at that. And now … she was enjoying herself, actually. If nothing else, she decided, it could only enrich the story of her night.

Natalie took another drink and then turned toward Mark with a question already springing from her lips. "Do you even like working at the gym? The way you were battling …." She caught herself, wondering if she was crossing a line.

But Mark shrugged. "I won't be there forever, and until then … I've got responsibilities, and it's decent money."

The thought that training could become another job to weather through was a sobering one. Her friends back home had gone to school for teaching or business, and Natalie had thought of journeying as an escape from all that. But, if she were being perfectly honest with herself … she knew she didn't have any special talent or love for battles. Despite having two pokemon with a type advantage, she still hadn't even made a move for her Stone Badge yet. She didn't want to think too hard about what she'd do when she decided she'd had enough of this lifestyle.

As if reading her mind, Mark added, "I'd rather be around real people. Spend too much time with trainers and you lose perspective."

She grinned again. "What, and trainers aren't real people? I don't know if you noticed, but you've got a belt too." He carried six pokeballs to her four.

Mark snorted. "There are all kinds of trainers. I see plenty of them every day, and almost none of them can see two inches past their own ambition. They have no clue about anything else going on. Just badges and bullshit."

Natalie gave out a laugh of surprise, almost choking on her beer.

He watched her reaction with cool amusement. "You're clearly not in a hurry to get your badge. Most people are in and out in a day or two, you know."

"Sick of me already?"

Mark smiled but didn't rise to the bait. "So what are you doing in Rustboro?"

"Good question," she said with another laugh, shaking her head. She ran a finger over the bar, gathering crumbs as she gathered her thoughts. It wouldn't be a lie to say that she was training and rounding out her team ... but she didn't want to hide behind excuses. She wanted to talk to someone about it, and it certainly wouldn't be her parents.

At last Natalie said, "I've been thinking about my brother a lot since I left home. Like, I'm probably walking all the same places as him. Especially here in Rustboro. He was a trainer too, for a while, but he quit, I guess. Ended up here working on an election campaign. And then ... he disappeared."

"Well, fuck."

She added quickly, "I mean, it was ten years ago—I didn't even know him that well. But …." Natalie raised her hands helplessly. "I dunno. It's just this weird part of my life."

Mark nodded slowly. "So you're trying to find out what happened to him?"

"Maybe? Not necessarily. I mean, what am I really gonna dig up that the police couldn't? Probably nothing." She cut herself short. "Gods, that's depressing. Sorry."

"Don't be. I asked."

She flashed him a grateful smile. "I guess I feel closer to him when I'm here. I don't want to forget him, you know? He was such a good person—better than me, anyway."

"What makes you say that?"

"Oh, I dunno." Words failing her, Natalie turned to her drink. When she looked up again, Mark still had her fixed in a stare she couldn't quite read. But she appreciated that he was listening so intently. She said, "He was always doing something big. Like with Devon Horizon. Did you hear about that?"

Mark smiled humorlessly. "I can guess. Pipeline failed?"

"No, but you're close," she said, surprised. "An oil tanker. It crashed into the reef off the coast of Slateport and … I was pretty little, but I remember it was bad. They had to close the beach for a long time. Bubba—my brother, I mean—he came home to help with the cleanup, and he even convinced Mom to let him foster a pair of pelippers in the guest bathroom."

She still remembered the pelippers' reptilian yellow eyes. Her parents hadn't let her near them, and for good reason: they were raggedy with stress, but each still had a wingspan more than twice the length of her little child body and the strength to break her neck with one wing swipe. But just once, after making her swear up and down that she wouldn't tell her parents, Bubba had let her pet the sleek feathers at the crown of the female's head. He'd kept a firm grip on Natalie, ready to snatch her back if needed.

When he finally released them back into the wild, Natalie had cried.

"Aw, don't worry, Small Fry," he'd said. "You can catch your own someday."

That had been about ten years ago, too. They didn't know when exactly Bubba had disappeared—he'd been busy, after all, and had sometimes gone weeks without calling or emailing—but it had certainly been the last time Natalie had seen him.

Mark's voice broke Natalie from her thoughts. "Not a lot of people are willing to look closely at the fucked up parts of the world and try to do something about it."

"No," Natalie said, "definitely not."

She winced, thinking of a line from one of Bubba's emails that had hurt to read: I never thought the man who taught me to shoulder my responsibilities with pride would be so fast to abandon his own. It wasn't a secret that he and their dad had fought—the Armstrong family showed both love and anger with loud voices—but she hadn't realized it was like that. She couldn't exactly ask Dad about it without reopening old wounds … and explaining why she'd dug around in his emails in the first place.

Mark raised his glass and said, "Well, here's to your brother, then."

She took a deep breath and smiled. "Thanks." They clinked glasses, and she drank deep.

Talking about Bubba felt good, Natalie thought, and Mark was easy to talk to. It had been so long since she'd had a conversation that went beyond battles and travel stories. She opened her mouth to ask Mark about his family—

"And what about you?" he asked.

"What do you mean? I just told you my entire family history."

"That was your brother. What about you? What do you care about?"

"A lot of things but …." The room suddenly seemed louder and smaller than it had before. She was reminded uncomfortably of Mom asking, But what's next? "I'm trying to figure it out, I guess. I'm not really political like he was."

Mark was quiet for a moment. Then, pointing with his eyes, he said, "You see that woman sitting over there?"

It was obvious who he meant. She had long, long hair and spoke heatedly with a small group sitting in the corner, too far away to be heard. A breloom perched atop a stool next to her and dipped its muzzle into its own beer mug, lifting its head every so often to lick away the foam.

"I thought pokemon weren't allowed in here."

"They are for her. If she leaves, then all her friends stop coming too, and the owner doesn't want to lose all that business. Erica Spitfire is a hippie, but people around here listen to her." Then, catching the look on Natalie's face, he added, "Yeah, I know, but that's her real name.

"She's got an interesting story: A couple years back, she was close to taking the title and a big cash prize." He paused for effect, spreading his hands wide and then turning it into a shrug. "But she came back instead. She decided she was a better organizer than a trainer, and now she's one of the last things standing between DevCo and their pipeline."

Not understanding, Natalie nodded anyway.

"The point is, you don't have to be a politician to do something. You just have to give a shit."

"I guess so."

He smiled, leaning forward, and there was hunger in it. "I think you could make a difference in the world," he insisted. "If you really wanted to."

A nervous laugh burst out of her. "Maybe!"

Before she could think of something clever to say, Mark's phone buzzed. "Hang on." He squinted at the screen and then he growled, "Shit. Shit. I have to go—right now." He jumped up, slinging a messenger bag over his shoulder and tossing in his book.

"Everything okay? Emergency at the gym?" she teased. Her heart sank, just a little.

"Something like that." He set his jaw and smiled grimly. Then he turned and gave her a real smile. "We'll have to finish this conversation later though."

"I wouldn't hate that."

"Great. You know where to find me." He started for the door, calling over his shoulder, "Get home safe." Without looking back, he slipped between the tables, out the door, and into the night.

Natalie let out a long breath and leaned back against the bar. What a weird day. She reached for her beer. Then she thought about the long, dark walk that awaited her, and she abandoned it on the counter half-full.



She made it back to the hostel without incident, and in the shared kitchen space, she finally made her grilled cheese. Then a second one. A pair of trainers fussed with a saucepan over the burner next to hers, gabbing about how they'd fared at the gym. Natalie licked grease from her fingers and fought the urge to laugh, thinking badges and bullshit. She considered chiming in with her own story, flashing the scrap of banette cloth to see their stunned faces, but it wasn't worth the questions that would arise. Natalie was tired and didn't have to prove herself to them—they'd be on to the next town by morning.

But what are you doing here in Rustboro, Natalie? Still a good question. Who was left to prove herself to? Bubba was gone—and had been for years before she arrived. She imagined herself rusting in place here like the abandoned factories she'd seen on the edges of town, and then she pushed the thought away. Rustboro already had Bubba, and it wouldn't have her, too.

Tomorrow, she decided, she'd claim her badge and be done with it. And then … well, she didn't have to decide what she wanted to contribute to the world all at once. For now, she could handle dishes and then sleep. Tomorrow she could figure out making the world a better place.


Chapter 1 Review

— Hey! Saw someone had posted about this in Official Actions and decided to give it a try.

— Holy tension. It’s like boom boom boom, no time to sit down and learn about the main character because it’s a gradually increasing sprint from the get-go. And yet, that buildup does more than enough to establish where things stand, and without leaning on exposition too heavily. Subtle mentions of Natalie’s brother and MGMA and so on do plenty to set the stage without bogging down the story initially. Hell of a hook. I’m absolutely going to keep reading.

— “What do you have? Drop it.” This got a laugh out of me. This is exactly how I talk to my dogs irl haha.

— I’m impressed with the detail behind Pokémon and their origins/anatomy/makeup here. Describing Banette the way you did makes it seem much less harmless than it otherwise would.
 

TheGOAT

Banana Bomb
Location
Houston, Texas
Pronouns
Him/his
Chapter 2: Testing Grounds

The locker room muffled the bellowing and crashing of sparring pokemon, but Mark's head throbbed with each vibration through the floor. It's gonna be a long day. The door opened as he was tossing down a couple of Ibuprofen.

"There you are," said Hilary. She swept past him to her locker, dabbing sweat from her face with a floral handkerchief. "Aisha is all set to take over as soon as Casey's fight ends—like, any second now, from the looks of it. So, you're okay for a minute, but buckle up because there are a lot of kids lined up today. Whew."

He grimaced. "Good to know. And thanks again for switching with me at the last minute."

"Sure thing. Means I'll have time to actually do something with my hair before this dumb date." Hilary paused long enough to get a good look at him and then did a double-take. "Jeez, what happened to you?"

Civic engagement. Mark smiled crookedly, which made him wince in pain.

Instead, he took a slow breath and then told her the story he'd prepared. "I went for a bike ride after work yesterday and somebody doored me."

"That's so crazy! Sorry, dude."

"It's not so bad. Could've been worse."

"How's your bike?"

He paused for a fraction of a second. "Scraped up, but it'll still get the job done."

"Wow. I'm glad you're okay though." Hilary leaned against the lockers. "I didn't even know you biked."

"Oh yeah. It's a great workout."

"That part's good."

Mark stood, fussing with his collar while he watched Hilary from the corner of his eye. "By the way ... Did you decide if you're coming to that meeting?"

"Oh." Hilary looked down, twisting and untwisting her handkerchief. "Look, I get why you're disappointed with Roxanne. And I know you're not the only one either. But she's still a good person. Like, think about all the time and effort she's put into our schools alone."

He waited.

She took a deep breath and blurted, "What I'm trying to say is you're entitled to your opinion, but I don't want to get involved. I really, really like this job, you know?"

He couldn't help himself. "You're not gonna lose your job for attending a meeting."

"No, I know. It's just, you know. Not my kind of thing."

Mark hadn't expected a lot from her, but he'd hoped a self-professed nature-lover would at least be interested in becoming more informed about what her employer was allowing to happen at Meteor Falls. He set his jaw, considering his words carefully. "I don't think Roxanne is a bad person. I just don't agree with everything she does. But I'm still part of the team. I won't bring it up again."

"Thanks," Hilary said with obvious relief. "And thanks anyway for including me."

"Yeah, sure." He put on a smile, though his heart was bitter, and then turned for the door to the gym.

"Oh, hey! I just thought of something else. A trainer came by asking for you this morning."

He stopped with his hand on the doorknob, puzzled. Then he remembered: the girl from the bar. Natalie. "Red hair?"

"Yup." She smiled knowingly. "Friend of yours?"

"Maybe." He grinned. "I guess I'll find out." With that, he stepped through the door.

Casey and his opponent had finished, and the gym had quieted somewhat. But on the main stage, Roxanne and her probopass faced off against a kid with a grovyle, each command and roar amplified by the big screens on either side. Mark was glad—it meant he didn't have to explain his alleged bike accident again.

He continued to the steps that led down into the sandbox, the smaller arena that was set into the floor. The next trainer already waited at the top of the challengers' stairs, shifting her weight from one foot to the other. Mark exchanged glances with Aisha, the other second-shift gym trainer.

"I raked the gravel when I got in," she said. "You take this one."

So down he went.

The challenger sent out a lotad, who squinted in the sudden light, and Mark had to fight the urge to roll his eyes. He could tell by the way it moved that the lotad would be no match for any of his pokemon ... but his job was to filter out incompetent trainers, not to figure out who was actually skilled. His ratio of wins to losses had been too high this month, according to Roxanne. Higher than hers. So if a challenger demonstrated any kind of basic knowledge … he'd let them continue on and become her problem.

After letting the lotad struggle against his solrock for what felt like a reasonable amount of time, Mark threw the match and took Aisha's place on the sidelines, which was even more boring. In theory, he was supervising the match to ensure fair play. In reality, it required little from him but to announce the rules and then wait for the fight to end. Today, at least, he had plenty to think about.

Then he switched places with Aisha to do it again. And again.

Mark was leaning against the stanchions after another calculated loss when Natalie strode through the automated doors. She nodded to him, and he smiled back. His smile became a wicked grin when, rather than taking her usual place against the wall, she pulled a number from the dispenser and took a seat on the bench.

During his next battle, the cut above Mark's eyebrow opened again, stinging from the sweat and dust. He felt grit in his teeth as he inevitably did after spending any amount of time in the gym. But he suddenly didn't mind so much.

He ended the fight and then waited for the challenging trainer to finish high-fiving his machop before waving him ahead to Roxanne. Then, as Mark craned his neck to see which number was up next, Natalie hopped to her feet.

"I got this one," he called up to Aisha.

She paused with one foot on the steps, hand on her hip. "Aren't you tired?"

"I've got another pokemon."

Aisha looked over at Natalie, who stood at the top of the stairs, and then back at Mark. She raised an eyebrow. "Well, I won't say no to a longer break."

Mark turned to meet Natalie's eyes, and they exchanged grins. He beckoned for her to join him.

She's gotta be young, Mark thought, watching her swagger into the sandbox. He guessed eighteen, nineteen—not a huge gap between them, in the grand scheme of things, but enough to make a difference. Young wasn't necessarily a bad thing. It meant idealistic. It meant being willing to take risks.

In her tank top and bright leggings, she looked like many of the rookie trainers he saw in the gym, except for the look in her eyes. Most trainers stared through Mark. To them, he was one more obstacle on their way into the spotlight. Natalie seemed to be actually paying attention. Alert. Curious.

And she'd come looking for him. That said something, too—several things.

Aisha called, "Challenger! What's your name?" She took such pleasure in the ritualized call and response. Mark, when he had to referee between his own battles, skipped the theatrics and just did his job.

"Natalie Armstrong."

"Very well. Facing challenger Natalie on behalf of Rustboro City Gym is Mark Dunstan."

He smiled to himself. Normally this part of the song and dance was a reminder that he was playing a role, playing by the rules. This time … he'd be Roxanne's litmus test, but he was also watching and evaluating for himself.

"You may shake."

As Mark stepped forward to shake Natalie's freckled hand, he saw by her expression that she was appreciating for the first time the difference in height between them—he stood almost a foot taller than her. In response, she raised her chin and rolled her shoulders back.

In a voice too low to be heard up on the main level, she said, "Looks like you had quite a night."

"You should see the other guy." He played it for a laugh, pleased when she did. But the look in her eyes made it clear she intended to try to get the rest of the story out of him later.

We'll see about that.

He said, "Nice to see you down on my level this time."

She grinned. "It's overdue."

"Trainers, take your places." When they had retreated to opposite sides of the arena, Aisha announced, "This will be a one-on-one battle. Recalling a pokemon will be considered a forfeit. Mark, you may choose your fighter."

There was only one gym-approved pokemon left for him to choose from. "Let's make it count, Orwell," he said, and released his solrock.

Immediately, he felt the prickle of Orwell's presence along the edges of his mind, an unintelligible buzz. With no command, the solrock took a defensive stance between him and Natalie, raising a shield of purple light over Mark like it did every time. He imagined that, from its perspective, there was no distinction between a gym battle and any other kind of fight. It was a good habit.

"And you may choose your fighter."

Natalie watched the solrock hover for a moment. Then she grinned. "Go, Luna," she said, and released a mightyena onto the field. It didn't snarl or pace, simply waited for an order. But its ears lay flat at the sight of the opposing pokemon.

He'd been ready for her to choose a grass- or water-type like most of the rookie trainers did. Sometimes the particularly aspiring ones, like the kid with the lotad, got creative and tried to cover both bases simultaneously. A dark-type was interesting, though. He was curious to see what she'd do with that.

Aisha shouted, "You may begin! Good luck!"

Natalie wasted no time blurting, "Circle up, Luna!"

The mightyena took off, scattering gravel. It zigzagged across the field until it was close enough to make a wide arc around his solrock.

Mark felt his solrock's impulse to get between him and the mightyena—something that might have been anxiety if Orwell were a creature that felt emotions the way humans did. "Stay put, Ore. Let's see what she'll do." But he already had a good idea. Mark ignored the mightyena for now, watching Natalie instead. "Get ready."

"Alright, Luna, do it!"

One moment the mightyena prowled along the edges of the sandbox. The next moment it lunged and vanished in a swirl of black vapor.

Orwell made a low keening and slowly spun in place as it tried and failed to find the mightyena.

All at once, a black cloud flowered in the air above the solrock and the mightyena leapt from within. It pounced, trailing black vapor, and knocked Orwell to the floor.

Mark was ready. "Ore, iron head! Now!"

Orwell rose shakily, buzzing in outrage, as Natalie's mightyena landed and skidded to a stop. With a sound like a gong, the solrock launched itself at the mightyena and bowled it onto its back.

"Bite it, Luna!"

The mightyena made it onto its side when Orwell smashed into it again. The solrock swooped for another hit, but the mightyena bared its teeth and snapped up at Orwell. The mightyena's legs were in the air, belly exposed, but the shadows on the arena floor wavered threateningly as it began to growl. The two pokemon hung in a deadlock for a long moment, each twitching in preparation for attack but flinching away from follow-through. Finally Orwell levitated away, back to its defensive position in front of Mark, allowing the mightyena to roll onto all fours once again and shake itself off.

"Good girl," Natalie called. "Get ready to go again!"

As the mightyena took off running for his solrock, Mark commanded, "Rockslide!"

Orwell's eyes glowed like heated coils, and the sandbox walls rumbled.

"Luna, watch out!"

By the time the mightyena managed to slide to a stop, sections of the rock wall were already crumbling and crashing down on top of it. There was a sharp whine, and then there was only the sound of rock settling.

Natalie gasped and winced, watching from between her fingers.

Come on. Really? Mark folded his arms.

The dust slowly cleared, revealing boulders scattered across the sandbox and no sign of the mightyena. It reappeared a moment later in a whorl of shadows. But it was holding up one paw to avoid putting weight on it.

With a bitter smile, Mark called out, "Put it in the ring of fire." He wasn't sure if he was more pleased to finally allow himself his first win of the shift or disappointed to have made such quick work of her.

Purple light radiated from Orwell and then lashed towards the other pokemon, bursting into flames. The mightyena jumped back, but was soon caught inside a circle of purple fire.

"Good. Scramble it," Mark ordered. He was careful not to look directly at the beam of light the solrock shot from its eyes, shimmering through the air like a heat mirage.

But Natalie called, "Bite, Luna!" and her mightyena turned directly into it. Its pupils quickly expanded and then shrank. The mightyena shook its head, started forward, swooned, and turned to snap its teeth at an imaginary foe. It staggered into the rim of the fiery ring and then reeled back whining, the reaction delayed.

"Rockslide. Finish it."

"Come on, Luna! Jump through!" As the first rocks tumbled down from the arena's edge, the mightyena tucked its tail and whimpered. "Luna, go! You can do it!" The mightyena lowered its head, tensed, and then bounded between falling boulders and through the fire. Mark could smell the burning hair. The mightyena moved clumsily, less a run than a three-legged jumble in motion. Rock tumbled all around. Many of them hit. Still, Natalie's mightyena flung itself toward the solrock.

"Bury it."

"Crunch it!"

The mightyena barked and, from nowhere, a pair of shadowy jaws appeared around Orwell and snapped shut. The solrock tried to spin free, but the shadow-teeth yanked it down. As it struggled, the solrock let go of the light shield over Mark and let rocks drop at random all over the sandbox.

The mightyena wove between fallen rocks and drew closer—still wobbling, but it didn't matter now. It bared its real teeth, and the shadowy phantom jaws pressed tighter around the solrock. Pieces crumbled off one of Orwell's fins.

Mark winced. He hated leaving Ore exposed, and he wished he could send out Gibs to catch the mightyena from behind. His liepard was a quicker, quieter shadow-walker—she wouldn't see him coming. Or Rand, his darmanitan, could send the mightyena flying with one swipe. Instead Ore had to take the fall alone.

He'd better let Ore take it easy for the rest of the day—they had a long day ahead of them tomorrow.

All the same, Mark realized he was smiling. He'd never intended to hand it to Natalie, but he'd hoped she'd win.

The mightyena threw its head back in a howl, and its shadowy jaws clenched harder, squeezing and squeezing until Orwell's light went out.

"Drop it, Luna."

With a snort and a toss of the mightyena's head, the shadowy jaws disintegrated, leaving Orwell to topple into the dirt. Mark recalled his pokemon.

Natalie looked up at Aisha, waiting for the official call that she'd won. Her mightyena, though, watched Mark. That was good, too.

"The match goes to the challenger! Congratulations!"

Mark waited with his hands in his pockets as Natalie went to her pokemon, first checking the injured paw and then throwing her arms around its neck. When she recalled the mightyena, he approached. "Not bad," he told her.

Natalie dusted herself off and stood, beaming. "That's it? Not bad?"

"That looked like a narrow win to me," he said, raising an eyebrow.

Natalie started to shoot back a reply but stopped herself, frowning—even her thoughts were loud. She lowered her voice and asked, "Did you lose on purpose?"

At that Mark grinned. "No. You won." Then he held out a plastic token and explained, "This is your pass to battle Roxanne. When you beat her, she'll trade you this token for a badge."

Though …. He glanced at the seated trainers waiting for their chance to face Roxanne and saw several he'd waved through earlier. Then he looked at the wall clock. Well, shit.

She followed his gaze. "The gym closes at seven, right? Maybe I should come back tomorrow."

The gym would almost certainly not be open tomorrow, but he couldn't say that here. And if she came back to the gym at her usual time—

"Hey, Mark?" Aisha tipped her head towards a waiting trainer at the top of the stairs.

He nodded for Aisha's benefit and said quickly to Natalie, "Is there any way you could come back tonight? I want to talk to you."

She flashed a self-satisfied smile, cheeks coloring. "Yeah. I've been thinking about what you said yesterday, actually."

"Oh yeah?" And Mark knew then that he'd been right: she was already half-convinced. It wouldn't take much more.

"Let's make way for the next challenger!" Aisha spoke brightly, but Mark could hear the edge to it.

"I'll meet you out back around seven-thirty."

"I can do that."

He smiled and turned for the stairs.

"Finally," Aisha said under her breath as she passed him.

"It was important."

"Yeah, looked like it."

Unbothered, Mark took his place to announce the next match. He followed Natalie's exit with his eyes, aware of her watching him back.

How should he explain things to her? As the battle below started in earnest and Mark knelt to tend to Orwell, he briefly entertained the idea of bringing Natalie to the protest with him tomorrow—he could watch out for her, keep her from getting into more trouble than she could handle. But he knew it was a bad idea, and not just because he'd already have his hands full. She didn't act timid and complacent like Hilary, but neither was he fooled by her show of bravado: she was unsure of herself. He didn't want to scare her off with too much too fast or give her the wrong idea. Better to keep it in a space where he could control the conversation.

There was no reason to rush.



Outside, Natalie was already perched on the stair rail with a wingull on her shoulder.

"Hey. Thanks for waiting."

She started in surprise, her wingull squawking a complaint at the movement. "Who's your friend?"

"Oh. This is Gibson." His liepard slunk behind him, half in shadow. No way was Mark walking home without an extra set of eyes after last night.

"I guess I assumed you only had rock-types."

"Nah. Can't use him in the gym, but Gibs was my first."

Natalie hopped down from the rail, prompting her pokemon to take wing, and held out a hand for Gibs to sniff. The liepard ignored it, eyeing Natalie's wingull instead.

"Don't even think about it." Mark nudged Gibs with his knee until the liepard flicked his tail and turned away from the wingull, rubbing his face along Mark's legs. Mark rolled his eyes at Natalie. "Keep an eye on your keys and your phone too. Sneaky bastard thinks he's hilarious."

She grinned. "He's your baby."

"I don't think he's my anything. He's made it clear I'm his." He shook his head—derailed already. "Anyway. You wanna walk?"

At a leisurely pace, Mark led them down a quiet side-street. He caught a glimpse of Gibs before the liepard slipped inside a shadow and faded from sight. Hunting. Mark smiled, knowing Gibs was close, maybe even right underfoot, and nothing would be able to sneak up on them without him knowing.

"So," he said, "you've been thinking?"

Natalie let out a sigh but smiled. "Yeah. About pipelines. Except I thought more and now I'm not so sure. Like … I'm just one person, you know? I don't even know where to start."

At that, Mark grinned. She was making this so easy. "No one gets anything done alone. It has to be a coordinated effort." He paused to gauge her reaction, then added, "I know a local group, if you're interested. There's an open meeting later this month."

"Later this month I'll be in Lavaridge." She tipped her head back to watch her wingull's gliding path. "So, you're kind of involved in local stuff, huh?"

"Kind of," Mark said with a shrug, holding back a smirk.

"You going to the protest, then?"

She flashed him an impish look as he faltered mid-step. How had she—? But he shouldn't have been surprised. He'd seen some of Spitfire's crew handing out flyers on neon green paper, and it had to be all over the social networks, too.

Natalie puffed herself up. "I've got more on my mind than just badges and bullshit."

Mark barked a laugh of surprise. He felt a rush of flattery at hearing his own words from her mouth—but also an undercurrent of wariness. She was so earnest.

"Have you ever been to a protest before?"

She deflated slightly. "First time for everything."

"Yeah, that's what I thought."

Natalie slowed to a stop, still smiling but now with a hardness to it. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"Just that it's not gonna be like you think. But the group I mentioned—they do trainings. Deescalation strategies, how and when to keep formation, police tactics to watch for, what to do if you get arrested. Things like that. I think you'd really benefit from it."

"Wait, are you really trying to tell me not to go?" Natalie snorted. "I thought that was the point."

"I'm saying," Mark said, fighting to keep the frustration from his voice, "that there are other first steps. This one is gonna be ugly, Natalie."

The instant the words left his mouth, Mark knew that they'd been the wrong ones.

Natalie crossed her arms and cocked her hip. "I'm not scared of ugly."

No, fuck—there had to be something else he could—

She drew in a sharp breath and said, "You know, it's okay. I'll figure it out. I'll see you around, maybe." Without waiting for him to answer, she whistled for her pokemon and cut down another street.



Bonus art of Orwell the solrock by Wolflyn here.​

Chapter 2 Review

Three things I wanted to comment on here:

— I like how lived-in the gym (and other elements of the world) feels. You describe it like a regular workplace, which is what one would expect it to be. It’s still early on, but I’m sensing a pattern where you’re targeting aspects of the Pokémon world that never received enough worldbuilding in canon.

— I’m intrigued by the developing relationship between Natalie and Mark. They did sort of just meet, but they seem to hit it off well, especially through their back-and-forth dialogue. I did feel like Nat reacted a little hastily when she interpreted Mark’s warning as an underestimation, but considering she’s young and impulsive, it made sense narratively-speaking. I’m a fan of character bonding that isn’t always smooth sailing, hehe.

— Lastly, I like the art at the end of each chapter. It isn’t really related to the writing, but hey, it helps the visualization process by reminding me of certain traits that characters have. Natalie having freckles and Mark being visibly bruised, for example.
 

TheGOAT

Banana Bomb
Location
Houston, Texas
Pronouns
Him/his
Chapter 3: Red

The crowd was impossible to miss. Protesters filled the plaza, flowing down the stairs and onto the sidewalk below. Some even perched atop the concrete parapets where banners had been hung to face traffic.

Natalie sat on the church steps across the street with her gurdurr, Samson, who wouldn't sit still. He was a recent trade from a tourist she met in Dewford, so she wasn't entirely sure yet if he was agitated by the crowd … or if moodiness was simply his baseline. But he was already almost as tall as she was, each arm as thick as her waist, and she felt safer with him out. Part of Natalie was glad she'd chosen to bring only what fit in her pockets and on her belt. Another part of her felt naked without her backpack.

A news crew adjusted equipment near one of the plaza entrances. Half a block away, a group of counter-protesters tried to make up for their numbers with decibels. From a distance, Natalie could read a few of the signs, which said things like, Roxanne is my rock, and, DevCo means jobs for Rustboro. In between the protesters and the counter-protesters, a cluster of macho police officers with manectrics straddled their bikes. They mostly watched the plaza, but she thought she saw one of them look at her a few times.

Microphone feedback squealed and then died back down. She could tell from the applause and shouts that someone was giving a speech, but she couldn't make out more than scattered words from where she sat. She'd wanted to observe before jumping into the thick of it, but …. Natalie stood and said to her gurdurr, "Come on, Sam. I want to hear what they're saying."

No sooner than she took a few steps towards the plaza, one of the bike cops peeled off from the group and cut in front of her. "That pokemon needs to be back in its ball, immediately." He wore a face mask and sunglasses, which made him look not quite human.

Natalie couldn't help herself. "How come? I thought one pokemon per trainer was allowed out in the city limits."

She stole a glance at his manectric, outfitted in a gray harness that matched the police uniform. It wore a power-limiter collar, almost like a pet's, except she knew the limiter on this one could be turned off completely with a clicker in the officer's pocket. The manectric could still hurt her, if the cop wanted it to. Or it might only stun. Its hackles were up and it stared hard at her.

The cop laid a hand on one of several solid black masterballs hooked to his belt beside his holster and handcuffs. One way or another, that hand said. "Right now they're not. Put it away. Now."

Samson grunted and popped his knuckles.

Natalie laid a hand on the gurdurr's meaty shoulder before he could do anything stupid. "My bad," she said and recalled her pokemon.

The cop held her in an icy gaze for a few more moments before clambering onto his bike and wheeling back around to rejoin his squad.

"What a dick hole."

Natalie pointedly ignored the bike cops as she passed them on her way into the plaza and pushed her way into the crowd.

Despite the unseasonable heat wave, most of the protesters wore layers: zip-up jackets, scarves and bandannas of various colors. Some wore belts with pokeballs. Most didn't. They carried painted cardboard signs of all sizes: Meteor Falls—not falling for it! Pokemon over profit! And, of course, Hell no, DevCo!

The protesters burst out in applause and cheers, and then a feminine voice crackled, "It's an honor to be here with you all today. Let's take a moment to remember that we stand in the South Grannus Watershed, on Draconid land."

Natalie squeezed through until she found herself in front of a wrought iron sculpture of a larger-than-life aggron with a trainer raised up on its shoulder. She clambered onto one of the aggron's massive feet. Nodding a silent greeting to a teenage protester crouched on the statue's other foot, she settled in to watch.

In the center of the crowd, a woman with very long hair stood on an overturned crate. It took Natalie a moment to recognize her without the breloom at her side: Erica Spitfire, the woman who supposedly could've made it big had she not chosen to come back to Rustboro to fight a different kind of battle. She was ordinary-looking, with thin lips and a windburned face, but the crowd seemed to hang on her every word. She spoke into the microphone, "Roxanne says she's read the environmental impact assessment. If she sees no problems with it, we must not have read the same report."

From her perch, Natalie could see much of the crowd and, if she rose up and half-turned, the band of bike cops. She didn't actually believe she would find him there, but she couldn't help but search for Bubba's face each direction she looked. And, ha, there was no sign of Mark either. Also not a surprise.

Spitfire said, "I don't care how fancy the technology is, how minimal they think the risks are. Nothing is worth risking access to clean water for the people and pokemon downstream. We're the ones who will live with the consequences of DevCo's mistakes, and we can't drink oil!"

The crowd roared its approval.

Spitfire's voice was strong and clear—not wheedling or hysterical, simply laying out the facts as she saw them. "I don't care how much money they throw at our schools," she said. "Mother Earth can't be bribed! Mother Earth doesn't take cash or credit!"

Natalie wrinkled her nose. Mother Earth was as cheesy as the name Spitfire. But she saw too that, under all the buzzwords, Spitfire's anger was real.

So when Spitfire cried, "Do you trust DevCo to keep our water clean?"—Natalie thought of the pelippers in the guest bathroom. She thought of her brother. She thought of Mark telling her to stay home where it was safe, and she didn't hesitate to join the cacophony.

"No!" the crowd shouted as one.

"Do you trust DevCo to clean its messes?"

"No!"

"Do you trust DevCo to do what's best for people and pokemon?"

"No!"

"Let's show Roxanne that we are not so easily bought and sold!" To deafening applause, Spitfire pointed a finger down the parkway, towards the gym. "If she can't see the smoke, let's bring the fire to her!"

The crowd erupted in cheers. Protesters hefted their signposts higher. Someone packed the speakers and microphones onto a bike trailer, and others pulled the banners from the railings. Activists in matching t-shirts moved around Spitfire like rings around a planet, keeping her insulated. The banner bearers led the way down Iron Avenue. Then the rest of the crowd began to move, first in a trickle and then a flood. A parade. The bike cop brigade also set off, crawling alongside the banner-bearers. Natalie waited for the bulk of the crowd to flow past before she hopped down from the aggron sculpture and trailed after.

Someone took up a megaphone and began a chant. "No pipeline! No way! No pipeline—"

In a jumble, the crowd finished: "Not today!"

Up ahead, the crowd oozed across the boulevard, forcing cars to stop in the middle of the road. Nearby, three boys began to drum on five-gallon buckets they'd strapped to their chests with bungee cords. The rhythm drove into her, pounding through her chest to the soles of her feet. Whoever had the speakers on their bike had started blasting, "Roxanne! Put on the red light!" Natalie grinned.

The protesters wove between the cars, dancing and laughing and shouting chants. Someone knocked on the hood of a car as he passed. Natalie walked close enough to another car to see the look of boredom and frustration on the driver's face, to feel the heat radiating from the grille. She hadn't felt so powerful since the first time she'd won a pokemon battle.

She hadn't expected the protest to be fun.

"No pipeline!" Another megaphone, closer.

Natalie joined the refrain without thinking. "No way!"

"No pipeline!"

With all the force she could muster, "Not today!" Natalie could hardly hear her own voice among the hundreds.

She glanced behind and saw more police bringing up the rear. They kept a reasonable distance, but still Natalie felt a chill. They wore riot armor with several pokeballs clipped on each arm band. Better to have them around to keep things safe than not, she told herself, begrudgingly. But she reached down to touch one of her own pokeballs for reassurance.

Next to her, a girl in a mechanic's jumpsuit caught her eye and grinned. She offered Natalie a Hell no, DevCo sign, but Natalie waved it off. She wanted to keep her hands free.

Although Natalie had passed the same shops and office towers and courthouse each day walking between the hostel and the gym, they looked different from the middle of the street, as if she were seeing them from underwater. On the sidewalks, mothers with strollers and shoppers with bags gawked. Some pulled out phones and tablets to record. Others looked on disapprovingly.

Natalie lifted her head high. Her brother would be proud, she knew, to see her doing more than watching from the sidelines. She didn't know how much of a difference it would make, but at least she was doing something. It felt good to be in motion, to be headed towards something.

She moved closer to the girl in the jumpsuit and shouted to be heard over the drumming and chanting: "Do you know what the plan is? Are we just trying to get people to join?"

The girl shook her head and grinned. "We're gonna surround the gym, shut it down for as long as possible. No pipelines, no badges."

A private chant started in Natalie's heart: No badges, no way! No bullshit, not today! Screw Mark, but it was still a good phrase.

They moved through a roundabout where several side streets connected with Iron Avenue, and then the streets suddenly quieted enough to hear the police radios buzz. The crowd slowed.

At first she couldn't tell what had happened. Then she saw them pouring in from the side streets, at least thirty on either side of the crowd, maybe more. The red bloc. Each wore shades of red from the waist up, their faces covered: red sweaters and jackets with hoods pulled tight around the eyes, bomber jackets and ski masks, red baseball caps, a red leather jacket, and even one red headscarf. Every single one of them also wore a red kerchief emblazoned with a black letter M for MGMA.

A low sound of displeasure rippled through the protesters, more a groan than a boo. The cops nearest to Natalie, at the rear of the crowd, exchanged glances and palmed their pokeballs. The silence sizzled.

Natalie didn't seek out news about gang activity, not like Dad did, but she knew the rumors all the same, that Magma liked to stir up trouble, harass the police. That they broke into politicians' homes and threatened them. That they blew up the Devon Labs a couple years back.

In a flash, Natalie wondered if they had also been involved in her brother's disappearance.

Finally, one of the protesters called out over a bullhorn, "This is a peaceful protest!"

There was a low chuckle from the red bloc. Almost too quiet for Natalie to hear, a voice shot back, "Tell that to the cops!"

Then someone shouted loudly enough to be heard widely, "Who are we?"

The red bloc answered in one voice, "Earth's Army!"

The hair rose along Natalie's arms.

"Why are we here?"

"To defend free speech!"

Then the red bloc took up the same anti-pipeline chant the protesters had been calling out before: "No pipeline! No way! No pipeline! Not today!" By the third repetition, the crowd began to chant with them. The drumming resumed, intensified. And then they were moving again, together.

Faceless cops behind and ahead, faceless red bloc left and right. Now was probably the smart time to leave. But Natalie knew Bubba would've stayed, and she was no quitter.

The gym was close enough now for Natalie to see the stainless steel dome. The protesters and the red bloc crossed another street, cutting off traffic again. Then they came to the park with the stone sculptures, the gym steps laid out in front of them one block away. Confused-looking trainers hung around outside the gym, and more cops too.

Between the gym and the protesters was a barricade of police officers mounted on snorting rhyhorns and donphans. Natalie was surprised for a moment by how quickly they'd mobilized until she realized: they'd been expecting this.

"Let's keep it moving, folks," an officer boomed over megaphone.

The crowd's frustration was Natalie's frustration. They were demonstrating peacefully—why shouldn't they be allowed in front of the gym? What was the point if they weren't allowed? She followed the crowd forward.

They jammed up against the mounted officers at the park gates, and then moved no further. The chants grew louder and more furious. Then a new cry rang out over one bullhorn, then another, and slowly passed through the crowd. "Sit—down! Sit—down!"

In a wave spreading from the head of the crowd, the protesters all around began to lower themselves to the pavement. They sat cross-legged or with their knees to their chests. Natalie hesitated, nervously eyeing the MGMA. The red bloc tensed. But, a few beats behind everyone else, Magma took a knee. That seemed to Natalie like a safer positioning, so she followed suit.

The rhyhorns and donphans towered over them, blocking out the view of the gym. She couldn't see the police officers' eyes, but she could feel their gaze bearing down all the same.

The protesters' megaphones blared, "Link up, tighten up!" One by one, the crowd linked arms.

A girl with a mohawk offered Natalie her arm, but Natalie shook her head. Prickling with nervous energy, she scanned over the heads of the crowd. She was caught between the protesters on her left and half of the red bloc on her right. Surrounding them was a ring of black, officers in riot gear, squeezing in closer. She wondered if it would even be possible to fight her way out if it came to that.

An officer announced over the megaphone, "You are ordered to continue peacefully down the parkway or disperse."

Where were they supposed to go, hemmed in like that?

Two protesters with megaphones shouted over him: "We won't stand up!"

"Roxanne, stand up for us!"

A mouthful, Natalie thought, but the crowd picked it up anyway.

Her leg was beginning to cramp when a cry of dismay rose up from the crowd. She started to rise, trying to see what was happening. To her right she heard, "Get ready. Here we go." The edge of the crowd was a flurry of movement, arms and bodies tangling. She couldn't see much, but felt in her gut it had to be Magma.

Then, in a perfect arc, a fist-sized rock flew from out of the crowd and pegged one of the police rhyhorns. The rock couldn't have hurt it, but the rhyhorn bellowed and reared, stomping back down heavily.

The backlash was immediate. With a whoosh, tens of pokeballs opened all at once, releasing dustox and weezing outfitted with gray police power limiter bands. There was a flurry of police radio noise. And then clouds of gray smog and insect scales filled the air.

Natalie gasped, choked, and pulled her t-shirt up over her nose and mouth.

Before she could begin to move, the Magma group to her right was already on its feet amid a surge of flashing red lights. A massive camerupt materialized with an earth-shaking roar, silhouetted through the smog. A nidoqueen, an exploud, an aggron—more she didn't have time to see as she fought her way to her feet.

Eyes stinging, she pulled the girl with the mohawk to her feet—only to be nearly knocked down herself when she was jostled from behind. Her ears rang with screams and sirens and pokemon cries, and her chest burned. For a moment all she could do was stay upright and try to see where she was going.

There was a break in the fog as a golbat swept overhead and threw itself into a weezing. As pokemon smashed into each other above and on all sides, Natalie grabbed a pokeball from her belt. "Amelia!" she croaked and sent out her wingull. The wingull looped around her and then, with a confused squawk, landed on Natalie's shoulder, shivering. "Clear the air!" With another squawk, the wingull spread her wings and pushed off, beating the smog back from her trainer's face.

Natalie struggled to draw in a breath without coughing and her eyelids felt heavy, but she turned and realized she suddenly had room to move. In a matter of seconds, Magma had pushed forward from behind the cover of their pokemon. Their camerupt reared and smashed its way between two rhyhorns, plowing the mounted officers to the ground. The red bloc pushed through the gap with a wild shout.

Smog continued to pour down on them, even as flying-type pokemon swept back and forth to break apart the clouds. Masterballs glinted through the smoke. Lights blinked in and out as the red bloc recalled their own pokemon rather than lose them to a police masterball—only to send them back out in a new spot.

The dustox scales were making Natalie's head fuzzy, even with Amelia circling overhead. She shook her head, squinting. Ahead, open sidewalk. Natalie started to move towards it, but something made her turn and glance over her shoulder.

Behind her, the crowd of protesters began to collapse inward, pinching apart into two smaller groups. Protesters toppled one by one as if the floor had opened under them. It took her a moment to catch the blue sparks spraying up from the crowd. Manectrics.

Less than a few yards away, a manectric exploded out of the smog to tackle a protester—a skinny girl with a knee brace. The manectric stood on the girl's back, growling and fizzing with electricity.

All the blood rushed to Natalie's head and her stomach clenched. The world looked scaldingly clear again, and she was fully awake.

Then the manectric lifted its head and fixed its red eyes on her.

Something struck the manectric sidelong and knocked it to the pavement. Natalie couldn't see what had done it. As the two pokemon swatted at each other, someone in a red coat leaned down and helped the girl with the knee brace to her feet.

As Natalie turned, she saw others, like a red thread winding through the chaos. A Magma girl with a pair of baltoys hovering on either side of her stood between a cop and a handful of protesters who sagged from the sleep powder. A man in red sat astride a second camerupt, and protesters crouched behind it. One of the red bloc directed a dusclops to cast a glittering light screen over a section of the crowd.

They were actually helping. Protecting people.

Half of the red bloc faced off against the police blockade, forcing them back foot by foot with their pokemon to create space for activists to push through to the gym. Natalie thought she saw Spitfire and her breloom make a lunge through the smog. The rest of the bloc was among the crowd, the last effort keeping it from coming apart completely. A scattering of regular trainers had released their pokemon into the crowd too, but mostly Natalie saw red.

She glanced one more time at the open space ahead of her. This was the best chance she'd have to get away before things got worse, a clear shot.

Instead, she tossed out Samson's pokeball, called for Amelia to follow, and shouldered her way back into the fray with one hand pulling her t-shirt up higher over her nose and mouth.

Natalie moved towards the place where the police line wedged through the crowd of protesters. At her command, Samson swung and knocked aside one manectric and then another. He grabbed one by its hind legs and heaved it through the police line, and then made a scary sound she'd never heard him make before. A howl of bloodlust. She felt electric with it, hardly even noticing the burning in her throat.

"Hold the line!" She couldn't tell if the shout came from the red bloc or the police.

An unseen pokemon zipped behind her, narrowly missing her—impossible to say whether it had been friend or foe. Nearby, cops dragged protesters away in handcuffs. There was a crash and then car alarms. Smoky shadows of pokemon tangled everywhere she turned.

The other half of the crowd was completely blocked off by the police line now. She'd lost sight of them. Still she pressed ahead, back to back with her gurdurr, and pulled straggling protesters out of reach of the police manectrics. She side-stepped an officer who made a grab for her and kept moving.

She nearly tripped over a fallen protester before she saw him. With no hesitation, she knelt. Samson stood over her, head swiveling. "Can you stand?" The protester had a gash across his temple, and it took Natalie's full strength to pull him to his knees. He bobbled his head in half-sleep, eyes streaming. "Amelia, water!" She crouched with him until he waved her aside and rose, swaying.

"I'm okay."

Samson pushed and made room for the protester to wobble away, towards the open.

Natalie began to stand, swooning a little herself. And she looked up to see a manectric streak towards her, electricity streaming off its fur. She staggered—fell. Samson turned, but too slowly. She had time only to raise an arm over her head—

There was a shower of purple sparks. Inches away from her face, the manectric crashed into empty air and stopped. Its teeth gnashed against nothing for an instant before an invisible force slammed it down and away.

Someone grabbed Natalie by the arms, wrenching her back. Dizzy and throwing elbow hooks, she fought.

But it wasn't a cop.

"Hey, hey, I'm trying to help!"

She caught her balance and found herself looking up into a face mostly hidden by a red hood and a Magma kerchief.

"So how do you like ugly?"

Natalie struggled to parse the question. Was his bandana hiding a horrible disfigurement? Was he threatening her? She struggled for breath, winded and choking on the thick air in spite of the t-shirt over her mouth. Her hysteria mounted—

Then she recognized those sharp gray eyes, the day-old scrape running through his eyebrow. And she knew his voice. "Mark?"

His solrock glided in front of them, eyes glowing violet. "Keep it up, Ore." He patted the dome of its back as it passed on its way to knock aside another manectric.

Then he turned to her and shoved a pressurized bottle into her hand. "Here." Antidote. No sooner than she twisted the cap and released the vapor into her face—gasping in relief as it cooled the fire in her lungs—Mark was pulling her by the arm. "Come on, this way." Away from the police line.

Samson toddled behind them, swinging his arms wildly to keep up. Amelia circled anxiously.

"I can still help them," she protested.

Ignoring her, Mark spoke into a radio clipped to his hood. "Russet—we're heading out."

She barely heard the reply over the wailing sirens: "Copy that, Ruby. We'll follow you out shortly."

Then Mark cupped a hand around his mouth, over the kerchief. "Close ranks! Let's go!"

Natalie pulled against his grip until he stopped and turned to look at her. Light-headed, she stumbled into him, only his hand on her arm stopping her from losing her balance again. She couldn't read his expression. Beyond caring, she spluttered, "You're just going to leave them?"

But even as she spoke, she could see it was over. Several cops together carried a kicking protester away from the gym. More officers struggled with a second protester who'd managed to handcuff himself to the gym doors. The crowd was scattered and thin, and the police line was advancing again. Red and blue lights flashed as two more squad cars and a black van screeched to a stop, blocking off the parkway. The van lurched as a pair of purple-glowing metangs and three machokes clambered out. Then a squadron of police officers with riot shields and rifles jumped down from the van, trailed by a slipstream of semi-tangible dark-type pokemon.

All around, the red bloc streamed away from the remains of the crowd like blood from a wound.

And they left destruction in their wake: overturned cars smoldered, filling the air with the stink of burning rubber. Someone in a Guy Fawkes mask galloped past on a rapidash, brandishing a burning Hoenn flag. Broken glass scattered the street. Iron Avenue looked like it had been bombed. How had it happened so fast?

"What the actual fuck, Mark."

"Come on. We gotta go." His voice was gentle, but his unreadable eyes floated in a sea of red. A golbat swooped and began to circle around his head, chirping. "Alright, Octavia, I know!"

All around she heard cries from the red bloc: "Pull out! Tighten up! Keep moving!"

She shook her head and stepped back. Her head spun.

He let out a frustrated sigh. "Please don't stay here and get yourself arrested. That'd be a real fucking waste." He paused. Then he said with a smirk in his voice, "See you around, I guess." With that he turned and ran, following the rest of the red bloc towards a side street, his golbat darting ahead and his solrock bringing up the rear.

With a glance behind at the encroaching special forces, the squad cars blocking the other end of the street, the protesters on the asphalt handcuffed in a line, the cars belly-up and spurting flame—Natalie did the only thing that made sense. She recalled Samson and then ran for the safety of the side street, behind the red bloc.



Chapter 3 Review

— I can’t help but wonder if the unseen figure who threw the rock was a double-agent. Then again, this is Team Magma’s adapted equivalent we’re talking about, so perhaps I should hold off on giving the benefit of the doubt :<

— I loved the detail put into the “bored” driver having to wait for the protesters to move on by.

— So there are large-scale protests taking place concerning Roxanne and a pipeline related to Meteor Falls, which is where I presume the town gets their water from. It does plenty to add a gray element to how I view MGMA with what little I currently know. Mark, who seems like a decent guy, is one of them, after all. Still, you made it pretty clear that the initial protesters were uncomfortable by MGMA’s appearance, so I’m not sold yet. I’ll just have to keep reading and find out.
 

TheGOAT

Banana Bomb
Location
Houston, Texas
Pronouns
Him/his
Chapter 7: Stainless Steel

Steven took the long way between the gym and the Devon office building so he could admire the new construction that sprouted among the crumbling brick row homes—wooden frames sheathed in pastel-colored weatherproofing. Nice to see parts of North Rustboro on the upswing. His silver metagross, Delorean, lumbered behind, taking one step for every five of Steven's. He moved at a brisk clip—until a splash of red caught his eye and he slowed to investigate.

It took Steven a minute to decipher what was spray-painted on the plastic, a jumble of hasty lines bleeding into each other. Oh. He spotted the remnants of a blue skull and crossbones where the artist who followed had failed to fully block it out with black paint, and on top of that a jagged red M.

Steven turned away. Nothing new there—not worth dwelling on right now.

On the corner, he came across a Go Joe Cafe. That was new, outdoor tables and decorative planters where there had once been abandoned furniture and garbage. He smiled at the sight. Undoubtedly, someone would be sent for coffee during the meeting, but—Steven glanced at his watch—there was still plenty of time before he had to be there.

"Delorean, stay here." Technically, Steven knew he should recall it. But the metagross was almost as renowned as Steven himself, especially in this town. No one would mind. Delorean wouldn't bother anyone, and there was little anyone could do to bother it.

On cue, the metagross tucked its legs and, with a grinding and a groaning, lowered itself to the sidewalk. Then it fell eerily silent, its glowing red eyes the only sign of life.

Steven smiled and turned to rap his knuckles against the metagross's hull—clonk, clonk—before he made his way inside.

The coffee shop looked like any other Go Joe, comforting in its familiarity. Young professionals with laptops crowded the tables. A trainer sat by the window writing postcards, a swablu watching from its perch on her shoulder. He could be in almost any city in the world.

"Morning. I'd like an iced coffee, please. To go."

The barista looked up from wiping down the counter and then froze, a nervous grin on his face.

Steven smiled expectantly.

"You're Steven Stone!"

Even without his pokemon at his side, the Stone family coat of arms pinned to his lapel and the prematurely gray hair gave him away. "One and the same."

"Wow!" The barista wrung his hands but couldn't hold back his smile. "Sorry, I bet you hate when people make a fuss. I'm just such a big fan. I'm a trainer too—" He cut himself off with a helpless gesture towards the espresso machine. "When I can."

"No shame in that. I worked while I was developing my team too."

"Did you really? I didn't know that."

"Absolutely. Nothing like squeezing battles between classes to motivate you." Already a line was starting to form behind him, but Steven still leaned in to ask, "What do you train?"

The barista ducked his head and flashed a shy smile. "Well, she's just a torchic now, but we'll get there eventually. Hopefully a corphish at some point too, to cover some of Dessa's weaknesses."

Steven's smile went tight. "Good for you," he said, holding out his credit card. "Sounds like you're well on your way."

"Oh! Nonono, this one's on me." He waved the card away.

"Well." Steven dropped his arm. "That's very kind of you." A quick glance at the name tag. "Thanks, Flynn."

Trying not to think about fire and stadium lights, he watched the barista prepare his drink. Don't ruin a perfectly good morning. He rubbed a thumb over his commemorative Hoenn League ring.

"Here you go! Iced coffee."

Steven accepted the cup, then paused to peel a few ones from his billfold and slip them into the jar on the counter, indulgent smile back in place. "Here's another tip: Don't ever listen to anyone who says you can't get what you want. Show them you can."



Steven eyed his reflection in the elevator doors, smoothing his hair and adjusting his sleeves. As the doors opened onto the top floor, he stole a final glance at his watch. Perfect. He was exactly on time.

When he strode into the boardroom, the executive committee was already seated along the gleaming table, facing the projector screen. His father stood by the head of the table, framed by the floor-to-ceiling windows. He looked the same as always, his square face creased with frown lines, a pocket watch in one hand. "Ah, Steven. Shut the door behind you. Did you have a productive time training this morning?"

His father spoke lightly but Steven could still hear the touch of scorn in his voice.

"I did, thank you," Steven answered brightly as he slid into the empty seat next to his father's. "Roxanne sends her regards."

His father snapped his watch shut and pocketed it. "Well. I don't know what the headlines are like in Mossdeep, but here's what the rest of us are working with today." He motioned to the Stone City Herald article on the projector screen: Anti-Pipeline Riot Rocks Downtown.

Steven thought of the graffiti on the side of the new building and brought his knuckles to his mouth, fingers laced. He wasn't surprised—he'd known they would need to discuss this—but it did put a damper on his mood.

Roxanne had seemed shaken too. She'd insisted they use the gym for their sparring match and had even opened the doors early for him, but she'd been too quiet. None of the usual teasing. After their battle, she'd confessed, Even my staff have been tense lately.

She had a talent for worrying. But the look on his father's face troubled him.

President Stone squeezed the clicker, and the screen cycled to another article. Dozens Arrested After Protest Turns Violent. "Unsurprisingly," he said, "The Rustboro Times is more sympathetic to the hooligans."

A few grumbles went around the table.

"Not that sympathetic," Steven spoke up. "The public doesn't like the gangs—either of them. They're volatile. Honestly, this is good press."

"They like Root Revolution though." Rathburn, the Executive Committee Treasurer, shot Steven a stern look. When he'd first met the man, Steven had been ten and Rathburn had ruffled Steven's hair and called him son. They were at eye-level now across the table from each other, and Steven didn't flinch from his stare. "If those hippies scream loudly enough to get the appeals court involved, it'll set us back months, even assuming the judge upholds our permit."

"And it's been brought to my attention that wasn't the only noteworthy event yesterday." President Stone gestured to Howard, the Chief Security Officer.

Howard looked pale. He drew in several breaths to steady himself before he spoke. "We had a data breach."

"What about the metagross?"

"They fought and disabled it."

A sour taste rose in Steven's mouth. They'd come in person? He couldn't imagine what they had done to get past the entire security force and a metagross he'd trained himself.

After a moment, the CSO continued, "Security officers identified five thugs leaving the property—looked like ORCA. Blue masks. They got away, unfortunately. But we've got a metagross team trying to match the security footage to the police databases. And we've got one of their pokeballs."

"Then we can get a trainer ID," said Rachel, dismissively.

"Still working on that too. It's thoroughly scrambled."

"The protest," grumbled Lloyd. "Those bastards used it as a distraction."

"Maybe." The Chief Information Officer—huh, Steven had forgotten her name—tapped her chin. "I'm not convinced they like each other enough to coordinate a heist."

"So what did they take?"

Howard grimaced. "We don't know yet. We're still assessing."

The executive committee exchanged uneasy glances. The executive secretary paused his note-taking. In the absence of keys tapping, the only sound was Lloyd clearing his throat.

Steven said, "Well, there's a headline that's sympathetic to us."

"No," his father said instantly. "No one talks to the media about this, not until we know how bad the damage is. The last thing we want to give The Times is a snapshot of Devon's piss-poor handle on our own databases."

The room fell quiet again.

"Let's talk solutions." President Stone lowered himself into a seat at last. "Tobin—when is the Energy Committee voting on our public safety bill?"

Ah yes, the bill. Drafted by Devon Corporation lawyers, given to Senator Lumin's staffers. Lumin, a former real estate investor, had no head for policy, but he did have an electable face and he was good with numbers. He could be counted on to do what he was asked.

Steven honestly didn't know the specifics of it himself. That wasn't his area. Most of what he knew was that the bill was meant to stop activists from wearing masks or using their pokemon during a protest, which he was surprised weren't already illegal actions. The defacement of public property was plenty by itself, and that was the least of what a pokemon could do in the wrong hands. And if they had nothing to hide, if they truly thought they hadn't done anything wrong, why should they need masks?

Steven twisted his Devon insignia ring around his finger as he watched Tobin, the Executive Committee Secretary, swipe through pages on his tablet.

"Friday, sir," said Tobin. He'd graduated from Rustboro University a few years before Steven, one of few people he'd encountered who had never attempted to become a trainer at any point—bland and wheedling, but adept with calendars and deadlines. "Senator Nakamura has pledged her support for the bill already. And Senator Lumin, of course."

"Good." President Stone leaned forward, steepling his fingers. "I imagine Senator Weissman's campaign could benefit from a little help this time of year. Rachel—how can we make that fit into the budget?"

Before she could answer, Tobin piped up again, "Actually, sir, we've already hit our annual gift-giving cap for the Weissman campaign."

Steven said breezily, "I heard Weissman's oldest son recently received his starter. They follow League Events. I'll make sure the senator and his family have front row seats at the Evergrande Winter Conference."

That much he could still do.

His father nodded and gave him a small smile. "Very good. The Hoenn Cancer Society benefit dinner would be a good opportunity to present him with tickets."

Steven stopped twisting his ring. They'd talked about this. He'd already pledged a personal donation, separate from the Devon Corporation pledge—he didn't have to do that. "I thought …." His father shot him a warning look, and Steven shut his mouth.

"Did you have somewhere else to be?"

"No." Steven put on the smile he used for talking with politicians and the League oversight committee. "No, of course not."

Steven didn't necessarily mind the idea of a benefit dinner. In fact, he already had a tie that perfectly matched the requisite cancer awareness ribbon. He knew to allow the men his father's age talk about their favorite subjects—themselves—to make them like him. And he was good at telling little stories to make their wives laugh, nudging them to indulge him in the occasional secret. But there were no trophies for small talk.

He wanted a prize no one had yet been able to claim, one his father couldn't even imagine.

Joseph Stone would not understand that his only child and heir would rather spend his time with his two "vagabonds" in the back room lent to them by the Sootopolis Museum of History. Digitally reconstructing the places where the stone tablets had worn away. Cross-referencing several cuneiform dictionaries and texts on ancient religion. Matching GPS coordinates to mountains described in folk tales.

Steven fiddled with his rings again and resisted the urge to look at his phone.

"Meanwhile, Martha, how do we make this situation look good?"

The Chief of Communications sat up straighter. "Well." She paused to take a deep breath and glance at her notes. "Devon celebrates technology and all the ways it makes life better. From ensuring grandma's medicine is delivered on time to producing the pokeballs that keep your friends close, Devon fuels life. And," she added in a conspiratorial tone, "we remind them that the pokelectric alternative is inhumane. Sprinkle in a few shots of sad electrikes."

The work was likely no worse for them than training, and that would be Mauville Electric's obvious rebuttal. But the winner of that fight would not be determined by who was more correct.

"Good. Rachel, where are we with our marketing budget?"

Steven tipped his face toward the projector screen, but his mind had drifted miles east. Every time he closed his eyes lately, he saw red sand and wind-sculpted cliffs.

He had visited the desert east of Route 111 exactly three times. The first time, he'd gone with a surveying team (for the company) and a paleontologist (for his own interests). The second time, shortly after, was for a company tour and commemorative photo at Devon's first domestic pipeline. He hadn't even known about the tomb then—it had looked like nothing more than another rocky outcropping until Cynthia had given him the idea to look for more. The third trip had been with Brendan Birch and Brandon Harrison, and the three of them had camped five nights under the velvety sky. In all his travels, Steven had never seen the stars so clearly.

Now he ached to see those stars again. To trail one hand along the ridged cliff wall as he walked. To see the tomb appear on the horizon at dusk, like a mirage, except it was real, more real than—

"How about we get the League champion? People eat that up."

At the words "League champion," Steven lifted his head. Everyone was staring at him, waiting. His insides clenched tight.

Because it was his job, he took a deep breath and smiled. "Of course. I can talk to her."

What he didn't say was the truth: she doesn't want to talk to me. And that was the sole point on which the two of them both agreed.

The last time he'd seen her had been for a joint interview and photoshoot with Trainer Today. They'd called it Passing the Torch, another stupid torchic pun. He and May Palmer had posed obediently—separately, together, with blaziken, without—smiling as if her words weren't still simmering between them.

Don't act like you're shocked. You can't expect to win against someone who's actually had to work to get here. That's what she said to him after the Evergrande Conference.

Thinking about it made his temples throb.

Did she really think someone had simply handed him a fully-trained metagross? Delorean alone had taken him three years—he'd had to procure not one but four shiny beldum and then train them in perfect tandem—to say nothing of the rest of his team. And Delorean hadn't been his first attempt. He'd waited until he could do it right before he tried for Del.

The League had cautioned him against trying to raise a metagross at all, and not without reason. He'd consulted with an electrophysicist and a psychic-type specialist leading up to it, but that first metagross had still turned on him immediately after its final evolution, sending silent lightning through his skull. He was lucky all he'd lost from that was the pigment in his hair. Steven wore it like a badge of honor, proof he'd earned the designation of Hoenn's metagross expert.

And he had still graduated with honors. He'd done both, because that was what was expected of him.

The new champion of Hoenn, on the other hand, didn't even have a bachelor's degree. She had a blaziken and a smart mouth, and apparently that was enough.

In white-knuckled silence, Steven sat through another forty minutes of supplier contracts and the Thursday IT update, his graduation ring pressed to his lips.

As the executive committee finally trickled out the door, marking notes in their digital calendars, Steven's father called him over. He waited until the execs had gone to say, "Why were you late this morning?"

Steven made his face a mask. "I came in the door at nine exactly."

His father gave him a hard look. "I'm only going to tell you this once, son. Running a company doesn't work like parading in front of the Evergrande League. You've had your fun with that, but now that it's done I need you focused here in the real world. On Devon. You have to earn your place here, just like the rest of them."

Steven clenched his teeth, but he met his father's gaze and nodded. He would not look away first.

"Good." His father's expression softened. "This company will be your responsibility someday, and I want you to be ready. I know you're capable. You always rise to a challenge." He pulled his stopwatch from his pocket. His ring caught the light—the Stone family crest, twin to the one Steven wore. "I'm meeting with the mayor in half an hour. I'll see you this evening. Hortencia is making cordon bleu."

He didn't pause for farewells, just a curt nod and away he went.

Steven lingered by the enormous window, gazing out on the best view of Rustboro the city had to offer. With a sigh, he took out his phone and tried to make peace with his schedule. Lots of fires to put out. He held his phone in his right hand, where he wore his Stone family and Devon rings. With his left, where he wore his graduation and League rings, he reached to touch Delorean's ball. After a moment's consideration and another sigh, he messaged Birch: Send me the files here. I'll take a look at them tonight. Tell me what you find at the site.

For a moment longer, he gazed out the window at the distant mountains. The tomb had been waiting there for thousands of years, since the time the desert had been a shallow sea, since the time legends dragged their bellies across the earth. It could wait a little longer yet. And then—

Well. He wasn't done yet.



Snowpoint Temple, once again. In his dream, unlike in life, the alcoves below each idol were lit with candles, wax oozing down the stone. The air smelled of dust and the smoke of long ago fires. As usual, Cynthia led the way, solar lantern held high. They were still the only two people among the ruins. No pokemon either, though in the waking world they had been escorted by Delorean and Cynthia's lucario to ensure the sneasels that pilfered the offerings left on the temple steps stayed in the shadows and came no closer.

For what felt like a very long time—much longer than it had taken in real life—they walked. Neither spoke. They moved slowly to avoid the sections where the floor had weakened, visible as depressions in the stonework. Every few yards they passed another pillar with the likeness of a minor deity carved at eye-level, candles guttering below, the face of each one forgotten the moment it was behind him.

Steven's pulse quickened at the sight of the stairs that led down into the crumbling heart of the collapsed temple. He knew what waited below.

As they descended, the temperature plummeted. Though his breath came in visible puffs, Steven's only concern was the occasional patch of ice underfoot, lingering evidence of the underground streams that had eaten the ground away from under the temple. Roots dangled from the ceiling where trees had reclaimed parts of the building. But in this version of the temple, the place where the floor had caved in so long ago was a smooth round hole, as if the opening had been created on purpose. In this dream, the pillars had landed upright, whole and unmarred.

Cynthia and Steven stepped out of the shadow of the upper floor and into a pool of light. Above, stained glass windows formed a dome where before there had only been a stone ceiling and faceless gods in the flickering gloom. Steven held out his hands to watch the fragmented rainbows dance across his skin.

Ahead, in the center of the light pouring from above, was the monument. Hunched shoulders, arms dragging to the ground. A thousand eyes carved in its chest. The arms were inscribed with runes, half-lost to the green and gray lichen.

Steven craned his head to see the top of the statue and tried to meet each of the stone eyes in turn. Who made you? Who put you to sleep? His heart ached at the impossibility of knowing.

Cynthia finally spoke up. "It's time to wake him." Runes crawled up her arms and neck like a rash. "You know what to do."

He did this time. Steven glanced down and found a knife already in his hand, the hilt inlaid with rubies and sapphires. Each one reflected his face in miniature. At the foot of the statue, he knelt and turned up one hand as if in supplication. He drew the blade across his palm—



Steven snapped awake in his bed, struggling for a moment to recognize what had woken him. In the blue pre-dawn light, he fumbled to find his buzzing phone on the bedside table.

"Hullo?"

"Steven—sorry to wake you. But this is—I didn't want to wait."

At the sound of Birch's voice, Steven sat up and put both feet on the floor. The tomb. He wouldn't have called if it wasn't important. "What's the news?"

"It opened."

Steven was already reaching for his belt and hiking boots. "I'm on my way."



I based this drawing of Steven on a particular US political figure, not because I actually picture him looking this gross but for thematic reasons. If you can guess who it is, you win a prize! (Though, sadly, the prize is just having that dude on your mind. You're welcome.)

Chapters 4 - 7 Review

Lots of twists and turns to cover.

First off, the big one—Archie being Natalie’s lost older brother. I was anticipating him to be lost for most of the story, and I had even anticipated he would be part of Magma, not Aqua. Guess I couldn’t have been more wrong. As far as I’m concerned, though, he’s a villain. Sympathetic to an extent, and perhaps abandoning his family could be justified somehow… but even then, I noticed subtle indications that he cares about his initiative first and foremost. Very pertinent of you to mention that he let go of Natalie first after their hug.

Mark’s status as a Magma officer makes all this even spicier. Now that Natalie is traveling with Aqua for a brief period of time and has been roped into this whole mess, it’s no doubt that she’s going to run into Magma (and Mark) sooner or later.

Thoughts on chapter 7: I didn’t feel like much happened in this chapter. It was a fun read anyway because you’re skilled in showing versus telling, but I have to admit all of the corporate jargon and introspection tempted me to skim in some places. Still, I didn’t miss the part where they very likely confirmed that they’d recovered Gibson, even though neither Mark nor DevCo understands the importance of that yet. At least, that’s my theory, since it was mentioned that a single Pokeball had been recovered from the riot.

Overall, heavy political tones in Pokémon fanfiction aren’t typically my cup of tea, if for no other reason than I usually read fanfiction to escape politics rather than indulge in it. Maybe it’s all just a little too realistic, which isn’t even a bad thing necessarily. With personal inhibitions out of the way, I want to compliment exactly that—the political, environmental, and moral struggle taking place strikes me as perfectly reasonable from Natalie’s point of view. If it were just Mark’s POV and Steven’s POV, I don’t think I’d be nearly as impressed with the story’s portrayal of the struggle. They both strike me as very uncompromising with their beliefs and standards, and Natalie offers immense levity to the situation. With her around, the active parties at play here—Magma, Aqua, the government—are all reigned in sufficiently by the narration, and that’s been a big motivator to continue reading. You seem to be the type of author who doesn’t leave any stone unturned or necessary issue left unacknowledged.
 

OldschoolJohto

Don’t underestimate seeds.
Pronouns
She/Her
Partner
solrock
@TheGOAT what a nice surprise to hear from you! Thanks for taking the leap of faith and giving it a shot.

Hey! Saw someone had posted about this in Official Actions and decided to give it a try.
Who knew that was a source of advertising, lol! Score 1, Blacklight.

Hell of a hook. I’m absolutely going to keep reading.
Yesssss. I’m so glad to hear the revised opening chapter is landing.

I’m sensing a pattern where you’re targeting aspects of the Pokémon world that never received enough worldbuilding in canon.
I do think those are often the things that catch my attention. I’m definitely writing our world but with pokemon in it, so filling up the gaps with tiny details from my daily existence help me feel like it’s real and has dimension. Like, almost every city I write is low-key my city. Rustboro especially. (Sad Kitakyushu sounds. Sorry, Gamefreak.)

They did sort of just meet, but they seem to hit it off well, especially through their back-and-forth dialogue.
Haha and OOPS. Easy come easy go! Glad their early interactions feel natural and realistic, though!

Lastly, I like the art at the end of each chapter.
Ooh, thank you! It’s a nice way to lavish love on my babies without bogging down the narrative. Mark and Natalie were my first original characters ever (they’re teenagers now!), so I have really clear mental pictures of them ... but I like to keep things moving, too. If someone pictures then differently, that’s fine. But this is what I’m imagining.

I can’t help but wonder if the unseen figure who threw the rock was a double-agent.
It’s intentionally a little vague. Mark is telling the truth that he thinks it’s an agent provocateur. My lived experience matches up with that. But! He could be wrong. Lots of people in Magma do whatever they feel like.

It does plenty to add a gray element to how I view MGMA with what little I currently know. Mark, who seems like a decent guy, is one of them, after all. Still, you made it pretty clear that the initial protesters were uncomfortable by MGMA’s appearance, so I’m not sold yet.
I expect that internal barometer is gonna keep sliding around! It’s messy and complicated. I don’t think they’re evil ... but if I lived in this world, I’d be partying with Erica Spitfire before anyone else.

I was anticipating him to be lost for most of the story, and I had even anticipated he would be part of Magma, not Aqua. Guess I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Haha zagged on you, I guess! Fun to see what you thought was happening there. A fair guess!

As far as I’m concerned, though, he’s a villain. Sympathetic to an extent, and perhaps abandoning his family could be justified somehow… but even then, I noticed subtle indications that he cares about his initiative first and foremost.
Interesting that his lack of loyalty to his family is what makes him villainous for you! We’ll see how that relationship develops .... 👀

Thoughts on chapter 7: I didn’t feel like much happened in this chapter. It was a fun read anyway because you’re skilled in showing versus telling, but I have to admit all of the corporate jargon and introspection tempted me to skim in some places.
Yeah, fair! I certainly might revise parts of this chapter later. Chapter 10 builds on what happens here, but that doesn’t justify skimability by itself. Probably several things could be improved. I’m not sure yet what changes I want to make—I think I have to write further ahead to know—but I’ll flag it and keep it in mind.

If it makes you feel better, the next chapter has a LOT more going on. 🙃

Still, I didn’t miss the part where they very likely confirmed that they’d recovered Gibson, even though neither Mark nor DevCo understands the importance of that yet.
Ah, so—! DevCo has Shelly’s sealeo. Gibs is with Aqua. Specifically, Scarlet has him.

heavy political tones in Pokémon fanfiction aren’t typically my cup of tea, if for no other reason than I usually read fanfiction to escape politics rather than indulge in it
Totally fair. I get that. I think it’s true for a lot of folks in the community. For me ... God, I can’t stop. The political situation in the US gives me a lot of anxiety. Writing about it gives me a sense of control and lets me make something meaningful from all the garbage. Filtering the real world through something fun like pokemon makes all the bad news easier for me to stomach. I know it doesn’t look like it right now, but the place I imagine this story ending is a hopeful one. I want to imagine a world where two people can (eveeeeentually) put aside their differences and work together.

I’m glad that, even if it isn’t your usual thing, the politics feel genuine!
strikes me as perfectly reasonable from Natalie’s point of view. If it were just Mark’s POV and Steven’s POV, I don’t think I’d be nearly as impressed with the story’s portrayal of the struggle.
Nice! It’s a lot to balance, and I’m also aware it means Natalie has a lot less agency than other characters right now. Glad to hear you’re getting something from her POV.

You seem to be the type of author who doesn’t leave any stone unturned
Pun intended!

I’m so happy to hear it sounds like you’ve enjoyed what you read so far! If you decide to stick with it, I’ll be excited to hear what you think about the next few twists n’ turns. ;) Thanks so much again for giving it your time.
 
Chapter 11: The Water Bearer New

OldschoolJohto

Don’t underestimate seeds.
Pronouns
She/Her
Partner
solrock
Chapter 11: The Water Bearer

Natalie's head pounded like the worst hangover she'd ever had, but with none of the fun the night before. Even blinking hurt. The curtains were drawn, but the muted light was enough to make out the dresser she'd covered in stickers, the band posters curling at the edges, and the desk stacked with unfamiliar boxes. Home, almost exactly as she'd left it.

She pulled the blankets over her head, not wanting to rise from oblivion. Not wanting to remember flames drifting across the water, the smell of burned fur, or cruel, gray eyes above a red bandana.

But she was awake now, her body announcing all its needs. She checked the time and groaned: it was already past noon. Wincing and hissing, Natalie crawled out of bed. Most of her clothes were still here: like a good trainer, she had taken only the essentials when she left. She pulled on sweatpants and a hoodie, breathing in their familiar homey scent, and then shambled down the hallway to the kitchen.

She found a note stuck to the fridge: Didn't want to wake you, but I'm excited to see you for dinner! Text me and let me know what you want. Help yourself to anything in the fridge. Love you.

So Mom had heard her come in last night after all. Natalie felt a twinge of guilt, but more than that, she was glad to have the house to herself for a few hours. She didn't know what she'd say to her parents, Dad especially. Would it be kinder to tell him about Archie or not to?

She had time to figure it out. It didn't have to be now.

Natalie rooted around the junk drawer until she found a bottle of ibuprofen and then washed the pills down with oran juice straight from the carton. There was a half-filled carton of eggs in the fridge and a tupperware of leftover pasta sauce, but Natalie didn't have it in her to actually cook anything. Maybe later. Instead, she rolled together deli meat slices and Kraft Singles, demolishing the wad in two bites. Then, with a jar of peanut butter and the oran juice carton tucked under one arm, she dragged herself to the couch and curled up under a blanket like she did when she was sick. She nibbled peanut butter from a spoon and clicked through TV channels. When she landed at last on a trainer travel advisory, she stopped out of habit.

"—got quite a shock when the eruption began this morning shortly after five. After several hours, there are still no signs of it letting up."

Dense, curdled clouds bulged over Mount Chimney, stretching out of frame. Natalie stopped with the spoon halfway to her mouth. She'd known Mount Chimney was a volcano, but she'd thought it was long dead.

"Those clouds may look like smoke, but they're actually actually made of water vapor, carbon dioxide, and particles of rock and glass…"

Planning her route across Hoenn, she'd swiped through dozens of photos, trainers and tourists posing on the crater ledge or hiking into the bowl—oblivious to the slow burbling of magma below. There was so much that people didn't pay attention to. The more Natalie learned about the world, the stupider she felt.

"Masks are recommended for travelers on routes 111, 113, and 114, and pokemon should be released with caution. Although there is currently no evacuation order in effect for Lavaridge Town, the mayor has advised the public to remain indoors. Cable car service will be suspended until further notice."

If things had gone differently in Rustboro, if she had never gone to the protest, she might be in Lavaridge right now, hiding out in the pokecenter, watching the ash come down and waiting for the news station's next prophetic announcement. There was no escaping it, was there? Hoenn was exploding from one end to the other, whether by acts of nature or human stupidity.

"Geologists say that sudden eruptions from previously dormant volcanoes are not unheard of. Mount Chimney may not have erupted for more than a hundred years, but to a volcano, that's like no time at all."

The footage cut to a woman absently patting her graveler's head. Professor Anna Karst, apparently.

"We study volcanic activity to predict the likelihood of violent, destructive eruptions. Of course, there's no such thing as absolute certainty when it comes to volcanoes, but as of right now, there's no reason to be overly concerned."

"We'll continue with more Mount Chimney updates as the situation develops. Cassandra Burns, Channel 10 News, Lavaridge."


Natalie reached for the remote—but before she could click away, the scene changed to one she recognized all too well.

"Cleanup continues in the wake of the disastrous pipeline accident that destroyed the Route 110 overpass and left miles of marshland burning late into the night."

Accident. The word sizzled in her mind.

By the light of day, the overpass looked worse than it had the night before. The bridge had snapped in two, and the broken ends sagged at forty-five-degree angles, girders jutting from the concrete like exposed bone. Chunks of concrete dangled from steel cables and swayed in the wind. Rubble lay in a heap underneath, pale against the scorched field.

"The explosion occurred around 2:05 a.m., drenching an area the size of an Ever Grande stadium with oil. Some of the oil burned off in the fires that followed, but by the time the pipeline could be shut down, an estimated two million liters had already spilled. We go now to the terrifying footage from last night."

The broadcast cut to a dark, shaky video, what looked like a cellphone or pokedex recording of the fiery column shooting above the overpass. The fire looked small and distant in the middle of the grainy black, only an echo of the terrible heat she'd experienced firsthand.

"The Devon Corporation gave a statement earlier this morning."

"We care deeply about the health of our customers and the community. No one is more invested than we are in ensuring our pipeline system operates as intended: safely and reliably."


Natalie speared her spoon into the jar and left it standing upright.

"Investigations into the cause of the explosion are still underway in cooperation with local law enforcement. When asked if they suspected foul play, officials said they're currently considering all possibilities."

The word investigation gave Natalie a zing of hope, and for a moment she allowed herself to imagine Mark in handcuffs, unmasked to the world. She could give the police his name. Mark ... D-something. Okay, maybe not. It didn't matter—the Rustboro gym would have the information. But she had no proof that he'd done anything or even that he'd been there except for her word ... and she would have to explain what had brought her to Route 110.

What good would it do if they arrested him anyway? The other Magma jerks would pick up where he left off.

She drew the blanket tighter around herself, but she didn't change the channel.

"But local activists remain concerned about the long-term environmental impacts of the spill."

The text blurb announced the next speaker simply as Redbird. Natalie thought immediately of Erica Spitfire, that same weathered face and fierce delivery. He used words like groundwater contamination and ecological niche, but they washed against her without sinking in—it was too much, too awful.

"And that's not even touching on the grimer problem."

Natalie gasped when the video feed jumped to a shot of grayish water oozing down the coast like a second spill, stretching tendrils towards the dark shimmers on the water's surface. Twisted little faces bubbled up in the spume, subsumed one another, and sank back down.

"To hundreds of grimer and muk making their way down downstream from Mauville City, an oil spill looks like an all-you-can-eat buffet. Given a large enough food supply, a population of grimers can double in as little as one day."

Despair pressed Natalie down like a hand to her chest. Her thoughts circled back again and again to one landing spot: it wasn't fair. The places that were already most vulnerable shouldn't have to survive more blows. Fair or unfair, the footage rolled on and on, more of the same.

"The Marine Spill Response Corporation has put out a call for trainers in Slateport and Mauville to assist in catching these troublesome pokemon. And that's not the most unusual source of help to arrive in the aftermath of the Ridge Access spill."

The camera panned across the crowd of emergency responders and trainers at the water's edge and—They're still there! Natalie bolted upright. She tried to pick out familiar faces, but all she saw were blue bandanas streaked with soot.

"Historically, the extremist group ORCA has had a violent, antagonistic relationship with local authorities, claiming credit for a number of destructive acts in and around Slateport. Today, however, they're joining the cleanup efforts."

A Marine Spill Response crewman in neon coveralls appeared onscreen. For a moment, he looked so much like Dad that Natalie did a double take.

"I'll just say they wouldn't be my first choice, but … when you have a situation like this, you take help where you can get it."

The shore was crowded with dozens of trainers and crewmen in day-glo coveralls; ORCA stood apart from the others, but they looked as busy as anyone else: directing pokemon to chase grimer into the paths of capture beams, raising trenches along the shore, shoveling black goo into buckets. Last night, only a handful of sailors had left the Ultimatum with Sinbad, and now at least thirty of them were gathered at the spill site. Had they left and come back, or had they been there all through the night?

She should've stayed.

Natalie realized she'd bent forward with her elbows on her thighs and her chin raised to the TV like a flower seeking sun. She forced herself to take a deep breath and sit back, but her eyes didn't leave the screen. The news anchor spoke placatingly over shots of volunteers in rubber gloves sudsing an oiled electrike, but Natalie's heart pounded. She couldn't just sit on her ass and watch.

Ignoring her body's protests, Natalie jumped up for jeans and her belt. When she returned, hopping from one foot to the other to pull on her socks, the screen had gone red. A lone figure sat dead-center—a man, she thought, despite the long hair—but the backlighting made his face an impenetrable mask of shadows.

"What you're seeing is the natural consequence of allowing corporations to self-regulate—they don't."

His voice was digitally altered, but what struck her was its clipped cadence, each word sterile and sharp. Natalie hated him instantly.

This is not the first time a Devon pipeline has spilled on Hoenn soil, and it certainly won't be the last."

And he would know. Fuck them, fuck them, fuck them. Rage and disgust throbbed in every aching inch of her.

"Events like this one will continue unless the Hoenn legislature takes immediate action: increase government oversight of corporations, commit to conserving wilderness, and curb greenhouse gas emissions. A government should serve its people, not corporations.

"Magma is watching, and we will not back down."


The transmission cut abruptly.

"Thank you for your patience while we resolved some technical difficulties! This is Channel 10 news, Slateport's premier news source. We're live on the scene at Route 110 …."

"What the fuck was that?" Natalie demanded of the TV. Had they actually just hijacked Channel 10? She drew her anger around herself like a shield to keep the worry out.

There were more aerial shots of the crumbling overpass and the rainbow sheen on the water's surface, but nothing more about Magma or ORCA—not one glimpse of anyone who might be Archie. But he had to be there, somewhere just offscreen. He'd said it himself: this was their home. If he was out there right now trying to undo what Magma had done, then he was fighting on the right side. Then he was still her brother.



The stench of oil and burnt earth was dizzying. Natalie didn't have anything else to cover her nose and mouth, so she was grateful she'd thought to bring the blue bandana, hastily hand-washed and wrung out in the sink. She'd turned the skull and crossbones to face inward, but as soon as she saw the crowd, she realized it didn't matter: no one but ORCA was wearing blue here.

At the edge of the scorched grass, she paused with her hands on her hips, taking shallow breaths. Out on the water, skimmers drifted like aquatic roombas inside the oil containment booms. Bulldozers assisted by machokes scraped up piles of pulverized concrete and then rumbled away with them. A helicopter chattered noisily overhead. Under a canopy tent, pairs of volunteers gently sponged oil-dark pelippers; many more birds lay heaped along the water, unmoving and difficult to distinguish from the mud except for a jutting wing or beak. Both sorrow and purposefulness hung thick in the air, the crowd quiet but in constant motion. And as she'd seen in the news report, ORCA worked several yards from the next closest volunteers.

Natalie had come prepared with pokeballs for grimer, but she wasn't sure where to jump in. The ORCA work crew tempted her. She'd spent enough time on their ship to learn some of their names and to know that none of them shied from physical labor—they would put her to work if she asked. Her brother was almost certainly somewhere among them, and part of her was eager to talk to him about what had happened. He knew it wasn't an accident.

But she hesitated. None of them had come to her aid last night, not even Archie. Sinbad. More importantly—They're still criminals. Don't be an idiot.

She didn't have to work with ORCA to help.

Before she could decide where to go, someone chirped behind her, "Hi! Did you—?"

She turned to face a girl with a tie-dyed face mask and clipboard. At the sight of Natalie's bandana, the girl jerked her head back and then narrowed her eyes. Her words came out stiffer this time. "Are you a registered volunteer?"

"I heard you guys needed trainers to catch grimer. I've got a bunch of pokeballs."

"So is your name on the list?" Without looking at it, the girl trailed a finger down the front of her clipboard.

Natalie lifted her chin higher. "I just want to help."

The girl primly folded her clipboard against her neon vest. "At this time, we are only taking in volunteers who've filled out the online form."

"But what about …."

Natalie followed the girl's gaze to the ORCA group across the field. What was the problem if they were allowed to—of course. They weren't allowed to be here, but who was going to pick a fight with a big group like that? But Natalie, all on her own, was easy pickings.

"If you won't leave peacefully, we're prepared to escort you out." She put her hand to a belt full of pokeballs.

Shaking her head, Natalie took a step back. Heat rushed to her face. "I haven't even done anything—"

"Are you serious right now?"

Natalie felt a hand on her arm and jumped, anticipating a verbal lashing from yet another stranger. But the woman who had stepped up next to her, drawing her against her side, wore a skull and crossbones bandana. Her hair was tucked under a baseball cap, and Natalie almost didn't recognize her as Shelly.

"Do not fuck with blue today. This is our coast."

Clipboard girl shrank back but unhooked a pokeball.

Several volunteers had turned to watch, but Shelly seemed not to care. "Uh huh. How do you think that's gonna end?" She gazed imperiously at the girl, one hand on her belt and her other on Natalie's arm. After a long, tense moment, she said, "That's what I thought. Come on." Natalie didn't resist when Shelly tugged her forward.

Feeling eyes on her back, Natalie glanced over her shoulder. The nearby volunteers shot them ugly looks before begrudgingly turning away. At last, clipboard girl did as well, and Natalie breathed out in relief.

As they walked, Shelly reached to yank Natalie's hood up over her head. "Girl, you don't want that hair on TV. Where the hell did you go? Sinbad's been freaking out."

Natalie stumbled. "He was? I didn't think he wanted me here."

"He was definitely pissed when he found out Scarlet had brought you, and then more pissed when no one could find you."

They crunched over the brittle, blackened grass, towards ORCA's segment of the coast. One moment, there was only a shifting mass of humans interspersed with pokemon. The next, like a magic trick revealed, Archie was right in front of them, recognizable by his frame even from behind.

An armaldo at his side raked piles of dirt with its claws, shoring up an embankment separating clean and contaminated soil. Archie wielded a shovel, filling in gaps. Natalie's heart surged with pride at the sight of him laboring under the sun. In the open. There could've been cops here—probably had been already—and she was sure they'd love to get their hands on the leader of ORCA. He could've sent others in his stead. Except, no, he couldn't. He couldn't sit back and watch any more than she could. In that, at least, they were the same.

When he stopped to wipe his face, stabbing the shovel into the mound of earth, he caught sight of Shelly and Natalie. Several expressions cycled across his face: exhaustion, confusion, then recognition. "Goddamn." Bringing a hand over his face, he let out a whoosh of breath that could've been either relief or irritation. At last he said, "You went home."

"Yeah." That feeling of smallness was creeping up on her again. She snuck a glance at Shelly but couldn't read her expression.

Archie looked Natalie over with bitter-edged amusement. He raised an eyebrow at Shelly, who responded with an exaggerated shrug. "So, what, you're joining the ranks now?"

Natalie couldn't help it—she recoiled.

"That's what I thought. Go back home, Small Fry." He said it gently, which somehow stung more.

"I can't just sit and do nothing!" All around, ORCA sailors paused their work to watch, and it only deepened her desperation. "I can help catch grimer or dig ditches—whatever. I'll do any of it." She hated the pleading in her own voice but couldn't stop herself.

Archie shrugged, taking up his shovel again. "Then do it." Without waiting to see her reaction, he turned back to shoveling earth.

Shelly nudged her. Pointing with her chin, she said, "I'm going to help those guys round up grimer." The sailors parted to make room for them.

Closer to the water, the oil fumes intensified, mixed with the grimer brew of twice-baked garbage and sewage. Every time Natalie thought she'd acclimated, a wave of new odors hit her, a richer putrefaction. The grimer rolled across the water, endlessly pinching apart like taffy and and melding with other grimer globs.

They couldn't attack them, one of Natalie's neighbors quickly pointed out: disturbing water would only spread more oil around, and with so many trainers on the water, there was also a risk of hitting a teammate by mistake. Instead, they threw one pokeball after another, missing almost as often as not; the grimer were slippery. Natalie had bought a bulk bag of one hundred pokeballs and still worried she hadn't brought enough. When the grimer managed to lay claim to a floating patch of oil, the water seethed with their rapid dividing, two new ones forming for each one they caught.

Pokemon that could fly or float herded grimer in a delicate dance of forcing them away from the oil while keeping them concentrated together. Natalie hated to send Amelia back into this after last night's close calls, but none of her other pokemon could get close enough. At first, she couldn't understand why they couldn't simply drive them further out to sea—until a golbat came too close and the grimer scattered, riding the current as far south as they could. Towards Slateport.

"Everyone downstream is getting fucked by this no matter what we do," grumbled one of the nearby girls.

Natalie cringed at the mental image of grimer washing up on the piers where outdoor markets were held, at the shipyard. She couldn't imagine the damage they could do to the fisheries. "Clean up the oil and they starve, right?"

She aimed her capture beam, but the grimer squelched out of the way, sloshing ashore. It wrapped around Natalie's leg and managed to pull her partway into the stinking mud before the other girl caught it.

"Yeah, too bad even the dead ones are toxic as fuck," she panted. Together, they turned their gazes to Natalie's pants leg, which was caked with purple sludge. "Let's, uh, hose that off."

It was wretched work, but the ORCA sailors cracked dirty jokes and kept each other laughing through it. Despite herself, Natalie joined in; any excuse to laugh was a relief. Every so often, someone split off, returning with armfuls of fresh water bottles and potions before she had even noticed they'd left.

"You should take a break." Shelly had reappeared suddenly at Natalie's side.

"I'm okay," Natalie said, forcing a grin, though it was hidden behind her bandana. She refused to be outdone by ORCA.

Shelly shrugged. "Suit yourself, I guess."

By the time Archie slipped in next to Natalie either minutes or hours later, she was lightheaded, her hair was plastered to her neck with sweat, and she was almost out of pokeballs.

"Come on, kid," he said. "Break time."

This time she didn't argue. She whistled for Amelia. Then, pulling down her sweaty bandana, she followed her brother and his mightyena away from the noxious water, towards an area where the grass was still green.

ORCA had rigged up their own tarp, where sailors and their pokemon took shelter from the sun. Most lounged in the grass, their bandanas down around their necks, but a few people sat in fold-up chairs and someone straddled the ice cooler. At Sinbad and Natalie's approach, the sailors scrambled from their chairs. A startled poochyena gave out a shrill bark.

"Relax," Sinbad said with a laugh. "You guys doing alright?"

A chorus of affirmations rang out. The sailors who stood up didn't sit back down, though.

Sinbad pointed to an empty chair and told Natalie, "Sit. I don't want anyone getting heatstroke."

She did, gratefully. Across from Natalie, a girl sat cross-legged in the grass, a corphish in her lap; she smiled, and Natalie returned it unthinkingly. It was so easy to forget who these people were. She turned away, but Archie had vanished.

He returned moments later with a water bottle for each of them and dragged one of the unoccupied chairs next to hers. "You did good out there."

She eyed him warily, forcing herself to search his face for the evidence of a hardened criminal. Mostly, he looked like a hardworking volunteer. His forehead was shades darker than the parts of his face the bandana had covered, and something black spattered his clothes—difficult to tell if it was oil or grimer slime.

"Thanks," Natalie said, After a moment, she added, "Channel 10 is calling it an accident, you know. Someone should tell them it was Magma."

"Sure." Archie shrugged. "Won't stop DevCo, though." He was twelve years her senior, but at that moment, he looked even older than that.

The thought of DevCo quieted Natalie. Magma was one thing. They were awful, but at least she knew they were people. But how could you fight a corporation?

She squirted water into Amelia's waiting mouth, then took a sip for herself—back and forth until, all too soon, the bottle was empty. All the while, she felt the gazes of both Sinbad and Justice on her; the mightyena lay at her brother's side with his tongue lolling but his mismatched ears perked up.

At last, Archie spoke up. "I won't be able to protect you if you keep coming around, Natalie." She squinted at him, and so, misunderstanding, he added, "I already told you: we can't babysit anyone."

"I noticed. I fought one of those Magma guys alone last night."

If he noticed the accusation in her voice, his only reaction was to raise his eyebrows. "Huh. Seems like you can handle yourself alright, then. I'm impressed."

"Not really." She tried to channel her anger into it, but it came out sounding petulant. Rubbing a bruise on her shoulder, she looked away. "I wish I was strong enough to make him pay for this—for everything. But I'm not."

"Is punishing Magma what you want?"

Absolutely, she wanted to say, but she also knew that wasn't all he was asking. She felt the undertow's pull beneath his words. It was an invitation, one that set her heart beating in a sickening rhythm. Instead, she stared into the distance and said, "Someone has to. And it probably won't be the cops."

Sinbad bared a grin, but his eyes were storm cloud dark. "No. It'll be us."

Natalie nodded, the words sinking in her mind like a stone. Solid. Weighty. It felt true.

She gave herself permission to look around at the surrounding sailors, the ragtag crew who stood between Magma and acts of destruction. The ones who had shown up to help without being asked, without thanks. The ones who'd shown her around their ship and made sure she never ate alone. They chattered amongst themselves, stretched, drank water, or tended to their pokemon. Even at rest, each of them looked ready to leap up and throw a punch at a moment's notice.

And they stared back at her, not bothering to hide it. Clearly, Sinbad didn't care what they heard—he trusted them. He believed in them.

She hoped he was right to put his trust in them.

From here, Natalie couldn't see the water, but the stench of oil and grimer still wafted on the breeze. Had the work they'd done today even made a difference? She stared across the expanse of blackened grass, and her heart broke all over again. There was so much work to be done and so much that might never fully heal. The volunteers at the water's edge had already begun to thin and scatter. The sun crept towards the horizon at their backs, casting the lingering work crews in the syrupy light of a retro postcard.

Natalie glanced at her watch. "I should go soon. I feel bad leaving, but … Mom is expecting me for dinner." She glanced at Archie. "You could ..." But she stopped herself.

Archie met her eyes, saying nothing.

No. No, he couldn't.

He spoke slowly, "If you want to help, there is something you could do."

She turned away, watching Amelia preen her feathers. But she was listening, every nerve ending alive with it. "What is it?"

"Sin. We don't know her." Natalie jumped; she hadn't noticed Scarlet's approach. Scarlet held herself at a distance, like a wild zigzagoon eyeing a camper's plate and waiting for the opportunity to pounce.

Natalie brought her gaze back to her brother. "You don't know me?" she repeated incredulously.

He shot Scarlet a cold look. "Who else would you send? She's perfect for it."

Scarlet folded her arms, "She could bail. Or go to the cops."

Natalie silently begged Archie to stand up for her, but he only gave her a long, searching look. "You gonna talk to the cops, Natalie?"

"No."

Scarlet started to protest, but he held up a hand to silence her. "It's your call. Are you helping or going home?"

Under Scarlet's imperious gaze, Natalie sat up straighter, rolling her shoulders back. "I can help."



When she got home, Natalie washed her hair twice and changed into fresh clothes—her third outfit in a single day—but she still felt dirty. Her smartwatch lay atop the dresser, and she couldn't shake the feeling that it was watching her. Or that the porygon inside it was. Sinbad had laughingly reassured her, "Z's the opposite of an NSA spook." All the same, Natalie tossed her towel over the watch when she finished drying her hair.

"Come on, Luna. Dinner."

Natalie had picked Luna up from the pokecenter on the way home, and she'd spent the last hour curled on the bed, hind paws tucked under her chin. At the mention of dinner, she leapt into motion, barking and prancing circles around Natalie.

She laughed, relieved. "You're feeling better, huh?"

And then Luna launched herself through a shadow on the wall, trailing black vapor.

"Luna, no! Sit!"

From the kitchen came a scream. But by the time Natalie skidded into the room, Mom was laughing, mussing Luna's fur with both hands. When she caught sight of Natalie, she cried out, "There you are! Welcome home!" She threw her arms around Natalie, but the hug was cut short by Luna jumping up at them, whining.

"Yes, of course we missed you too, Luna," Mom cooed. Luna's tail beat a happy rhythm against the cabinets. "You're so big now!"

"Hadn't she already evolved the last time I was here?" Natalie had been fresh off her first badge then, bursting with confidence and the thrill of adventure. Returning home the first time had felt like wearing too-tight clothes. This time, home felt like an airbag cushioning her fall.

"Could be," Mom agreed. "I guess I haven't stopped thinking of her as a poochyena."

"She's a lot stronger now." Natalie leaned her hip against the counter, frowning. "I dunno if you want to rile her up like that before dinner. Is her bowl still—aaah!"

Two big hands caught her by the shoulders and shook her.

"Daaaaad! Don't do that!" She whirled on him, grinning even as she swatted his hands away, but he pulled her off balance and into a hug.

"Haha, gotcha!" He turned her loose again. "Good to see you!"

"You scared the sh—" She caught herself. "You scared me!"

"Now you know how I feel when you don't call or answer my emails."

He was smiling, leaning to let Luna sniff his hand, but Natalie blanched. "Oh gods, I'm sorry, Dad. I didn't have service for a couple days."

"I told him not to worry." Mom rolled her eyes but smiled affectionately. "You're young—and a trainer! It's natural to want your independence."

"Sure. And maybe she can independently let us know every so often that she hasn't been trafficked out to Orre."

"Bruce."

"What? I'm just saying I like knowing you're safe."

Bruce Armstrong's booming voice and sweeping hand gestures created the impression of a larger man. His fingers were blunt, his face square. Sturdy. But now, after time away, Natalie noticed his soft paunch, the raw-looking freckles down his arms. Behind him, the table was set for three, an empty space in front of the fourth chair.

Dad had been worrying about the wrong things all along. He had no idea that Archie was right here in Slateport tonight, as close as a shadow. It felt unkind, but if Natalie wanted to help her brother—help them both, arguably—she couldn't tell him yet.

"I'm safe," Natalie said. "Promise. You don't don't have to worry about me."

"Worrying is what we do, honey," said Mom, squeezing her shoulders. "Now I don't know about you two, but I'm starved."

Once they'd sat, served themselves, and given thanks to the life-giver, the conversation turned to badges. Natalie had expected it, and she was ready. She talked about Dewford beaches, her match with Brawly, and the ferry until she ran out of things to say. Then she took a deep breath and lied: Rustboro was pretty and quiet, and getting her badge had been a cinch. That was that.

"Good thing you left when you did," Dad said, stabbing at his plate. "The news out there has been a real mess."

Natalie couldn't think of a single thing to say that wouldn't worry him more, so she took a large bite instead. "Mm," she said, nodding.

"Not that things are much better here lately. They're calling Route 110 an accident, but we all know it was ORCA."

She stopped chewing. "But they helped with the cleanup." Hastily, she added, "I saw it on Channel 10."

"Natty, if someone murdered me in the street, it wouldn't be any less terrible just because they paid for the funeral. It's a publicity stunt. A get out of jail free card." He shook his head. "And, apparently, it's working. Those Rustboro cops dropped the ball."

"Rustboro?" Mom caught her eye and shook her head. Natalie knew there was no arguing with him—when he was on a roll, he didn't back down—but she couldn't stop herself this time. "Dad, that was a totally different thing."

"You think it's a coincidence that a pipeline blows up a week after a riot? No, sir. You can bet all those thugs are in cahoots with each other."

Pressure mounted behind her eyes. How was she supposed to explain that she'd seen first-hand the difference between people like Mark and people like her brother?

"I don't think—"

"When these people are left to run wild, people are going to get hurt. It's only a matter of time," he continued. "The cops have got to start taking these things more seriously, throw every last one of them in jail where they belong."

If there had been more arrests in Rustboro, maybe she wouldn't have encountered Mark out on the marsh—or maybe she would've been arrested instead. She winced, remembering the manectric teeth snapping together inches away from her face, and she set down her fork.

Mom cut in, "Do we have to talk about this at the table?"

"Alright, alright." Dad mimed zipping his lips, locking the end, and tossing the key out of the room.

Natalie imagined a big, sturdy lock over her own heart. She would never be able to tell him about the protest or the Route 110 cleanup. Or Archie.

"I want to hear more about Natalie's journey," Mom said, determined to remain cheerful. "You must have added some new pokemon to your team by now, right?"

Natalie breathed out slowly. "Well, Amelia evolved." Urged on by appreciative sounds from Mom, she continued. "I also caught a whismur, Gus. He's the baby. Oh, and I don't think I told you about Sam yet."

She stole an uneasy glance at Dad, but it was too late now. She'd already brought it up. "I traded my machop for a timburr—well, gurdurr now. I like him a lot."

The problem, of course, was that he was a foreign invader. How many times had she heard Dad rail against Kantoan ships for tracking invasive shellder into the harbor? Shellder stayed small in the warm waters, undesirable to most trainers, but the perfect size to infiltrate drainage pipes and choke them shut. They have no idea what that does to the local economy!

"Gurdurr, huh?" Dad chewed thoughtfully for a few moments. To her surprise, he cracked a grin. "We could use one of those at the shipyard. You should let me borrow him sometime."

"Funny you should say that ..." Here it was. Natalie's heart began to race, but she pushed herself through it. "I was wondering if maybe sometime this week I could shadow you at work?"

Her parents exchanged looks of surprise. Dad settled into amusement. "Thinking about taking up welding, Butter?"

"Maybe, actually."

Mom furrowed her brow. "Honey, what about the rest of your badges?"

"Yeah, no, of course," she said in a rush. "It's just ... I dunno, I thought it would be good to start working on a backup plan, for after. You know, feeling things out."

Mom made a worried face at Dad, but he wasn't looking. "It's hard work but ... I don't see a reason you couldn't learn if you really wanted to. Seeing what it's like would be a good first step."

"That's what I was thinking, yeah. I want to learn more about it."

It wasn't completely untrue. The shipyard was familiar, a sprawling fortress that held childhood memories. She might enjoy that kind of work: she liked being outside and using her hands, and she'd even taken metalworking as an elective her last year of high school. Besides, it couldn't be worse than rounding up grimer.

And she didn't have to do anything for Archie—she could change her mind. She could just ... investigate. Decide from there.

"I'll have to check with the project manager, but ... if he okays it, I don't see why not. You gonna be able to get out of bed at five?"

Oh gods, he was excited about this idea, grinning from ear to ear. Could she really go through with this? But he gave her an expectant look, and then backing out didn't feel like an option anymore.

"I'll be up."

"Bring your gurdurr and we'll put at least one of you to work." He laughed at his own joke, and Natalie made herself smile along, avoiding Mom's gaze.

"I will," she said. And a porygon.



Mom packed breakfast burritos and lunches for both of them like Natalie and her dad were a pair of kids off to their first day of school. In the truck, Dad sang loudly to the radio, making exaggerated faces to try to get a laugh out of her. Finally he elbowed her. "What's up? Tired?"

"Nervous," she answered honestly.

"Nervous? You kidding? The girl who fights with monsters for fun is nervous about hanging out with a bunch of old farts?"

She allowed herself a smile.

"This isn't a performance review. You're not going to be doing any welding today. You just get to kick back and watch."

Right. Watch.

She'd never noticed the weight of her Gear watch until the past twelve hours, how the wristband chafed against her skin—though it looked the same inside and out as it had before. After dinner, she'd scrolled through her apps for signs of change, but nothing had stood out. A thought had occurred to her: "You still in there?" she'd said and at once felt ridiculous—but then the watch had chimed with a text alert, a smiling emoticon from Zinfandel.

If Sinbad hadn't told her, she would have had no way of knowing the porygon was inside. He hadn't had to ask either—he could've bugged her watch without her knowing. He had asked, but the idea bothered her all the same. She'd thrown the towel over the watch again before she went to bed.

On the harbor, sunlight spilled red and gold across the water. The shipyard was all purple silhouettes: warehouses crisscrossed with the shadows of bridge cranes, half-built freighters latticed with scaffolding, smaller vessels gleaming along the piers.

The Secure-Tek barrier was nothing but a shimmer in the air, a hundred feet before the buildings. It would allow pokeballs through but not a loose pokemon, keeping away wild wingull … and other unauthorized pokemon. As the truck nosed through the gate, Natalie held her breath. But there was no alarm, not even as much as a tingle from her watch, and then it was behind them.

In the parking lot, Dad gestured towards the water and said, "We'll probably spend the morning at the assembly hall …."

The second Natalie opened the passenger side door and stepped onto the asphalt, an arc of pink and blue light leapt from her watch. In her surprise, she stumbled backward into the truck. The light skimmed silently along the ground, quick as a blink, and darted around a corner to the right. She swiveled to see if anyone had noticed.

"We'll grab protective gear for you and your pokemon first, though," Dad continued. "This way."

Natalie craned her neck, trying to spot the porygon around the corner, but Zinfandel was gone. What was Natalie supposed to do? She couldn't just leave her, but ….

Heart pounding, she tried to take up a casual tone. "What's that building over there?" She pointed in the direction she'd seen Zinfandel go.

"That would be Design. That's where our engineers draft the plans we build from. I'll show you what some of those look like later."

Clever porygon.

Dad started off in the opposite direction, but Natalie lagged behind. Archie had said that Zinfandel could mostly handle herself—"All she needs from you is a boost," he'd said—but how would Natalie get her back? She'd have to find an excuse to come back this way later, she decided, and jogged to catch up with Dad.

He greeted other shipbuilders as they walked, either calling out a nickname or waving rather than shouting to be heard over machinery. The way he navigated between slipways and forklifts, head high, reminded her of the way Archie moved aboard the Ultimatum. Whenever anyone passed close enough for conversation, Dad put an arm around Natalie and announced, "This is my daughter, home from training. She's already got three badges."

Her face colored each time. She waited for one of the men to demand to know why she was there, but none of them did. They turned their focus on Sam instead. "That's a solid-looking pokemon you've got! Is that your replacement, Armstrong?"

Natalie guided Samson with a hand on his shoulder; every time they passed a worker with a machoke, he flexed and pounded his chest until the other pokemon scowled at them. "Yeah, yeah, we know. You're very strong," she said, patting his arm. "But we're not here to fight anyone." That was the entire point: if she carried Zinfandel past the energy barrier, ORCA didn't have to. They'd leave the shipyard alone.

Dad pointed out a steel beam, and at Natalie's order, Samson gleefully hefted it onto one shoulder. Then she had to coax him into pausing his one-handed military presses to fitting the beam into the rig. Natalie pulled Sam's goggles into place. Then they lowered their welding hoods, and Dad set to work. At his elbow, Natalie alternated between watching the spray of sparks and keeping an eye on Samson—all the while scheming up excuses to split off for the design building. If she said she'd gotten her period, maybe Dad would let her walk back to the truck by herself to get—

But she needn't have worried.

She looked up in time to catch a distant flash of blue and pink zigzagging along the support struts of a ship-in-progress. Natalie's heart stuttered along to the porygon's movement. At a shipbuilder's approach, Zinfandel ducked behind a cargo crate. She flickered solid, head bobbing in the air.

Someone is going to see you! But Natalie couldn't think of a way to warn Zinfandel off without calling more attention to her, so she clenched her jaw and watched.

Samson, turning to see where she was looking, gave out a grunt. Natalie clamped onto his arm, praying for him not to make a scene.

Finally, in a neon blur, the porygon zipped across the distance between them and dove into Natalie's watch screen, masked by the glow of welding torches all around. A moment later, her Gear vibrated with a text alert: ; )

"See that?" Dad said, and Natalie nearly jumped out of her skin—until she realized he was showing her the finished weld. "Slow and steady."

Snorting and frowning, Sam made a grab for Natalie's watch hand, and she jerked it away. "Right, gotcha," she said, holding him off with her other hand.

"Looks like he's ready to keep going," Dad said with a chuckle. "Why don't you have him bring over another beam."

They worked through the morning. At lunchtime, they drove to Sedge Park and ate their sandwiches together on the tailgate. Under Amelia's watchful eye, Sam, Gus, and Luna play-wrestled in the grass nearby.

Natalie was reminded of summer afternoons metal detecting with Dad, digging up pocket change, vintage badges, and sometimes clamperl. Bubba had joined them sometimes, too. When they tired of walking, they would sit on a dune and watch the wingulls fight over hotdog buns and other trash as the sun slowly sank. They hadn't done that since Natalie was a child. And, of course, most of the local clamperl had died off after Devon Horizon.

Neither of them spoke now. She was grateful not to have to explain herself or weave around difficult conversations. But at the same time, she couldn't help thinking of the quiet moments with Archie and Dad. Had Archie been holding secrets even then? And now she had secrets of her own.

Dad spoke up, jarring Natalie from her thoughts. "What do you think so far?"

She couldn't meet his gaze. "It's not so bad. Cool seeing the ships come together ..."

He was quiet for a moment, then he cleared his throat. "You know ... I know I give you a hard time about training ..."

Oh, Dad. "It's okay. I know you just want me to be safe."

"I do, but I also want you to be happy, Natalie." When she raised her head at last, there was such tenderness in his face that it hurt. "I'd love to see you become a welder or an engineer or even the captain of your own ship if that's what you want. But you don't have to do that for me to be proud of you. Gods only know how much I would've loved to go out adventuring when I was your age if I'd had the chance."

Natalie clutched his arm. She dug for a scrap of the truth he deserved to hear, an apology, a promise—but all she managed was, "Thanks, Dad."



New message from PRIVATE NUMBER, Zinfandel announced on the screen. With a sigh, Natalie rolled onto her back and held her arm over her face to read. What followed was an address and a time, tonight.

She closed her eyes and let her arm fall. This was her last chance to change her mind. She could throw her watch into a signal-blocking pouch and ... then what? If a single porygon were enough legal evidence to bring down ORCA, someone else would've done it by now. And neither Archie nor Dad would forgive her.

"We're not taking anything away from them. We're not trying to fucking outcompete them in the shipbuilding market. All we want is to borrow some of their knowledge and do our own thing."

By daylight, under the tarp on Route 110, it had sounded reasonable. But the only word she had for it now was theft.

The bed frame creaked as Luna hopped up beside her.

"Hi, Luna." Natalie sat up, grabbing for her. "What do you think, smart girl? Do you think I should go through with it?"

Luna thumped her tail on the mattress.

"We should've gone to Petalburg instead, huh." But if another badge was the answer, it wouldn't make her feel so sick to think about it. She dragged her fingers through her mightyena's mane until Luna shoved her way onto her lap, ignoring Natalie's laughing protests. "You're not being very helpful, you know."

"Knock-knock." Mom leaned against the doorframe, half-smiling. "Mind if I come in?"

"Sure."

She dropped down next to Natalie, scratching Luna behind the ears. For a long moment, she said nothing; Natalie could practically hear her testing words in her mind. Did she somehow know? The thought turned Natalie's guts to ice, and she watched Mom's face with bated breath.

Finally, Mom said, "Did something happen, Natalie?"

Natalie's fingers tightened in Luna's fur. "What do you mean?"

"Oh, I don't know." She sighed. "All this talk about jobs, coming home out of the blue ... Don't get me wrong—I'm always happy to see you, and this is your home any time you want. But it made me wonder if something had happened to make you want to quit training."

"Um." Her throat tightened. Without planning it, she blurted, "Do you ever worry you're not doing enough? If you're doing the right things?"

"Oh, Honey." Mom tucked Natalie's hair behind her ear, and she dissolved into Mom's embrace. For a while, Mom simply held her. "Sometimes getting a little lost is part of the journey."

Natalie nodded, letting a tear dribble onto Mom's shoulder. "I feel a little lost."

"Nobody has it all figured out at eighteen. You'll figure out what you need at your own pace."

"Yeah but ..." For a moment, she wanted to tell Mom everything, but she stopped short of finding the words. "The world is so messed up. I don't want to be part of the problem, but I don't know what to actually do."

Mom considered that for a moment. "I think the most important thing is to try to be as kind as possible as often as possible and leave the world a little brighter than you found it."

Natalie shook her head, burrowing her face deeper into Mom's neck. "Is that enough?"

"I don't know about enough. Each of us can only do the best we can." She began to stroke Natalie's hair. "But don't underestimate the power of kindness, Natalie. Sometimes the little things are the most important."

In Mom's embrace, Natalie believed it. But she had to let go eventually. Alone in the dark, kindness seemed an impossible abstract, but the message on her watch screen pulsed like a beacon.



The address Archie gave her was a northside bar, The Emblem. She spotted Shelly first, swigging bottled beer in a tattered booth towards the back. As Natalie drew closer, she realized most of the seats were filled with ORCA sailors, lounging in their seats but watching her. Shelly nodded to Archie, who sat opposite her with his arms stretched across the back of the booth. Scarlet had tucked herself against his side, scowling as she stirred her swizzle stick around and around. Natalie's stomach soured at the sight of her, but she walked forward anyway.

When she arrived at the table, Shelly stood. "Arms up," she said with a half-smile. Natalie was so baffled by the request that she didn't argue. In a few quick motions, Shelly swiped her hands down Natalie's sides and back. "You're good." With that, she sat back down and took up her beer as if nothing had happened.

"Satisfied?" Archie said to Scarlet, amusement in his voice.

She pursed her lips but said nothing.

Shelly slid over to make room beside her, and, holding back a sigh, Natalie sat.

"Let's see what you got." Archie pulled his phone from his pocket. Without warning, Natalie's Gear lit up; Zinfandel streaked across the table and into his phone. He grinned first at the screen, then at Natalie. "Good work, Natalie. You passed."

"Passed?" All the blood rushed to Natalie's face. "This was just some bullshit test?

He shrugged. "I needed to know, and now I do. It's a good thing—now there won't be any questions." The last point he directed at Scarlet.

Natalie scrambled out of the booth, breathing hard.

Sinbad raised an eyebrow. "You're not gonna leave. You came here for a reason, right? So, what do you want, Natalie?"

The three of them turned their gazes onto her, and her mouth went dry.

"I want ..." I want you and Dad to make up. To go back to when things were simpler. But had things ever really been simple, or was it only that she hadn't known enough to spot the cracks in the photo frame? She spat out, "I want a better world."

"A-fucking-men."

Shelly's eyes flicked to Scarlet and then to Archie. She nodded as if coming to a decision. "You could ride with me. You'd be a good fit for the Riv. If you can follow orders and keep your head under pressure, you could learn a lot with my crew."

They could teach her how to fight—not the battles she'd practiced in parks and gyms but real fights. The kind that mattered.

Her parents would never understand. She could call and write home, just like she had for the past few months, but she would have to lie to them again and again and again.

But was she really going to stay in Slateport for the rest of her life? Take up a job at the shipyard? Look away and tune it out when Magma appeared on the news? How was that leaving the world brighter than she'd found it?

Slowly, Natalie nodded. "I think I could do that."

Sinbad raised his glass. Shelly and then, reluctantly, Scarlet lifted theirs. "Here's to a better world!"

A few sailors at nearby tables raised their own glasses and whooped.

Sinbad drained his glass and then flashed Natalie a fierce grin. "What are you drinking? Beer? Rum and coke?"

Screw it. "Sure. Rum and coke."

"You got it." He swept out of the booth, towards the bar, patting her back as he passed.

Shelly smiled and pulled her back down into the booth. "Welcome to the family, Natalie."
 

unrepentantAuthor

A cat that writes stories.
Location
UK
Pronouns
they/she
Partner
purrloin-salem
This chapter is a strong opening to the fic, with strong opening paragraphs that set the mood and provide plenty of worldbuilding elements in a way that is economical with wordcount and renders Natalie an interesting, sympathetic protagonist in short order. There's a good balance struck here, such that there's a feeling of threat and realism without being super edgy, and Natalie feels vulnerable, but competent. The 'mugging attempt' is mostly setup and consequence, with the fight being understated but briefly terrifying, just how I like it.

There are a lot of little elements of this chapter that really stick out in my memory after reading. Little points of unique narrative significance. In particular, I liked the banette cloth trophy as evidence of that fight, the recurring "badges and bullshit" motif, and the justification of the Magma moniker as an acronym (or backronym) for Masked Group for Mass Action. That last one, besides being clever, immediately sets the benchmark for verisimitude to reality, the theme of potentially-violent grassroots political activism, and the tone of threat to Natalie.

Your prose style and narration is frankly gorgeous. There's scarcely a word that grates, and you manage to pack sense of place, characterisation, exposition, everything, into a pleasant lexical register very efficiently. There's just enough poetry in the prose to be enjoyable without coming off as pretentious or muddying the point, and the dialogue is solid stuff as well. I'd have to really put on my fussy pedant glasses to pick at your writin style, honestly. Some little moments I liked that are good examples of why I like your prose so much:
  • "referee or witness" is worldbuilding in three words. It tells us immediately that there are battles that are conducted by the books, and battles that are not, and the impending fight is one of the latter type.
  • "maybe it was enough to be short and freckly" tells us what Natalie looks like, and what she thinks of this truth about herself in relation to her safety, in a way that doesn't take us out of her head.
  • "on the rocks" is a 'ha ha rock type gym' joke that's not drawn attention to and therefore is actually a good bit of fun.
The description of the pokémon this chapter is excellent. I was certain that the ghostly opponent was a banette before it was confirmed, without the contributing details feeling in any way intrusive, and the imagery for both combatants was pretty vivid. I also really enjoyed the pelipper description for having that particular 'wildlife' vibe. I loved having the contrast between a Very Good Girl, some ghostly animated fabric, and some dangerous seabirds. Oh, and I also loved the differences in description and behaviour between Luna and Justice for being the same species. I'm a sucker for individual differences between pokémon.

The key characters this chapter are fairly compelling up front, with the conversation in the bar being sufficiently charming to get me past my biases against flirtatious bar scenes, and setting up the concerns each of these guys has (again, without ever being overblown or hamfisted). I also really enjoyed the way Bubba is an ambivalent figure in Nat's mind, being both this really impressive guy who battled and rescued seabirds and stood up to his father, and a distant figure who didn't open up to her or bond with her the way she wanted. Her difficulty with his loss rings true for me in a way that doesn't happen too often in fiction. This is absolutely fiction that understands people, and that's absolutely critical for me.

If I had to offer some criticism, it would be pretty subjective stuff only. The one errant line about 'did she want this to go further' is sort of awkwardly intrusive/unnecessary in the exact way your prose typically isn't. The whole thing of kid trainers only valuing superficial achievement while our protagonists care about 'real' and important things is perhaps a little onesided for me, albeit mitigated by Nat's initial objection to trainers not being 'real people' and Mark's lexis being unpretentious. Nat notes that she's not likely to find our anything about Bubba that's not already known, but I was expecting to hear something more substantial about her activities in town in pursuit of his memory.

If the banette trainer was actually Mark after all and Nat's suspicions evaporating was a red herring, I'll enjoy seeing her reaction. Not calling it though, dude doesn't seem like the type.

Love the art, by the way~

I thoroughly enjoyed this, and I'm looking forward to reading further on in the future. It appears to be, as they say, 'my jam.'
 
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