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Exit Interview [Criminal Intent entry]

Discussion in 'Completed Fics' started by Dramatic Melody, Dec 17, 2015.

  1. So here's my entry for Criminal Intent, the recently finished one-shot contest focusing on villainous teams. I chose to write about the aftermath of Team Flare after Lysandre activated the ultimate weapon in Geosenge and ended up burying himself alive. Since he was the core of Team Flare, how would all these admins and grunts react if that core was taken away from their system? That's what "Exit Interview" tries to explore.

    I had a lot of ups and downs in writing this, but I'm very happy that all the hard work paid off in the end. It was both fun and nerve-wracking writing a story in a traditional form again - who knew months of writing fragments or non-dialogue conversations would make it much harder? It was a great exercise in plot and event progression, though, so I'm thankful for the mere opportunity to write it.

    Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoy "Exit Interview". :)

    Exit Interview

    “Please come in and have a seat.”

    She could never get used to how they entered her room so nervously. She didn’t know if it was still the situation or if it was her at this point. But even the cockiest and most pompous of employees would suddenly become soft-spoken and unsure of themselves once they were inside her room. In the back of her mind, she enjoyed this odd sense of power she had over them, but she knew it was only a shallow relief amidst her miserable job.

    She watched him enter as she put her computer on standby. His steps were slow and uncertain, and she could see that his whole body was tense from the way the cardboard box on his hands was shivering. When he completed his perilous journey from the door to the empty seat in front of her, the contents in his box almost spilled out when he clumsily placed them beside the foot of her desk.

    This is gonna be tough, she thought to herself.

    He stood up beside the seat, stiff as a Sudowoodo. Sighing, she told him to sit down so they could begin. She could see the dread on his face when he saw his company papers on her desk.

    “So, Mr. Gomez?”

    “Oh, y-y-you can call me R-R-Rico, ma’am,” the boy, who was in his early twenties, said with a forced smile.

    “Mr. Gomez is fine.”

    She caught his disappearing smile and put it on her own face.

    “Mr. Gomez, I understand that you have submitted your papers for resignation.”

    “Y-y-yes, ma’am,” he replied, and upon seeing the golden name plate on her desk, added, “Oh, I-I apologize, ma’am. Should I c-call you Ms. Arista?”

    “Ma’am would be fine.”

    Rico Gomez wasn’t the first person to have gone to her office with that intention. He wasn’t even the first of her exit interviews that day—four other people had come in before him, and there were at least a dozen others waiting for their turn outside. She knew it was going to be a long day, but it was merely one more to add to her collection.

    “May I know your reasons for leaving Team Flare, Mr. Gomez?”

    “Well, ma’am, I feel like my, uhmm, time’s up with Team Flare. There isn’t, uh, much else I can contribute to the team now that Sir Lys—I-I mean, uhmm, n-n-now that, uh…”

    “Now that Sir Lysandre’s gone,” she finished.

    She knew their reasons were all the same. Even when they masked it behind sparkly formalities such as “I want to go to greener pastures” or “I’ve given everything I can contribute to the team”, she knew that their dedication to Team Flare was buried with Lysandre. After the incident in Geosenge, every grunt and admin wanted to disassociate themselves with Team Flare as soon as possible—it was only a matter of when.

    Vega Arista’s job, or at least what it had become, was to process the hundreds of resignation requests and conduct the exit interviews that came with them. The thirty-five-year-old was part of a small but productive human resources department, and she had enjoyed her job for the past eleven years. But when she conducted the exit interview of the second-to-the-last admin in their department, she became the sole employee qualified to conduct them.

    On top of the job’s tediousness, Malva, Team Flare’s interim leader, had requested that she try to convince team members to revoke their resignations to the best of her abilities. Before they reached Vega, they had to file their resignations to Mable, one of Lysandre’s four head scientists who have now become the catchall of administrative duties. After they braved themselves through Mable, the resignees needed to go through the much smaller obstacle in Vega, who was the entire team’s last chance of retaining any members. And of the hundreds of exit interviews she had conducted so far, none of them resulted in a cancelled resignation.

    “Uhmm, uh, y-y-yes ma’am,” Rico stuttered out. “Now that Sir Lysandre’s, uh, g-gone, well, my role in the power plant division is finished since we directly reported to him. The whole team tried continuing operations after the, uhmm, incident, but it wasn’t really going anywhere without any directives from Sir Lysandre. Some of my colleagues and superiors in the division already resigned, so I thought, well…”

    “So you thought you should follow their footsteps,” she interrupted. “Mankey see, Mankey do, as they say.”

    Vega remembered several members from the power plant division who had resigned before Rico, and they had explained with enormous detail how the operations had become directionless. None of their machines were able to hack into the power plant’s mainframe anymore, and their quest to uncover the rumored legendary Pokémon linked to the plant had yielded zero progress ever since the incident in Geosenge. They had been one of the most productive divisions of Team Flare before, having made tremendous progress in their research in a short span of time. Lysandre had always talked fondly of them—she remembered the optimistic tone in his morning announcements when he praised the power plant division’s achievements. She had always been fond of those announcements involving them, as she had rarely seen Lysandre in such a happy demeanor.

    “Well, Mr. Gomez,” Vega began, “as per protocol, I will be asking you a few questions before you finish your resignation process. Your input will be used by HR for the betterment of the team, so please answer them as clearly and honestly as possible.”

    She expected the hesitation in his nod. The robotic way she said that spiel never failed to catch the resignees off-guard. She could imagine it has gotten more and more monotonous as each exit interview came and went.

    “What do you feel was your most significant contribution to Team Flare?” she asked.

    “Well, ma’am,” he began, his voice sounding the most certain it had ever been since he entered the room, “I was part of the team that figured out how to disable the power plant’s mechanisms and rendered the northern part of Lumiose City nonoperational for thirty-three days. That made it possible for other divisions of the team to move forward with their plans uninterrupted, allowing them to work within Lumiose City without the fear of being discovered by authorities. So I feel that it was my, and perhaps the entire power plant division’s, biggest contribution to the cause.”

    She was impressed with the confident way he delivered his answer, and from the looks of it, he was just as impressed as she was. It was tainted, though, by the fact that his colleagues from his division—or rather, his ex-colleagues—had given her the same prepared speech with minimal variations in their own exit interviews.

    “And in evaluating your contributions to the team, Mr. Gomez, which one do you feel could have been improved the most?”

    “Uhmm, I guess I would have the same answer. Thirty-three days might be long, but if we had stopped that Serena girl from infiltrating the power plant, it could have been much longer.”

    Ugh, Serena. She visibly winced at the thought of that name. She still could not fully fathom how the downfall of Team Flare was caused by a nosy sixteen-year-old. Because of Serena, hundreds of grunts and admins had to give up their positions and would be hard-pressed to find a new one for having been part of Team Flare. Because of Serena, her own previously enjoyable job of managing recruits had become this soulless process of letting grunts and admins out of Team Flare’s door. Because of Serena, her leader, who she previously thought was the closest human being to perfection, was stuck in Arceus-knows-where.

    “What for you are the strong points of Team Flare?” she blurted out.

    “Well, uh, I don’t mean to rub salt in the wound, but Sir Lysandre’s leadership really brought the team together. His passion for his vision really brought up the entire team’s spirits, and, uhmm, that goes double for our division. The day after Serena destroyed all of our progress, he personally visited us in the power plant. All of us were expecting a tough lecture on our weakness and incompetence, but the first thing he did in our meeting was ask us how we were all doing. That gesture might have been really simple, but I could remember how the heavy atmosphere in the room suddenly lightened when he did that. He still reprimanded us, but in the end it was more of a motivational speech rather than a gritty lecture.”

    Vega had dozed off in the middle of Rico’s answer, imagining how much Lysandre must have gone through in that incident. She herself had been on the receiving end of many of Lysandre’s motivational speeches, and for her, what Rico said about his passion boosting the team’s spirit was a gross understatement.

    “And what would you say are Team Flare’s areas for improvement?” she asked.

    “Well, uhmm, in all honesty, it’s linked to why I had resigned. After Lysandre’s de—uh, disappearance, it seemed like the entire team didn’t know what to do. Sir Xerosic did things his way, Ms. Malva is doing things her way, and the scientists are doing things their own ways. And that leaves the team with no direction to follow. I guess, uhmm, the entire team was too dependent on Sir Lysandre to guide them, so without him, uh, it’s what it is now.”

    Rico’s answer genuinely impressed her this time around, since it hit the nail right in the head. Most of the grunts and admins who resigned before him would talk about the ineffectiveness of their own division or their own insecurities when they answered this question. Even she wouldn’t have had the guts to put the blame on the administration if she was on the other side of the interview, but she knew that what Rico said was the only correct answer.

    She didn’t know if she dreaded hearing Xerosic’s name more than Serena’s, but both elicited the same disgusted reaction from her. He was their last chance of salvaging Team Flare from the ultimate weapon’s debris, but he had the bright idea of bringing the international police into the picture with his directionless scheme. Interpol had arrested him and ordered that Lysandre Café be closed down, which was the last of Team Flare’s income-generating businesses. They had fortunately left the other members of the team alone, but their worldwide bulletin of being on the lookout for any suspicious activities from any member of the team doused what little flame ignited the team’s future.

    Vega went through the rest of the questions of the interview methodically, asking Rico about his division, his superiors, and his thoughts about the team as a whole. After asking him for any suggestions he had for the betterment of the team, she told him that the last thing he needed to do was to surrender his possessions that he had been given upon becoming a grunt.

    Rico hastily got the box of his belongings from under his chair and put it on Vega’s desk. She checked to see if all of the necessary items were in the box—uniforms, manuals, Holo Caster, the three volumes of the Team Flare handbook. When she realized what was missing, she let out a long sigh.

    “Your Poké Ball, Mr. Gomez?”

    His reaction to the query told her that it had only hit him at that very moment. These kinds of resignees were always the toughest to talk to, but they were the closest opportunities she ever got to fulfill Malva’s special request.

    “I will need your Poké Ball, Mr. Gomez,” Vega repeated. “I hope you have not forgotten that your Pokémon was only given to you when you joined the team. Your departure makes it necessary that it be returned, for it is the property of Team Flare.”

    She could see sweat drops form on Rico’s forehead. His eyes shifted around quickly, looking for any sort of reprieve from whatever pocket of the room.

    “I have to give back my Pokémon?” he finally said.

    “Yes, Mr. Gomez,” she replied. “The contract you had signed when you joined the team clearly states that any Pokémon given to you at the start of your membership was to be returned if ever you exited the team. This does not count any Pokémon you brought with you when you entered or any Pokémon you caught yourself during the duration of your membership with the team, but since your records show that the lone Pokémon in your possession was the one loaned to you by the team, you will need to return the Mightyena you’ve been assigned.”

    She saw him wince at the mention of his Pokémon, and she noticed how his expression shifted from nervousness to dread. A majority of resignees had at least prepared for this moment, and many had the luxury of having other Pokémon that they could keep. But for Rico, who not only had a single Pokémon to his name but had also not thought about this before he entered her room, she thought that he might be the first resignee she could successfully convince to stay.

    “I-Is there, uhmm, is there any way I could k-k-keep him?” he asked hopelessly.

    “If you’re intent on resigning, then no, there isn’t.”

    She herself didn’t know why, but the team handbook stated that it was one of the rules Lysandre had established when Team Flare began recruiting more members. The handbook mentioned that Pokémon were valuable assets that shouldn’t be wasted, and every Pokémon Team Flare caught should only be used for the furthering of the team’s motives. When she first read it, she was taken aback by the technical way it was describing Pokémon, but she eventually came to accept it as part of Lysandre’s grand plan of a beautiful world. And as she became more and more ingrained into the team, she knew that the last thing she should ever do was oppose Lysandre’s vision.

    “B-b-but, well, uhmm, you s-see, ma’am, Barker and I have, uh, we’ve grown really close this past year. We have each other’s backs, and, uhmm, we’ve been through everything together. He’s my best friend, and, and…”

    “Mr. Gomez, I’m sorry, but you signed a contract when you entered the team that explicitly states that all possessions you receive from Team Flare will be returned when you leave the team, and that includes the Pokémon we gave you.” Vega paused to catch her breath, then continued. “Now, if you really want to keep the Pokémon assigned to you, then you can continue serving Team Flare as a loyal member of the power plant division. I can cancel your entire resignation process with the click of a button, and we can pretend this exit interview never happened.”

    She wondered if she had brought up the possibility of terminating his resignation too soon, but she knew it needed to be said somehow. Malva had told her to offer it to them when they were the most vulnerable, saying that it would be the time where their judgments would be most clouded. And for Vega, there seemed to be no better display of vulnerability than mulling over whether or not you wanted to let go of your Pokémon.

    “No, I can’t stay anymore,” Rico said in a defeated tone. “Th-there’s just so much going on, and s-so much that already happened. I-it’s just, I can’t—”

    “I understand, Mr. Gomez,” Vega interrupted. “Now, please hand me the Mightyena’s Poké Ball.”

    She could feel that he was holding back his tears. She had witnessed many hearts break whenever the interview came to this point, although it never came to the point of the resignee breaking down. Everyone else had either already mentally prepared themselves for the moment or didn’t have that strong a bond with their Pokémon to care. Vega knew that she herself would be less than composed if and when she had to give up the Liepard assigned to her when she would have her own exit interview—whenever that would be—but she knew there was nothing she could do about it.

    “Mr. Gomez, I can see how tough this is for you, and again I apologize for having it come to this. Should you want to say goodbye to Mightyena, feel free to do so in the storage room,” she said as she pointed to a door that led to an empty storage closet. “You have the next fifteen minutes to do so. I trust that would be enough?” She had made sure to make that room available for any of the resignees who had wanted to properly say goodbye to their Pokémon.

    But Rico had not heard Vega’s request and immediately called out his Mightyena when he was given his chance to say goodbye.

    “Mr. Gomez,” Vega started, “please use the storage room—“

    “Barker,” he began. “Hey buddy, I missed you. How are you?”

    When the Pokémon materialized, he immediately turned to his owner and licked his face all over, taking out the tears that had began to form in his eyes. The black fur covering his body was well combed, and Vega was treated to the sight of a tail wagging in glee. Her room was filled with low, content growls, and she prepared herself for when those growls would become less optimistic.

    “Hey, listen, I gotta tell you something, Barker. Something really important,” started Rico, his voice already betraying his emotions. Barker sensed it as well, and his tail slowed down its wagging.

    “So you know how we were talking about leaving Team Flare and living on our own these past few weeks?” he said. Barker licked Rico’s face in reply, which seemed to convey a yes. “Well, it turns out that, well, uh, I’m gonna be the only one leaving Team Flare.”

    Vega saw Barker’s tail stop wagging and droop down, and she knew that she was in for a painful conversation.

    “You see,” Rico continued, “remember when we met last year? You were still a cute little Poochyena back then. Well, we met when I called you out of your Poké Ball, remember? That was the first time I saw you, too. So that means that I wasn’t the one who caught you, which means that, technically, I’m not your official trainer.”

    Barker let out a fierce growl in reply. It echoed through the room and the waiting hall, and Vega heard some gasps from outside.

    “Hey, hey, I was surprised, too. I completely forgot about it. But it’s part of my contract, so I can’t do anything about it unless I don’t resign. And you know I have to get out of here. I’m really, really sorry, Barker. I wish we didn’t have to say goodbye.”

    Barker started crying, his low sobs making each word coming out of Rico’s mouth a stab in the neck. Vega shifted uneasily in her seat, distracting herself by arranging and rearranging Rico’s company papers on her desk.

    “Hey, Barker, don’t cry,” Rico said while wiping the tears off of Barker’s eyes. “Hey, it’s all right, we’ll get through this. We always get through difficult things if we talk it out, right? Remember when Ms. Aliana threatened to fire me because I thought her plan to shut down Lumiose was inefficient? Everyone in the division was against me, and I thought there was no way I’d still have my job in the morning. I told you I was gonna run away, that it wasn’t worth being part of the team anymore. But you convinced me not to, and all you had to do was hug me. I never really told you how much that meant to me, but to know you cared about me like that, to know you still had my back even if I screwed up—well, it turned my whole attitude about the situation around. You gave me the words and the confidence to defend my argument the next morning, and I—no, we ended up shutting down Lumiose sooner and getting a commendation from Sir Lysandre because of it.”

    Rico’s own tears now muddled up his vision, and Barker returned the favor by licking them off his face. Vega shifted to rebooting her computer and opening up a document, although the only words she could type were several variations of “What the hell”.

    “Barker,” he continued, “you may be the only Pokémon I’ve ever owned, and probably ever will own, but you made me see how the relationship between a trainer and a Pokémon can truly be beautiful. I know Sir Lysandre didn’t believe that, but if he saw both of us in action, I really think he would have changed his mind about Pokémon. But he’s gone, and the team’s falling apart, and you know that I can’t stay here anymore. As much as I want to be with you, and I really do, I need to get out of here and look for a new job. I’ll never forget you, Barker. You’re the best Pokémon any trainer could ever have.”

    Vega’s eyes never left her computer screen. She tried tuning out their crying, but their sobs filled every pocket of her room. She wondered what the grunts outside were thinking at that moment, for she was sure that they overheard the crying. Maybe it would give them the idea that I made this resignee cry and would make them not want to resign anymore? she thought. Vega stifled a laugh, knowing that they would never revoke their resignations over such a shallow reason. She herself couldn’t count how many times she had thought about resigning, and being in charge of exit interviews didn’t help her waning spirit. She knew that the reason she hasn’t been able to fulfill Malva’s special request in the hundreds of exit interviews she had conducted was because she herself saw little benefit in staying with the team.

    But it was interviews like this that made her wonder—how were these people able to handle leaving such a vital part of their lives? Whether it be the Pokémon, the friends, or the memories, how could they be willing to turn their backs on them so quickly? And after all they’ve been through, after all they’ve worked for, after all they’ve contributed to the team, how was it so easy for them to give all of it up?

    She knew the sole answer to those questions. He was buried in the depths of Geosenge, his body still nowhere to be found after two whole months of searching.

    “M-Ma’am? Ms. Arista?”

    The sight of a red-faced Rico filled her vision as she looked away from the screen. Barker had been returned to his Poké Ball, which Rico had clutched tightly and placed over his heart. Under normal circumstances, Vega would have ridiculed him for such a melodramatic display, but she knew that the exit interview had strayed far away from normal.

    “Ms. Arista—I mean, ma’am, uh…”

    “Ms. Arista would be fine.”

    “Ms. Arista, uhmm, I know it’s against protocol, and I know it’s asking so much from you, but I beg you, please, please let me keep my Barker. It would mean the world to me, and I…I would thank you a million times if you do this for me.”

    Vega imagined what would happen if she heeded his request. In her mind, she saw other grunts and admins doing more dramatic but less authentic displays of affection to their assigned Pokémon in order to tug her heartstrings. She could feel Malva’s cold stare tear her apart for softening up, and she sensed the looming threat of being assigned to an even more hopeless position within the team.

    But she also saw Rico and Barker in a quaint home in a quiet city like Santalune or Dendemille, going about their days normally and free from the pressures of Team Flare. The scene then dissolved into a moderate-sized apartment in Coumarine overlooking the sea, and she saw herself reading a book on the patio while affectionately petting the Liepard that she herself had been assigned years ago.

    “Mr. Gomez, Rico, I—“

    Her seaside apartment disappeared in a flash, and it turned into the ultimate weapon, standing proudly in the middle of Geosenge. Then, a blinding light consumed it, turning the entire weapon into an abyssal hole. She peered into it, and her sight was filled with a vast expanse of nothing.

    “—I’m sorry, Mr. Gomez. I can’t let you do that.”

    She saw Rico’s eyes shift from longing to despair. She had seen similar expressions throughout the hundreds of resignees that had entered her room, but she couldn’t make out why this particular display was making her uncomfortable.

    “Mr. Gomez, the terms and conditions of the contract you signed clearly state that all assets and possessions Team Flare has loaned to you will be returned upon resignation or termination,” she said, struggling to keep the words coming out. “I have told you that you can stay with your Pokémon if you decide not to resign, but unless you’ve changed your mind, I cannot heed your request.”

    She tried looking for any sort of sign that indicated a willingness to stay, but his scrunched up eyes and bowed head told her otherwise.

    “You have been a good member of Team Flare, Mr. Gomez,” she continued, “not having any sanctions or warnings to your name, and even having a commendation from Sir Lysandre. So you would know how important abiding by the rules is. Sir Lysandre established these rules a long time ago, and I’m sure he would have wanted the same thing if—“

    “Well Sir Lysandre’s dead!” Rico blurted out. “Or he might as well be in that blasted hole!”

    Vega had stared him down at the mention of that word, and she could see the regret that immediately came to his face as he finished his outburst. Rico tried speaking up, attempting to blurt out an “I’m sorry”, but the words never left his mouth.

    “Yes, Mr. Gomez,” she began, her eyes never leaving his. “Sir Lysandre is, for all intents and purposes, dead. But that doesn’t mean we should stop abiding by his rules. That doesn’t mean we should stop respecting him as our true leader. In fact, I would venture to say that it would be a grave dishonor to him if we do otherwise.”

    “M-Ms. Arista, ma’am, I’m sorry for speaking out of turn,” Rico said. “I don’t mean to dishonor Sir Lysandre with my request. That’s the last thing I would ever want to do. If I had the chance, I would have taken Lysandre’s place in Geosenge and surrendered myself to the ultimate weapon if I knew it would keep him alive.”

    There was a pause in the room, as if the mention of Lysandre’s fate demanded silence.

    “But Ms. Arista, I love Barker,” he continued. “I’ve never cared for anyone, human or Pokémon, more than I’ve cared for Barker. Sir Lysandre envisioned a perfect world for all of us, and I can’t imagine mine without Barker. I know I’m asking a lot, but please, please let me keep him.”

    Vega closed her eyes, and her vision was filled with images of Malva and Mable staring her down. Looming over them was the image of Lysandre, looking at her with the intensity she had become familiar with in the past eleven years. She tried looking for any sort of guidance from him, any sign of clarity from his powerful eyes. But all he gave her was a sigh, which was immediately succeeded by his image slowly dissolving into a million pieces, taking Malva and Mable with him.

    “All right,” Vega sighed after opening her eyes, her face now matching his in redness. “Let me have the Poké Ball.”

    “But Ms. Arista—“

    “Mr. Gomez, the last thing you want to do right now is disobey me. Hand me the Poké Ball now.”

    Rico felt uncomfortable about the uncertainty of the situation, but Vega’s stare made him unable to refuse. He reluctantly offered the Poké Ball to her, which she forcefully took out of his hands. Vega turned back to her computer and scanned his Poké Ball, once in a while glancing at the nervous expression of the concerned grunt. After some swift but sloppy clicking and typing, she gave it back to him, almost shoving it onto his welcoming palm.

    “Now you listen to me,” Vega started, exerting as much authority in her voice as possible. “If word of this gets to anyone, and I mean anyone aside from the two people in this room right now, I will personally ask Mable, Aliana, and the other scientists to go to your home, drag you back to this base, give you your uniform, and reinstate you into the lowest position a grunt could ever have in the team. Yes, you may have resigned from Team Flare, but that does not mean you have completely disconnected yourself from us. Any word you say against Team Flare and any act you do breaching this agreement will be met with the most severe punishment possible both for you and this Pokémon. Do I make myself clear, Mr. Gomez?”

    All Rico could give in reply was an affirmative nod.

    “I have changed this Mightyena’s last ownership activity from a loan into a trade, with what was given in return listed as ‘a year of outstanding service’. You are officially his current trainer, Mr. Gomez, and you may do with him as you see fit. Save your tears of joy for when you’ve completely left the base. If I find out any of the grunts outside got word of this transaction, I can revoke the change of ownership with the click of a button, and you will be asked by the guards at the entrance to surrender the Poké Ball. You may leave my office, Mr. Gomez. Your exit interview, and your time with Team Flare, has officially come to an end.”

    Rico swiftly pocketed Barker’s Poké Ball, and he mouthed out a quick “Thank you” at Vega before standing up and heading for the door. “Please close the door on your way out,” commanded Vega when he reached for the doorknob, “and tell the person next in line to wait for ten minutes before knocking.”

    As she was left alone, Vega tucked Rico's file in her drawer and retrieved a similarly colored envelope within it. Inside it was a blank resignation form that had been left unfilled for two months—and counting. She stared at it long and hard, as she always did after every exit interview she failed to turn around.

    “I’m sorry, Sir Lysandre,” she said softly. “I’ve failed you yet again, only this time it’s even worse. I’ve deliberately disobeyed you, and I’ve let another grunt do the same.”

    Tears began to fall from her eyes, some of it smudging onto the blank resignation form she was clutching tightly. She tried hard to repair the broken image of Lysandre in her mind, but all she saw was the nothingness he had left behind.

    “Why did it have to be this way?” she continued, her voice becoming progressively louder. “Why did you have to leave us? Why did you have to leave me?”

    Her mind was now filled with the looming forms of Malva and Mable, who would have already received the notification of a change in Team Flare’s Pokémon records. She could already hear all the curse words they would shout at her, and she could already sense how she would be removed from her current role and assigned to an even less appealing job within the team. She imagined the punishments they would give her, and she knew they could very well go as far as taking away her own assigned Pokémon from her.

    At the thought of her Pokémon, she retrieved a Poké Ball from her pocket and looked at it with the same longing eyes Rico had left her with. “I’ll never leave you, Mira,” she said as she placed her Liepard’s Poké Ball over her own heart. “We’ll get through this together.”

    Three swift knocks on the door interrupted her. She hastily placed Mira’s Poké Ball back in her pocket and wiped her face as the door creaked open. The head of a female grunt peeked in with a questioning and worried look.

    “Please,” Vega said after clearing her throat, her hand still clutching Mira’s Poké Ball tightly, “please come in and have a seat.”
  2. [Imaginative]:[Clockwork]

    [Imaginative]:[Clockwork] X-treme trainer

    I think this has been improved a lot since I read it first. I can't remember all the details, but I noticed some fleshing out in certain parts, and I feel like it really helped the emotional impact of the whole thing. It looks like you listened to the judges and added a little more personality to Rico's goodbye to Barker, a change that I think was especially welcome. Overall, I think the one-shot is stronger than it's ever been.

    First, you accomplish a whole lot using basically just two characters (three or four counting Barker and the female grunt, I suppose). Not only do they get pretty clear characterizations, but you also manage to give us an idea of how the other exit interviews have gone and even how the entire organization is doing after Lysandre's disappearance. I do wish we had gotten a little more idea of what the team is currently trying to accomplish and what exactly they're doing to accomplish it, but I think that's pretty secondary to what the one-shot is about. The dynamic between Vega and Rico is really the draw here, and the slow wearing down of Vega is well done. As a result, the one-shot comes across as almost an unveiling of the true Vega, peeling back layer after layer of her HR persona until a real human is left, which is great.

    This may be a personal preference, but I thought the stuttering was just a little overdone, especially in the beginning. I think maybe Rico's nervousness could have been demonstrated in other ways, like descriptions and pauses and whatnot. However, he also seems to grow more confident as the interview goes on, which was demonstrated very well by the decreasing stutter, so I'm kind of split. It just seemed to be that stuttering that much was unusual and a little distracting.

    Still, though, the ending was beautifully done. The terse warning from Vega about how Rico must never breathe a word of what happened was powerful, emphasizing the seriousness of what she was doing and giving an electric anxiousness to the joy of what was happening. I also enjoyed the kind of hopelessness of what would happen with Vega and Mira, since it's pretty unlikely that whoever conducts her exit interview will be as kind as she was in that situation. The ending really benefited from your strong characterization of Vega, which I think is the real winner of this one-shot. In fact, especially after reading it a second time, this probably ranks near the top of the one-shots of yours that I've read. Really nice!
  3. Thank you! Dragonfree's comment about Rico and Barker's relationship needing more personality really stuck with me, since it seemed like a really obvious thing to put in but somehow missed.

    Hm, interesting point about contextualizing the situation more. I do refrain from bringing up anything the team was doing outside of their internal operations since I don't think it's something that would come up within the interview, Either that, or there isn't anything visible going on, and they're just struggling to keep the team going for the sake of it. Interesting dynamic to include, so thanks!

    And thanks a bunch for the comment on Vega and Rico. I'm glad that their characters really shone since that's pretty much what the fic hinges on. Glad it was effective for you!

    Hah, I was wondering if the judges were gonna comment on this, since I didn't really know if I inserted too many stuttering words or not. So thanks for pointing this out, I'll definitely reduce them when I get to revising this.

    Yeah, I don't think Vega's gonna have a good time trying to get out of Flare. All for a grunt she probably hasn't really interacted with outside of this interview, too, so that sucks even more. But in any case, thank you for the awesome review! And more importantly, thanks for all the help with putting this fic together, [Imaginative]:[Clockwork]! :D
  4. Chibi Pika

    Chibi Pika Stay positive

    I think this is actually the first fic I've ever read concerning Team Flare and I quite enjoyed it.

    I think the strongest part of this is just how much flavor was injected into the workings of Team Flare in such a short amount of time. Pretty much any question I could have had about how the team runs, what it was like being a member for the average grunt, how the team members were affected by the XY protagonist's actions, and especially how the rest of the team is attempting (and failing) to run things without Lysandre, were all addressed, painting a solid picture of the team that made it feel real. Especially since we rarely get to see how any of the criminal teams actually function in canon. Also, in spite of the fact that Lysandre is already long gone at the start of the story, it does a good job painting a picture of just how powerful a presence he was to the team, which is always difficult to show when you can't actually show any of it firsthand.
    Passages like this really contributed to that strong image of just how much the team depended on Lysandre.
    Is this referencing something from the games? I didn't pay too much attention to the postgame in my Y playthrough, so I can't quite tell.
    I also really liked how gradual the hints were dropped about Vega and her desire to leave the team and her struggles with that being one of the only people left in her department and the all the resulting pressures on her. It would have been really easy to fall into the trap of having her just be an obstacle in the narrative of Rico and Barker, but all the humanization given to her really made the story feel solidly like it was about her, making the ending all the more tragic when you realize she's trapped more than ever now. Nice job not glossing over the fact that her superiors will immediately know what she did, by the way. I wasn't sure if it was going to be a secret or not, but the story immediately gave that a huge NOPE. And there's no real escape from it. I think the final paragraphs struck me as the most emotional part of the fic for that reason.

    All in all, an enjoyable read. :)

  5. Thank you! I knew that I had to establish the workings of the team to justify why people would want to leave it, so it's great that it worked. Thank you too for the comment on Lysandre - it's great that the story was able to convey just how important he is to the team even when he's already dead gone. It's definitely one of the more interesting and things I had to consider working on the one-shot, so I"m glad it paid off!

    Yep, this refers to something that happens in the post-game of XY. It's in the spoiler if you don't mind.

    In the Looker Sidequest, Xerosic is behind all the thefts in Lumiose, since he controls Essentia. Looker from the international police eventually arrests him in the end.

    Thanks! It was something I worked hard on in the revision, since I found it hard to balance Vega's involvement in the story since even if she speaks less, it's still her story. I'm glad that the final scene was effective for you - that was really important in shifting the focus to Vega.

    Thanks so much for the review, Chibi Pika! I'm glad you liked it. :)
  6. AmericanPi

    AmericanPi Write on

    Hello DM! I'm here from the Review Game. I'm going to go ahead and give one of my signature Weekly Review/Review Game-style reviews, during which I pick four Review Game criteria and comment on them as much as I want to (but at least two sentences per criterion).

    It was slightly awkward reading Exit Interview, because I've never played X and Y. Despite this, I understood the story just fine, and liked many aspects of it. Congratulations on placing third in the Criminal Intent contest, by the way. On with the review!

    Opening and ending
    Man, your writing really reads like a work of art. I've read three of your works and you still amaze me with your use of excellent techniques in writing. "Stationary" featured repetition that conveyed anxiety, "Humans of Hoenn" featured short but sweet stories, and now "Exit Interview" features bookends that convey sameness, sadness, and boredom.

    What I'm talking about in this one-shot is the opening and ending. I really, really love how "Exit Interview" opens and ends with the same sentence spoken by the same person: "Please come in and take a seat." It really shows a lot: How sad and repetitive Vega's job is, and how every interview is pretty much the same to her. This one-shot really gave me a new perspective on people whose jobs are basically talking to other people - I never thought about how repetitive their jobs must get. Great job on using the bookends to really drive home the resigned sadness of Vega's job.

    Vega was a really believable character. Sure, she works for a criminal organization, but we are shown these nice moments that humanize her - her dedication to the only thing in her life that was giving her structure, her love for her Pokemon, her attempt to remain professional, and the fact that she isn't really evil; she just happens to support herself by working for a criminal organization.

    And now, Rico. I mostly found Rico to be believable and sympathetic - it must be really, really hard to lose your Pokemon and best friend FOREVER. However, I found him to be just a liiitle theatrical and exaggerated. His stuttering, for example, could have been toned down a little - it's great that you showed his increasing confidence by removing the stutter, but in the beginning I found that the stuttering was somewhat getting in the way of the story and the dialogue he was trying to convey. Perhaps you could write "he stuttered" after a non-stuttered bit of dialogue, so you can express that he was stuttering while keeping the flow of the story.

    ...And now "stutter" sounds weird. Derp.

    I really like the idea behind this one-shot. It's weird how in the Pokemon games we never see what happens to the villainous teams after you defeat the leader, and your interpretation of what happens was really realistic and believable. The idea of a Human Resources department in a villainous team was nice, because recruits have to come from somewhere.

    I also love the way you portrayed the prospect of leaving Team Flare to be difficult for both Vega and Rico. I never thought it would be difficult to leave a criminal organization, because it's, you know, criminal. But as I read "Exit Interview" I realized that it's always difficult to leave behind a big part of your life, even if that part is a criminal organization.

    Vega and Rico's dedication to Team Flare was well-written and believable. Like I said before, the way you wrote them made me understand why anyone would find it difficult to leave behind something that's clearly a negative influence. Leaving such a big part of your life, whether it's your beloved Pokemon or a sense of family, is definitely really difficult. Great job on getting me to see the villainous organizations in a whole new perspective.

    At first, I thought this story was quite slow for my tastes, but then I realized that the pace was actually perfect. Why? Because it really helps convey the general boredom and sameness of Vega's job and situation. However, the slow pace did hamper my enjoyment of "Exit Interview" just a teeny tiny bit, so maybe you could find a middle ground between conveying Vega's sad job and keeping your readers engaged. Just my personal preference, though.

    Overall, I really enjoy reading your works in general. Keep up the good work! :)

    - Pi
  7. Hi American--Pi! Thanks so much for dropping by, especially with you having not played X/Y yet. I'm glad you still got the story though! (And I'm sorry if I sorta spoiled a lot of the games' ending with this. >_<)

    Thanks so much! I'm glad that the bookends technique went well with you. When I was thinking of a way to end it, I thought it would be great to hammer in on the repetitiveness of the job by ending with the beginning. And yeah, I'm a bit interested in the whole mechanics of recruitment since I have some (unofficial) experience with it, so I'm glad it gave you a new perspective in that regard. :)

    Very much noted on Rico. I'll definitely lessen his stuttering since I can see how it can be distracting. And I'll definitely do something about his theatricality - that's definitely a fault on my part given that I'm used to seeing characters act as exaggerated as he does, haha. Thanks for the comments on Vega, too!

    Thank you! I think writing the Magma and Aqua conversations in Humans of Hoenn really made me see the villainous teams in a different light, so this contest was a great opportunity for me to break down that mold with a full-on one-shot. I'm glad that breaking down of Team Flare was effective for you, since while the story's definitely about Vega and Rico, I did think that its exploration of Team Flare needed to be successful to really carry the story. Thanks for the comment on that! :)

    Hah, I was actually very worried about this, especially since the actual conflict of the story doesn't come up until the middle, so I was wondering if I should cut out some parts of the earlier scenes, but I ultimately decided against it since it wouldn't feel like an interview if I did. But very much noted on the slowness, though - I could probably do with some trimming of Vega's reflections.

    Thanks so much for the review, American--Pi! I really appreciate it. And a belated congratulations on entering the contest as well! :D
  8. Psychic

    Psychic Really and truly

    I rather enjoyed this fic. The question of what happens to members of evil teams who want to leave is an interesting one, and definitely not something that ever really comes up. I think the answer very likely differs based on the team (I imagine it’s a bit harder to try and leave the Pokémon mafia, for instance), but I think this interpretation is quite appropriate for Team Flare. I liked the way the whole resignation process was structured, and thought the bureaucracy (with the small sprinkling of malice) felt quite realistic and appropriate. Seeing how the characters reacted to and talked around Lysandre’s death (until the end) was also a really nice touch - the admiration towards him is reminiscent of Kim Jong Il’s place in North Korea, which seems partly thanks to the sheer power of Lysandre’s presence, and partly thanks to propaganda. I thought it was an excellent touch that the thing keeping the team together was the very idea of Lysandre, and that they’re slowly falling apart without him.

    The characters here were really solid. Vega’s descriptions of her job, coworkers and bosses all made both the character and environment feel all the more real and whole. It felt like getting a glance into a real, functioning organization, which is not a depiction of the evil teams that you get a lot. The request from Malva also felt appropriate, and worked well as a driving force for the plot. Rico’s nervousness and desperation also felt genuine and understandable, and the moment he he has with Barker (and Vega’s reactions) was quite nice. I skimmed the reviews you got from the contest after reading, and it looks like you’ve taken a lot of their criticism into account, especially with the interaction between Rico and Barker. There was a definite danger of the interaction between trainer and Pokémon coming across as a bit too exposition-y, but I think the dialogue you wrote here works really well, and comes across as fairly natural and sweet. (On another note, I find the name “Barker” kinda funny because it sounds like a last name, and I love the idea of a dog named Mr. Barker.)

    That said, I did find it difficult to believe that Vega had conducted hundreds of interviews, because the idea that Rico was the only member she encountered who didn’t know he couldn’t keep his Pokémon and was so attached to it seems unlikely, and she seems way too bothered by some of the little things he says about, say, Serena or Xerosic. Additionally, that she’s been looking at her own resignation papers after every one of these hundreds of interviews is a bit much, and that no other interviews really bothered her all that much compared to this one seems hard to believe.

    Another thing that bothered me is that Vega can change the ownership of a Pokémon with a click of a button, and she said Malva will find out about Barker's change in ownership immediately. Well, what’s to stop Malva from changing it back once Rico’s gone? Additionally, Vega worries about being further demoted, but what’s stopping her from just quitting at this point (aside from Mira)?

    As for the ending, I had a feeling it would go one of two ways. One was that Vega would let Rico keep Barker, and the other that I thought of after Barker emerged from his Pokeball was that Rico would sic Barker on Vega and they would escape together. Suffice it to say I much prefer your ending, both because it works much more tonally, and it's not only a nice arc in Vega’s character, but also a moment that feels so wonderfully human in an organization that, even under Lysandre’s guidance (and in part because of it), is so impersonal. It was really sweet and satisfying, since we really see Rico work for his happy ending, and compounded with seeing Vega's disillusionment with the team it feels like a natural place to end at.

    Grammar was overall quite good. Despite your nervousness around writing using a more traditional writing style, I think you did very well in terms of style, grammatical structure and description. As Sike had noted, you have some difficulty with tenses, and there were some awkward word choices here and there.

    Definitely use italics for thoughts - there was at least one other instance of this, and it’s definitely easier to differentiate a thought when there’s some kind of tag, and italics are widely-used for this.

    Change “when” to “after.”

    I would say “over” instead of “finished,” and say “we reported directly to him.”

    I'm not sure if that use of "demeanor" works here, but either way it can be cut down to “she had rarely seen Lysandre so cheerful.”

    Blurting something out implies saying without thinking, somewhat unintentionally. I think “said abruptly” would fit better.

    I wouldn’t say “dozed off” because it implies falling asleep, and it’s hard to imagine her falling asleep both because she seemed fairly attentive before, and because it would be way too unprofessional. It would be more effective to say “Vega’s mind had started to wander during the boy’s explanation.”

    There’s a repetition of “brought,” so you can change the second one to “raised” or something similar.

    I would consider adding another line here about how she had stopped fully paying attention to his answers. Otherwise, this summary works well to move the scene along.

    Show, don’t tell! Show us Rico’s reaction here as the realization slowly hits him and his face darkens and eyes widen with horror. Additionally, the phrasing in the second sentence doesn’t really make sense in this context. Something closer to “they were the best opportunities to attempt to fulfill Malva’s special request” would be clearer.

    I assume “pocket of the room” refers to “corner of the room,” but I don’t think that idea entirely works here (plus the preposition “from” implies that he’s trying to hide from the room, haha). You can just end this sentence at “reprieve.”

    The “during” and “duration” and “lone” and “loan” here are too similar and close together. For during/duration I’d say “over the course,” and for lone/loan change the former to “single” or “only.” Also, the “you’ve been assigned” should be past tense, as “you were assigned.”

    “Mechanical” or even “soulless” would be more apt than “technical.”

    “Barker returned the favor by” doesn’t really make sense here, so you can change it to “Barker responded by.”

    All of these “they have”s should be “they had”s.

    In this case you can remove the “had,” and take off “his outburst” to shorten the sentence and give it a bit more punch. Also, since this is from Vega’s point of view, she can’t know what words he wanted to say, so this can be changed to something like “Rico looked apologetic, as if he wanted to say something, but no words seemed able to leave his mouth.”

    I would move the “All right” to the end of the sentence, as I feel that starting this paragraph with her signing and opening her eyes works more effectively. Additionally, the “All right” was the point where I knew what she was going to do, so I’d say having a beat before that line can keep the reader wondering for a moment longer.

    Show, don’t tell, especially since this is from Vega’s point of view and we shouldn’t be privy to Rico’s thoughts and feelings.

    Overall, this was a really good read. It was a great insight into the inner workings of Team Flare, showed us the aftermath of Lysandre's death, and personalized the many grunt characters we never learn much about. The interview was interesting to read, and the scene with Rico and Barker gave the fic a lot of heart without being too obvious about it. You had nothing to be nervous about in writing this. Great job!

  9. Thank you! I admit, I didn't really pick Team Flare because they seemed like the perfect fit for the whole interviewing setup (it was more because of the Lysandre incident), but I do agree that everything gelled together pretty well when I was writing the first draft, what with Team Flare having that whole "entrance fee" and stuff. And thank you so much on the comment on Lysandre - it was one of the most interesting aspects of this that I looked into, so I'm really glad it worked well for you.

    Thank you! The scene with Barker was definitely something I focused a lot of attention to in revising this, so I'm glad it paid off! And I'd like to think my main project helped me with the dialogue, so it's great that it had a positive effect on

    Half-tempted to rename one of my dogs Mr. Barker now tbh.

    Ah, very good point here, and it's definitely a fault in my part since the "hundreds of interviews" was just there to exaggerate the monotony and I didn't think about if it gelled well with Vega's behavior. I think I can tone it down a bit by saying that she's been through several and not "hundreds", so thanks for this!

    Hm, really good point! I admit I didn't really think this part through, and I would like to believe that Malva does have the power to change it back, though at this point it will be moot since Rico has ultimately resigned. Of course, Malva can just go wherever Rico is now and get Barker from him, but that's threat still there even if Rico has ownership of Barker anyway, so that's up to him. Talking it out like that does make me think if I should include something that explains this in the interview, so thanks for bringing it up.

    As for Vega, maybe I relied too heavily on the parallel of Mira with Barker, but I did want to convey that Vega still has that sense of obligation to Team Flare due to her devotion to Lysandre.

    Hah, that second bit would actually fit more with the villainous theme of the contest! :p But thank you for saying that! I talk about it a bit in my replies to the judges in the contest thread, but I had a bit of a hard time getting to that ending since I wasn't sure on how to approach Vega's character, especially since a lot of it relied on her thoughts before that scene. So it's great that it worked out for you!

    Thank you so, so much for all the comments on grammar and style! The notes are really helpful, and it'll really help me in both revising this and in writing future stories. I do wanna say that yeah, tenses are such a hard thing to grasp for me so I really appreciate the help! Grateful for the word choice comments, too - I wanna say I'm confident enough with my vocabulary but I do know that there's a lot of room for improvement with it so it'll be really helpful! Also wanna thank you for pointing out that line that was in Rico's point of view - early on in the draft I originally planned on bouncing back and forth between Vega and Rico's POVs, but I eventually decided to center it on Vega since I started and ended with her anyway. That line probably slipped in from that early draft.

    That's great to hear! Thank you so much for the comprehensive review, Psychic! It's really helpful, and I really appreciate it. :)
  10. LucarioIsMegaEvolving

    LucarioIsMegaEvolving A single misplaced step

    I enjoyed the concept of this fanfic, as Lysandre disappearing left many unanswered questions. While playing Pokemon Y, I assumed that Team Flare had disbanded, but this version of events makes it more interesting. It answers what happens when Grunts want to leave their team and it brings to mind a quote from HoH: 'It's hard getting into Team Magma, but it's even harder to get out of it.' It had the right mix of both happy and sad moments in it. This is probably my favourite one-shot by you.
  11. Negrek

    Negrek Lost but Seeking

    This is a wonderfully clever idea, showing how members of a criminal organization pick up the pieces and try to move on with their lives after the collapse of their team. That general idea has been done plenty before, but the idea of an "exit interview" is a cool one and seems particularly well-suited to the weird business-like entity that is Team Flare.

    What's kind of interesting to me is the fact that, although Rico and Barker's relationship is probably the heart of this one-shot, it actually takes quite a while to get there. In some sense this one-shot is kind of pulling in two directions: there's the relationship between the remaining Team Flare members and Lysandre, and then there's the relationship between Rico and Barker. Overall I think what it's more about, really, is how Vega and her fellow members of Flare are trying to cope with Lysandre's death and the collapse of the team, but ultimately Barker waltzes in and kind of steals the show. It's not a bad thing as such, it's just kind of funny to me that what seems to have had the most impact on readers is such a relatively small part of the overall story.

    Something to watch out for in this story are filter words, I think. These are phrases like, "she could see" or "she knew," where you could instead simply have the character see or know without stating it explicitly. Putting whatever's being observed behind the "filter," rendering it as "Vega saw," "Vega heard," "Vega remembered," etc., gives a disconnect between the reader and what's happening--rather than giving us the POV directly, it's reminding us that we're seeing everything in the scene through the window of that POV. I think it's generally stronger for you to remove those sorts of filter phrases to give the story more of an immediate feeling, as though you really are seeing through the character's eyes and getting their direct, unfiltered thoughts and experiences.

    Here are some examples of what I'm talking about:

    Just "their reasons were all the same" seems snappier and more direct to me.

    Why not just, "It was going to be a long day"? Also, the second half of this sentence is kind of funky, in part because I think the "but" doesn't really contradict anything in the first half. Or maybe it's the idea of a collection of long days that sounds odd to me, I'm not sure.

    Again, I think "Several members of the power plant division..." conveys the same information while putting the reader more directly into Vega's POV.

    This would require a little more rewording, something like "It echoed [...] and a few gasps sounded outside." Again, adding "Vega heard" strikes me as unnecessary and simply serves to increase the disconnect between the reader and what she's actually hearing.

    Just something to think about to give your prose a little more zip!

    And a couple nitpicks:

    - It strikes me as odd to call someone in their early twenties a boy, the way Vega does when Rico first shows up.

    This line struck me as odd. We're looking at a third-limited POV, and I don't think Vega would have any way of knowing whether her wince actually was visible.

    Dozed off...? Maybe you meant "spaced out" or something.

    "surrender the possession that he had been given..."

    How does a mightyena hug somebody?

    Little slip into Rico's POV here.

    This is a solid one-shot. Rico and Barker provide the real emotional core of the piece, but the stuff about Team Flare is interesting as well. What keeps people bound to a cause even when it's falling down around their ears? Vega's story is a kind of understated tragedy, offsetting the happy ending for Rico and Barker. We're left wondering what will happen to her and her liepard and how long she'll be able to stay with Team Flare--how long it will even be around. Good luck to her, I guess, and to you in your future writing. Hope you get to enjoy another Serebii contest sometime!
  12. Thank you! I think of all the "where-are-they-now" type of stories you can make of all the villainous teams, Team Flare has the edge of having a leader that doesn't have that much closure on what happened to him - both on the team's side and on the gamer's side as well (the latter of which can't be said for Team Plasma's N.) And as for the exit interview part, I thought it would be a good way to sort-of lay the whole story out while still dealing with that where-are-they-now type of narrative.

    I remember mentioning this in one of my previous review replies, but that part about how Rico and Barker's plot isn't brought up until well into the story was something I was really worried about, both in that it might throw off the reader and in that it might make the story less effective in doing what it wants to do. I try to make those three relationships you mentioned (Lysandre and the team, Rico and Barker, Vega and Flare and by extension her own Pokemon) both parallels and contrasts to each other so that all the setting up I do won't feel like it's just meaningless exposition - even if I do think it was necessary considering the entire premise of the story was an interview. But yeah, it was definitely something to think about, both before and after the story was written.

    Ah, thank you for pointing that out (and giving examples as well - makes it easier to understand)! I admit I didn't even realize I was doing this, so this is definitely something I'll be working on in the future. I think part of the issue was how when I was revising this, I was thinking that I should be incorporating Vega more into the story since she's the main character, so I guess I overused mentioning her doing things even if it was just seeing or knowing something.

    And another set of thank yous for the grammar notes! I have a habit of being really lazy when it comes to proofreading my stories after they've been posted, but I do take all of these grammar notes to heart when I'm writing future stories. So they are all very helpful, and I appreciate you taking your time to point them out! (And yes, now that I think about it, I could better convey that Barker wasn't in fact hugging Rico and it was the other way around.)

    Thank you for saying that! Like I said above, there were definitely a lot of plot points I wanted to work on, but I'm glad they were all interesting for you! And another thank you for the well wishes! I'm definitely interested in participating in the current contest - let's just hope I put together something before the deadline!

    And a final thank you for the very helpful review, Negrek! :)

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