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Salvage

Discussion in 'Fan Fiction' started by Negrek, Nov 1, 2012.

  1. Negrek

    Negrek Lost but Seeking

    Author's Notes: As it was foretold, so has it come to pass! Chapter 26, which apparently going to need to be two posts even though it's well under 10,000 words. =/

    Chapter 26

    Pokémon League HQ is Indigo Plateau's oldest building. It's no soaring, fluted cathedral like the League's headquarters in Kalos, no slick office building like the one in Unova, but only ever what it was built to be: a fortress, squat, square, pricked by a row of slit windows near the top, great slabs of plateau stone raised in walls inches thick.

    It used to mean something, reaching this place. You'd have to travel through the deepwilds where some of Kanto's strongest pokémon live, following nothing more than a vague, half-hidden trail. That was before the agreement that established the first routes, back when the local pokémon would exert every effort to kill you so your death might warn away other overambitious trainers. League HQ was humanity's farthest outpost, a symbol of its ascendancy as apricorn balls allowed trainers to raise enough pokémon to defend it for the first time.

    Now the building's massive front doors have stood open since before the child was born, since before the great Nathaniel Morgan was born, even. Tourists mill and wander around the complex, 'navs out for pictures, browsing the T-shirts in the gift shop.

    You pass them without looking, without stopping to admire the double line of stone statues that flank the path to the entrance. They stand more than twice as tall as you, lumpy suggestions of bipedal pokémon worn to anonymity by wind and rain and, sometimes, violence; one statue is no more than a pair of feet on a pedestal, another scored with marks that might have spelled out words before time crept in to rub them out--acts of rebellion that now warrant no more than small informational signs.

    You stop beside the statue that stands just before the entryway, a much more recent one depicting a nidoqueen and nidoking in battle, the first rearing high, roaring, the second crouched with spines bristling and teeth bared. It's cast in bronze, but you're sure the pokémon are intended to be the deep blue-purple subspecies that lives in the Indigo Mountains, the ones that give them their human name.

    Your hand strays towards the pocket where the pokédex should be, but you stop it before it can find the device missing. You are the great Nathaniel Morgan, you are going to your hearing, and you don't need help to remember it, either. You know the great Nathaniel Morgan well enough by now--far better than you'd like. You won't forget anything, aren't forgetting anything about him. You don't need the pokédex to remind you who you are, and you really don't need to be standing here going over your League history in your head.

    Even so, you have to stop again in the HQ building's entry hall, your eyes taking a moment to adjust to the dim. Despite the chandeliers blazing overhead, this old building will always be one of long shadows. Tourists putter about on the left, visiting the Hall of Fame, the museum, the gift shop. And straight ahead, across the echoing stone-tiled floor, lies the cavernous entrance to the Elite Four's chambers. It's roped off for now, a small sign reminding visitors that challenges will resume after the tournament ends. The Four are no doubt booked solid for weeks, what with all the eight-badge trainers around who'll want to take a chance while they're in the neighborhood. There's only one slot that'll be empty, the very first one after the championship match, by tradition reserved for the tournament's winner to take the first shot at the next level of battling.

    You're not here for the Four, though, not now. You want the humble right-hand passage, where there's a small plaque reading "Offices and Administration" above an arrow that points you down a cramped, shadowy corridor, electric lights burning in alcoves originally meant to hold torches. Ultimately you find yourself inside the office building squatting apologetically behind the League's ancient stone home, the place where the real work gets done. It's brighter here, the walls studded with actual windows, and all over dark blue, from the thick carpet to the tasteful abstract prints on the walls.

    The receptionist has his eyes on you long before you reach the desk, and you have to remind yourself that you're the great Nathaniel Morgan. You are. Or, rather, you're the great Nathaniel Morgan who's going to be on time for his hearing so he doesn't get disqualified from the tournament, as opposed to the great Nathaniel Morgan who somehow vanished last night, slipped out before you even woke up. You'd thought he wasn't capable of closing a door without slamming it, but he must have managed somehow. You had no idea he'd left until you barged into the bedroom to demand he get up, only to find nothing there but the unmade bed.

    So you'll be out looking for the great Nathaniel Morgan later, and in the meantime you'll be handling his business with the League. You have no idea why the receptionist is looking at you all funny; you know you look perfect. You even got your clothes off an unwary teenager headed out to the plateau alone, so they must look fine. You're even positive you put them all on the right way, and you are not, you are not going to stop and check. You are going to walk right up to the desk and say exactly what you've been rehearsing in your head.

    "Did you need something else?" the receptionist asks before you can even open your mouth.

    "Hello. I am the great Nathaniel Morgan. I am supposed to be at a hearing at ten. Where do I go?"

    The receptionist's mouth tightens. "I know. You were here a couple minutes ago, remember? I thought Barry was taking you where you needed to go." For some reason he answers your blank silence by adding, "The nidoking."

    "I--I was? I... Yes. Of course," you say, trying to piece the words together despite the spike of adrenaline that sets your heart humming. The great Nathaniel Morgan ran away to come here? What on earth is he doing? "I got lost. Because I am stupid. Can you tell me where I am supposed to go?"

    "I can look that up for you, sure. Can I have your ID?"

    "No. I, um, I forgot it."

    "You had it with you earlier."

    "Oh. Yes. I mean. I dropped it. Somewhere."

    The receptionist straightens up in his chair, now openly frowning. "Weren't you wearing something completely different a few minutes ago?"

    You have to come up with something. Every second of silence makes the receptionist more suspicious, means that whatever you say has to be that much better for him to buy it. You have to come up with something, you have to--you can't. You can't think of a single thing. All you can do is take a deep, fortifying breath and hope that whatever comes out on the exhale makes sense. "Well, actually, I am not the great Nathaniel Morgan. You see, I am his twin brother..."

    --​

    You stand outside League HQ, away from the main flow of traffic, and stare up at its blank stone facade. The great Nathaniel Morgan's in there somewhere, deciding the fate of your entire mission, and here you are, barred from entry by one unreasonably suspicious office worker. Your hand strays towards the pocket where your pokédex should be. If only you'd remembered to swear every third word, you can't believe you forgot that--but no. You clench your hand into a fist and look the League building up and down. No time to dwell on that.

    Old League HQ is ancient stone, built to withstand armies, no purpose to it but to keep people out. The offices around the back, though, are just brick and metal and glass. You could knock them down if you wanted, easy. Burn them down.

    No, you can't get angry now. You need to think. The League has the great Nathaniel Morgan hostage in that building, and it's defended by receptionists and security guards and who knows what else. You've got to infiltrate the place, get in without being seen. How? How would Aleksandra Aksakov do it? Probably it would involve kicking somebody in the face. You can do that. But that won't help with the not being seen part.

    You could pretend to be delivering a pizza? No, no time to get a disguise like that together. Maybe you could find a deserted room and go through the window, like with those window-cutter things that carve circles out of glass. You don't even need one of those; your claws will work just fine.

    But when you're looking up high, thinking of where to try first, you spot a cluster of machines up on the roof, boxes with big fans and huge vents, humming and chugging and keeping it warm inside the building. And it's so obvious then, so obvious you can't help but smirk. Of course. What's the weak point of any evil fortress?

    Forget climbing around peering in windows. You just need to find an air vent.

    --​

    The ventilation system is a dark, twisty maze, full of sharp corners and sudden vertical drops. The only light is what spills in through scattered grates like portals showing glimpses of another world. There's no room for someone the great Nathaniel Morgan's size, but for the child it's perfect, a secret passage from which it will emerge delightfully filthy and ready for adventure. Any other day the child would have wandered for hours, popping in and out and getting into as much trouble as possible.

    Today, though, it doesn't want adventure. It wants to find the great Nathaniel Morgan and figure out what he's up to, and unfortunately the ventilation system's charms are getting in the way. The booms and thuds that follow the child wherever it crawls are excellent fun, and ordinarily it would be making as big a racket as possible, but it's supposed to be stealthy, secret. And when it moves carefully, light and airy as can be, shifting its weight in slow, patient stages, it takes forever to get anywhere. On top of that, it doesn't even know where it's going.

    The child can't smell the great Nathaniel Morgan from up here, wouldn't be able to even if it could take a deep breath without getting a lungful of dust. The glimpses it catches through the grates show nothing but desks and hallways, the occasional person looking up, probably wondering about the racket in the vents. The child strains its ears with listening--the great Nathaniel Morgan's loud, after all, and even more so when he's cranky. But more sensitive hearing only brings up the volume on the whoosh of blowing air. Below the roaring noise the child can just make out boring grown-up conversation, clacking keys, water running in bathrooms.

    And there's that voice. The child knows that voice. It doesn't belong to the great Nathaniel Morgan.

    The child starts forward in huge booming lunges, eyes watering as years' worth of dust goes spiraling into the air. There's a sudden drop around a corner and the child falls hard, lands with a bang that shakes the whole world, makes everything shiver so bad the child worries the duct's going to rip free of the ceiling. It untangles from its jumbled upside-downness, ignores the bleeding scrape from an arm caught on a rivet, and listens with heart pounding in its ears, waiting to hear the voice again. Maybe it was just a hallucination, some kind of mistake.

    But no, there it is again, and then another voice--the great Nathaniel Morgan's voice this time. It is. The child's stomach fills up with icy dark liquid, its heart hammering, because there's no way those two talking can mean anything good.

    It goes slow now, belly-down slither through the dust with its eyes narrowed against the breeze. Up ahead there's a grate, soft golden light spilling through along with the voices. The child has to be quiet now, so quiet, not just no one realizes it's there, but so it can hear what the humans are saying.

    "...lay the fuck off already!"

    "Stop wasting my time. I don't have all day, and I think the nidoking are starting to get impatient."

    "I told you I ain't saying nothing until you get a fucking lawyer in here!"

    "For the last time, you aren't under arrest. You don't get a lawyer. If a League investigation found you guilty of license fraud, law enforcement might get involved, but as we both--"

    The child slides up to the grate as the great Nathaniel Morgan cuts him off. "Oh, so this is what you call a fucking League investigation, huh? You're gonna bring me in with some bullshit about how I stole my fucking 'dex, drag me off somewhere out of the way, put a couple bruisers on the door and give me a real fucking good 'questioning,' is that it? Think you can make me say whatever the fuck you want? Fuck you!"

    "I'm a bruiser!"

    "It's not a compliment, Benny."

    The child has to lay its cheek against the bottom of the duct to see the nidoking. There are two of them flanking the door, arms crossed over chests. They're practically identical, down to the dusting of pale blue blotches just above their eyes--brothers, probably from the same hatch.

    The room itself is full of shelves stacked with dusty old boxes, here and there a haphazard pile of folders. There are signs propped against the wall advertising old tournaments and League events. One has a picture of the Champion on it, Pikachu in his arms; it must be from before he left for Mount Silver, nearly seven years ago now.

    A couple of shelves are pushed back to make room for the small folding table where the great Nathaniel Morgan sits, his back to the vent. And standing across from him, laptop open on the table, is Leonard Kerrigan.

    "As I was saying, we both know license fraud isn't why you're here, don't we? Drop the act," Leonard Kerrigan says. "Now, for the last time, what are you, and what in the hell did you do to my son?"

    "I never met you in my fucking life! Who the hell is your son?"

    The child scoots back from the grate and props itself up on its elbows, heart thumping so hard it's surprised the duct doesn't shiver with each beat. Leonard Kerrigan. He thinks the great Nathaniel Morgan is the child? It would be insulted if it weren't so worried.

    "I did a bit of digging after our last little talk. I was wondering why you were so interested in that tentacruel. Why did you go to so much trouble to find Matt's pokémon, then only bother to take one of them?"

    "Look, I seriously got no clue what in the fuck you're talking about. You got the wrong fucking guy."

    "But Matt wasn't that tentacruel's first trainer, was he? There was a girl who owned it first. She had three other pokémon. And when Tentacruel got transferred to a new owner, all three of those did, too. Sound familiar?"

    "Hey, dickface! I'm talking to you! Save your crazy story for somebody who gives a fuck, because I ain't your guy!"

    "I bet you thought you were real clever, ditching your old ID like that. But did you really think I wouldn't notice when you re-registered your pokémon on another device?"

    He figured it out. He figured it all out. The child has to get rid of him. It scoots back over to the grate and peers through. Two nidoking. It can handle that. It shouldn't even have to fight them. It can fire a good thunderbolt from up here.

    "Those four pokémon--they certainly have an interesting history. They all belonged to that girl. She's dead. Her parents worked in that Cinnabar lab, the one that blew up. But funny thing is, so did that trainer, the one who went berserk in the Pokémon Center a few months ago. Everyone thought he was dead, too. And that magneton, what was it, some girl and the freak accident with the houndoom pack? She used to live on Cinnabar. Cousin used to be a researcher at the same place. They had a lot of trouble identifying that body."

    The child slots its fingers through the grate, slowly, slowly, one at a time. It leans forward and feels the grate shift in its frame. Good. One solid push and it'll be out of the way. Then the child will have a clear shot.

    "You've been busy, haven't you?" Leonard Kerrigan says. "I'm sure I don't know the half of it, but I think I have enough to interest the police a great deal, don't you?"

    "Yeah, you sure are a fucking genius over there," the great Nathaniel Morgan says. He sounds tired. "Why don't you tell me more about all the shitty things I've been up t--"

    The child covers its eyes with its arm, but even then the thunderbolt shows through blinding white. For a moment everything disappears into searing light and roaring heat and the smell of burning. Then it clears and the storage room's dimmer than before, one of the ceiling lights smoking and dead. The area around where Leonard Kerrigan was standing is blackened, a couple filing boxes gone up in flames. The human's crouching down, one hand braced against a shelf for support, but there's not a mark on him.

    "Fuck! It wasn't me! It wasn't me, I swear!" The great Nathaniel Morgan nearly falls over his chair in his haste to get away, retreating behind a shelf as the nidoking move to put themselves between him and Leonard Kerrigan.

    "Something's weird, Barry," says one. "I know Leo said he only looks like a human, but lightning? Can zoroark even do lightning?"

    "We can deal with lightning," Barry replies. He takes a step forward, tilting his head to peer at the great Nathaniel Morgan around the edge of the shelf. "And come on, if he can do that, he's got to be some kind of pokémon, right?"

    Leonard Kerrigan straightens up, keeping one hand white-knuckle splayed against the shelf. He adjusts his tie and looks at his laptop, which is still in pristine condition, the scorch marks halting in a neat ring about six inches away from it. "After the last time, did you really think I wouldn't take precautions?" he asks.

    "I don't know what the fuck you're talking about! Fuck off with your fucking nidoking! This shit ain't legal, you better believe I'm gonna sue your ass for so many zeros you'll be seeing stars, you prick!" The great Nathaniel Morgan backs up further, wedging himself between a stack of old newspapers and a decomissioned photocopier.

    The child kneels just inside the vent, one hand resting palm-up against its thigh, fingers loosely curled. It can deal with Leonard Kerrigan, whatever it is he did to survive that thunderbolt, in a minute. First, it needs the nidoking to come a little closer.

    "I don't know about this, Barry," says the nidoking who's hanging back, reared up so he can see over his brother's shoulder. "He looks really scared."

    "I'm not going to attack him unless he attacks first. I'm just curious."

    The great Nathaniel Morgan's gaze darts between the nidoking; all he can hear from them are quiet, rattling growls. The one in front pushes the shelf aside, toppling a slurry of overloaded folders to the floor. The great Nathaniel Morgan tries to back up, but manages nothing more than banging his head against the wall. "Fucking call them off!" he yells.

    "Figured out you can't run, have you?" Leonard Kerrigan says in a poisonously pleasant tone. "I guess we're going to find out whether you can take two nidoking at once. But we don't have to fight. I honestly don't care what you've been up to. As far as I'm concerned, no one else has to know about it. All I want to know is what happened to my son. Give me that, and I can make this all go away. You'll never hear from me again."

    "I already told you, you crazy motherfucker, I ain't got the first fucking clue about your son!"

    Leonard Kerrigan gives a shaky smile, plucking at the end of his sleeve. "Well, that's unfortunate for both of us, isn't it? Barry?"

    The closer nidoking spreads his claws and growls, and the great Nathaniel Morgan turns his head aside, eyes closed, tensing in preparation for the attack. The child leans forward. Just a little closer, just a little. One step, and two, and--cold wind roars down the duct behind the child, freezing energy streaming between its fingers and lacing the gust with snow and glinting hunks of ice.

    The nidoking screech as the blizzard pours from the vent and engulfs them both, the rear one tripping over his brother's tail and going down in a thrashing heap. The other lurches into the table, pushing it back against a shelf and pinning Leonard Kerrigan in place. The child pours on more snow and ice until the nidoking's roaring is muffled by a cloud of white, until its whole arm's aching and frostbitten and the blue light flitting between its fingers leaps free with a final crack of materializing ice.

    The wind dies away, a few lazy snowflakes sifting down in its wake. The child leans out to get a better view and grimaces. The nidoking are already moving around down below, growling to each other as they struggle to pull themselves free. They're covered foot-deep in snow, and white spills out over the table and fills the narrow aisles between the shelves, reaching almost to the corners of the room. The child's rather impressed with itself.

    Then Leonard Kerrigan yells, and the child looks over to find him staring up at it, pointing. The nidoking raise their heads, nervous eyes glinting out from icy masks, and there's no point hiding now. The child teleports to the table, ready to fight.

    Except it doesn't. It's still hanging there from the end of the vent with Leonard Kerrigan yelling up at it. He's somehow completely dry and looking no worse for wear for having a table shoved into his gut.

    The child shakes itself, annoyed, and tries to teleport again. Then it nearly overbalances and falls out of the duct when it starts moving, assuming the table will be under it. There's a thread of panic wending through its gut as it concentrates, hard, and tries once more. Once more it remains where it is, resolutely solid. And now the nidoking are up, one smacking his tail against his brother's back spikes to clear them of snow.

    No time to worry, no time to wonder now. The child leaps from the duct and lands hard in the middle of the table, frost-damaged wood cracking from the impact. One nidoking keeps an eye on the great Nathaniel Morgan, who's huddled shivering against the wall, but the other wheels on the child. He reaches out, claws splayed and movements delicate like he's not sure he ought to touch it.

    The child slams an ice punch into his snout, and he rears back with a screech. Now his brother's interested. There's no delicacy in their reaching now, claws slicing through the air. The nidoking are stuck, though, still mired in the snowbank and trapped in far too small a space. They try to slash the child without hitting each other, hurl gobs of poison without getting any on the humans. The child stays back, keeping the table between it and its opponents, and blasts them with streams of water.

    Behind it Leonard Kerrigan is inching sideways, making for the exit. The child focuses for a second, then sends one of the nidoking flying into the door with a blast of psychic energy. Leonard Kerrigan recoils, clutching his laptop against his chest as the poison-type slams into the wall, roaring and clawing at the air. A second later the child slams his brother down on top of him and blasts them both with another blizzard. When the attack clears the nidoking lie in a frozen heap, only jutting spines and intermittent patches of purple showing through the snow. The child watches for a few seconds, working its numb fingers back and forth, but nothing moves.

    It turns and locks eyes with Leonard Kerrigan, then approaches slowly, carefully, hoping he won't run. As it goes it scans the snow-dusted area around him for any sign of how he's been avoiding its attacks. Leonard Kerrigan trembles under the child's gaze, his Adam's apple working in his throat but no sound making it past his lips. Finally he chokes out, "Get help," and closes his laptop with a snap.

    The child pauses, tensed, and glances around for whoever he was talking to. Then realization strikes, and it bares its teeth in irritation. His porygon. No big deal. It'll deal with this fast.

    The child's leap rebounds from an invisible wall, a shock of energy standing its hair on end. It lands heavily on its rear, and Leonard Kerrigan bolts for the door. The child stares after him in a daze, its whole body sparking with pins and needles. That wasn't a protect; protect doesn't shock you like that. Light screen or reflect the child would be able to see. It can't think of any pokémon attack it might be, but as it rises, fumbling at the air with limbs it can't feel, it thinks it's encountered something like this not too long ago.

    Leonard Kerrigan's flitting around the base of the mound of snow and spikes, looking for a way past. The child makes another cautious approach and easily cuts him off when he makes an abortive rush to its left. It herds him up against the edge of the snowpile, then stops, because what is it supposed to do now?

    Leonard Kerrigan ducks out of the way and starts to slip around the child, and it snatches at him instinctively, only for its hand to rebound from something. The child hisses and shakes out its numbing hand, then shuffles forward, forcing Leonard Kerrigan back against the wall until it's within a hair's breadth of touching him. When the human can barely even move, the child stretches its hand out, slowly, even slower when it feels the tingle of the energy barrier sliding over its knuckles, and seizes him by the front of his shirt.

    The League's energy shields are designed to keep attacks contained, so no careless battler can send something flying off-target to injure a bystander. It happened now and again in the old days, and not always by accident. But the shields don't stop everything. The League wanted something that would take the edge off a hyper voice but still let the battlers hear their commands, something to stop a rock throw landing on a trainer without blocking their pokéball toss. The shields are calibrated to negate only high-energy events: anything too hot, too fast, too loud. If the child threw a punch at Leonard Kerrigan's face, it'd crack off the barrier and result in nothing but aching knuckles. But when it reaches through gently, like it's just going for a handshake, the shield won't do anything to stop it.

    Now that the child's hand is through, of course, it can do anything it likes. It could blast a thunderbolt out of its fingertips and there'd be nothing left of Leonard Kerrigan but a hazy gray outline, flecks of ash stuck to the inside of his shield.

    That would be a waste, though, wouldn't it? There's no question the child's going to kill him, but there's something he might be able to help it with first.

    The human's frozen, wide-eyed, pulse racing under the child's fingertips. It smiles big for him and twists its fingers tighter into his shirt.

    "Hey!"

    The child had forgotten the great Nathaniel Morgan was even there. It hears him scrabbling through the snow behind it, but there's no way it's letting him interrupt. "Hey, what're you--stop!"

    Leonard Kerrigan makes a raspy gulping noise as the thunder wave hits. He folds up around the child's hand, muscles contracting as the electricity races through his body. The child swats his laptop from between paralyzed fingers, and the tingle of the energy shield against its arm vanishes as the machine clatters to the ground. The child keeps the attack going anyway, enjoying the pain on Leonard Kerrigan's face, until it realizes the smell of char in the air is the human's skin burning. Then it lets go, and Leonard Kerrigan collapses at its feet, gasping and wheezing for air.

    "Oh my God, what the fuck are you doing?" The great Nathaniel Morgan grabs the child's shoulder and tries to pull it away from Leonard Kerrigan, and it gives him a casual shove that knocks him hard into a shelf. The child imagines he wants his revenge on Leonard Kerrigan, too, but for now he'll have to wait. It has business with Leonard Kerrigan first.

    Whatever device he was using to block the child's teleports is fried. It reaches down to grab him again, and a second later it's gone.

    --​

    You return as Leonard Kerrigan. You had to ditch his glasses--all they did was make everything blurry--and after a wrestle with his tie you threw the strangling thing away in disgust. Overall you're quite pleased with how everything turned out, though. You run a hand over your face, which feels loose and baggy, like you're skin's a size too big. Being old is weird.

    While you were gone the great Nathaniel Morgan climbed on top of the comatose nidoking, and now he's trying to push the poison-types away from the door, digging at the snow with his bare hands. Your sudden appearance makes him jump, and one of the nidoking's spines carves a gash down his arm.

    "Come down here," you say over his vehement cursing. "I am going to move that."

    You didn't mean he ought to jump on you. Light as he is now, he doesn't even knock you over, and he has to cling to you so he doesn't fall. You try to push him away, but he grabs your arm and says, "You fucker! What the hell'd you do? Where's the League guy?"

    "Elsewhere. It is none of your concern."

    "Ain't none of my concern, huh? Ain't none of my fucking concern? Fuck that! What the hell've you been up to? What the fuck was that guy talking about, huh, all them trainers gone missing and you stole their pokémon?"

    "It is none of your concern." You twist out of his grip and shove him away. The great Nathaniel Morgan stumbles back against the nidoking pile, nearly impaling himself on another spike. But as soon as he catches his balance he comes lurching back at you, fists raised.

    "Like hell it ain't none of my fucking concern!" he yells. "When your bullshit gets me dragged off to get tortured by some psycho, you had damn well better believe it's my concern! If you've been murdering your way across all fucking Kanto, that's my fucking concern, too! Because maybe I wanna know if my fucking partner in crime is a douchebag serial killer!"

    "I did not kill anybody." What is he so worked up about?

    "Oh yeah, I blieve the hell out of that! Then where the fuck is pencil-neck, huh?"

    "Who?"

    "The guy! The dude you fucking electrocuted right in front of my fucking face!"

    "Leonard Kerrigan? I told you he is fine. I only used a thunder wave on him. That is not fatal."

    "Oh, it's not, huh? Well, you know what is fucking fatal? It's my fucking fists when they're beating the shit out of a lying little jackass like you!"

    You step back from one flailing punch, then duck under another. A solid blow to the chest knocks the great Nathaniel Morgan over on his back. You pin him under one foot, making yourself heavier and heavier until the great Nathaniel Morgan's squirming ends with a hissing whine. "Calm down. I am telling the truth. Leonard Kerrigan is fine. I do not go around killing people. I know it is bad."

    The great Nathaniel Morgan gasps, "Oh, yeah? How many people you kill out in--in Viridian? With Mewtwo? How many times you tried to fucking murder me? 'I know killing is bad,' that's... that's some bullshit."

    "Well, obviously it is different with Rockets. I do not have a problem killing people who ought to die." You peer into the great Nathaniel Morgan's face, which is flush with anger, tears leaking from the corners of his eyes as his cracked ribs bow under your weight. "I do not understand. Even if I was a murderer, even if I had killed Leonard Kerrigan just now, why would you care? You were a member of Team Rocket. They kill people. A lot of people. And they beat people and torture them and steal from them and everything. But you worked for them anyway. So why would you care if I was a murderer?"

    The great Nathaniel Morgan stares up at you for a long moment, wheezing deep, noisy breaths. Then he turns his head aside with a smile stretched painfully wide across his face. "Damn. Got me there, don't ya, Freak? You're right. Why give start giving a shit now?"

    "Exactly." You pause, caught by a sudden burst of inspiration. "Wait, did you ever kill anybody? Ice 'em? Bump 'em off? Make 'em sleep with the fish--"

    "Saffron ain't even got any water, you fucking moron."

    Footsteps outside the door. There's a knock, and someone says, "Hey, Leo?"

    You raise your voice. "Help! We are trapped in here! Help, help!"

    "What, seriously? Is this...?" The door shudders, setting off a tiny avalanche of disturbed snow, but there's no shifting the nidoking's bulk. The handle rattles ineffectually, and the voice comes again. "Hey! What happened?"

    "The nidoking got into a fight and knocked each other out. They are lying against the door."

    "What, Barry and Benny?" There's silence a moment, and then the door shudders violently but remains closed. "Look, I'll go get help, okay? Hang tight in there."

    "I will. Thank you." When the footsteps fade away again, you look down at the great Nathaniel Morgan. He's still spread-eagled on his back, staring at the wall. "Are you ready to cooperate? We need to get out of here."

    "Yeah, sure," the great Nathaniel Morgan says listlessly. "What's it gonna be today, huh? Mugging little old ladies? Drowning baby skitty? Stealing money from charity?"

    "No. I am going to handle this. All you need to do is follow me and not talk for once." You step back and glare at him until he gets up, then keep a suspicious eye on him while you go over and retrieve Leonard Kerrigan's laptop.

    You were hoping the electricity would make it explode, but it just turned off. It won't come back on again no matter how many times you jab the power button. You turn it over and over, contemplating blowing it up now just to amuse yourself. Meanwhile the great Nathaniel Morgan stares at nothing in particular, a morose expression on his face. He actually is being quiet. It's weird.

    More footsteps out in the hall, and something much stronger than any human shoves the door open in one sudden, violent motion. The door moves a hand-span inward, shifting the limp nidoking minutely aside. Thick gray fingers grasp the edge, then lever the door open wide enough for a machoke to poke her head through. "Whoah. What happened in here?"

    "Leo? Are you okay?" It's the voice you heard earlier.

    "Yes. I am fine. We are coming out." You pick your way over the slushy pile of ice and nidoking, the machoke holding the door open for you as you squeeze through into the hallway.

    "Jesus, Leo, what happened?" your rescuer asks, hurrying over to help you down. He looks familiar somehow, a disheveled young man sweating through his shirt. He stands wringing his hands and staring as the great Nathaniel Morgan climbs down to join you.

    "I told you, the nidoking started a fight with each other for some reason. They knocked each other out and blocked the door."

    A haze of shifting blue and red light bursts from the League employee's pocket, revolving a moment before swirling into the shape of a porygon-Z. It darts forward, clicking and whirring as it does a complete loop around you. "Aid acquired. Do you require further assistance?" it asks in a flat, synthetic voice.

    "No. I am fine." You dig around in your pockets and are relieved to find two minimized pokéballs. The lighter one must be it. "Return."

    "I don't get it," the League employee says. He's staring at the nidoking, a sad frown on his face. "I've never seen these two fight. What set them off?"

    "Yeah, it's weird," the machoke says. She toes a thread of snow leaking around the edge of the door. "And what's with all the snow, anyway?"

    "How would I know? I could not understand a word they were saying. It does not matter anyway. I need you to remove the restrictions from this man's account and apologize for causing him trouble," you say.

    "Huh? What are you talking about?"

    You point at the great Nathaniel Morgan. "This man was told to come here because he was using a stolen pokédex, but that was wrong. He is not. I need you to take the hold off his record so he can continue to compete in the League Championship. And then apologize."

    "What? Leo, you showed me"--the man lowers his voice to a mutter, shooting a sideways look at the great Nathaniel Morgan--"you showed me the analysis. There was definitely a backdoor there, and the MAC address--oh!" He rushes over to stand by the machoke as she bends down, offering a hand to one of the nidoking. The poison-type blinks groggily and reaches up to take it, then collapses again when you clench your fingers behind your back, sending an invisible pulse of psychic energy lancing through his skull.

    The machoke lets out a nervous growl and straightens up. "I'm going to go get some healing items," she says. "We can't just leave them on the floor like this."

    "Hey, wait! Crusher, where are you going?" the human calls after the fighting-type, who's already hurrying off down the hall. "I need you to move these guys somewhere they can get healed! We can't just leave them lying here!"

    "She is going to get healing items."

    "Oh, that's good," he says. "Wait, how did you--?"

    "Anyway, the analysis I did on the pokédex was wrong. Obviously I am bad at my job. I need you to change the entry."

    The human massages his temple with one hand. "What? I mean... Look, Leo, you do whatever, okay? If the data was bad, fine, just change the record yourself. I don't want anything to do with this."

    "I cannot do this myself. I am leaving for a vacation. Right now."

    "You what? Leo, you can't just, you--"

    "I will be back in a couple of weeks. There is nothing to worry about. It is not like I am getting kidnapped or anything."

    "Leo, no, you can't--this has to stop, Leo." The human stares at you wide-eyed, hands out in a pleading gesture. "Look, this whole thing you've got going on, whatever it is, it has to stop, okay? I don't know why you dragged this guy out here to do whatever in some back room, or why you've been sneaking around, requisitioning all those old files, but I'm done. I can't keep covering for you. You need help, Leo. I mean, look... you sound kind of weird today, all right? Why don't we sit down a minute, talk things over, see what we can figure out?"

    "No. I am leaving right now. If you do not get this man's license sorted out, I am sure there will be trouble."

    "Look, no, just... give me a minute, okay?" the man says, putting his hand up like he intends to cover his face but not quite making it.

    The great Nathaniel Morgan's gazing at nothing in particular, a blank look on his face. He finally rouses when the League man grabs his arm.

    "Hey! What the fuck?"

    "Here, just one second, over here," the man stammers, dragging the great Nathaniel Morgan a few yards away. He starts talking in an undertone, and you sharpen your hearing to listen in.

    "...anything at all?"

    "Hell if I know. He was going on about some bullshit like about his son or something, acting like I had any fucking clue what he was talking about. I don't know jack shit! I ain't no pokédex thief, there's no fucking reason for me to be here in the first place!"

    "Oh God," the League employee says, and this time he really does cover his face, fingers clutching at his skin. "Oh God, I am so, so sorry."

    "Listen, you better do what that guy said and clear my record, because otherwise I'm gonna sue your ass like you wouldn't believe. What the fuck is this shit? I show up for your bullshit hearing and instead I get dragged to some fucking interrogation room with that guy spouting bullshit and threatening to have the nidoking beat the shit outta me?"

    "I know, I know, I'm really sorry, I promise I'll get it sorted out for you as quickly as I can. I was just wondering if you might have any idea where Leo, uh, where that man is planning to go? Or can you think of anything you said that might have given him the idea that he needed to leave?"

    "Fuck no. That dude's crazy as a bag of fucking skitty. You want to figure out where he's going, ask him your own goddamned self. What I wanna know is when you're gonna do something about this fucking hold on my license."

    "Yes, okay, I'll deal with it as soon as I can." The League employee starts to turn away, but the great Nathaniel Morgan steps forward and shoves his arm in the man's face. The League employee winces backwards at the sight of the bloody gash.

    "Yeah, that's right," the great Nathaniel Morgan says. "One of your fucking nidoking gave me a present to remember him by."

    The League employee's gaze moves from the cut to the great Nathaniel Morgan's face, and his eyes widen as he takes in the rest of your companion's injuries. "Oh God, they didn't--you didn't--I, I mean, if that happened to you while, I mean if Barry and Benny, they--"

    It takes a bit of babbling before the great Nathaniel Morgan figures out what the man's getting at. He gives the League employee one of his hideous smash-toothed grins, and the desperate stream of words dies on the man's lips. "Nah, I was ripped up before I got here. Fucking lucky for you, ain't it? But still. What've we got, wrongfully accusing me, hauling me out here to some fucking fake 'hearing,' and then one of your fucking nidoking taking a bite outta me? I ain't no lawyer, but that sounds like one pretty fucking huge lawsuit to me. And are there more chumps that dipshit dragged up here for one of his little heart-to-hearts? I ain't just talking about reaming you and all the other dick-twiddlers who're supposed to be in charge of shit, I'm talking about ruining your entire fucking organization. And if--"

    "Okay, okay." The League employee scrubs his face with his sleeve, sweat glistening under the harsh fluorescent lights. "Do you have your license with you?"

    The great Nathaniel Morgan wordlessly hands over his pokédex, and the League employee flips it open and pulls a PDA out of his pocket. He keeps shooting glances back at you, like he's worried you're going to sneak away to start your "vacation."

    You wish you could. A vacation would be nice, really, after a day like today. Instead you're watching the machoke, who's back with a first aid kit. She kneels by the nidoking and starts going through it, pulling out a couple of spray bottle potions and a flask of glittering revive crystals.

    You'd rather those nidoking not wake up just yet. They saw you. You have no idea what anyone else will make of their story, but with all the strangeness surrounding the great Nathaniel Morgan and Leonard Kerrigan, you don't want people poking around and investigating further. You don't need to kill them. You're not really like what the great Nathaniel Morgan thinks. But you do need them to go away, at least until the end of the tournament.

    The machoke's absorbed in her task, neatly re-packing the box before reaching for the revives. You open your mouth just slightly, enough to make it the proper shape, and make a gut-wrenching screeching noise. The machoke lurches forward, medicine and bandages scattering in all directions as she drops the box to shield her ears.

    The League employee is squinting between the devices in his hands, thumb flying across his PDA's keys. The great Nathaniel Morgan catches you looking and serves you a cold stare. Neither of them could have heard the supersonic, which is too high-pitched for human ears.

    The machoke grunts and shakes her head, then stares around the hallway, looking for whatever let off the attack. Of course, the only people here besides her look like humans. She shakes her head again, harder this time, and starts gathering up the scattered bits of the first-aid kit. She can't seem to aim properly, though, fingers scuffing through the carpet a couple inches shy of whatever she reaches for. She manages to grab a bottle of antiseptic, then fumbles and drops it again.

    "There you go. You're all set," the League employee says, handing the pokédex back to the great Nathaniel Morgan. "Again, I'm sorry about all of this. I hope you understand--"

    "Yeah, yeah, enough with the bullshit. I'm good. But you guys better not fuck with me again, hear? Next time I may not be so fucking forgiving."

    "Sure, sure. But for now--Crusher? Can you show this man to the door once you're done over there?"

    The machoke keeps her head down, tics jumping in her shoulders and sides. Her hands are shaking. "Don't feel too good."

    "Oh. Oh, well, uh," the League employee says, shooting a nervous look at the great Nathaniel Morgan.

    "Ain't a problem. I remember the way back. But before I go, what's your name? And that dude over there?"

    "My name? Uh, it's Mike. Mike Fitzwallace. And that's Leo Kerrigan."

    "Great, Mike. Fucking excellent." The great Nathaniel Morgan gives another gap-toothed smile. "I'll remember that. And if the League fucks with me when I've got a tournament to win, I'll remember who to mention, won't I?" He seems to appreciate Mike Fitzwallace's blanch, sounds almost cheerful when he says, "Catch you later, Mike. You take care, now."

    He stomps off down the hall with one hand pressed to the cut on his arm. Mike Fitzwallace lets out a huge sigh, scrubbing his hands over his face then tousling up his hair, staring into the great Nathaniel Morgan's absence. Meanwhile the machoke's managed to pick up a full heal and is struggling with the injector.

    "Leo." Mike Fitzwallace comes up to you, slowly, like he's afraid you'll spook. "Leo, what the hell was that? If you wanted to get that guy, you should have tipped off somebody in enforcement instead of... whatever this was. Now nobody can lay a finger on him. Look, I don't know what you've been up to, but I think we should, you know, we should talk about it. Before you go and do anything... Before your vacation."

    "No. I am leaving." But first you need to get the nidoking away. You need a distraction.

    The machoke grunts a curse as she drops the full heal. Her coordination's improving, though, and she's got hold of it again in a matter of seconds.

    And right there is your answer. You turn away from Mike Fitzwallace, then drop down and pretend to be tying your shoelace. Darkness rises in you, a spreading chill that unfurls from the center of your body, radiating outwards in a tingling wave. Out of the corner of your mouth you hiss, "What do you think you're doing, you clumsy idiot?"

    The machoke stiffens. "Leo?" Mike Fitzwallace sounds concerned. "What are you doing?"

    "Tying my shoelace." Then, in a low tone, "Why are you handling something delicate like that? Shouldn't you be out bench-pressing boulders or something? Why is a pokémon like you even working in an office, anyway?"

    The muscles stand out in the machcoke's arms as she clenches her fists. You can hear her breathing, short, ragged bursts of air through her nose. "Leo, please," Mike Fitzwallace says, and he's practically right behind you now. "You've been acting really strange, and I think it would be best if we took a minute and--"

    "Look at you, getting worked up over a few little insults," you hiss. You can feel the darkness weaving its way into your voice, the words leaving your lips so cold and biting you're almost surprised they don't fog the air white. "What are you going to do about it, huh?" you ask. "You savage."

    The full heal crumples in the machoke's hand, liquid dribbling between her fingers. She lets out a roar so loud even you're caught off guard.

    "Crusher? Crusher!" Mike Fitzwallace gasps as the machoke surges to her feet and aims a mega kick at your head. It misses completely, but you know how to make it look close.

    You stumble backwards, and Mike Fitzwallace steps up in your place, waving his arms in the machoke's face. "Jesus, Crusher! Hey!"

    The machoke turns to him, of course, and he backs off again immediately. "Okay, just calm down now, calm--Leo, Porygon! W-wh--Leo, wait!"

    Of course you're not going to wait. The human got himself into trouble, and now he can get himself back out. You tear off down the hall at what you hope is a convincing human speed, leaving the machoke's roars and the Mike Fitzwallace's shouts behind.

    You round a corner and nearly bowl over a flygon making her way towards the commotion. Curious faces poke from conference rooms and offices, looking vaguely in the direction of the noise and calling out to you as you race past.

    You ignore them and turn another corner, and another, and now you're too far away to hear the machoke anymore. You sprint down another hallway just in case, glance around to make sure no one's coming, then fling yourself back to the storeroom with a thought.

    Outside the machoke's roars have been joined by the flygon's droning cries, but you ignore the sounds of battle and bend over the nidoking. For a moment you feel smooth, cool armor under your fingertips, and then a teleport carries you far away.

    --​

    If anything, the nidoking slush pile looks even stranger in the middle of the open field. This is the deepwilds, but here in Indigo's foothills the wild pokémon aren't very scary. And these two are nidoking, after all. They'll be fine. It'll take them a few days to stumble back into civilization, and at that point nothing they say will matter.

    You sigh and rub your neck, trying to massage away some of your tension. You got the great Nathaniel Morgan's license cleared, you got away fine, and you even picked up a bonus into the form of Leonard Kerrigan. It's been a good day. You turn your head towards the sun, eyes closed and warm red shining through your eyelids. A good day.

    You stand there soaking in the sun until you hear groaning behind you, the scrape of armor over armor as the nidoking rouse. Then you're gone on a whim, from open sunlight to the shade of your front porch.

    It's even shadier inside the house, leaf-filtered sunlight leaving most of the room dark. Leonard Kerrigan's struggling with the spiderwebs pinning him to the wall, discarded strands of webbing littering the floor around him. You grimace. You'll need to layer on some more if he's prying himself free that fast.

    Leonard Kerrigan freezes when he hears your footsteps, squinting into the dim. His mouth opens slightly when you come closer, prying fingers going still in the mass of webbing. "Do not say anything," you say, kneeling in front of him so he can get a good look at your face--his face. "Just listen, and I will tell you what you need to do to stay alive."
     
    Last edited: Apr 5, 2018
  2. Negrek

    Negrek Lost but Seeking

    Because the character limit for the forum used to be lower, Chapter 26 was originally split across two posts. This post contained its second half, and is currently being retained only as insurance against the potential for character limit shenanigans in the future.
     
    Last edited: Apr 5, 2018
  3. Chibi Pika

    Chibi Pika Stay positive

    I am so sorry it's taken me long to comment! I can't even remember when I last got caught up (...July?) Actually, you've posted two chapters since then, so I'm not caught up anymore, but whatever, I wanna at least post something.

    So...thoughts!

    I have got to say, that moment when the Rocket boss first arrives was tense. I mean, I already get super anxious from scenes where characters are sneaking into the enemy's lair, doubly so if they're disguised and can be found out at any moment. Which isn't helped by the protagonist being the worst actor in the history of the world oh my god. Also, I gotta say, I really liked your decision to go with an original leader for TR (at least, I presume she's not the original Madam Boss; doesn't look like her at all.) That's something I wished I could've done for a while, cause I feel so much more restrained with Giovanni than all my original executives, and as a result I use the executives a lot more. But alas, nothing I can do about it now.

    But yeah, as for the boss, I really liked the atmosphere she gave off. Intimidating as hell, without really flaunting it at all or shoving it in your face. She just...was. Cool and competent and even--dare I say--warm at times...but with the implication that said warmth can fade just as quickly.

    One part I do recall being mildly lost by was that part where Mewtwo psychically directed the protagonist where to go to reach the computer with the info they needed (at least, I think that's how it went, it's been awhile...) Their original plan was to call Eleanor Fairchild down and talk to her directly, so I'm not sure if I missed the bit where they switched plans, or how Mewtwo knew which computer was the one to go for.

    That said, the failure of that particular mission is amusing, as it's resulted in that entire arc basically dying and reverting the plan back to the protagonist's original goal of entering the league. Talk about one step forward, five steps back. xD

    And hot damn you've really made Nate take some abuse in this arc. And I thought he had it bad before. =P Also, it's revealed something interesting about the protagonist's thought process that had come up several times before, but is perhaps best illustated here. The protagonist has no concept of disproportionate retribution. In its mind, massive pain and injury is a perfectly reasonable punishment for minor inconvenience to its Very Important Mission, therefore making them "even." A bad thing for a bad thing--they cancel each other out...who could complain about that? So following up several instances of that exchange with a good thing (taking Nate to the hospital, for example) puts it ahead in their interactions. Also he is a Rocket and therefore a bad guy, so it can't be disproportionate because he probably deserves it for...something he did at some point. Yeah...

    Anyways, I can say that I am enjoying the league battles a lot! Some of the gym battles earlier in the fic dragged a bit imo, but the league ones are a lot snappier, and I know that a big concern of any tournament arc is being able to make the matches themselves interesting, so good job there. Nate's strategies are really creative! I hate to admit that my first thought on Infernape vs Pidgeot was...the same as the protagonist: "Well Infernape has good move coverage here, so..." Whereas Nate's stall tactics would've likely worked a lot better if the protagonist hadn't gone against them.

    Actually, that's another point...you've done a good job of making the protagonist bad at battling without being dumber than a box of rocks. It actually knows all the type matchups and all the good moves available to each Pokemon, as well as a fair number of combos...it's just the application of that knowledge is where it falls flat.

    Oh, and I forgot to mention...Mewtwo being a cat and also getting angry at plastic wrap was great. x3

    Anyway, the fic continues to be fascinating and now I need to get caught up for real since I'm behind again. Until then~

    ~Chibi~;249;;448;
     
  4. Negrek

    Negrek Lost but Seeking

    I'm glad you like the boss! I had a lot of fun writing her, for sure. And yeah, she's an OC, not based on Madame Boss at all. Since this story takes place after G/S, it's post-Giovanni, and I needed somebody to take his place. For your story, I think Giovanni makes the most sense, since he's so heavily associated with Mewtwo's creation that it would seem kind of weird to have an OC in charge of things, unless maybe you were going to make it M16 Mewtwo somehow. (We won't talk about M16 Mewtwo.) But it's definitely a lot of fun to be able to work with my own boss character (and we'll be seeing more of her later, naturally), and it's great that people seem to like her so far.

    Mewtwo knew which computer they wanted based on the information he'd picked up in the Viridian base, and those were the memories he shared with the protagonist so it would know where to go while he was fighting Sabrina. They needed Eleanor not to tell them where to find the computer, but because they don't know the password to log into it, so although the protagonist was able to retrieve the thing, it's completely useless because they can't get to any of the info on it. The plan changed when the boss said that Eleanor Fairchild wasn't in Saffron, to some extent; Mewtwo probably would have tried to extract the information he needed directly from the boss, but he got interrupted by Sabrina, so that's the point where he sent the protagonist off on its own.

    It would probably help to have the protagonist react more when the boss says Eleanor isn't around, like "oh **** what do now;" in the current version, it's really more distracted by her claim that Mewtwo would never show his face in Saffron. It most likely isn't clear that that's where things really start to go downhill and they need to come up with a new plan.

    Yuuuup. The protagonist really wanted to go to the League tournament, though, so even if things had gone well it would have done everything in its power to make the tournament be the plan going forward.

    Oh yeah. He's just too good at making other people want to beat him up.

    Yes, absolutely! As far as the protagonist is concerned, Nate is a Bad Person (and pretty unapologetic about it, too), so anything cruel it does to him is totally justified because he deserves it. The very fact that it hasn't outright killed him yet is doing him a huge favor, because after all killing bad guys is what a hero's supposed to do. And anyway, Nate was totally mean to it that one time (okay, several times), so obviously he's Just the Worst and generally unredeemably awful. This is definitely one of the major themes of the story, so I'm glad it's coming through strongly. Around this period in the story is probably the nadir of it, too.

    Nice, glad you like them! I try to cut loose a bit with the League battles, since they're supposed to be against pretty powerful opponents, and they'll be the last formal battles in the 'fic. I don't get to go quite as crazy with the strategies most of the time.

    tbh you're not wrong to look at infernape's good array of moves and offensive superiority in the matchup against pidgeot. Nate's strategy has the potential to work better, in the sense that it preserves the most health and exposes the infernape to the least risk, but in a realistic scenario it's probably not going to work as neatly as that and you'll be relying on those coverage move a fair amount. And like Nate says, stalling doesn't really play to infernape's strengths. When it comes to strategy, the protagonist's weakness is definitely that it tries to solve every problem by hitting it as hard as possible (and if that doesn't work, try hitting harder); Nate's is that he's overfond of fancy, complicated gambits when sometimes a more straightforward punchy approach would work better.

    Awesome! I was definitely trying to get across that the protagonist has a very brute-force battle style, which works well enough for most fights, since it does know type advantages and what moves are generally strong and so on. It's when it runs into situations that can't be solved by "use strongest attack until it gets knocked out" that it has trouble.

    I will admit that it's not that much brighter than a box of rocks, though. You'd probably prefer to have the rocks as your wingman if you were trying to navigate a delicate social situation, for example. :p

    Thanks! I try to keep in mind that, although Mewtwo is terrifyingly powerful and basically a giant ball of hatred, he's also still a child and understands "normal life" perhaps even less than the protagonist. It would probably be fun to pit him against one of those child-proof caps on pill bottles.

    Thanks for reviewing! Hope your writing's going well, I'm looking forward to seeing how you handle Mewtwo as a character yourself. ;)

    I've been working on the next two chapters at once, since they're currently merged into one mega-huge chapter that I'm looking to break more or less in half. Assuming I do decide to break them, you can expect Chapter 27 imminently and Chapter 28 shortly thereafter. If I get the word count down to a reasonable level, you'll probably see the whole thing towards the middle of the month instead.

    Aside from that, I'm planning a big extra for the story's fourth birthday, which is November 1st, and I hope to have Chapter 29 (or 28, whichever) up on that day as well. All in all, this thread should be pretty busy over the course of the next month.
     
    Last edited: Oct 8, 2016
  5. Negrek

    Negrek Lost but Seeking

    Author's Note: Another chapter that comes in baaaarely above the character limit. Next one's much shorter, I promise!

    Chapter 27

    "I cannot believe you," you say. "How could you do this right before a battle? Do you want to lose?"

    "If it would get you to piss off and leave me alone, I wouldn't say no." The great Nathaniel Morgan leans heavily against the dresser and stares into the mirror, poking ruefully at the purple scab on his split lip.

    "Leave you alone? You think I would leave you alone after you decided to spend the night before a big battle getting drunk and starting fights? Even if we win, you had better believe I will not let you do that again!"

    The great Nathaniel Morgan winces. "If you don't keep it the fuck down I'm probably gonna die before we even reach the stadium. I mean you obviously don't give a shit about murdering people, but it's gonna be kinda hard for me to battle if I'm fucking dead." He drags a hand over the front of the shirt he fell asleep in, squinting into the mirror, and apparently decides it'll do. You follow him as he stumbles around the apartment, gathering things he drunkenly scattered the night before.

    "I was worried when I came back and you were not here," you say, ignoring his groaned request for you to shut up. "I thought you decided to run away after all. You had enough time that you could have gone anywhere you liked. But no. You were too stupid even to take advantage of that."

    "Graveler," the great Nathaniel Morgan mutters, raising her pokéball, and the rock-type appears in front of him. She doesn't say anything, but her eyes roll up to follow her trainer as he climbs onto her back, and you think even she must notice his condition. Nevertheless, she starts forward without complaint when he points at the door.

    You follow, your every footfall accompanied by a spray of dancing embers, mane blazing and spitting with agitation. "When I finally got worried enough to go looking, you were not even five streets away, seeing how many bars you could get thrown out of. I cannot believe you. Did you just not care about this battle? Did you think it would not matter?" You pause a second, drawing breath to start in on your next point, then realize this isn't the right street. "Where are you going? The stadium is that way!"

    "Coffee," the great Nathaniel Morgan grunts. "Don't care what you do to me, I ain't fighting nobody without no fucking caffeine."

    He looks entirely wretched, slouched there on Graveler's back, bruised and unshaven and shielding his eyes from the midmorning sunlight. A wave of disgust stops up your throat, so strong you have to stop and measure your words carefully. "I will get the coffee. I will," you say as he starts to protest, underlining your words with a burst of flame. "You go on to the stadium, and I will catch you. Now! Faster!"

    The idiot, you think to yourself as you speed to the first coffee shop you see. You spent all yesterday doing important things, even getting him his stupid license cleared, and he was out wasting money and turning himself even more useless than usual. If you hadn't dragged him back to the apartment yourself, who knows if he'd have bothered to show up to the battle at all.

    You get the coffee, the strongest they'll make for you, and tear off across the plateau. It doesn't take long to catch up with Graveler's plodding steps, and you thrust the coffee at the great Nathaniel Morgan, just barely squashing the impulse to dump it on him instead. That'd wake him up all right.

    The great Nathaniel Morgan takes a sip and winces. "What, no fucking sugar?"

    You let out a bark of anger that comes out flame-edged, and the great Nathaniel Morgan looks taken aback. "Holy shit. Excuse me for fucking living."

    "Go!" you howl. "Go, go! We are going to be late!"

    You slow down once you pass into the shadow of the stadium, tipping your head all the way back to see the top of its looming walls. You've been to tournaments before, of course, but always as a spectator. Now you're going down underneath the stands, listening to the ambient rumble of thousands and thousands of people moving around up above, laughing, chatting, shifting in the close-ranked seats as they settle in for the fight. The crowd-noise already echoes from the concrete walls, and soon it will rise even higher, drowning you in its roar when you knock out an enemy, when you win everything, the whole match, the tournament, and everyone cheers for you and you alone. You stand watching the patch of light at the far end of the tunnel, imagining, while the great Nathaniel Morgan checks in with the stadium staff, recalls Graveler, and tosses his empty coffee cup into a corner, ignoring a dirty look from one of the field hands.

    The human comes up beside you, fidgeting and rubbing at his face like the crowd-noise is painful. You feel like you've been standing there for weeks, bouncing on the balls of your feet and shedding excited flames, when the announcer starts up. "Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the first quarterfinal match of the Indigo League Championship!"

    "Oh, God," the great Nathaniel Morgan groans, pressing both hands against his temples and ducking his head as the crowd explodes with a roar that vibrates in the pit of your chest. "We've got a great battle for you today, folks. Let's give it up for our trainers! In the red corner, hailing from Pewter City, iiiiit's Jason Muskowitz!"

    You rock up onto your toes and crane your neck, trying to see out onto the field, then wobble and have to drop back. The noise of the crowd beats against you, and your flames leap higher, flaring and dancing in a long contrail behind you. The great Nathaniel Morgan sidles away, watching you from the corner of his eye.

    "And in the blue corner, from Saffron City, it's the Great Nathaniel Morgan!"

    "Oh, for fuck's--" the great Nathaniel Morgan starts, but you don't stick around to hear where he goes with it. You dash forward, only to stop dead just outside the tunnel, overwhelmed by the sound and the lights and the sheer enormity of the field.

    "Move it," the great Nathaniel Morgan growls as he passes you, head bowed and looking the very opposite of awed. It's almost criminal how unexcited he is.

    You follow him to where the referee waits with Jason Muskowitz, over by the side of the arena. The referee nods as the great Nathaniel Morgan comes up, then starts talking over the announcer, who's rattling off the rules of the match for the crowd. "Okay, awesome. You guys know how the platforms work? Good. Just signal for me if you have any trouble. It's the usual rules, four on four, no time limit. Got it? Great. Shake hands, please."

    "Good luck," Jason Muskowitz says as he releases the great Nathaniel Morgan's hand. He's around sixteen, you'd guess, and already at least four inches taller than the great Nathaniel Morgan, all big smile and acne.

    "Go fuck yourself," the great Nathaniel Morgan snarls.

    "Whoah!" the ref says as Jason Muskowitz recoils. "Hey. Keep it clean, all right? Pull something like that during the match and it's a warning."

    "Fuck you, too," the great Nathaniel Morgan says before turning to head for his box. You stay behind a moment, looking between the scowling referee and the hunched shoulders of your "trainer." You suppose you shouldn't be surprised that he'd take every opportunity to be awful.

    The great Nathaniel Morgan's already slotting his pokédex into the reader on his platform when you step up next to him. He activates the box, and the metal beneath you shudders. Then you're airborne, guardrails sliding up on all sides. The great Nathaniel Morgan grabs one as soon as it locks into place, leaning on it hard as the platform comes to rest with a grinding lurch. The stadium's screen lights up with a close-up of the great Nathaniel Morgan on one side and Jason Muskowitz on the other, four pokéball icons below each.

    You poke your head between the bars supporting the guardrail. The field looks so much smaller from up here! You wrap your tail around a bar and lean out even farther, feeling like you're floating on the crowd's cheers.

    You want to be first. You want to fight. You want to win.

    Down below the referee gives his signal. "Trainers ready... Begin!"

    Jason Muskowitz tosses a pokéball into the air at the same time that the great Nathaniel Morgan says, "Absol."

    It seems like it takes a long, long time for the pokéball's light to stream out, long enough for the excitement racing through your veins to chill to freezing slush. A crobat takes shape, sparkling suggestions of wings beating even before she properly solidifies. Your side of the field remains empty.

    "Absol!" the great Nathaniel Morgan says again, louder, and the crowd murmurs like an outgoing tide, seventy thousand people waiting, watching, wondering.

    She can't do this. She can't. The great Nathaniel Morgan already announced her as his choice; it's too late for him to take it back. If she doesn't show up, she'll be out, and the great Nathaniel Morgan'll be down one before the first attack.

    He finally looks awake, gripping the railing so hard his arms are shaking--or maybe they're shaking so hard he needs to hang on for dear life. He leans even farther out than you, bloodshot eyes scouring the arena, mouth half open like he can't decide whether he should call again, whether he should commit. Because if he calls again, and she doesn't arrive...

    The crobat's shadow moves. The crowd gasps, and you swear you can feel the breath being drawn into all those thousands of throats. Then it breaks into screaming cheers as Absol steps into the light, casual and unhurried.

    "Now there's someone who knows how to make an entrance!" the announcer booms over the tumult. The great Nathaniel Morgan collapses against the railing, one arm hanging limply over it while he wheezes for breath.

    "Fuck," he gasps, wiping sweat off his brow. "Fuck, I am not even ready to deal with this shit today."

    Absol trots over to his side of the arena like she doesn't even notice the crowd, turns back to face the crobat, and stands at calm attention. The crobat swoops down until she's hovering just below her trainer's platform. "Crobat versus Absol," the referee says. "The first round will now--begin!"

    "Dodger, rain dance!" Jason Muskowitz calls. The crobat flits up and away, climbing so high you can barely see her against the cloudless blue sky.

    When no counter-command comes, you turn to the great Nathaniel Morgan, tail twitching in agitation. Dodger's already starting her attack; what's he waiting for? He's not even paying proper attention to the crobat, his eyes on Absol instead. "Thunder," he says.

    You watch Dodger on the stadium's huge video screen. The bat's four wings let her execute all kinds of intricate swoops and tumbles, trailing arcs of blue light as she stirs dark storm clouds out of calm air. Absol's stock-still, unruffled. There's a brief sparkle of electricity around her scythe, and then the clouds open with a roar, sending a bolt of lightning down on the heels of the first raindrops.

    "Somebody's not playing around," the announcer says. "Looks like Dodger was ready for that, though."

    The bat's shooting towards the ground unscathed, and she probably doesn't even need her trainer's yell of, "U-turn!"

    "Detect. Thunder," the great Nathaniel Morgan counters.

    Still Absol doesn't move. The crobat's on her before the great Nathaniel Morgan even finishes giving his command, slashing out of the air like a purple bullet. Absol might duck, might shift an inch to the side; whatever she does, it's too minute for you to see, but it's enough to send Dodger sweeping past rather than striking her target. Her wings flail as she tries to make a quick change of direction, and another brief crackle announces Absol's follow-up attack. This time Dodger's caught. She plows into the earth, electricity sizzling in the air around her, and Jason Muskowitz has a pokéball ready a second later.

    "Switch! Auger, you're up!"

    Modest applause starts up, and the great Nathaniel Morgan's head jerks up, a brief expression of panic crossing his face as he stares at the endless rows of spectators.

    "Doesn't like crobat against Absol," the announcer muses as Dodger's rescued by a burst of red light. "Good on Nathaniel for blocking the U-turn switch. And now we--oh." There's another faint cheer from the crowd as the next pokémon takes shape. "Kabutops is on the field! Not every day you see one of those."

    The great Nathaniel Morgan mutters something to himself. He's still leaning way out over the railing, every inch of him tense. He squeezes his eyes shut a second, then says, "Hail."

    You catch the flicker of a grimace across Jason Muskowitz's face. "Waterfall," he says.

    "Ooh, that's going to hurt," the announcer says as Kabutops rockets across the arena in a jet of swirling water. He crashes into Absol, nearly carrying her out of bounds with the force of the attack. They land in an ungainly tangle, a brief flare of blue light the only sign of Absol's attack. Kabutops lunges with his scythes, and Absol blocks with her own, then swipes her head sideways to send a dark pulse into Kabutops' chest. The rock-type staggers, then ducks as a chunk of hail bounces off the broad shield of his head. Chunks of ice mingle with the sheeting rain until the weather shifts entirely to hail, golf-ball-sized hunks of ice pattering down on the arena.

    "Blizzard and get down," the great Nathaniel Morgan says.

    "Dig, Auger!"

    The kabutops dives into the earth as easily as though it were water, disappearing with a couple quick twitches of his armored back. The freezing wind Absol called rises too late, and the great Nathaniel Morgan hisses a curse. His hands are white-knuckled on the railing next to you.

    The arena is obscured by a wall of swirling white, and when the winds die away the field's piled deep, snow mounding up against the barrier. Absol's nowhere to be seen, buried by her own attack.

    The pristine surface of the snow cracks and splits as Auger forces his way through, shaking heavy slush from his armor. "Future sight," the great Nathaniel Morgan says, and a low hum fills the air.

    Auger chitters and swipes a scythe through the nearest drift but strikes nothing but powder. "Don't bother. Surf," Jason Muskowitz says.

    "Dark pulse!"

    A snow mound near the center of the arena splits and sloughs away as Absol stands. Auger raises a claw to slice her dark pulse neatly in half, the other probing beneath the snow. The snowpack fissures and water wells up from the cracks, seeping at first then swelling and rising into a wave that sweeps across the whole arena, hissing and frothing and hiding the battlefield behind a wall of water.

    The wave breaks, throwing droplets and spatters against the barrier thirty feet high, and starts to drain away. Absol appears, treading water until the level falls enough for her to stand. Meanwhile Auger slides below the surface. For a moment liquid eddies around the kabutops' back-spikes, but then they sink, leaving not even a ripple behind. The water level's stabilized at about three feet deep, plenty for the sleek kabutops to move around in.

    A second later the water next to Absol explodes in a whirl of blades, and then she's gone, leaving only churning ripples behind. "Rock slide! Rock slide!" the great Nathaniel Morgan yells, and you wonder if he's gone crazy.

    "What are you doing?" you hiss at him. "Absol won't be able to hit with that!"

    The water swirls and froths, and then Absol's head reappears, a gray-white smudge against the dirty brown of the water. A great rumbling shakes the arena, the ground itself groaning as dozens of boulders tear free of the earth, rising dripping into the air. They hang there a moment, outlined by a glittering halo of deflected hailstones, then drop, throwing water in all directions as they land with huge, thudding splashes.

    There's no sign of Auger, but you can't imagine the sleek, wickedly fast pokémon getting trapped under one of those. "Now get out!" the great Nathaniel Morgan says.

    "Aqua jet!"

    You don't even realize what the great Nathaniel Morgan meant at first, but Absol approaches the nearest boulder without hesitation, reaching up to lock her claws into its side.

    Auger rockets out of the water and slams into her, knocking her back into open water. "Out! Get out!" the great Nathaniel Morgan yells, and Absol thrashes around at random, teeth and blade glancing off Auger's rocky armor. She gets her claws on the rock again, kicking backwards to drive Auger off, and scrambles up the side. Auger bursts from the water, propelled by another aqua jet, but you catch the brief gleam of energy in Absol's eyes, and she drops flat against the boulder, the kabutops flying past a hair's breadth overhead.

    Absol crawls to the peak of the rock and clings there, sodden fur splayed out in all directions. She's all thin, gangly legs and too-big head without the volume of her fur hiding her shape, and you can't help but grin. Absol hates getting wet. You can only imagine how furious she is right now.

    "Thunder!" the great Nathaniel Morgan yells.

    Now it's Jason Muskowitz's turn to yell for Auger to get out of the water. The kabutops leaps high, propelling himself with another aqua jet. There's a thrumming noise, and a ball of psychic energy materializes from nowhere, shooting into the kabutops and knocking him back into the water with a pluming splash. A second later a searing bolt of lightning stabs down, sending up a cloud of acrid steam.

    "Again!" the great Nathaniel Morgan barks.

    "Come on, Auger! Get out and use surf!" Jason Muskowitz calls.

    Absol sparks with electricity, and Auger, scorched but still fighting, makes another arcing leap. The flash of lightning blurs your vision with tears, green and purple afterimages blocking your view of the field. You don't really need to see, though. You hear the click of claws on rock, the faint scraping of Auger's armor plates. The great Nathaniel Morgan curses passionately, albeit very quietly, and you know it must have been a miss.

    Your sight returns from the edges in, giving you a partial view of another tidal wave rising, toppling with a crash that rattles your platform. Absol's gone. Auger's gone. Only the very tops of the boulders remain visible, plate-sized dots of solid ground like scattered stepping-stones.

    Absol appears, a whirl of white paws and black claws reaching for the air. Auger's spiked back humps up out of the water next to her, and absol and kabutops both slip back under the surface. "Come on. Come on!" the great Nathaniel Morgan yells. "Get away!"

    The water's surface ripples slowly back to calm. Bubbles rise. Bubbles cease. "Yield," the great Nathaniel Morgan says. "Yield!"

    The referee waves a flag, and a buzzer sounds around the arena. The absol icon on the screen overhead has an "X" superimposed over it. Finally the surface breaks and Absol reappears, coughing and spitting up water. Nothing stops her as she struggles over to the edge of the arena, pushing through the barrier and falling into empty air on the far side.

    Only now, as Absol's mobbed by the blissey and audino standing by on heal duty, do you become aware of the announcer, realize you'd been too involved in the battle to even notice him. "Early lead for Muskowitz," he says while the great Nathaniel Morgan runs his hands back and forth over the pokéballs on his belt, face stretched taut in a grimace. "That absol did some damage, though. Auger's in rough shape, and Dodger can't be feeling great, either."

    You could take the kabutops. A punch or two and he'd go down. And you could tank a couple surfs, no problem. But your eyes keep being drawn to the dark, smooth surface of the water. You imagine Auger slipping through it, skirting underwater boulders with limbs tucked close to body. Swift, streamlined, an ancient predator in his element.

    The great Nathaniel Morgan finally stills. "Go, Sableye!" he calls.

    No one comes.

    He slams his palm into the railing, and you jump in surprise. "Don't you mess with me!" he screams. He's dripping sweat, eyes wide and fever-bright as he clings to the railing for support.

    Eskar gives it a few seconds, then appears in a swirl of ectoplasm, alighting on one of the boulders. There's hardly room for her to stand without the water sucking at her toes. She does one of her 180 head-turns and gives the great Nathaniel Morgan her toothiest smile, then peers into the water, seeking her opponent.

    A good choice, you think as the referee raises his flags again. It won't matter if she gets pulled underwater. She doesn't need to breathe.

    "Kabutops versus Sableye," the referee says. "Begin!"

    "Stand your ground. Get ready to attack when you see it," the great Nathaniel Morgan says.

    "Hydro pump."

    Eskar stands stock-still on her tiny patch of ground, hailstones passing straight through her and bouncing off the rock under her feet. She works her claws back and forth, limbering them up, head turning in sudden jerks as she waits for her opponent to appear.

    Auger's head pops out of the water near one corner of the arena, and he blasts a thick column of water into Eskar's chest. The sableye goes flying, but flips herself around midair, a shadow ball swirling between her claws. She lobs the attack at Auger--or where Auger was. The ball of ectoplasm sets up a huge splash as it hits the water, but there's no sign of the kabutops.

    Eskar glides down to the top of another boulder, a trick of her ectoplasm turning her fall into more of a sideways drift. She's quicker on the draw this time, and her shadow ball's in the air hardly a second after Auger's head rises above the surface.

    All that means is it gets blasted apart by the hydro pump, which slams into Eskar next. "Okay, never mind," the great Nathaniel Morgan mutters as the ghost sails, shrieking, across the battlefield. "Uh, ominous wind! Don't give it anywhere to hide!"

    "Aqua jet, then night slash!"

    Eskar alights on another boulder and raises her claws. The air darkens, swirling with indistinct, inky shapes. Auger explodes out of the water a second later and slams into her. She clings to her perch by toes alone, and Auger sprawls across the top of the boulder, stuck half-in, half-out of her body.

    Eskar lifts her arms higher, and the ominous wind picks up, a cyclone of shadows with her and Auger at its center. The kabutops' scythes skitter over the surface of the boulder as he tries to pull himself back into the water, and Jason Muskowitz yells commands, but perhaps Auger doesn't hear them. Perhaps he's too tired to obey. Eskar herself vanishes into the dark air, at last even her glittering smile fading into the streaming shadows.

    Auger makes one last heroic effort to rise, scythe braced against the rock and gills fanning wearily, but he never makes it past his knees. In the midst of the shrieking, keening wind, he finally collapses.

    "Kabutops is unable to battle!" the referee calls, and then, when the attack keeps going, "That means stop! Call off your pokémon!"

    "Sableye!" the great Nathaniel Morgan yells, and at last the ominous wind dies down. One of Eskar's bright cackles cuts through the air, but she doesn't reappear.

    "Return, Auger. Go, Cryn!" Jason Muskowitz's next pokéball's in the air before Auger even leaves the battlefield. A cradily bursts into existence in midair, landing squarely on one of the boulders and latching on with suction-cupped feet.

    "What the fuck," the great Nathaniel Morgan mutters as the referee announces the next round. "Is he fucking made of money?"

    "Start with ingrain, Cryn," Jason Muskowitz says. The grass-type's neck stretches towards the sky, his tentacles working on empty air, and pale roots spread from the tips of his feet, creeping down the side of the boulder and disappearing into the water.

    "Uhh, sh--um, uh, use shadow claw!"

    "Stockpile."

    "Wait--taunt!"

    Eskar materializes next to Cryn, burying her claws in the cradily's thick trunk. A faint glow suffuses the air around Cryn, but Eskar ignores it, cackling and ripping another wound down the grass-type's side.

    "I said taunt, god--dnnnrgh!"

    "Maybe she is not obeying you because you are not giving very good commands," you say.

    "She's obeying me," the great Nathaniel Morgan snaps, gesturing to the arena. Apparently Eskar's decided there's no reason not to combine her taunts with some actual damage. She leaps in to claw at Cryn's trunk, then darts away again, chattering insults all the while. The cradily ignores her, face towards the sky, as a last scattering of hailstones plunges into the water and sunlight breaks through the sullen clouds.

    "Slow, aren't we?" Eskar says. "Slow, slow, slow! Where are your eyes, sea-flower? Not proper eyes, no, silly glowy things, can't halfway see in the sun!"

    Cryn's still ignoring her, or at least pretending to, but his tentacles twitch. Bizarre though Eskar's jabs are, you bet the cradily's going to try strangling her any second.

    "Slow, slow, slow!" Eskar chants. Her claws drip blue, and she slices into Cryn's side again. "Look at me, sea-flower! Can you even see me with those not-eyes? Eyeless!"

    Cryn's head swings slowly down, her gaze lowering to meet Eskar's broad, razor-sharp smile. There's a brief moment where green light glints from the facets of Eskar's eyes and her grin is transformed to a grimace of dismay, and then a huge energy ball, at least as big around as Cryn's head, knocks the ghost into the water.

    "What the fuck?" the great Nathaniel Morgan breathes, eyes huge and fearful as he stares at the place where Eskar disappeared.

    Jason Muskowitz can't have heard what his opponent said, but the expression must be obvious enough. "You asked for it," he says with a laugh. "Keep them coming, Cryn!"

    "Stay away!" the great Nathaniel Morgan barks when Eskar's head pops up and prompts the release of another oversized energy ball.

    "What the fuck what the fuck," the great Nathaniel Morgan says to himself, drumming his fingers on the railing. Eskar's making good on his command, popping in and out of sight all around the arena, appearing only long enough to shout a taunt or two, entice Cryn to send an energy ball her way, then disappear.

    "No way in hell a cradily should be throwing around something that strong," the great Nathaniel Morgan grumbles. "It's gotta be boosted. What the fuck what the fuck."

    Something white clings to the boulder serving as Eskar's latest perch, white and lacy. Roots. You see more root-tips now you're looking. They're creeping quietly out of the water, and how many more are under the surface, stretching twisted fingers through the water, slowly drinking it in?

    The gashes in Cryn's side are scabbing over. Eskar keeps dodging, but if she gets hit by one of those energy balls she's going to be in trouble. You could swear they're getting bigger, too. And once Cryn's anger runs out, what then? She goes back to stockpiling until Eskar can't do enough damage to stay ahead of ingrain's healing.

    "Gotta be boosted," the great Nathaniel Morgan mutters. "Gotta be. Gotta be. Sableye! Get in there with shadow sneak, then punishment!"

    Eskar disappears again, then pops out of Cryn's shadow with a chuckle, smacking the cradily on the side. Then she takes a firmer stance, black energy rippling around her claws, and slams her palm into Cryn's trunk with the most satisfying crack you've ever heard.

    Cryn squeals and recoils, tentacles drawn in tight around his head. Eskar cackles with delight and smacks him with another punishment, leaving a second black-rimmed crater on his trunk.

    "Okay. Giga drain."

    Cryn's head snaps forward much quicker than you were expecting. His tentacles wrap Eskar tight, green light pulsing through them, and he hauls her into the air. Eskar lets out a shriek like you've never heard from her, going rigid as the green glow lances into her body. Energy flares, and Cryn opens his tentacles, letting Eskar's limp body drop to the boulder in front of him.

    "What?" The great Nathaniel Morgan stands frozen, his nervous fidgeting finally stilled.

    Eskar lies face-down, unmoving, wisps of ectoplasm drifting from holes drilled into her by the giga drain. One of the marks her punishment attack left behind is gone, and the other has faded to nothing more than a dusky bruise.

    "Sableye is unable to battle. Yanma, please retrieve her for healing," says the referee.

    "What?" The great Nathaniel Morgan watches the yanma take flight from the sidelines, flitting over and gathering Eskar's unconscious body up in his claws. He carries her over to the medical staff, and two chansey pounce on her immediately, brandishing revives and chirping at each other for getting in the way. You scan the group, wondering if Absol might be there, watching from the sidelines, but she's already gone.

    "Go."

    You turn to find the great Nathaniel Morgan staring at you, mouth set in a tight line. He looks awful, haggard and tense and much too thin. "Go. Get out there," he snaps.

    It's reasonable of him, you suppose. It's not like he has anyone else with good attacks for a cradily. And every second he wastes vacillating over who to send out, Cryn's roots restore more health.

    You jump up onto the railing, then hurl yourself off. It's a good fifteen-foot drop, daunting for a human but no problem for you. You land crouching on one of the boulders, which is a bit higher and drier than it used to be. All those roots are doing a number on the water level.

    Cryn's gleaming yellow eyes peer out at you from the cavern of his skull. Eskar was right; they do seem off somehow, unreal, floating in void.

    In the distance the crowd sighs, applauds. The announcer blathers. The referee says something, and then: "Get it!"

    You'd appreciate something more concrete, but to be fair, get it is all you want to do anyway. You jump from rock to rock, drawing back your fist as you rush towards Cryn. You throw all the momentum of your charge behind the first blow, then follow up with a barrage of punches and kicks, each landing with a satisfying crack from Cryn's subcutaneous armor, the rocky layer that gives the cradily his shape.

    You work fast, ducking under Cryn's waving tentacles. Maybe Eskar couldn't keep this up, but you--

    Cryn's tentacles wrap around your arm, and before you can wrench free they glow green with the start of a giga drain attack. There's a twinge of pain as tendrils of light burrow under your skin, and then--then you're on your knees, the rock inches from your nose, and you can't think how you got here. You drag in a deep breath, as if the giga drain sucked even the air from your lungs, ripped it away along with your energy. It's a struggle to raise your head, fatigue draping your entire body like a heavy blanket.

    Cryn can't be that strong. You even resisted that attack. There's no way a giga drain could have--and you were at full health, you hadn't taken any hits.

    Cryn's head hangs over you, drooping down like he feels the same weight you do. Glowing yellow eyes blink against a dark field, curious, watching.

    You realize the great Nathaniel Morgan's saying something. Burn the roots. Cut them off. You squint and try to focus on the rock in front of you, still feeling drained and lightheaded. White smears resolve into pale worming lines, the moist network of roots anchoring Cryn to the rock. Here and there a flicker of green light sparks in the white as nutrients are converted to grass-type power.

    You close your fingers, clutching a fistful of feathery roots. Now you remember your fire, now you feel the spark of power still burning inside you. You're not done for yet. The roots in your hand crumple into ash, which you let sift through your fingers. Weariness falls away as you start moving again in earnest, flames roaring from your fists as you burn holes in Cryn's root network. All your attention is on the fire and the movement; you're so absorbed that the great Nathaniel Morgan's distant yells barely register.

    The water that hits you burns, not with heat but with salt, searing your eyes, extinguishing your flames, bowling you over in a wave of cold and dark that redoubles when you hit the water and sink.

    You float then, dreamlike in the murk, surrounded by waving ghostly root-tips. It's the cold that hurts more than anything else, the touch of death itself for a creature that's always burning, and it's like all your senses have grown duller without your fire to illuminate the world. But though it's and dark it's also peaceful. You could rest here, sleep forever. You watch a couple bubbles drift lazily from your nose to tangle in the root mat.

    What on earth is that cradily? Even with a water attack, he shouldn't have been able to hurt you this badly.

    Something's not right. You can't lose like this. Not you. Not to some random pokémon that's way more powerful than he should be.

    Heat builds in your crown again--so there's fire in you still. You float a while longer and think about that. That cradily's sitting on his rock, waiting to see if you'll come back up or not. Probably he already thinks he's won. As if. Like you'd lose to some dumb cheater's plant.

    Your crown ignites in a froth of bubbles and swirling water. Suffocation tightens in your chest as warmth spreads back through your limbs. You need air if your fire's really going to blaze, but for the moment, your anger is enough. You hold tight to the molten core inside you as the water around you bubbles and roils, sinking, sinking until you feel solid ground under your feet.

    You kick off with all your might, crown roaring up as you pass from water into air. Everything blurs as searing power gathering inside you, cheering crowd, yelling trainers, Cryn's glowing yellow eyes. You let go, and Cryn bows backwards as a scalding wave of heat slams into him, the roots at his base shriveling in blackened curls.

    You land straight in front of him, wrapped in a bubble of scalding heat, more roots withering and dying at your feet. Cryn rallies, gathering water for another brine attack, but you reach out and grab his neck, forcing his face up towards the sky.

    Cryn's tentacles worm across your arm, prodding and slithering and trying to catch hold, but sheer heat prevents them from getting a grip. New roots already seek from the cradily's base, spreading questing tendrils into the air, and you won't let them, you won't stand by while Cryn heals back everything you've accomplished. You pull on Cryn's neck with one hand, blow a gush of flames over his base with the other, and slowly, slowly the cradily comes unstuck. Suction cups yield one by one until the grass-type comes free with a lurch and a noise like ripping fabric as the last of his roots tear away.

    You heft Cryn over your head with a triumphant screech, flames leaping higher in exhilaration, and hurl the cradily as far away as you can. He hits the water with a deeply satisfying plonk.

    You feel good about this. You throw back your head and scream, shooting fire into the air, and the crowd screams with you, the noise rumbling against, practically solid. You keep feeling good, in fact, until Jason Muskowitz says, "Uh, okay. Ingrain again."

    You snap your attention to the place where Cryn sank, but can see nothing but the last ripples left by his plunge. Of course. Cradily live underwater, don't they? You went and chucked him right into his natural habitat.

    You imagine him down there, sending out more roots, slowly restoring himself to fighting shape. Now there's no way for you to hit him without diving in, that or throwing so much fire at the arena that you evaporate all the water and end up too tired to do anything else.

    The triumph burning at your core turns to icy humiliation. The great Nathaniel Morgan's calling you an idiot, and he's right, oh, for once he's right.

    "Brine again," Jason Muskowitz says, and you fall over backwards as a powerful jet of water hits the side of your boulder. Most of it sprays wildly into the air, but a few drops splash on you, their numbing chill reminding you how delicate your flame really is.

    "Hmm. Angle it down some," Jason Muskowitz says.

    "Role play! Role play, god--you--are you paying any fu--any attention?"

    Role play? That's a psychic move. Can infernape even learn that?

    You leap to another boulder, and Cryn's brine gushes through empty air behind you, completely soaking your old perch.

    And what's cradily's ability, anyway? Suction cups? What good would that do? If you get stuck in one spot, you won't be able to avoid Cryn's attacks.

    "Okay, reposition," Jason Muskowitz says.

    "Role play!"

    You don't know. You're tired and wet, and your opponent's out of reach, sniping you from safety. Maybe the great Nathaniel Morgan is wrong. Maybe infernape can't even learn that attack, and he's outing you in front of everyone. But his are the only words you have left.

    You close your eyes and dig your toes into the rock. These are your roots, anchoring you to the earth. You sway from the waist, one single, sinuous motion. This is your trunk. This is what connects you to the rest of the world. You raise your arms over your head and spread you fingers, wiggling them. These are your tentacles, always moving, seeking for food. You are rock and plant alike, old as the bones of the earth, slow, patient, reaching.

    Sometimes you think there are parts of pokémon battles that would be kind of weird if you weren't doing them specifically so you could beat other people up.

    There's a heady moment of double vision as you draw air into your lungs and water over your gills at the same time. Your finger-tentacles reach and stretch, and then you're back in your usual body again, feeling tingly and strange. You shift weight from foot to foot, lift one up and look at the sole, but no, you're not stuck to anything.

    "Ancient power," Jason Muskowitz says, and he sounds annoyed.

    "Get in the water, go! Dive in!"

    Well, why stop obeying crazy commands now? Spiky hunks of stone rise humming around you, and you leap over them as they swoop in to attack, hitting the water in a shallow dive.

    The water breaks over you, cool and soothing. It closes over your head, presses in on all sides, supporting you, lending you strength. You hold your hands out in front of you in disbelief, trying to grasp the water like it's a solid object, feeling it sing with energy as it passes between your fingers.

    So this is Cryn's secret. His roots weren't just soaking up health. He was drinking in the water's power to fuel his attacks. That's how he became so strong. And now that strength is yours.

    You rise to the surface and gulp in a deep breath, then slip under again, stroking between the reaching tendrils of Cryn's roots. Your fire blazes hot, so hot you feel it on the back of your neck even underwater, and each motion, each movement through the water brings a new wave of strength.

    You slip around the side of a boulder, and there they are, the yellow spots glowing in the murk. Cryn sends a storm of rocks at you, you knock them aside with a contemptuous burst of fighting energy. Cryn's powerful, pulling his strength from the water. Now that you know his trick, it's time show him what a real battler can do with it.

    You compact the fire inside you, squeeze it within a fist of resolve. It pushes back, boiling white-hot as you concentrate its power into a tiny pinprick. You envision it as a miniature star, glittering in the midst of darkness, flickering, dancing, churning, burning. You crush it down and down until it can shrink no more and--as all stars must, when compressed by impossible weight--explodes.

    You don't know if the roar's from the flames themselves or the sound of water flashing into steam. The boulder behind you cracks, a sharp snapping noise like breaking bone, and you're standing on dry ground, unable to see anything through curtains of superheated vapor. A mist of water droplets hangs in the air, and you would raise a hand to snatch them and feel new energy flow into you, but you waver instead, sit down hard, squelching in mud and a tangle of waterlogged roots.

    "And that, folks, is what a blast burn looks like," the announcer says. "Visibility is low right now, but I think the referee is going to--yes, there's the call!"

    "Cradily is unable to battle!" comes the distant voice, and you raise your head, trying to see through the drifting haze. Jason Muskowitz must be doing the same, because he doesn't recall his pokémon right away, not until the clouds have dissipated enough for you to see Cryn lying motionless in the mud.

    You lean back with a sigh, stretching your toes in the mud. Water's lapping at you now, only ankle-deep. You watch it swirl in slow revolutions around your feet, draining steadily into your body. Any second now there's going to be another pokémon to fight, but for the moment you can relax, victorious, wrapped in warm curtains of steam.

    There's the crack of a pokéball opening far overhead. "Dodger, go! Rain dance!"

    "Slack off!" the great Nathaniel Morgan yells. Oh, right. Him.

    You sprawl out in the mud, exposing as much of yourself to the water as possible, and look up at the sky overhead. Clouds billow and churn as Dodger dances, a far-off angular shadow. You stretch languidly, then let your hands fall back into the water, leaving your muscles loose and relaxed. A wave of energy chases out aches and pains, strengthens your fiery core. But slacking off isn't just relaxing. You're trading energy for health, and you'll only feel more tired afterward, especially on the heels of that blast burn.

    A few fat raindrops splash into the water around you, and you lean your head back with a sigh as the downpour picks up. You're going to have to get up in a second, aren't you?

    "Aerial ace, go!"

    "Get it with flamethrower!"

    There isn't even time to lament the end of your break. You rock back to your feet, conjuring a seed of flame in your palm. The rain might give Dodger some protection from your fire, but it also fuels it, your stolen ability drawing raindrops towards you and rendering them into more energy.

    Dodger swirls down from above, and you raise your hand, blowing a stream of fire at her. It's magical, how easy it is to call so much flame. The flamethrower is searing white, thicker around than the crobat's body.

    She dodges it, of course, spiraling around your attack with minute adjustments of her four wings. You bring your free hand up too slowly, and Dodger slams into you, slicing across your chest with her claws. Then she's gone again.

    "Haze, now!"

    "Get it with a heat wave!"

    You spin on your heel, ignoring the blood trickling down your front, and spread your arms to send a furnace blast of heat soaring across the field. Meanwhile Dodger spins in place, a dark mist rising around her. The heat wave sweeps over her, and she falters, but the haze spreads anyway, overtaking you and plunging you into chill darkness.

    The clammy fog leeches away your borrowed strength, your flames dying back to their usual steady crackle. You frown and bend down to scoop up a handful of water. It sits warm in your palm, but the fog laps the blush of energy away before it can travel up your arm.

    "Aerial ace!" The snap of approaching wings is your only warning before Dodger swoops out of the fog, raking claws across your shoulder as she shoots past. You fire a flamethrower after her, annoyed with how much smaller it is than the one you conjured a second ago.

    Raindrops patter through the fog around you, tingling against your skin. "Swift!" the great Nathaniel Morgan shouts, somewhere far away. He must not be able to see anything, either.

    The world around you is dim and shifting, full of the looming hulks of risen boulders and a swampy mess of water and strangling roots. You sweep an arc of bright stars into the air and watch them speed out into the haze. They must strike, somewhere, but Dodger doesn't make a sound.

    You open your hand, palm full of glittering lights, and stare into the distance, listening. With the haze drawing off your extra energy, fatigue's taking hold. Your heavy breathing stirs and swirls the haze; Dodger won't have any trouble finding you. She can't be feeling great either, though, after Absol's thunder and your heat wave.

    When you launch your next wave of stars, you can hear the attack hit home, energy fizzing off something to your right. You get your arms up just in time, block the worst of Dodger's aerial ace when she slams into you again. She flees as always, but you launch after her with a mach punch, knocking her to the ground.

    All at once you're trying to hold the bat down while she smacks you with all four wings, hissing furious epithets. You hit her square in the face with a crackling thunder punch. She seizes up for a second, then goes right back to flailing, now snapping bursts of razor-edged flying energy in your face, opening dozens of cuts down your chest. You grit your teeth and punch her again.

    "Dodger?" Jason Muskowitz asks nervously as his pokémon screeches.

    "Yeah, get it!" the great Nathaniel Morgan says. "Knock it down!"

    A little late, you think as you raise an arm to shield yourself from an air cutter. Dodger bucks and twists under your weight, never giving up her attacks, but another couple punches are enough to knock her out. You get up and limp away, ginger in each movement. The air cutters opened wounds like a thousand paper cuts all down your front, and raindrops burn as they roll down your skin.

    Unlike the trainers, the referee's equipment can see through the haze. "Dodger is unable to battle," he says. The crowd breaks into cheering, and you realize they must have been watching clouds of gray fog for the last few minutes. Not exactly thrilling.

    The haze is clearing now, though; you can see the misty humps of boulders stretching out across the field. Then there's a flash of light, one that grows and grows and finally forms up into a looming shadow that can barely wedge itself between the rocks. You instinctively pump your flames higher as the temperature plummets. Now you're adding to the haze with puffs of condensation from your breath.

    "Okay, Colossus, get ready," Jason Muskowitz says.

    "What the fuck is that?" the great Nathaniel Morgan mutters.

    "Last pokémon for the red corner," says the referee. "Avalugg versus infernape. Begin!"

    "Slack off again," the great Nathaniel Morgan says after a pause.

    "Earthquake."

    "No, wait! Protect!"

    You wrench yourself back to your feet, trying to project the energy you'd gathered for healing into a shield. The avalugg lets out a groan like a landslide and stomps one huge foot. The first ripple of seismic energy knocks you to all fours and shakes you to the core, and your desperate attempts at raising a defense crumble. Rising tremors bounce you off ground and rock until you can do no more than tuck your head between your arms, draw your knees up, and wait for it to be over.

    It feels like an eternity before the tremors die away. The haze is truly fading now, and the rain with it, so new sunlight gleams from the avalugg's icy armor. You've never seen one in person, certainly didn't expect to encounter one here. You uncurl, just a little bit, and stop as bruises howl a chorus joined by the shrill voices of the cuts Dodger left behind. You could stand. You could. But at the moment you just don't want to.

    "Yield," the great Nathaniel Morgan says quietly, and you snap upright, crown blazing. How dare he presume you can't go on? Fractures grate and sear red lines of pain across your vision, and you fold up again, clutching your side.

    You stay in your huddled crouch until the yanma arrives, then struggle to your feet, waving away the bug's offer of help. She hovers just behind while you limp off the field, multifaceted red eyes reflecting a hundred different angles on your shame. You manage to hold it together until you can collapse in the hospital area, swarmed by blissey and audino brandishing potions and water and snacks. In what feels like two seconds your injuries have vanished and you're sitting with a towel thrown over you, moodily crunching a berry granola bar. Meanwhile, the great Nathaniel Morgan dithers.

    "Avalugg seems to have taken our Great Nathaniel Morgan by surprise," the announcer says. "This is the last pokémon for the match. What will it be?"

    You frown. Graveler? It'll be her, yes. She should bust up all that ice no problem. She's weak to it, sure, but it's not like any of the others have much going for them. Still the great Nathaniel Morgan stands with his hand at his belt, staring at the avalugg like it's some alien spacecraft that's touched down right in front of him.

    "Thirty seconds," the referee says warningly, and at last the great Nathaniel Morgan moves. He grabs the front ball off his belt and hurls it over the railing, shouting, "Mightyena, go!"

    Your flames sputter with nerves as you watch Mightyena shake energy out of her fur and crouch in a ready stance. Her head turns this way and that as she takes in the devastated arena, newly fissured by the earthquake.

    "Mightyena versus avalugg. The final round will now begin!"

    "Iron tail, Mightyena!"

    "Iron defense!"

    If Mightyena's intimidated by her opponent, she gives no sign of it. She makes running jumps from one boulder to the next, then throws herself straight at Colossus, tail dragging a bright arc of steel energy. The attack lands with a loud crack, and Colossus strains towards Mightyena, snapping at her with icicle-crusted jaws.

    There's no way the ponderous avalugg can hope to catch Mightyena, though, and Colossus subsides with a grumble when the dark-type leaps to smack her with another iron tail. The avalugg settles lower on her trunklike legs, and her icy sheen turns to liquid shimmer as metallic energy flows over her body. Mightyena's first two attacks left thin fissures on her icy hide, but a third iron tail makes only a shallow dent.

    "Surf," Jason Muskowitz says, and Colossus grunts and gives herself a shake, sending fragments of ice skittering and sleeting from her back. The avalugg stomps her feet one at a time, punching holes in the soggy ground. Water swirls and gushes into the deep pits, four streams rising and joining into a vast tidal wave that even Mightyena, quick as she is, can't avoid. She vanishes into a surging, white-capped wall of water, and surfaces again at the far edge of the arena where the wave froths uselessly against the energy barrier.

    "Avalanche," Jason Muskowitz says as a dripping Mightyena crawls atop a boulder.

    "Uh, swagg--no, yawn."

    The air around Colossus crackles with cold, snowflakes whirling from the edges of the avalugg's icy armor. Faint rumbles emanate from underground, the surface of the water rippling as the earth beneath it shakes. Mightyena stares into the face of Colossus' gathering fury and lets out a huge, languid yawn.

    Colossus roars, snow and ice and rock fountaining up around her and raining down towards Mightyena. The dark-type jumps away, skipping boulder to boulder just ahead of the wave of debris. She stays at a distance, racing away again when Colossus sends another cascade of ice in her direction. A second avalanche crashes to earth, bits of gravel and ice pinging from the energy barrier and a particularly large hunk of earth knocking Mightyena into the water. But Colossus' mouth gapes in a yawn, not another bellow, and her eyes drop closed.

    There's no great toppled-mountain crash, no huge impact as the avalugg's weight comes down. The ice-type's sturdy limbs barely keep her belly off the ground in the fist place, so her sleepy collapse is one of inches alone.

    "Snore," Jason Muskowitz says.

    The great Nathaniel Morgan's "Oh, come the--come on!" is roundly drowned out by the shatteringly loud noise Colossus makes, like a glacier calving into the sea. Mightyena winces, pressing her ears flat against her skull.

    "Go on, get in there! Super fang!"

    Mightyena skips from one boulder to the next, rushing bravely into Colossus' roaring snores, then launches herself and catches the edge of the ice-type's body in her teeth. She looks absurd hanging there with a mouthful of ice, but her jaws glow with power, and white lines radiate across Colossus' broad back, accompanied by a long series of cracks and groans. Ice fissures wherever the energy touches, and Colossus' armor falls away in huge chunks, pieces of ice the size of cinderblocks plunging into the water.

    The avalugg wakes with a pained groan, and Mightyena darts away, watching from a safe distance as one whole half of the ice-type's body sloughs away.

    The great Nathaniel Morgan takes a deep breath. "Okay, now use--"

    "Recover."

    "No!"

    But Colossus is standing now, and the grinding crunch of ice starts up again, new armor thrusting its way out of the avalugg's mantle. The ice rebuilds itself in fast motion, and within seconds Colossus' back is as broad and whole as it ever was. The great Nathaniel Morgan hangs on the railing open-mouthed, and Mightyena stands frozen, looking up at an opponent who looms as large as ever, all traces of the battle's wear gone from her icy skin.

    "Now ice fang!" Colossus turns ponderously, and at last Mightyena gets moving. She evades the avalugg's snapping teeth and jumps in with another iron tail, which clangs against Colossus' armor to no apparent affect.

    "Nate!" she yells as she races to stay ahead of Colossus' attacks, getting in an iron tail here and there where she can. "Any ideas, Nate?"

    Her trainer's still clinging to the railing and staring mutely at the battle below. You wish you could climb back up there and smack him.

    Mightyena botches her landing after another iron tail, feet slipping in the slick mass of roots covering a boulder. Colossus' neck shoots out like a snapping turtle's, her huge teeth closing on Mightyena's side.

    Mightyena yelps as Colossus bites down, swatting at the ice-type's face with her tail. "Mightyena! Use..." But he can't finish. You stand on the sidelines with anxiety boiling in your chest and crown-flames rippling. The nurse pokémon edge in closer like they're preparing to restrain you, to stop you from doing anything foolish.

    Mightyena gets an idea herself, and when Colossus drops her she goes for a jump that takes her all the way onto the avalugg's back. She lands with paws splayed wide, claws locked against sliding, and Colossus doesn't appear to realize she's up there; the ice-type probably can't feel anything through all that armor. Mightyena sniffs curiously at the living ice under her paws, takes a couple experimental licks, then gives it a solid smack with her tail.

    "Rapid spin, Colossus!"

    Mightyena tries to brace herself, but a kick of Colossus' sturdy legs sends her into a wicked spin, balanced like a top on the jagged point of her chest. Mightyena flies off with a "yipe!" of surprise, splashing down in the water.

    "Blizzard, now!"

    Colossus raises herself again, rocking side to side as she releases a blast of bitterly cold air in all directions. The water around her freezes with a sudden, explosive snap!--with Mightyena under it.

    "Mightyena!" the great Nathaniel Morgan yells. "Mightyena!"

    Colossus turns slowly to face the spot where Mightyena sank, expressionless, ready. Flames dance around your clenched fist, and you hold your breath, chest tight with worry. You imagine yourself down there, dazed from the cold and clawing at the ice as the slow, terrible realization of being trapped creeps over you. Mightyena won't be able to break through with a physical attack, not without some kind of leverage, and you don't think she has any special attacks strong enough to shatter the ice, either.

    "It's looking grim for The Great Nathaniel Morgan and Mightyena," the announcer says, and the great Nathaniel Morgan flinches. As the crowd murmurs and sighs, it's like he suddenly remembers where he is, head jerking up as he stares into the stands.

    You hiss steam between your teeth. He needs to come up with something. He needs to come up with something right now, not gawk around helplessly. Idiot, idiot human, if only it was you up there in the trainer's box.

    It takes the crowd's collective gasp to bring his attention back to the field. Mightyena's splashing around in an open patch of water near the edge of the arena, claws rasping across the ice as she tries to pull herself out. The ice cracks and sinks beneath her, dumping her back into the water.

    "Mightyena!" the great Nathaniel Morgan yells to his soaked and shivering pokémon. "Mightyena, you have to. You have to..." He bows his head, squeezing his eyes shut. "You have to..."

    "Okay," Jason Muskowitz says. "Blizzard again."

    "Fuck you!" the great Nathaniel Morgan screams as Colossus sends another wave of snow and ice howling across the arena.

    "Dude, chill out. It's just a battle," Jason Muskowitz mutters, so soft you're sure you're the only one to hear it.

    "Warning for the blue corner," the referee begins, one flag going up, but the great Nathaniel Morgan talks over him. "I forfeit."

    You twist around so fast you wrench your neck, thinking you must have misheard, that your anxious mind is playing tricks. "I said I fucking forfeit!" the great Nathaniel Morgan hollers down at the referee, who's still trying to say something. He thrusts Mightyena's pokéball out over the railing, recalling her in a slashing burst of red light. And that's the last you see, because that's the moment you find out just how fast a League-trained chansey can move.
     
    Last edited: Apr 5, 2018
  6. Negrek

    Negrek Lost but Seeking

    Because the character limit for the forum used to be lower, Chapter 27 was originally split across two posts. This post contained its second half, and is currently being retained only as insurance against the potential for character limit shenanigans in the future.
     
    Last edited: Apr 5, 2018
  7. Negrek

    Negrek Lost but Seeking

    Author's Notes: And here's Chapter 28! As you may have noticed, we're running a bit behind schedule relative to what I posted with the last update; alas, my dissertation has been eating me alive, and things are only going to get more panic-y around here in the next few weeks. I would have liked to have something more than a new chapter to celebrate the 'fic's fourth-year anniversary, and I do have something planned/started, but I think we're going to push that back until I actually graduate; should be mid-late December. We'll can celebrate my liberation and the story's birthday at the same time! Chapter 29 may drop earlier than that, or it may not. We'll see.

    In any case, new chapter! And here's to four years of Salvage! Thank you to everyone who's followed along with the story over the years, whether from the beginning or having just started recently. I hope you enjoy what future chapters bring. And I would wish for four years more, but really, I hope to get this all wrapped up in a bit less time than that. We'll see how it goes!

    Chapter 28

    The first attack knocks you face-first in the dirt, and then there's something on your back, holding you down. Then many somethings, what feels like the entire medical staff pinning you with their weight.

    "Calm down!" says the chansey who floored you. "Everybody loses sometimes. That's no excuse to go on a rampage."

    You screech and dig your fingers into the dirt, forcing yourself up as far as you can. The pokémon let out a chorus of yelps and growls as your flames blaze higher, searing the earth beneath you and your captors above.

    "Watch out!"

    "She got Ariel, somebody help me with this arm!"

    You nearly manage to get your hand up, to let loose with a flamethrower or a focus blast, but as you turn your head to sight a target the chansey on your back leans forward and deals you a hearty slap across the face.

    "Stop this," she says while you're blinking away stars. "Are you going to be reasonable, or do I need to put you to sleep?"

    You subside, panting smoky breaths and glaring up at her from the ground. If she puts you under, the great Nathaniel Morgan might have time to get away.

    "Good," the chansey says. She steps aside, and the other medical staff do the same, one at a time. You pull yourself to a sitting position, teeth bared and one hand massaging your aching cheek.

    The nurses stand around muttering, exchanging brief pulses of healing energy to erase the burns and scuffs they acquired in restraining you. "Keeping a battlehead like that around without a pokéball," a wigglytuff says to an audino in a low tone. "Irresponsible. Someone's going to get hurt."

    The audino tuts and reaches over to straighten the chansey's cross-stamped hat, since your tormentor's arms are too short for her to tend to it herself. Currently they're crossed just above her egg while she glares at you. You glare right back.

    "Now, perhaps your trainer hasn't explained this to you, but you can't go attacking people just because you're angry your team lost," she says.

    "You attacked me," you spit.

    "You were about two seconds away from setting your trainer on fire," the chansey says, deadpan. "Don't play dumb with me. I know what it looks like to prepare an attack. What I want you to understand is that it's unacceptable. Not to mention illegal, but that's beside the point. You need to control your temper."

    A quick glance around the gaggle of stony-faced nurses reveals no obvious line of escape. You grit your teeth, fire warming the back of your throat, but you aren't going to tell the chansey what you think of her advice. No, you're going to let her say whatever stupid thing she's going to say so she'll let you go.

    "Now, I want to hear it from you," the chansey says. "You won't go attacking anyone over one silly little battle, will you?"

    "I won't."

    "Say it all."

    "I won't attack anybody. Now can I go?"

    The chansey gives you a long, calculating look, and you hold your breath to stop it coming out smoky, do your best to look relaxed. "My trainer is going to miss me," you say as seconds start to stretch into minutes.

    "I dare say he didn't seem too ripped up about leaving you behind," the chansey says. "I'm not the only one who can see a flamethrower coming. Perhaps I'd better go with you, just to make sure you're on your best behavior."

    "No. I don't need a babysitter." You get to your feet, standing at least a foot taller than the chansey and flaming bright, but she doesn't back down.

    You're contemplating giving her your best mega kick, really enjoying the mental image of her beach-ball body bouncing away into the distance, when she says, " I don't know if it's your trainer who's been feeding you nonsense about how important winning is, but it's really not. It isn't healthy to get so worked up over a loss."

    Easy for her to say. Her mother's life doesn't depend on the outcome of these battles. Getting to see your pokémon friends again might depend on it, too. But the fact that they do is the very reason you can't afford to hang around and have it out with some dumb nurse, so you hold your tongue and push past her instead, looking around for the great Nathaniel Morgan.

    He's long gone, his trainer platform recessed back to the ground, but he hasn't made it off the field yet. In fact, he's just standing around for some reason, his back to you. You take off at a gallop, running on all fours, and leap out in front of him, crouched low with teeth bared and ready to let him have it.

    Before you can, though, he reaches out and grabs you by the shoulders, hauls you in close so his face is right up in yours. "Get us out of here!"

    You're too stunned to respond, staring blankly into his bloodshot eyes. His fingers dig painfully into your fur, and he reeks of alcohol and sweat. "Get us out of here!" he barks again, giving you a shake that blacks your vision for a second. "Now! Take us now, take--"

    He's overcome by a hacking coughing fit, and you twist out of his grasp while he's wheezing. Why's he freaking out? You cast a quick look over the field. Maybe he's worried because the way out is blocked? There's a crowd of people jammed into the corridor you came out of earlier, microphones and cameras bristling among them. It takes you a couple of seconds to work out what's going on.

    You're going to be on TV! Of course, they broadcast all the stadium matches, that's not a surprise. But you're a star now. People want to interview you, they want to know what you thought about the battle, how you expect the rest of the tournament to go. Or, well, they're not really interested in you. They don't even think they can talk to you besides charades and basic yes-no answers. The person they want to get at is the one behind you, still coughing and shaking, who definitely doesn't deserve the spotlight.

    He's recovered enough to make another grab at you, and you sidestep contemptuously. "Get over here," the great Nathaniel Morgan snarls. "Come on, you--"

    He breaks off when you seize his arm, making no effort to be gentle, and raise your other hand in front of your face. You can't exactly teleport with so many people watching. Not if you don't want all kinds of inconvenient questions. But you can leave them with something to wonder about.

    You breathe out a dense stream of smoke, so thick it feels like you're molding it, swirling it into a dark orb in your palm. You raise the ball of smoke high above your head, imagining the cameras on you, then bring it down hard, so it explodes into a dense, obscuring cloud. By the time it clears, you and the great Nathaniel Morgan are long gone.

    --​

    When you reappear in the apartment, the great Nathaniel Morgan staggers and grabs the wall for support, then leans against it with his eyes closed, racked by intermittent coughing spasms. "What was that all about?" you say.

    The great Nathaniel Morgan opens his eyes, but his gaze slides across you blankly, roams the apartment like he doesn't recognize it. A huge intake of breath, another choked cough, and he stumbles off towards the bedroom, feet moving like he's trying to climb stairs that don't exist.

    "Well?" you call after him, and follow when he continues to ignore you. The great Nathaniel Morgan collapses on the bed and drags a pillow over his face.

    "If you wanted to sleep, you should have done it last night," you say. "Did you think I would just let it go after you did everything you could to try and lose that battle? I do not know what you think you were doing, but it will not happen again."

    You jump up on the bed next to him, landing with deliberate force to bounce him roughly into the air. He rolls over so he's facing away from you, keeping the pillow firmly clamped over his face. "You know, I was actually surprised you tried to sabotage that fight. I was almost starting to believe you cared about seeing your steelix again. Or at least you did not want your other pokémon to get hurt. If you had been prepared, you would have known Jason Muskowitz had an avalugg, and you would not have let her beat Mightyena up."

    The great Nathaniel Morgan still has no comment. "Why did you do it?" you ask. "Answer me."

    He doesn't. You kick him in the kidneys. While he's curled up, swearing and clutching his side, you say, "Answer me."

    You actually have to wind up to kick him again before he swallows and says, hoarsely, "I dunno, maybe I was kinda distracted by the fact that the guy calling the shots around here is a fucking murderer."

    "Are you still going on about that? I told you, I never killed anyone."

    "Oh yeah? Then what the fuck happened to that one guy's kid, huh?"

    "You should not listen to Leonard Kerrigan. He is crazy."

    "Oh, sure, fucking sure, he ain't got a clue what's up with you, that's why you had to go and bump him off. Bullshit!"

    "I did not 'bump him off.' He is perfectly fine." You haven't fed or watered him yet today, though. Hmmm.

    "Yeah, I believe the hell out of that one!"

    "Why do you think Leonard Kerrigan is telling the truth, anyway? You do not even know him."

    "I dunno, maybe because I know you're a cold bastard who would totally strangle a bitch if you thought it would help with you with your fucking 'mission.' Maybe because all that Cinnabar Island shit just happens to fit with all the junk you said about Mewtwo. And, fuck, after all the crazy shit I seen go down with you, the more fucked up it is the more likely it is to be true!"

    "Well, he is wrong. Everybody who died was going to die anyway. I just made sure I was there so I could get my pokémon back."

    "Oh, sure, everybody's gonna die someday, why not make sure it's when it's fucking convenient for you?"

    "That is not what I meant. They were all going to die then anyway. I mean, Leonard Kerrigan's son, he killed himself. I did not have anything to do with it."

    "Nothing to do with it, huh? Then why the fuck is daddy abducting people to get back at you for it?"

    Of course he'd rather believe some random stranger over you. "Because he is stupid and crazy." The great Nathaniel Morgan's expression suggests you try again. "He is!"

    The great Nathaniel Morgan snorts and turns away from you. Well, let him think what he wants. You don't care. If he won't listen to you, he can just go on believing lies.

    Except, of course, that that might make him lose his next battle, too. You stand over the great Nathaniel Morgan for a moment, jaws clamped down tight over a scream of frustration and fingers twitching with the desire to seize the human's throat. You grab his arm instead, ignoring his yelp of pain as you haul him off the bed, and then the two of you are gone.

    --​

    Leonard Kerrigan jumps when you appear, jerking backwards in his bonds and bumping softly against the wall. The great Nathaniel Morgan doesn't notice, somehow, gazing up at the ceiling instead, at the furniture and walls, eyes wide in the darkness. "Where the fuck are we?"

    "Here. Now look." You shove him so he's facing Leonard Kerrigan. The humans stare at each other, Leonard Kerrigan frozen wide-eyed with nerves. "See? I told you he was fine. Now stop bothering me about it."

    "Fuck 'fine,' what the fuck is all that shit?" The great Nathaniel Morgan asks, because he has to complain about everything.

    "String shot, mostly. He kept trying to run away. I know I was supposed to tie him to a chair, but all my chairs have stuff on them, and I do not even know if I have any rope. I was not expecting to have to kidnap anyone." You shoot Leonard Kerrigan an accusatory look and see to your irritation that he's gotten one arm free and peeled back a broad chunk of the webbing across his chest. Given a couple hours he'll probably manage to unstick himself completely.

    The great Nathaniel Morgan is still staring. "And is he, uh, not wearing any clothes under all that?"

    "I took his clothes, stupid. How else did you think I dressed up like him yesterday?"

    "You been keeping naked dudes tied up in your creepy basement place?" The great Nathaniel Morgan bites his knuckles, but his shoulders tremble and a mad giggle escapes him nonetheless. "Oh my God, K--k--this is how rumors get started!" And he dissolves into a fit of laughter for some reason, holding his sides with tears rolling down his face.

    "Oh, yes, it's dreadfully amusing," Leonard Kerrigan says acidly. He goes back to digging at his restraints with his fingernails.

    The great Nathaniel Morgan stops laughing so fast it's like he's been slapped. "Okay, seriously, though, Freak, give him his fucking clothes back."

    "Why? I do not care if he is naked. And that is not the point," you say over the great Nathaniel Morgan's protest. "The point is he is alive, just like I said. We are leaving now." You grab the great Nathaniel Morgan's arm and haul him back to the Plateau with you. He sits down heavily on the edge of the bed, looking dazed.

    "There. Now you know he is fine. And I will even give his clothes back if it will make you shut up about it," you add, because of course the great Nathaniel Morgan's mouth is already open to object to something. "Now stop worrying. We have gone way off topic. The problem is your battle performance."

    That snaps him back to reality, bringing out a familiar scowl. "Oh, fuck you. I told you, I ain't no champion battler. This is what you fucking get, you understand me?"

    "You at least have to try. I do not know if you really did want to lose the last battle for some stupid reason, and I do not care. You will not go out and get drunk again. You will take your battles seriously and prepare for them accordingly. You saw what happened to Leonard Kerrigan. I will do the same to you if you refuse to cooperate."

    The great Nathaniel Morgan's face twitches, a smile barely contained. "Oh, Jesus Christ, I do not want to be part of whatever kinky shit you're into, that's for damn sure."

    "Exactly. So if you value your freedom, you will not use it to do anything stupid. Is that clear?"

    The great Nathaniel Morgan gives you a level look, not even frowning anymore, really. He looks more tired than anything. Finally he says, "I swear to God you are the weirdest son of a bitch I ever met." Then he flops back on the bed and crams the pillow over his face again, and all your attempts to get a straight answer from him receive no more than a muffled, "Fuck off."

    "Oh, fine." you snap. "Go to sleep, then, and I hope when you wake up you will be reasonable for once. I will get food, and you will eat, and then we will start getting ready for the next battle. Do you understand?" The great Nathaniel Morgan grumbles something, probably something rude, but you decide it's good enough for now.

    Outside in the living room you flop on the couch and let out a heavy sigh. Why can't anything ever be easy? You rub your face with your hands, scratching the warm patch on your scalp where the flames come out, fingers tingling from the licking fire. Mewtwo had better be grateful after everything you've done to rescue him.

    One more battle before the championship. Just one more win. If nothing goes wrong, if the great Nathaniel Morgan doesn't turn into a complete mess again... You let out a tired, smoky huff of air, chin propped on the arm of the couch and eyes half-closed. Why would he try to lose, anyway? Some nonsense about you killing people, and he was acting scared of something. Of what? You don't know. You don't understand.

    Now you have to find food, too, because apparently everyone would just go to pieces without you. You groan and bury your face in the fabric of the couch. Food later. If the great Nathaniel Morgan gets to take a nap, then you deserve one, too.

    --​

    And of course he's gone when you get back with dinner. You deposit the greasy take-out bag on the table and stand in the middle of the quiet, empty apartment, thinking.

    You're not even angry. You were expecting this. The great Nathaniel Morgan's an imbecile, and it's no wonder he couldn't even hold it together for a few hours while you did all the actual work. Your thoughts are cold and simple now, not at all edged with heat, but you feel your temper gathering like a thunderstorm in the distance.

    You don't want to go after him now, not when you've just gotten back and are hungry on top of angry. Whatever mess the great Nathaniel Morgan's getting himself into, he can enjoy it for another half hour or so; you're not going to let him spoil your dinner.

    For all your conviction you barely taste the food, staring hard at the wall across from you while you chew. Forget what you'll do when you find the great Nathaniel Morgan--you're sure you'll be able to think of something--what are you going to do if you lose this tournament? What if Absol can't figure out some other way to get Mewtwo back? You'll be worse off than you were years ago, with all your friends lost and Mewtwo under higher security than ever.

    You're crunching through fries like they're the ones you're angry with, immersed in sullen thoughts, when the door bursts open and Raticate and Mightyena race in, wrapped up in the tail end of an argument. Mightyena breaks away when she sees you and dashes over, tail wagging like mad. She bounces around you in a circle, tossing her head to show off something bright green between her teeth.

    "Look what I have!" she demands, nearly bowling you over, and you barely register it as a tennis ball before she bounds away again. She hovers by the door, dancing up on her hind legs when Graveler stomps through, carrying her trainer perched on top of a tall stack of newspapers.

    "Move it, asshole," the great Nathaniel Morgan growls down at Mightyena, "or I'm going to fucking land on you."

    Mightyena backs off slightly, maybe, and the great Nathaniel Morgan slides to the floor, landing heavily next to Graveler. He only has a second to wince, bracing himself against the newspaper stack, and then Mightyena's all over him, demanding that he throw her ball and posing a danger to everyone with her tail.

    "Get out of here, you menace," the great Nathaniel Morgan says, taking a swipe at her that doesn't even come close to landing. Mightyena dashes away and bounds in circles around the room. Raticate flattens himself under the couch, muttering about where she can put her new tennis ball. The great Nathaniel Morgan watches Mightyena for a few seconds, smiling, while Graveler unloads the newspapers. And then, at last, he notices you.

    "The fuck is with you?" he asks, and you realize your surprise must be written all over your face.

    "I went to get food," you snap. "Like I said I would. What have you been doing?"

    "Well, I was fucking hungry when I woke up. No way in hell I was waiting on your furry ass to show. We got our own grub. I got a thing for you, too. Here." He pulls something embedded in plastic from under his jacket and tosses it to you.

    You catch it by reflex and stare down at it, perplexed. It's a Transformozords action figure, Captain Carnelia Roth with laser gun and electro-sword made of translucent red plastic that glows when held up to light. "I already have one of these," you blurt out.

    The great Nathaniel Morgan shrugs. "Whatever. You got your thing, so I don't want to hear no bullshit about how you was all left out or nothing, got it?" He reaches into his jacket again. "Now, that absol of yours around? Or the sablholyshit!"

    "Hello, Lazurite-eyes," Eskar says, with the cheerful air of someone who thinks jumping on people from the shadows is just how you say hello. She scurries back and forth across the great Nathaniel Morgan's shoulders, peering down at his hand. "Hello, hello. What have you got, hmm? Have you got something for Eskar?"

    "Here, uh," the great Nathaniel Morgan starts, but Eskar snatches the little bag from between his fingers before he can say anything more. She's across the room in the blink of an eye, clambering up to sit atop Graveler.

    "What's this?" the sableye chirrs, holding the bag up over her head. She examines it with jerky, birdlike tilts of her head. "What's this what's this what's this?" She gives the bag a shake, and it clinks faintly. Eskar's pointy-toothed grin widens, and avarice sparkles in her gemstone eyes.

    "Yeah, uh, that's for you, Sableye," the great Nathaniel Morgan says. "Good job in that battle and all."

    "Very strange, your trainer, isn't he?" Eskar asks Graveler conversationally. The rock-type has a bag of her own and is transferring what look like white hunks of stone to her mouth one at a time, chewing noisily. "Imagine, a present for a silly little fight like that. Hmm, a present, a present." She upends the bag, spilling a brightly-colored cluster of gems into her palm.

    Eskar's greedy smile vanishes. "What's this?" she demands, and this time she sounds angry. "What is this? Look at these!" She holds up what looks like a chunk of gold, glittering and angular. "Trash! Worthless!" She tosses it aside, and Graveler catches it and pops it into her mouth without missing a beat. Eskar picks up another rock, rust-colored and swirled with gray. "Look at this! Look at these inclusions! Who would even pay money for this?"

    "What, don't you like rocks?" The great Nathaniel Morgan looks baffled. "I thought sableye fucking loved rocks."

    "They're minerals! Imbecile human! Minerals!"

    "Jesus Christ, okay, I get it. No more rocks for you. Sorry." He jumps when Eskar lets out a nails-on-chalkboard screech, ranting about eyes and idiots and rocks.

    Graveler reaches up to pluck the gemstone out of her hand. "I'll eat them if you don't want them."

    The great Nathaniel Morgan gives Eskar a wide berth as he makes his way to the couch. Mightyena jumps up next to him and drops the tennis ball in his lap, tongue lolling and tail going double time. The great Nathaniel Morgan picks the slimy ball up between two fingers and sets it aside, only for Mightyena to lunge and grab it and drop it in his lap again.

    "Yeah, yeah, I know. But I'm beat, Pooch. We can play more tomorrow, okay? Promise."

    Mightyena groans and stretches out to her fullest extent, sprawling the great Nathaniel Morgan's lap. He grins and scratches in the fur on her chest while she reproachfully paws at his other arm, which is removing the tennis ball again. "You're fucking spoiled, you know that?"

    Raticate attacks the stack of newspapers, tearing off long strips and bustling over to stuff them in a corner, wedged between the wall and the stem of a lamp. You watch him put together the beginnings of a nest while the great Nathaniel Morgan channel-surfs, apparently content to sit and watch TV with Mightyena lying on top of him. You snag a newspaper off the top of the stack and perch in the empty chair, scanning the headlines.

    "Hey. The fuck are you doing? That's Raticate's," the great Nathaniel Morgan says.

    "I will put it back when I am done. I just want to look at it."

    "What, you want to look at the fucking pictures?"

    "No, read it, stupid."

    "What the fuck are you talking about? Pokémon can't read. Some kinda brain thing."

    "I am not a pokémon." And it's been a while since you've done Absol's newspaper ritual. You outright skip the main body of the news, going straight to the tournament coverage in hopes of seeing someone writing about you.

    "Well? What's it say? Anything interesting in there?" The great Nathaniel Morgan asks after a few minutes.

    "I do not know. I am trying to find out, but someone keeps interrupting me," you say. In truth, all the tournament section has about your match is speculation--they won't be able to publish the results until tomorrow's edition, you suppose. Reading about why Jason Muskowitz was favored to win isn't improving your mood, and you flip onwards, looking for the comics.

    "Whatever, asshole," the great Nathaniel Morgan says. He falls into an argument with Mightyena about what to watch and ultimately loses when she she steals the remote right out of his hands and changes to a reality show about humans trying to live in a mankey troupe. "Oh, come on, what even is this shit? We got like the best battle coverage all year going on now, and this is what you're gonna go with?"

    "Nate, battle TV's all you ever want to watch," Mightyena says, and since she's now lying on top of the remote, her decision reigns.

    Raticate explodes another newspaper into drifting shreds and rolls around in them for a bit before picking the choicest pieces and stuffing them into the growing pile behind the lamp. You give up on finding anything interesting in the paper and toss your copy back on top of the pile for him. Instead you pick up the action figure the great Nathaniel Morgan got for you and wrestle with the plastic. In the end you have to morph your fingers into claws so you can tear it open, spilling the toy into your lap. You might already have an action figure like this, but it isn't here, and anyway, this one was free.

    For a while you amuse yourself walking Captain Rubina Roth back and forth on the arm of the chair, firing on imaginary enemies, then fly her around in the air to engage in a space battle. Mightyena's soon asleep, the great Nathaniel Morgan absently stroking the fur on her shoulder while he watches a monster movie about something three hundred feet tall and poorly animated attacking Vermilion City. It's quiet save for the sound of Raticate brutalizing newspapers and tinny screams from the television.

    You must doze, too, because the next thing you realize the TV's dark and the great Nathaniel Morgan's creeping off to the bedroom, leaving you alone save for the faint crackle of paper emanating from Raticate's new nest. The human really can be quiet when he wants to, you think blearily. If the TV going off hadn't roused you, you probably wouldn't have noticed him leaving.

    You lie with your eyes half-open, aware of Captain Rubina Roth's tiny plastic sword jabbing you in the side but not feeling motivated to do anything about it. You're warm and very comfortably squished into your chair, and there doesn't seem to be any urgency about the matter, even if it is a little irritating.

    It takes a few seconds for you to even realize what you're hearing. A voice, faint--the great Nathaniel Morgan's voice, coming from the bedroom. He's talking to himself?

    You stretch and then flop back into a loose curl, merely annoyed until another possibility occurs to you. You raise your head and listen more closely. Or the great Nathaniel Morgan's talking to somebody far away with his pokédex--one of his Rocket friends, perhaps. Suddenly the chair doesn't seem so comfortable anymore.

    You leave Captain Rubina Roth to save your seat and tiptoe over to the bedroom, stopping shy of the doorway and leaning out from the wall just far enough to see inside.

    Mightyena sits next to the great Nathaniel Morgan on the bed, the tennis ball lying on the sheets between them. The great Nathaniel Morgan's still talking. "...fucked that one up real good for you. You shouldn't have had to handle everything by yourself. I mean, fat fucking lot of good I was up there. You know, all I could think about was that time, you know, and I couldn't let that happen to you again, and that... that only made it worse." The great Nathaniel Morgan strokes the fur at the base of Mightyena's neck for a few seconds before saying, "You're okay, right? I mean, you're obviously healed and all, but, like. It must've been scary, getting stuck under that ice."

    "Of course I'm all right, silly," Mightyena murmurs as she leans into his hand. "But we've really got to do something about that stage fright and... everything else."

    "Yeah. Been here before, ain't we?" The great Nathaniel Morgan lets his hand fall back into his lap. "You deserve better than this. You all do. But you know, it's just me." He clenches one hand into a fist, staring at the floor. "I ain't cut out for this shit, you know? I mean, I gotta try, I gotta do it for Steelix and all, but I'm gonna fuck it up. That's the word with me, right? I'm always just gonna fuck it up."

    "Oh, Nate. What am I going to do with you?" Mightyena sighs.

    "And then what are we supposed to do?" The great Nathaniel Morgan mutters to himself. "Like what the fuck are we all supposed to do?"

    Mightyena watches him for a few seconds, silent, then turns to look straight at you. "You know, Nate, there's something I've been meaning to ask you about," she says. The great Nathaniel Morgan follows her gaze and springs to his feet the instant he lays eyes on you.

    "What the fuck're you doing here? How long you been watching?" he snarls.

    You shrug. "I heard you talking and wanted to make sure you were not up to something, that is all. Why?"

    "Nate--" Mightyena starts.

    "Up to something? Oh, fuck you. If I were fucking up to something I wouldn't be goddamned stupid enough to do it where your fucking super-hearing or whatever the shit could pick it up. How about you mind your own fucking business for once in your goddamned life? Get the fuck out!"

    "What are you so mad about? It is not like you were saying anything important."

    "Oh my God, I cannot fucking believe you. You already got me by the short hairs playing your fucking tournament, you want to reorganize my fucking life because I ain't fucking responsible enough or whatever the shit, and now you can't even give me three seconds of fucking privacy? Get the fuck out of here," the great Nathaniel Morgan snarls. Mightyena puts her head on her paws, ears pinned back against her skull. "Fuck off. Now! Go!"

    "Whassup?" Raticate says from behind you, his voice blurry with sleep. "'S real loud." He yawns hugely and gives you a blinking, expectant look, and when you don't say anything he trundles around you and into the bedroom.

    The great Nathaniel Morgan bends down and picks Raticate up, then stands there with the rat bundled in his arms. "Get out," he hisses. Raticate seems sleepily curious about what's going on, eyes barely open as he leans his head against his trainer's chest.

    You could point out that you're not even in the room, there's no way you can get out, but it's not like he'd listen anyway. You leave him to his stupid conversation and curl up in your chair again, but of course now you're all angry and there's no way you'll be able to sleep.

    You grab Captain Rubina Roth and hold her up in the air, her sword glowing red as light filters through it. You make her arm chop up and down, cutting invisible bad guys in half. It would be so much easier if you could do that to the great Nathaniel Morgan, just get rid of him already. That's the problem. Captain Rubina Roth never has to work with Space Pirates, she can just zap them and get on with her life. That's how it ought to be.

    "Eskar? Eskar, are you there?" you whisper. No point venting to Absol, even if she is around. She'd probably tell you she doesn't want to hear about it, that it's your fault you have to deal with the great Nathaniel Morgan. Maybe she'd even take his side. But Eskar understands.

    All of a sudden your vision's full of the diamond gleam of teeth, and your your heart lurches in your chest, even though you were expecting Eskar to pop up out of nowhere. "Of course, Cordierite-eyes, of course," Eskar purrs. "Eskar's here. You are angry with the shouty human, yes? Backstabby? Did you perhaps want... help with him?"

    You're about to say yes, he's terrible, he's losing, you have to do something about him, but the words that come out of your mouth are, "What's going to happen to her?"

    There's a long moment of silence, and Eskar's grin bows down into a frown. "Her? You mean Orpiment-eyes? The, the dark-dog?" she says, drumming her fingers on the arm of the chair.

    "Yes. If her trainer goes back to Team Rocket, then she does, too. I was thinking... What's going to happen to her? I know what Team Rocket does to pokémon."

    "Oh, no! Cordierite-eyes, no!" Eskar's frown turns to utter slack-jawed dismay. "Orpiment-eyes is a strong pokémon! So strong! Such a waste to throw that away. No, Team Rocket will take good care of her, Cordierite-eyes. Of course. Of course! Such good care indeed."

    "But she won't help you if you hurt her trainer," you say. "And you are--you are...?"

    "Ah, yes. It's sad, isn't it, such a fine pokémon paired with such a useless human?" Eskar shakes her head, shoulders rising and falling in an exaggerated sigh. "But this is the way of pokémon, yes? So loyal, even to those who do not deserve it. This is how it is. But Orpiment-eyes is smart, yes? So smart. She will learn. Team Rocket can give her a real trainer. She will understand then. I think it will take some time, but she will understand."

    You think of Mightyena at the hospital, nosing the great Nathaniel Morgan's unresponsive hand, and your grip on Captain Rubina Roth tightens, jagged plastic edges digging into your palm. She'll understand. Sure. Eskar would know, and Team Rocket--Team Rocket has its ways.

    Eskar makes a clucking noise, and when you shift your attention back to her you see yourself reflected over and over in the facets of her gemstones. "So little trust, Cordierite-eyes! Team Rocket is not unreasonable. We will not blame Orpiment-eyes for having the trainer she did, of course not! We punish the ones who deserve it, yes, only them. This is good business, you see?"

    You suppose it is. At length Eskar asks, "Is that all, Cordierite-eyes? Does that put your mind at ease?"

    "Yes," you say. It should. It does. Because why did you even ask in the first place? Who cares what happens to Mightyena? Or the great Nathaniel Morgan? They both deserve what's coming to them. "Thank you, Eskar."

    "Of course, Cordierite-eyes, of course. Anytime. Anything for a friend. We are friends, are we not?" You nod, not looking at her. "Good, good," Eskar purrs. "I'm here for you, Cordierite-eyes. Whenever you need me. I'll always be watching."

    By the time you get up the nerve to look, she's gone. You hug Captain Rubina Roth to your chest and stare at the ceiling. Space pirates. You wish you could fight those instead. Everything would be so much simpler.
     
  8. Negrek

    Negrek Lost but Seeking

    I felt like it wouldn't really be a proper fic-birthday without at least some kind of extra to go with, so here's a little scene that's been cut from two chapters already and which I don't think I'll be able to find a home for at this point.

    "The Great Nathaniel Morgan"

    The next morning the great Nathaniel Morgan brings you a newspaper, because apparently the sight of an infernape reading is somehow entertaining. You do your best to ignore him as you skim along, morbidly curious, now, what the tournament coverage has to say.

    "What are you even reading about in there, anyway?" the great Nathaniel Morgan asks. "Ain't it just a bunch of shit you could see on TV anyway?"

    "Right now I am reading what people thought of our battle yesterday. This person says you are a terrible trainer and the embodiment of everything wrong with youth today." You feel a stab of acid anger whenever a column alludes to your loss, but at least people have some amusing things to say about the great Nathaniel Morgan. You smirk as he tries to hide a scowl by chugging his coffee. "They also think your name is stupid."

    The great Nathaniel Morgan inhales his drink and spends the next couple minutes coughing it back up all over everything. You gather the newspaper in close in a futile attempt to save it from spitty coffee droplets. At last the great Nathaniel Morgan recovers enough to set the take-out cup aside and face you again. "All right, that's it. What the fuck is my name, motherfucker?"

    "What?"

    "You heard me. My name. What's my fucking name?"

    "The great Nathaniel Morgan," you say, nervous despite yourself. Why's he so serious all of a sudden?

    "No! Fuck's sake, no! Are you always fucking high? Where the hell did you even get that from?"

    "What do you mean? One of the Rockets called you that."

    "Wha--who? When did that...?" The great Nathaniel Morgan shakes his head and seems to collect himself. "Okay, just listen. My name is Nate, you dumbfuck. Four letters. Ain't that fucking hard."

    "No, it is not. Even your pokédex says your name is Nathaniel Morgan."

    The great Nathaniel Morgan closes his eyes and groans. "Okay, I guess technically--"

    "Why do you even care? It is just a name."

    "Look, it's cute when little kids register as 'The Destroyer' or 'Master Trainer Joe' or even 'Orange' like they're already Champion or whatever, but that's because they're like fucking ten! I ain't a fucking kid! When you put down 'The Great Nathaniel Morgan' it just makes me look like a huge asshole, get me?"

    "No. That is your name. Why are you acting like it is my fault?"

    "For the last fucking time, my name is Nate!"

    "Why are you so mad? I thought you would be used to it by now." You lean back in your chair, studying the great Nathaniel Morgan. "Or do you keep lying and saying it is something else when people ask?"

    "Okay, so let me get this straight. One time you heard some fucking stupid joke or something--seriously, when the fuck did this even happen--and now you're fucking convinced--"

    Then it dawns on you. "You do not like it! You do not like your name, so you try to pretend it is something else instead."

    "That--what? I'm not--"

    "Well, you cannot get me to stop that easily. I will keep calling you by your real name, and there is nothing you can do about it." You grin and go back to flipping through the paper. He's so annoying, and now you finally have a way to irritate him back.

    "Oh my God, are you serious? Oh, fuck, I should have seen that one coming." The great Nathaniel Morgan puts his hand up to his face, appears to reconsider, and sets it down again, slowly. "Or, uh, what I mean is, that's cool. The name's growing on me, you know? Like I ain't gonna complain none if you want to call me great. So go right ahead, I was just wondering where you got it is all."

    "It is too late now," you say cheerfully. "Actually, I kind of like your name. 'The great Nathaniel Morgan.' It is funny because you are not even a little bit great. Like those times when you lie about something and call it a joke. Now I think I get it, kind of."

    "Good for fucking you." The great Nathaniel Morgan takes another angry swig of coffee and sets the cup down empty. He grips it hard, like he's trying to crumple it in his hand, but you imagine that would be hard even if he hadn't lost most of his muscles. After a couple seconds he gives up and sweeps the cup into the trash instead. "Well, enjoy your fucking words, I guess. Gotta go round up everybody so we can get to work."

    "I will, Great Nathaniel Morgan. That reminds me, do your pokémon know about your real name? Maybe I can tell them after training today," you call after him as he stomps off. He flips you the bird without slowing, and you grin and settle back in your chair, turning your attention to the newspaper once more. It's going to be a good day.
     
    Last edited: Dec 20, 2016
  9. diamondpearl876

    diamondpearl876 → follow your fire.

    Heh, I liked the comparisons between the League buildings. They're pretty reminiscent of the way they appear in games, if I'm remembering right, which is a nice little detail.

    Quoted this because I really think it's well-written.

    I kind of suspected that Nate went to the meeting by himself and hoped the child wouldn't go impersonating him, but, welp. Here we are. I don't anticipate this scene is going to end very well for anyone involved. XD

    This serves as a good transition from using "you" to "it", imo.

    The idea of an attack steering the wrong way into an audience isn't an idea that's occurred to me much before, but... it really is something I'd suspect the League to be concerned about, so I'm glad it's included here in an interesting way with the barrier shield and all.

    Maybe the child's comments about being a murderer finally struck a chord or two.

    Awks. XD The child really should work on altering its speaking patterns at some point.

    All the context I know surrounding this scene makes this dialogue particularly heartbreaking...

    They let infernape buy coffee? That's an amusing image...

    And that last bit there is also amusing for more reasons than one. XD

    I don't imagine that'll make her want to keep fighting in future rounds, heh.

    I wonder what's got him so worked up this round... I doubt it's the caffeine or alcohol making him this tense.

    I'd never really thought of having pokemon on standby to heal as needed, either, but it seems necessary in an important tournament like this, where all the pokemon will be fighting tough battles nearly every day.

    Never thought I'd see the day the child would trust Nate like this. I like it.

    Really like the description in this battle, particularly the more poetic bits like the quoted part.

    Describing an avalugg as some kind of alien spacecraft is really fitting, to be honest. XD It's definitely not one of my favorites design-wise because of how uninspired it seems, that's for sure.

    It's a bit late, Wigglytuff - a lot of people and pokemon have gotten hurt already. Oops.

    This might be my only criticism of the chapters I've read, to be honest. I'd argue that an Indigo League battle is more than just "one silly little battle". Surely the chansey have healed enough pokemon in this kind of setting to know how hard pokemon and trainers work to get to this point?

    I wonder if he was starting to say Kerrigan or something else? With the capital K, I'd imagine it was a name, but... Maybe I'm reading too much into it.

    Anddd I wonder if Nate is legitimately scared of the child at this point and is trying to stay on its good side without looking suspicious. I don't know... These characters are complicated. XD

    Have I mentioned that I love Eskar yet? Because I do.

    Is that some compassion the child just showed for Nate and Mightyena? Call me a sadist, but I can't wait for this all to finally fall apart. I can't imagine things NOT falling apart, at any rate. XD Basically, I'm looking forward to more. Anddd congrats on the fic anniversary - I'm going to assume that Nate's real name scene was to go in this latest chapter, but it ended up not fitting again? At any rate, I love when Nate freaks out about his "name". You'd think it'd be jarring to read it like that all the time, but no, it's still amusing every time.
     
  10. Chibi Pika

    Chibi Pika Stay positive

    So, as you know, this is where I died, so the rest of this review will be written by my ghost.

    Bwaha, I love how quickly/easily Nate jumps into playing this up.
    Dangit all the cool kids have ventilation systems in their fic these days.
    I like how they got the Pokemon that could potentially not show up out of the way at the start of the battle. xP That would be even more heart-stopping to have the suspense of them not showing up at the end of the battle. I'm surprised that Pokemon appearing out of nowhere on the battlefield is allowed, though!
    Holy crap Absol knows a lot of TM moves. My first thought when Rain Dance got setup was "Hee, Absol can learn Thunder...but wait...would she know it?" and then it was immediately answered.

    Okay, time to ramble about that battle, because honestly I think that's one of the best battles I've ever read. The tension never faltered throughout the entire thing, and almost every segment of it had some kind of interesting and unexpected strategy happening. That round with the Cradily was easily the best part, and what really took it over the top, imo. I had no idea what was boosting it until the end and I am so mad!!! I thought it was an item, but couldn't fathom what. Life Orb? Nah, the text emphasized that it was a boost and 1.3 is just...not dramatic enough.
    WTF THAT THING GETS STORM DRAIN ARHGKJHASFIJHRIG I HATE IT EVEN MORE NOW.
    [SPOIL][​IMG][/SPOIL]
    ummm
    [SPOIL][​IMG][/SPOIL]
    UMMMMM

    It has been a while since I have felt such instant pity for a Pokemon going into a fight. There was almost literally no way for that to go her way. Outside of maybe like...using Toxic and then immediately Taunting to prevent Rest. But offensively? No way. D:

    (Also I'm pretty sure I visualized that Avalugg as being like fifty feet across, which doesn't help.)
    That Super Fang was freaking awe-inspiring. Which made the immediate use of Recover just...soul-crushing.
    Wasn't Jason in the red corner?


    Oh, I did have a question. It seems to be implied that they're still in the tournament, despite the loss. So I guess it's not single elimination. What format is the tournament? Double elim? Swiss? Something else?

    I kept forgetting to mention it in my previous reviews, but I think this is actually the first fic I've seen to use the game-canon Mewtwo origin. Weird, huh? I mean, that's the first canon all the early-era Pokemon fans were introduced to, and yet almost no one uses it. Anime Mewtwo canon ends up far more commonly used in fics (and my fic is loosely based on the PokeSpe Mewtwo origin.) Just something I found interesting.

    (One last random aside, but I've gotta assume you've got a script or something to automate the swear filter evasion, otherwise each chapter would take like three hours to post. xD)

    Until next time!

    ~Chibi~;249;;448;
     
  11. Negrek

    Negrek Lost but Seeking

    Just some review replies today. Progress on the next chapter has been a bit slow. Initially I was kind of avoiding working on it because it involves doing some pretty major rewriting of the main battle scene, which is relatively difficult and annoying, but then after actually doing that I found out that one of the pokemon I'd written in wasn't going to work for that role at all, and ultimately I think I'm going to have to pick a different team and re-plot the first half of the battle all over again. So it may be a while yet; I don't know if it's realistic to expect a chapter by the end of the year.

    In the meantime I've been doing a kind of ask meme on tumblr where people submitted questions about some of Salvage's characters, so there's some extra character backstory, some worldbuilding tidbits, and so on included there. It also inspired Dragonfree to draw this silly picture of Nate as a mudkip. If you're interested in any of that extra material, you can find it here.

    Whether I get the chance to post before the new year or not, though, I hope you enjoy whatever holiday(s) you might be celebrating this December, and here's to the end of 2016... with plenty of hope that 2017 won't turn out to be such a dumpster fire of fail.

    diamondpearl876

    Haha, maybe? The rows of statues were definitely inspired by good ol' Red version. I think in FireRed and LeafGreen they were replaced by better-defined pidgeot statues, but in Red they used the party icon for nidoking, nidoqueen, etc., and I always thought of them as being either one of those or rhydon. Dunno that the rest of the architecture fits all that well.

    Thanks! I got a bit carried away with my descriptions of the League building; they're actually cut down quite a bit from the original version of the chapter.

    He definitely didn't want it coming along and messing things up for him somehow, haha. I don't think he considered it showing up as him, though. In a way I guess he was fortunate that it did.

    Given the number of people I know who've been seriously injured by stray balls/pucks/whatever at real-life sporting events (even despite actual protective barriers), I figure the pokéworld must have some SERIOUS defenses in place, or else people audience members dropping dead would be a regular thing at tournaments. XD Venia Silente actually wrote a one-shot centered on this idea a couple years back for the Interpretations contest.

    Oh, maybe, maybe. XD

    Generally speaking a pokémon's money is as good as anyone else's, so they usually can shop pretty much anywhere a human could. There are issues of communication, of course; stores that don't get a ton of pokémon business often don't have any pokémon staff who'd be able to take an order, so they'd be limited to buying what they could point to or pick up off a shelf. There are also some places that refuse to serve pokémon, but not so much around Kanto anymore; it's illegal.

    But yeah, it's not uncommon for a trainer to send one of their team members off with a bit of cash to grab a snack or a drink or what have you.

    I'm never one to pass up the opportunity for terrible wordplay. XD

    Definitely not! Not that they help, of course. :p

    It's mostly for the benefit of pokémon without pokéballs, like Absol or the protagonist itself. Usually with pokéballs healing isn't an issue, and there's a healing machine built right into the platforms the trainers use. They're also there in case of emergency, if a pokémon gets badly injured in a way that a healing machine can't really fix.

    Glad you liked it! This is my favorite out of all the League battles, and I had a lot of fun putting it together.

    It's such a weird design! Very inorganic-looking. I always thought it kind of looked like a UFO, so I went ahead and slipped a little joke in there.

    It's true, the chansey definitely knows that this is a pretty big-deal battle, especially for younger trainers and pokémon who don't have a lot of perspective yet. She's mostly just speaking out of exasperation here.

    Ooooh, I love that you picked up on that! I was definitely hoping people would wonder what he started to say there. It's not "Kerrigan," but you're definitely on the right track with it being a name!

    Nope, that's not why. He's not big on appeasement in general, if he's afraid of somebody he's usually just an even bigger ******* towards them than usual.

    Haha, you've got a sense of the direction this story's going, all right. XD

    I actually re-fluffed the "Nate's Name" extra a bit so it looked like it could fit between this chapter and the next, but it's not originally from there, no. Initially it was a part of the scene where the protagonist goes to get Nate from the hospital and he grumps at it about how it went about securing him a bye. Then I moved it to one of the conversations after Nate's first battle in the tournament, can't remember which one. I don't think it quiiite works coming after Chapter 28 because of the character portrayals in it, although I could probably edit it a bit more if I wanted to merge it back in somehow. Didn't seem worth it, so I figure a small, silly extra worked instead. So yeah, it's moved around a bit.

    Thanks for reviewing! You had some really nice insights, there. I'm still tickled you picked up on the little name tease.

    Chibi Pika

    I do know! I'm tickled that you enjoyed this part so much.

    With all the sneaking around in Rocket bases Jade does, it seems like there should be plenty of opportunity to get some ventilation system action in there somewhere! XD

    Heh, it's true, it probably would have been more dramatic if Absol had decided to pull that stunt later in the match. I put it at the beginning because I wanted Nate to start out having a rough time of things... and have it go downhill from there.

    Per League regulations you're allowed to battle with basically any pokemon you can get to agree to fight for you, as long as you register it before your battle and it passes a drug/legality test. Even battling with a pokemon that was captured by someone else is fine, as long as the pokemon doesn't have a problem with it. Like Nate said, though, there are disadvantages to using a pokemon without a pokeball, because you can't recall it and send it out freely; once it leaves the field, it counts as knocked out.

    Nevertheless it's very unusual for a trainer to bring a pokemon they haven't actually captured. So Nate's team is really strange--he's using three pokemon he doesn't have pokeballs for! But they were registered previously, so it doesn't actually matter how they get onto the field. Now, if some random pokemon the League didn't know about decided to pop up, that would be a problem!

    Absol does know a lot of TM moves. I originally had Mightyena comment disparagingly on that, but I think I cut that piece of dialogue...

    Thanks! I'm really glad you enjoyed it. It's probably near the top of the battles I've written, so it's awesome to hear that other people liked it, too.

    I actually got to face a team with storm drain cradily in a tournament just before I started revising this chapter! Fortunately it was a little less scary in cartridge form, heh.

    Mightyena actually won the original version of this battle! Swagger x3, foul play. :p But for various reasons I thought it would be better for the team to take a loss here.

    That's pretty much how I was visualizing it too, heh. I was pretty surprised when I went and looked it up online, since I thought I recalled it being way bigger! But whatever, I'm already pretty non-canonical with my pokemon sizes anyway. Like, canonically the average charizard is supposed to be shorter than me, wtf WRONG.

    Whoooops, yes. tbh I'm surprised that's (maybe) the only time I managed to screw that up.

    I don't even really remember reading any game-verse Mewtwo myself, except maybe some short stories where Mewtwo isn't really a character so much as a scary force to be reckoned with. To some extent I think it makes sense... anime and Special Mewtwo are fairly similar in terms of character (albeit with slightly different origins), and, honestly, it's a really interesting character? Like I honestly think that Mewtwo is one of the best characters in the anime, so to me it kind of makes sense that people would latch onto and want to explore that version more. The games don't really give us much to go on--most vicious pokemon, no heart, etc.--and they don't really set Mewtwo up as a person so much as the other canons do.

    So I'm not too surprised that game-Mewtwo interpretations are rare, and tbh it's something I've always been nervous about with this story. Mewtwo here is frankly a huge dick and extremely different from what most fans probably think of when they think "Mewtwo," so I'm afraid someone reading it because they saw Mewtwo was in it would be pretty disappointed.

    Double elimination. Nate said as much a couple chapters back:

    But probably I should have thought of some way to bring that up more than once; the end of Chapter 27 wasn't supposed to be as much of a head-fake as I think it ended up being.

    Yup! I actually have a script that takes the original chapter in plain text and makes two versions, one in HTML that I can upload directly to FFN, and another in BBCode that I C/P onto the forums. It does all the formatting in addition to the (very crude) swear filtering... I'm really proud of it tbh, crossposting used to be SUCH A PAIN because of all the time spent re-doing the formatting for forums (or re-doing it for FFN because the file uploader didn't render it all correctly, good times), and now it takes, like, two seconds. XD

    Thanks for stopping by! Getting this review and your comments on tumblr was fantastic.
     
  12. Negrek

    Negrek Lost but Seeking

    Author's Notes: I thought there was no possible way I was going to get this one finished up before the new year, but here we are! As always, I hope you enjoy.

    Chapter 29

    After a long morning of training and an early lunch, you and Captain Rubina Roth are the only ones in motion, patrolling the living room for Space Pirates. It's a very important job, but difficult, given that the good captain is your only action figure. The great Nathaniel Morgan hasn't picked up on your comments about how much nicer it would be if there were some Space Pirate toys around for you to play with. You probably need to be less subtle.

    None of the pokémon will play with you, either. Mightyena's asleep on the couch, and Raticate's in his nest again, chewing on something. Graveler always just sits around and stares. You flop down in your favorite chair and try to remember all the best Transformozords episodes to reenact, but that can only occupy you for so long. If there's nothing interesting to do around here, you might as well go out and run some errands.

    The great Nathaniel Morgan looks up from watching a video on his pokédex when you make for the door. "Where the fuck do you think you're going? Sit your ass back down. We got work to do this afternoon."

    "I am bored. There is nothing to do here. And I need to buy things for Leonard Kerrigan anyway."

    The great Nathaniel Morgan frowns, and you immediately regret elaborating. "You what?"

    "You were the one who thought I was not doing enough to take care of him. Well, now I am. Goodbye."

    "No. Hey. You're bored, Freak? C'mre. Siddown. Let's have a little chat." He kicks the chair across from him out from under the table.

    "We can talk when I get back," you say. You get the feeling you aren't going to enjoy whatever conversation he has in mind.

    The great Nathaniel Morgan groans and rubs his face, dumping the pokédex on the table. "Look, just level with me, here, Freak. What the hell is up with you and Kerrigan? And all those other people you took out?"

    "I did not take any--"

    "Yeah, yeah, I heard you the first ten fucking times. So what did you do, then?"

    "I am tired of talking about this. And I am leaving."

    "Look, you don't want to hear about it no more, just spill already and get it over with. And come on. Don't pretend like you ain't itching to talk about all your batshit crazy adventures."

    You waver, because of course you don't want to do what he wants. You don't take orders from him. But you don't really want to deal with Leonard Kerrigan, either, and he is right. It's a pretty good story. So you climb up on the chair and tell him what Absol told you, about Fate and how your pokémon would come back to you, and how they did.

    "Hold up," the great Nathaniel Morgan says. "So it's the fucking Absol who's been telling you to get your murder on all this time?" He takes a glance around, probably looking for Absol, but of course she's not here. You're honestly kind of surprised she keeps showing up for training sessions.

    "It is not like that," you snap. "Weren't you listening to anything?"

    "Sure, sure, I heard you. So what's the deal with Kerrigan? How'd he even find out about you? And nobody else knows, do they? Tell me I ain't gonna get tranq'd by some League enforcers who're on to your bullshit and think I'm you."

    "Leonard Kerrigan is the only one who knows, and he cannot tell anybody now."

    "Okaaaay," the great Nathaniel Morgan says. "And the way he found out in the first place is...?"

    You beat your tail against the leg of the chair, not looking the great Nathaniel Morgan in the face. "Because I had to get War back, so I went to see him when I was Matt Kerrigan, and now he thinks I kidnapped him or something."

    "Wait. You went to him pretending you were his fucking dead son? Holy fucking shit, that's so fucked up. No wonder he's pissed at you."

    Your tail lashes again. "And what are you going to do about it?" you snap. "You of all people cannot possibly have some kind of moral objection. It is not like you really care. Even if I was a murderer, it would not change anything. You would still be in the tournament. Am I not right?"

    The great Nathaniel Morgan watches you a minute, silent and expressionless. Then he leans over and pokes at his pokédex, restarting the video he was watching. "Yeah, got me pegged, don't you, Freak?" he says.

    You school yourself to calm, running your tail between your fingers until it stops twitching. The great Nathaniel Morgan knows you're right. And if he knows what's good for him, he'll stop bothering you about it, too. You crane your neck and squint until you can see the footage he finds so engrossing, and then you forget all about Leonard Kerrigan.

    "Is that a salamence?"

    "Yeah. Say hello to our opponent for tomorrow." The great Nathaniel Morgan pushes the pokédex across the table, and you take it between your hands, watching the salamence spiral across the screen in a blur of blue scales and green dragonfire. She's diving for the crouched form of a kabutops. A kabutops that looks very familiar.

    "She is fighting Jason Muskowitz's team!"

    "Right. She beat Sergeant Pimples, so now we're fighting her." The great Nathaniel Morgan cancels the video, which brings up a screen with a picture of the salamence's trainer, her name and her age and a row of icons indicating the pokémon she has registered on her account. You scroll down, looking at information on win/loss record, gym badges, tournament appearances... You didn't realize the pokédex could tell you all this about people it doesn't even belong to.

    For some reason the great Nathaniel Morgan seems very interested in your explorations. "See anything interesting there?" he asks.

    You scroll around a bit, find links to more videos of the trainer and her pokémon gleaned from gym and tournament battles. They go right up to the last few days here at Indigo. There's even a little bio thing she must have filled out herself, where it says she loves surfing and her favorite pokémon type is water. Unless the pokédex just knows those things.

    "What's Meteor Academy?" you ask.

    "Huh?"

    "Meteor Academy. It says she started her journey in Hoenn, and her license is from Meteor Academy."

    "Are you shitting me? She's an academy brat?" The great Nathaniel Morgan leans forward like he wants a better look but waves you off when you try to hand the pokédex back to him. "That fucking figures, don't it? Goddamn. I guess that explains her age."

    "But what does that mean?"

    The great Nathaniel Morgan's staring off into space, a queasy frown on his face. "Means we're in for a goddamn rough time," he growls. "Most academy nerds, they can't battle their way out of a fucking paper bag. They sit around and write about how pokémon make fire or whatever, shit nobody cares about. But the ones that're actually into battling, they're usually real fucking scary. Know all kinds of crazy tricks you ain't never seen before. And if she's here, she obviously knows her shit. Probably decided to hop from the Hoenn League because Indigo's where the real action is, it's the best place to get started if you're gonna go pro."

    "Who cares? Just because she went to school a lot does not mean she knows how to battle. I never even went to school, and I bet I am still better than her."

    "Yeah, sure, Freak," the great Nathaniel Morgan says, but he still looks like he wants to throw up.

    "Do not start this already," you snap. "You are good at battling. There is no reason to think you are going to lose."

    "Oh, really? Like besides the fact that she beat the guy we fucking lost to? Or that she's been training for at least eight years, probably with some snobby-ass coaches who really know their shit? Or the fucking salamence, maybe you missed that?"

    "It does not matter. You lost because you let yourself get distracted. I know you can do better than that. You need to believe in yourself," you say.

    "What the fuck is that supposed to mean?"

    "It means if you stop worrying about losing and try to win, you will win." He shakes his head. "Really. I heard what you said to Mightyena, and it is not true. You are not bad at battling."

    At least that stops him moping, even if it's only to get angry. "Fuck you, what the hell would you know? You keep your nose out of it, asshole."

    "How did you know that cradily had storm drain?" you ask.

    "Huh?" He gives you a startled look, then turns away, rubbing the back of his neck. "Uh, I dunno, I guess 'cause you picked it up, right? Like, you ain't supposed to be able to move a cradily nowhere because it sticks like a motherfucker. So because you picked it up it must not have normal suction cups, you know? And there was something fucked up going on, it was way strong, but I didn't see it use no boosters, so I thought maybe the ability..." He trails off with a helpless shrug.

    "You see? That is smart. You clearly know what you are doing. You just have to remember it."

    The great Nathaniel Morgan hunches his shoulders. "It was just a lucky guess."

    "I am not going to argue about this. The point is you need to start believing in yourself if we are going to win. And you will, or else you will regret it. I picked you because I knew you could battle well enough to win the tournament, and you are not going to prove me wrong. Do you understand?"

    The great Nathaniel Morgan blinks. "Did you seriously just threaten me with some kids' show bullshit?"

    "It is not bullshit. Remember it." You take advantage of his distraction to dump the pokédex in his lap, then pick up Captain Rubina Roth, who's been dutifully guarding your chair. "Now we are going to go shopping for Leonard Kerrigan. If you want to go shopping, too, you could get me a Space Pirate action figure. I like the mutant ones."

    The great Nathaniel Morgan stares. "I don't even fucking get you, Freak."

    "I know. You are just a human, after all," you say, and it seems he has no good answer to that.

    --​

    You rock back and forth on your feet while you wait for the next match to begin, listening to the building rumble of the crowd overhead. You keep glancing at the great Nathaniel Morgan, trying to judge his mood, praying that he won't go to pieces again and lose this battle, too. You're so anxious about what he's feeling that it's making it hard to get excited about the battle yourself.

    The great Nathaniel Morgan catches you looking. "Quit fucking staring at me, goddamn," he snaps, then turns away and scowls out at the field.

    At least he actually got up reasonably early for the match this time. The referee isn't here yet, so there's nothing to do except wait around under the stands and try to stay calm.

    "Hey!"

    You turn and see a face you recognize from the pokédex's screen, open and excited and wearing a dazzling smile. Aanya Singh, here for her match. "Got here kind of early, didn't you?" she asks, stepping up to join the great Nathaniel Morgan at the end of the tunnel. Her electivire tromps up behind.

    The great Nathaniel Morgan grunts in response and turns away from her. Aanya Singh spends a couple minutes surveying the arena, humming to herself. She asks, "So, is your infernape from a breeder here in Kanto, or is she--"

    "Fuck off."

    Aanya Singh's mouth snaps shut, and she stares at the great Nathaniel Morgan's hunched back for a few seconds before turning her eyes to the floor.

    "Hey!" her electivire says, electricity sparking around his clenched fist. He takes a step towards the great Nathaniel Morgan, but stops when Aanya Singh puts a hand on his arm.

    "No, it's okay, Electivire. Stay here."

    The electric-type grinds his teeth and turns to you instead, still sparking. "Your trainer's an asshole," he growls.

    "I know."

    Electivire's lightning fizzes out, and he stares at you for long seconds before bursting into laughter. "Well, well, and there I was thinking we were gonna have a little disagreement. That's fair, though. That's fair. I know it ain't your fault. Trying to break him of it, I hope?"

    "Yeah right. He won't listen to anybody."

    "Oh, yeah. Stubborn as anything, aren't they, humans? I mean, take this one." He gives his trainer a fond look. "She wasn't big on manners, either, but the team, we straightened her out. She just had to see, you know, that she couldn't be her best if she kept letting her mouth get her in trouble. She was making it hard for all of us. Took a lot of work, but she's doing much better now. That's our job, right?" You make a noncommittal noise, not really sure what he's talking about. "Oh, not that I'm criticizing. You haven't been doing this very long, by my reckoning. How old are you?"

    "It's complicated."

    The electivire laughs again. "I like you, kid. I was gonna say I'd plaster you on the battlefield on account of your trainer's mouth, but what do you know? I'm still gonna plaster you, but it'll be friendly-like this time. How's that?"

    Now that you can understand. You smile and say, "You wish. If we fight, you better believe I'm gonna win."

    "Yeah, that's the spirit," the electivire says, grin just barely showing through his thick whiskers. "You won't, though."

    You exchange good-natured threats for a bit, showing off with small bursts of lightning and flame. It's not long before the referee shows up, and after that it's a blur of the handshake, ascending to the trainer's box, the howl of the crowd as the announcer gets them hyped. The great Nathaniel Morgan stands rolling a pokéball between his fingers, face set and grim. At least he doesn't look half-dead like the other day.

    You've got to stop worrying about it. You turn back towards the field as the referee's order comes. "Let's go, Raticate!" the great Nathaniel Morgan roars, hurling the pokéball into the arena.

    You can smell Aanya Singh's choice before you see her. A wave of raw-sewage stench, leavened by some chemical scents you can't identify, washes over you, and you decide right then and there that you won't need your sense of smell for a while. The great Nathaniel Morgan, who doesn't have the luxury of turning off his olfaction, gags and grabs for the railing. Down on the field, Raticate buries his face in the dirt.

    The puddle of sludge disgorged by Aanya Singh's pokéball quivers, grows a gaping hole in the middle, and says, "Oh my God, is it me? I'm up?" The muk gathers herself, heaping up into a lopsided mound with vaguely-defined mouth and eyes. A great pseudopod stretches up from one corner of her body, growing drippy fingers and waving to the crowd. "Look at all of them! They love me!" Her waving hurls hunks of goo in all directions, wilting grass wherever they land. "Yeeeeah!" Muk bellows, hand clenching into a sloppy imitation of a fist. "Let's do this!"

    "Oh, this is just fantastic," Raticate says. He raises his head reluctantly as the referee announces the round but keeps a paw over his nose, his eyes watering.

    "Double-edge," the great Nathaniel Morgan says, a bit muffled. He's got a hand over his nose and mouth, too.

    "Keep him away, Muk! Acid spray!"

    "Oh, how did I know he was going to say that," Raticate groans as he takes off across the field, ducking under a wad of noxious toxins. Muk keeps hurling more, snapping her pseudopod forward so the tip flies off at Raticate, then re-growing it and repeating the process. Finally she lands a direct hit, and Raticate skids to a halt, desperately rubbing himself against the ground to neutralize the worst of the acid.

    "Okay, faint attack into double-edge, then!"

    "Brick break!"

    Raticate scrapes the worst of the muck off his body and charges again, vanishing mid-stride and reemerging from Muk's shadow. You think you detect the slightest moment of hesitation, and then he hurls himself headfirst into Muk with a squelching noise that makes you wince in sympathy. Gobbets of slime spray in all directions, and Raticate almost disappears into Muk's body, only his squirming tail poking out.

    The mass of the poison-type shifts, and she morphs her face onto the opposite side of her body so her frown sits just above where Raticate went in. She seizes his tail and hauls him out, dripping, then drops him before slamming her palm down over him once, twice, thrice, each blow landing with a horrible sticky "thwap."

    Raticate drags himself away, woozy and wobbling and absolutely covered in foul-smelling gunk. "Yup, definitely poisoned now," he slurs, and you can see him shivering under all the goo. The great Nathaniel Morgan reaches for his belt, but it's Aanya Singh who says, "Return."

    The great Nathaniel Morgan's jaw tightens, and he reluctantly brings his own pokéball down to rest on the railing, still clutched tight in his hand. "What the fuck?" he wonders under his breath. "She's switching?"

    "Aggron, you're next!" Aanya Singh says.

    The rock-type settles out of a looming cloud of white energy, snorting and stomping heedless of the toxic slime Muk left behind. Raticate crouches with head hung low, tail worming side to side as he weathers the pain of the poison. He must be used to facing opponents much larger than him, but you wonder if it ever gets to be easy. The aggron looks impressive even to you, his armor polished to mirror sheen, slamming his tail against the ground so dust rises in a cloud around him.

    "All right," the great Nathaniel Morgan mutters. "All right, we can wait this one out." He'll have to run down the clock until he gets another opportunity to switch.

    "Aggron versus Raticate," the referee says. "Begin!"

    "Get in there with crunch!" the great Nathaniel Morgan shouts.

    "Brick break, Aggron!"

    The pokémon charge at each other, Aggron drawing his arm back for a punch. Raticate leaps and grabs it, and Aggron scrapes to a halt, waving his arm with Raticate flopping from it. The normal-type's teeth are sunk deep in the exposed rock above Aggron's elbow. Aggron growls and slaps at Raticate, but the rat's already scrambled away, scoring a long cut across Aggron's shoulder as he goes.

    Aggron's claws clang off his own armor as he tries to catch Raticate, but the normal-type stays just ahead of his attacks, crawling up and down and around Aggron's torso, biting wherever he sees an opening. The poison doesn't seem to have slowed him down at all; if anything he's more energetic than usual, staying in constant motion.

    "Okay, Aggron, calm down," Aanya Singh says. The armored monster stops his rat-catching dance, but he's breathing heavily, eyes rolling back and forth to try and keep track of Raticate. The normal-type takes advantage of the quiet moment to bite into Aggron's side just above the hip.

    The rock-type's roar nearly drowns out the next command. "Metal sound!"

    "Drop!" the great Nathaniel Morgan shouts, and Raticate lets go, falling to the ground beside Aggron's tail. He doesn't make it more than a couple steps before Aggron scrapes his metal armbands against his horns, setting up a shriek that makes your fur stand on end. Raticate gets it even worse, and he doubles up in a cringe, eyes squeezed shut.

    "Keep moving! Keep moving!" the great Nathaniel Morgan yells, but you have no idea if Raticate can even hear him over the ugly scraping of metal on metal. Aggron turns and takes his time lining up his shot while Raticate stumbles around drunkenly, whiskers twitching and eyes watering as the metal sound keeps screeching and screaming on.

    The noise stops just a second before Aggron brings his foot down, crushing Raticate against the ground.

    "Now brick break," Aanya Singh says, a broad smile on her face. You wince as Aggron bends down and starts pummeling, keeping Raticate pinned with a foot on his tail.

    "Not good, not good," the great Nathaniel Morgan groans. His eyes flick from the referee to the battlefield and back, and he still has Raticate's pokéball at the ready, turning it nervously between his fingers. "Quick attack, come on! You can do it!"

    Raticate sinks his teeth so deep into Aggron's foot you wonder if he bit it through, then slips away when the rock-type instinctively pulls back. He isn't moving all that fast, though, and Aggron's only off balance for a moment. Aanya Singh raps out a command for stone edge, and he swings his arms low, then up like an orchestra conductor, raising a jumble of razor-edged rocks that stretches clear across the battlefield.

    Raticate stumbles back, barely avoiding being impaled. Then he squeezes in among the rocks, putting a barrier between himself and his opponent. Aggron comes running up and grabs him before he can get far, hauling him out and tossing him on the ground.

    The great Nathaniel Morgan lets out a hiss of air between his teeth as Aggron lays into Raticate with another brick break. "Come on, come on," he mutters. Raticate jumps at Aggron again, only to get slapped aside by the rock-type's tail. "Come on, come on--switch!"

    Aggron growls, swiping his claws through the cloud of red energy before it retreats into Raticate's pokéball. The great Nathaniel Morgan's quick on the draw, you'll give him that; he was already calling Raticate back by the time you'd noticed the referee's signal.

    Now he stands with his hand hovering near his belt, grimacing down at the aggron. He chooses a pokéball. "Let's go Gravel--wait." He freezes with the ball still down by his hip. "No. Sableye. Sableye, you're up!"

    "A narrow save for the red corner, and an interesting choice," the announcer says while Eskar fades into view. "What might The Great Nathaniel Morgan be planning?"

    The great Nathaniel Morgan barely waits for the referee to call the round. "Will-o-wisp."

    "Mud-slap."

    Eskar raises her claws in front of her face, and dancing blue flames swirl into being between them. For a moment the will-o-wisp glitters in the facets of the sableye's gemstones, and then a load of mud and sludge douses it and knocks Eskar to her knees.

    Aggron scrapes his tail across the ground, slopping Muk's toxic leavings over Eskar. The sableye's indignant chatters turn to gags, then choking heaves. Small dark wisps of ectoplasm drift up from her body as the acid eats through her ghostly skin.

    "Poisoned. Great," the great Nathaniel Morgan says. "Come on, get it together! Will-o-wisp!"

    "Rain dance!"

    "What the fuck?" the great Nathaniel Morgan mutters. "That ain't gonna do shit. What the hell is she thinking?"

    Aggron meticulously wipes his tail on a clean patch of turf, which promptly dissolves. Meanwhile Eskar paws at her eyes, her fingers corroding as she sweeps away chunks of mud and gooey toxins. You wonder, briefly, if her obsession with eyes makes her particularly nervous when her own get attacked, but then you're distracted by Aggron.

    The rock-type raises his arms, holding them out to either side as he skips in a loose circle, looking surprisingly light and breezy for all that he must weigh at least half a ton. The rock-type's expression remains solemn while he executes a sedate pirouette, and although a ripple of laughter passes through the stands, clouds gather overhead, a few spitting droplets leaving dark spots on the acid-worn battlefield.

    Eskar tosses a will-o-wisp at Aggron, and just as the great Nathaniel Morgan predicted, the drizzle does nothing to diminish it. It's at full strength when it fizzles in the mud near Aggron's feet, the rock-type bounding lightly away. The great Nathaniel Morgan and Eskar both growl to themselves. "Again!" the great Nathaniel Morgan barks.

    But the rain's coming down harder now, and Eskar's back to tearing at her face. The poisonous slurry hisses and bubbles around her claws, white wisping steam joining the black cloud of ectoplasm rising from her wounds.

    "What the fuck?" The great Nathaniel Morgan leans out over the railing, squinting at the battlefield. It looks like it's boiling, the sludge Muk left behind bubbling and sizzling as raindrops spatter it. "What the fuck? It's just poison," the great Nathaniel Morgan says to no one in particular. "You put water on poison and it, like, heats up or something? What the fuck? How does that make sense?"

    Eskar falls to the ground, screeching and rolling side to side. You think she's trying to smother whatever weird reaction is going on, but there's poison all over the ground, too--she's just getting more of it on her.

    "Okay. Stone edge, Aggron," Aanya Singh says. The rock-type makes one of his sweeping upwards motions and a second wall of needle-spires springs up, jagged rocks tearing through Eskar's body as they punch up out of the ground.

    The great Nathaniel Morgan stares blankly at the arena. "She probably took an entire fucking class just on poison attacks," he says dazedly. "Like 'Poison 101, did you know that sometimes it explodes when you burn it, but also it burns when you dump water on it?' Oh yeah, that makes fucking perfect sense..."

    "Snap out of it!" you hiss, shoving him with your elbow so he sways in place. "Pay attention to the battle. You have to do something!"

    Eskar's climbing around on the rock spires, scraping the steaming poison off against their bladed edges. Aggron rips up a hunk of earth, which hardens to crusty rock in his hand, and tosses it at Eskar. It knocks her to the ground in a snarling, flailing heap.

    "Right," the great Nathaniel Morgan says, squeezing the railing hard. "Right, let's see. Uh, Sableye! Will-o-wisp again, come on!"

    Eskar hisses her displeasure, but once she's back on her feet she tosses another will-o-wisp at Aggron--a straight shot, finally.

    "Block it, Aggron!" The rock-type swings his tail up, and the ball of blue fire sizzles out against it, and you smile. The pain will distract Aggron no matter where the burn ended up.

    "Good," the great Nathaniel Morgan says, sounding weary but relieved. "Now stay back. Get him with a shadow ball."

    "Autotomize."

    You don't think you've ever seen someone use that attack before. You barely recognize the name. So you watch closely while Aggron straightens up, rolling his shoulders and twisting side to side with a series of sharp cracks and crunching noises. He's powering up, you think, while Eskar climbs a spine of rock and gathers a ball of black swirling energy. Aggron gives a final wrench, a last loud pop echoing across the battlefield... And then his tail falls off and lands with a splat in the hissing mud behind him.

    Aggron reaches back to grab it, hefting it like a baseball bat. One powerful swing catches Eskar's shadow ball and explodes it into a cloud of harmless wisps. Aggron smirks at Eskar from beneath his rain-spattered helmet, smacking his new club meaningfully against his open palm.

    "Oh my God," the great Nathaniel Morgan says, staring at the scene below with an open-mouthed frown of dismay, "what the fuck is even going on?"

    The battle goes downhill from there. Aggron blocks Eskar's attacks with his shed tail and uses it as a weapon in turn, channeling dark energy down its length so it releases rippling waves of black as it cleaves through the air. Graveler has to step in to finish the metal monster off, and she doesn't escape without a couple serious dents in her rocky hide.

    Absol comes in to face the alakazam Aanya Singh sends out next, much to the great Nathaniel Morgan's chagrin. "A psychic-type? She brought a fucking psychic-type against a team with three darks? What the fuck was she thinking?"

    Apparently she was thinking that her alakazam knows counter, which hurls Absol into one of the razor-stone barriers after the great Nathaniel Morgan calls for night slash. Absol drags herself to her feet, covered in bleeding gashes, while the psychic-type recovers off all the damage she took. The rest of the match is a lesson in how little type advantages matter when you're so adept at teleporting that your opponent can't even hit you.

    Absol ekes out a win anyway, and you flush with quiet pride. She even lands a few good hits on Muk when the poison-type reappears for another round. But the great Nathaniel Morgan's stammering and distracted, reacting to the crowd as much as to the battle. It seems like Aanya Singh is filled with clever tricks, while all the great Nathaniel Morgan's have abandoned him.

    "You are not believing in yourself," you hiss at him while he swears up a quiet storm. Muk's holding Graveler trapped, her sludgy body hardened around the rock-type's limbs to keep them immobile. "Stop thinking you are going to lose and figure out how to win."

    "If you don't stop backseat driving I'm gonna kick your ass right over the edge of this platform," the great Nathaniel Morgan growls. "Graveler, break it! Come on, keep trying!"

    "You would really kick your pokémon in front of all these people? I just got you your license back!"

    "Try me, Freak."

    Graveler lies half-engulfed by Muk, pinioned while the poison-type siphons off her energy with a continuous giga drain. But she doesn't need to move to call stone. It must be hard--motions probably add focus, or are so habitual that performing an attack without them feels strange--but though the rock slide Graveler pulls up is sparser than usual, the pelting stones distract Muk enough for Graveler to get an arm free. She slams it down once, then again as the tremors of the first earthquake rattle Muk's concentration.

    A couple minutes of good shaking and Muk's slops over in a featureless puddle of goo. You allow yourself a small sigh of relief as Graveler unsticks her limbs and stomps back towards the great Nathaniel Morgan's end of the field. She's cracked and faintly limping, and though she's expressionless as ever, you doubt she's got another fight in her. The score's tied, then. Raticate's poisoned, and he's taken some damage, but it's not so bad. You haven't even gotten to fight yet.

    Aanya Singh sends out her next pokémon.

    "What the fuck is that?" the great Nathaniel Morgan gasps, even though it couldn't be more obvious. The cannons would give it away if absolutely nothing else, as wide around as your waist and gleaming dully in the sun.

    You've never seen a blastoise so big before. Her shell is at least half a foot thick, draped with moss and tufts of grass, and her steely blue scales grow nearly as broad as your palm. They're crusted with barnacles and clinging symbionts that obscure old dents and battle scars. The blastoise must be at least 700, 800 years old. You almost never see pokémon that old accompanied by a trainer; they're all off in the deepwilds--heaven help any human foolish enough to try and capture one.

    Nevertheless, here she is, standing calmly on your opponent's side of the arena. She's completely still, quiet; you imagine any movement under that amount of armor, that incredible shell, must take more strength than most pokémon even have.

    "Shit!" the great Nathaniel Morgan hisses. "Return!"

    "Looks like the red corner's a little worried," the announcer says as Graveler disappears from the field. "Aanya's blastoise has been in this tournament twice before, and she isn't known for losing. The Great Nathaniel Morgan's going to need to do some serious thinking if he wants to win here!"

    It looks like he is, eyes fixed on the blastoise while his hand moves to hover by one of his pokéballs, then the next, then back to the first again. "What the fuck," the great Nathaniel Morgan mutters. "The guy was on her roster, but none of the videos--is it new, how the fuck did...?"

    Blastoise waits patiently, eyes half-lidded in the sun, resting with cannons tilted at an oblique angle. The great Nathaniel Morgan's sweating, his fingers still twitching uncertainly over his selection of pokéballs. He doesn't have long to decide; the battle screen counts down up above, and the referee waits below, flags at the ready. And beside you the great Nathaniel Morgan's starting to shake, face frozen in an expression of helpless panic.

    Of course he is. Of course it's going to be up to you to fix this. You need to get the great Nathaniel Morgan to stop freaking out and battle already.

    You fume silently, tail snapping back and forth. There's not much you can do up here, with everyone watching. Shaking some sense into him is out of the question, which is too bad, because it would definitely relieve some of your own anxiety. But there has to be something you can do to get his head back in the game. It isn't that hard to make him angry, and that would at least be better than freezing up.

    Now you're starting to panic. You're staring down at Blastoise same as the great Nathaniel Morgan, just as immobile and dismayed. But as your focus on the water-type properly again, return to the actual question of how to beat her, you finally find an idea. Blastoise is going to be a big problem for you, yes. But she's also given you the perfect solution.

    The great Nathaniel Morgan doesn't snap out of his stupor until you're halfway over the railing. "What the fuck are you--wait!"

    A human would be lucky not to break any bones in the drop onto the battlefield, but you land lightly, knees bent. Blastoise watches you straighten up, hooded eyes expressionless. It's hard not to feel nervous, even as strong as you are, in the face of that kind of unwavering confidence.

    "What the fuck are you doing?" the great Nathaniel Morgan screams. "Get the fuck back here now! Now! Get your ass off the fucking field right this fucking second, or--"

    "Would you look at that!" the announcer booms. "I guess Infernape decided to take matters into her own paws!"

    There's a scattering of laughter and applause in the stands. The great Nathaniel Morgan has one foot up on the lower rung of the challenger's box railing like he's going to hurl himself down next to you. "I said get back here, you fucker! Do you want to fucking die? Because I swear to God if you don't get your ass off the field right the fuck now, if that blastoise doesn't kill you I'm going to rip off your fucking stupid stubby little tail and strangle you to death with it, and then I'm going to take your corpse and--"

    "Sir! Sir!" The referee waves his flags furiously, trying to get the great Nathaniel Morgan's attention. "Warning for unsportsmanlike conduct, sir! Any further strikes and you forfeit the match!"

    The announcer drowns out the great Nathaniel Morgan's sputtering fury by observing, "This is a tricky situation for The Great Nathaniel Morgan. If Infernape isn't off the field by the time the clock runs down, she'll count as his official switch, and I don't think he wants to see her up against Blastoise."

    "You--you--what the fffff--If you don't--I--" the great Nathaniel Morgan hammers on the railing with his palm, face purpling in ugly splotches. Aanya Singh leans away from him in a full-body cringe, not even able to look at him straight on.

    A deep rumbling distracts you from the entertainment overhead, and it takes you a moment to realize it's coming from the blastoise. The growl resonates inside the water-type's huge shell and sets your teeth buzzing. When Blastoise catches you looking, she says, "I'm sorry."

    "Why?"

    "Your trainer." She turns hostile red eyes upwards, towards the great Nathaniel Morgan. For the first time she looks fully awake. "It's not right."

    "Huh?" You follow her gaze. The great Nathaniel Morgan looks like he's on the verge of exploding with the strain of wanting to hurl invective but being too afraid of the referee. "Oh. Oh. No, no, don't worry. He's harmless. He just isn't really ready to battle in a tournament like this."

    "Mmm," Blastoise rumbles. She doesn't sound convinced.

    "He's worried about losing," you add, feeling somehow self-conscious under Blastoise's red gaze. "So I had to make him mad so he would stop thinking about it so we could win. I didn't expect him to freak out this much."

    Blastoise's stony expression doesn't change, and your words freeze unspoken in your throat as you realize the absurdity of defending the great Nathaniel Morgan to her. After all, you know he's bad, don't you? And Blastoise does, too. You already agree with each other.

    "Anyway, I guess he's really mad, so maybe he won't give such bad commands. Even if he does, I know I can win. And if I win, then the whole team can win, and we can win the tournament." Your voice grows firmer as you remember what you're here for, what you're dong. You can win.

    Blastoise studies you a moment longer, maybe suppresses some comment of her own. She turns slowly to look up at the status screen over the battlefield. "Your team won't win. Aanya has the lead. And once she has the lead, she doesn't lose it. And besides"--she smiles, showing huge yellowed slabs of teeth--"you decided to throw yourself into a battle against me. Audacity is worth a great deal, but there's no way you're going to win."

    "Your trainer's good, sure. And I bet you are, too. But you've never fought somebody like me."

    Blastoise's grin only widens. "I've been fighting since before your great-grandparents were born, little one. It looks like you need to learn a bit of respect for your elders."

    You smile yourself, curling your tail in a "bring it on" gesture. "Whatever you say, Grandma. Don't worry, I'll make this quick so you can go right back to your nap."

    "Enough! Enough!" the referee yells, going wild with his flags. "The pokémon are on the field! The next round will be Blastoise versus Infernape! Begin!"

    "Blastoise, uh..." Aanya Singh says, but she's still recoiling from the great Nathaniel Morgan and apparently too distracted to think of anything.

    "Infernape," he says through gritted teeth, "Use. Grass knot."

    That's your most powerful attack against Blastoise, but you're not going to win if you just stand around trading super-effective attacks. If you get in a straight damage race, you're going to lose.

    The great Nathaniel Morgan needs a new plan. You blow a flamethrower in Blastoise's face, and she blinks and snorts and shakes her head, then stares at you like you just smacked her on the nose with a newspaper. You might have actually done more damage that way.

    "What? What?" the great Nathaniel Morgan shrieks, but you don't have time to pay attention to his tantrum. A click emanates from deep within the blastoise's shell, and she blasts a thick column of water straight at you. You leap aside, and the hydro pump carves a deep furrow in the earth, spattering you with soggy grass and mud as it goes past.

    "Ready to get serious?" Blastoise asks.

    You hope so. You can't dodge forever. The great Nathaniel Morgan had better come up with something fast.

    "Good work, Blastoise! Again!"

    "Thunder punch, come on!"

    So you'll dodge at least a little longer, then. You run straight at Blastoise and drop under the hydro pump at the last moment, aiming a sliding kick at her legs. One goes out from under her, and she falls with a thud that you feel in the pit of your stomach.

    "Ooh, that's a nice low kick," the announcer says as drizzle spatters the ground around you. "The Great Nathaniel Morgan doesn't seem too happy about it, though." Indeed, it sounds like he's having trouble forming coherent words at the moment.

    Blastoise looks perfectly content lying on her stomach, her fall amply cushioned by her tough shell. She doesn't even bother standing when Aanya Singh tells her to use earthquake, just smacks her palms against the ground.

    The great Nathaniel Morgan probably gives a command, although it would be hard to sieve it from all the outrage, and you hardly care. You jump onto Blastoise's back, stomping down with a rock smash that spiderwebs the water-type's shell with a satisfying crunch. Around you the arena trembles and heaves, but here atop Blastoise's shell you're perfectly safe.

    Then the water-type reaches back and grabs your tail, and your world dissolves into a dizzy whirl of earth and sky as she kicks into a rapid spin. Pain sears up your entire spine as Blastoise drags you in a rolling, bouncing circle. And then her great shell skates on top of you and grinds your face into the dirt, tearing the skin from your back while you struggle in sudden panic, inhaling dirt as the whole world goes dark.

    When Blastoise's crushing weight finally lifts you're on your feet immediately, clawing the dirt off your face, and coughing up clots of mud. You don't even register Aanya Singh's call of, "Let's finish this quick! Fissure!" until you hear that crack, that impossibly sharp noise like a sharpedo biting a boulder clean in half. It's a noise to rouse the muscles, and it's enough to get you moving, not anywhere in particular but hopefully, very hopefully, away from whatever's coming up through the trembling earth.

    The ground under your feet falls away and for one horrible second you're falling with it, and then your arms catch on the edge of solid ground and you're up and over, sprinting across dirt that gives way beneath you, everything tilting as the ground tips up towards the sky.

    Only when the rumble of shifting earth fades, when the ground shivers back to stillness, do you dare stop. And then have to paw the rest of the dirt off your face, to make sure your half-blinded eyes aren't playing tricks.

    The fissure is enormous, a wedge that starts just in front of Blastoise and slices the arena in half, its far end spread open so wide you could stretch out twice and still not reach all the way across.

    You venture a little closer. The great Nathaniel Morgan's yelling something again, and he's right, of course. It's dangerous, this isn't the time, but still... The fissure yawns huge and dark, and you can't see the bottom no matter how you crane your aching neck. But it can't be bottomless. Even if nothing else, far below a fire churns, the fire at the heart of the world burning even hotter than the one in your own chest. You look down and can almost imagine you see a glow.

    And then a firehose blast of water hits you in the side and knocks you clear into the energy barrier.

    You drop to the ground in an aching sprawl. Your tail feels like it's come disconnected from the rest of your spine, your mouth is foul with grit and the taste of blood, and the raw wounds on your back itch and burn with every move you make.

    Okay, so maybe this wasn't such a great idea after all.

    "Move! Move, damn you!"

    You hear the click and throw yourself sideways, a clumsy hopping motion that ends with you on the ground again. At least it gets you out of the way of most of the hydro pump, which slams into the barrier with a boom like a baseball bat against an empty garbage can.

    You toss a quick look over your shoulder, catching the great Nathaniel Morgan's eye. He's glaring murder at you, but at least his attention is on you rather than the crowd or the announcer's quips. "Finally ready to listen, you asshole?" the great Nathaniel Morgan hisses. "Mach punch! Go! Get in there!"

    You have no idea why he wants you to do that, but hopefully that means he's come up with something. You duck under another hydro pump despite the protests of your wrenched spine, then rush forward on all fours, not as fast as you should be, but still much faster than Blastoise. She tries to turn aside from the attack, to block it with her shell, but the punch still grazes the side of her face, and she grunts in pain.

    The great Nathaniel Morgan yells, "Sunny day down the cannon! Now!"

    You lose whole seconds in confusion over what he means. Blastoise starts turning back to you, a dangerous rumble building in her throat. There's no time to take the great Nathaniel Morgan anything but literally.

    A sunny day attack is a glowing film of energy wrapped around a ball of gas, meant to float high into the sky and burn like a tiny sun. You hurl one down Blastoise's cannon just as you hear the click that means water channels are opening to deliver a blast straight to your face. Instead what comes out is a mist of water droplets and a gust of hot air.

    Blastoise roars, rearing back and pawing at the air as clouds of steam gush from her cannons. She reaches back, claws scrabbling over her shell like she's trying to dig the sunny day out from under it.

    And that, that is exactly the kind of thing you were looking for. As you watch Blastoise stomp in lopsided circles, snorting and growling and ignoring her trainer completely, you realize, too, that what you're seeing here is your moment. This is your time to hit her with every fucking thing you've got.

    The crackling thunder punch that catches Blastoise in the jaw feels better than any attack you've ever launched. "Oh hell yes!" the great Nathaniel Morgan yells as the water-type goes down with a stadium-shaking crash. "Encore!"

    You clap with genuine feeling, trying to whistle through lips that are just a shade off human. Your enthusiasm doesn't make the attack any more effective, but it doesn't need to--there's no way Blastoise could resist its pull in any case. She rumbles fury and points a water cannon at you, unleashing another hydro pump. Thick steam hisses forth, and you easily sidestep the spatter of liquid that comes with.

    "Thunder punch again. Keep it up!"

    It's hard punching a pokémon on the ground, but a sparking kick does just fine, and when Blastoise tries to rise, you conjure a grass knot to drag her back down. She fires at you again and again, pathetic sprays of water and coiling mist, and until she comes to her senses she won't even be able to think of trying something else. "Blastoise, come on!" Aanya Singh yells, but it'll take more than that to break the encore.

    At last Blastoise stops trying to stand up and fires on you from the ground. Her attacks are getting stronger, more liquid now than steam, but they're still easy to dodge. You jump aside from one and snap another thunder kick into Blastoise's side. She grabs your leg.

    You only get a second's glimpse of her expression, a second where your gazes meet and from the faint half-smile on her face you realize her encore, of course, has ended, and you're playing the game on her terms now. Then you're on your back looking at the sky between your knees and the announcer's saying, "Ooh, excellent counter from Blastoise. That had to hurt! She's been having a rough time of it, but with that encore dropped, will she be able to turn the tables?"

    Your dazed mind finally picks up on the great Nathaniel Morgan's shouts, but a pained uncurling is all you can manage before Blastoise hits you with a shattering mega punch. The water-type seizes you before you can collapse again and hauls you over her head with a growl of exertion. She's launching some attack, you're dimly aware, and if you didn't hurt so much you might even be able to identify it. For now all you know is that Blastoise throws you and you fall, and fall, and you never hit the ground.
     
  13. diamondpearl876

    diamondpearl876 → follow your fire.

    You'd never guess some of the destruction the child's caused based off a paragraph like this by itself... :p The opening is certainly amusing, given the chaos of the latter half of the chapter.

    Same here, to be honest. Am I the only one who thinks she's going to be the cause of the final meltdown for the group at some point...?

    I... What? The child's actually trying to reassure him and boost his ego?

    Yeah, okay, there's the ultimatum I was waiting for. 8) Some things never change.

    Lmao, except none of the pokemon in the fic "get" the child, either... except maybe Absol and Eskar.

    Wow. I think this is the child's first civil conversation with a pokemon. This chapter is really just full of surprises.

    So Nate's team should take some lessons from Aanya's, right?

    "They love me"? That's one way of interpreting the crowd's reaction, sure. XD

    Hmm... Maybe the child's finally realizing just how tough these opponents are going to be from now on. I mean, it underestimates the blastoise later on in the chapter, but... from far away, it seems like the child's able to think slightly more rationally about what's happening compared to the beginning of the story.

    That's a good question... Welp. I hope Eskar doesn't get mad and break off the deal after all is said and done here.

    Oh, man... Even if they win this, I think the general consensus would be that the win wasn't deserved. Sorry, Nate.

    I figured the fissure would come back to haunt the child. I guess either the battle will resume next chapter, or the child will wake up when the battle's over and it'll ask what the hell happened. I want to know myself, but this was, really, a good cliffhanger to end the chapter on. And I have to say, too, that this battle was really... unique. First, the background of their opponent adds some tension going into the battle, which I think was much needed since the child seems to have some serious ego issues sometimes, and then the battle tactics used and the twist with the old blastoise was interesting. I'm wondering if there'll be an explanation for that one, just like with the seemingly overpowered cradily. At any rate, a tournament is no easy feat to pull off since a lot of battles are required, but it's all been an interesting read so far. Looking forward to more.
     
  14. Negrek

    Negrek Lost but Seeking

    I'm hoping to ramp up chapter-production rates a bit over the next couple months to get this arc over and done with. The next chapter is coming along pretty well, so optimistically the release on that will be in about a week. (Need to rewrite the last scene, though, ugh. =/)

    diamondpearl876

    It can be nice and sit and play with its toys for a while (although it's still a bit of a brat even then); most of the egregious **** happens when it decides it needs to stop playing and go do important destiny stuff. Crazy pokémon powers and delusions of grandeur, still just a kid. XD

    Haha, yup. The protagonist is willing to try and cheer Nate up... if it serves its own ends, of course.

    Probably not, no. I doubt it really even gets itself.

    Eh, I dunno, I think it usually gets along pretty well with pokémon unless it has a particular reason to dislike them. It gets along pretty well with its team, for example, although I guess we haven't seen too much of it interacting with random pokémon side characters, have we? Hmm.

    Cut them some slack, they're not miracle workers. XD

    Maybe! It's a pretty slow learner, but perhaps it's gotten smacked around enough to realize that things aren't going to be as easy as it thought.

    Heh, I had the opportunity to end this chapter on a quite literal cliffhanger, but decided I liked breaking it here better. Hopefully you'll like the resolution.

    Not planning to give any particular explanation about the blastoise, no. Aanya is a pretty serious trainer, interested in going pro, so she's substantially better prepared than a lot of the competitors in the tournament. She'd heard of this particular blastoise--as the announcer said, she's an established fighter who's been to this tournament (as well as many others) before in the company of other trainers--sought her out, and asked her to join her for the tournament (and maybe more after). The blastoise was impressed with her abilities and agreed to come along. Aanya didn't use her in earlier battles, knowing that they'd be televised and her future opponents would have access to them, and instead kept her as a secret trump card for her later matches (she has more than six battle-ready pokémon, allowing her to change her team composition around to counter an opponent's team--which I realize I forgot to mention in the story, derp). Blastoise is particularly good against Nate's team because he has two pokémon weak to water, and nothing that resists it or has much of an offensive edge over it.

    So yeah, nothing particularly exciting going on there. Just a badass ol' blastoise helping a kid out. And I'm glad you've enjoyed the battles! I'm starting to feel the length of this arc, tbh--eager to be getting back to more typical plot progression. But we're nearly done!

    Thanks for your review, and for your award nominations! You flatter me way too much, ha ha. <3
     
  15. Negrek

    Negrek Lost but Seeking

    Author's Notes: I was hoping to get this one done faster than usual, and that... really didn't happen. Quite the opposite, actually! But it's out now, and I hope you enjoy it.

    My birthday came and went in the time I was working on this chapter, and I was fortunate to receive some excellent fanart birthday presents. Dragonfree drew Mewtwo in Chapter 17, when he's sunning himself on a boulder, and Chibi Pika drew their interpretation of Nate and the protagonist. Huge thanks to both of them, and I hope you enjoy their work, too!

    Chapter 30

    You take long seconds to realize the black is real, not unconsciousness closing in but solid walls rising up around you. You're falling, and falling, and it suddenly occurs to you that you really, really don't want to hit bottom.

    You flail at empty air, arms and legs glancing off the side of the fissure, ripping out hunks of dirt and sending you into a spinning tumble. You lash out again and again, clawing at the rushing cliffside until you manage to--slide, catch, hold, fingers and toes alike dug into cool, crumbling earth. You come to rest with heart hammering and streamers of dirt pattering down around you, the sound of your breathing loud in the still, empty fissure. Then you scream as the wall supporting you gives way and you fall, slide, grab at nothing over and over again until--slide, catch, hold. You hang there listening to your heartbeat roar in your ears and take shaking breaths, slower, and slower, until you can almost think again.

    Your arms are already getting tired. They tremble with the effort of holding you there, and the movement dislodges a skittering fall of dirt that tumbles away into nothing. Your heart stutters painfully and you clutch on harder, forgetting your weariness for a second.

    "Infernape? Infernape!"

    The sky is a bright crack far away overhead, and the great Nathaniel Morgan's voice sounds like it's coming to you from some far-off other world.

    Of course. You have to show you're still in the fight. You close your eyes in weary resignation, leaning closer to the wall in a vain effort to find some position where your arms hurt less. A shake of your head scatters a few embers, and the glowing fragments of the swift attack shoot away upwards, making a long, long climb before swerving sideways and, you have to assume, smacking into Blastoise.

    "Get rid of it, Blastoise."

    "Come on, Infernape! Get out of there! Use rock climb!"

    You strain, muscles tensing in your arms, but after a few shaking, breathless seconds of effort you slump back into a boneless dangle. You can't. You can barely even hang on. The fissure's wall stretches endlessly up overhead, and you, you're stuck down here.

    A dark blot appears at the edge of the fissure, a silhouette against the sky. Blastoise, looking down. You practically choke on indrawn breath when a hissing burst of water hits the wall just above and to your left, carving out a huge chunk of earth and spattering you with warm droplets. You're already sidling away, punching out foot- and handholds between heart-stopping moments of vertigo when one of them gives way.

    How could she have come so close to hitting you? How can she even see you from all the way up there?

    Another uncomfortably close hydro pump roars past, and then you realize--your head is on fire. That's how. There's no hiding, then. Sooner or later Blastoise'll hit you, and that'll be the end.

    Or you could let go. You sigh and let your head fall forward, closing your eyes. You could fall, and it wouldn't even hurt you that much. The fissure isn't really bottomless. The energy barrier runs underground, too, to prevent seismic attacks from causing damage outside the arena. It'll catch you if nothing else. You'll hurt a lot, but then you can heal and be just fine.

    So you could fall. You could lose. But what about after? Could you really look Absol in the face and tell her you gave up your chance to find Mew because you were tired? Or Mewtwo, what would happen if he found out he got stuck with the Champion because you couldn't go on after getting a little bit hurt?

    "Infernape! Infernape, are you there?"

    You send another burst of swift stars upwards, and Blastoise's silhouette twitches as they strike; you imagine her grunting in annoyance.

    "Infernape, come on! You have to get out of there!" No, really?

    "Just yield," Aanya Singh says. Blastoise holds her fire, stopped by some signal from her trainer. "Your infernape doesn't have a pokéball. Just give up now and let the staff pull her out. Nobody wants to have to scrape her off the bottom of the arena."

    "I..."

    You screech at the top of your lungs and spray swift stars in all directions. What's taking so long? It's not like he actually cares whether you get hurt. He needs to come up with a plan now, that's his job, that's his only job, and of course he's failing at it.

    "Well?" Aanya Singh asks.

    It's not fair. You were winning. You could, you could win if you could just get out of here. You hit Blastoise a ton while she was stuck on encore. She must be hurting nearly as bad as you.

    "Infernape, I..."

    You growl and shoot off another burst of stars. That useless idiot.

    Too tired to heal. Too tired to climb up. You lean in close to the wall again, fingers and toes digging deep in the soil, and try to think.

    Blastoise can see your fire. But there aren't any cameras down here, are there? And even Blastoise doesn't know what you're really doing, if all she sees is your glow. And even now, when the act of holding on is hard enough, there's still something you can do. You can still change.

    "Fine. Hydro pump."

    "No! I--"

    But Blastoise has been waiting for this, no doubt taking careful aim. The blast comes immediately, hitting you square in the back, dissolving the earth under you and knocking you into freefall.

    It feels like gentle summer rain, cool and soothing against the raw wounds down your back. They start to close as the water soaks into your skin, its energy combining with your own and setting off a wave of healing. You let yourself fall, savoring the sensation of overflowing energy that drowns aches and soothes spent muscles until you're practically whole again. You're lucky Blastoise went to finish you with one of her most powerful attacks.

    You catch yourself on a cushion of psychic energy and drift back to the wall, digging in again and resting lightly for a moment. You can't float all the way up--you can't let anyone see--but the climb ahead doesn't look so bad anymore.

    You pull yourself tighter against the wall, sighting your path up, and lash your tail in anticipation--ow, no, you'll need the Pokémon Center to fix that. But you spend only a moment in wincing, and then you're off in a blaze of light, rock climb letting you run straight up the wall of the fissure.

    Blastoise gapes at you when you crest the edge. You grin at her, and the great Nathaniel Morgan's shocked cry of "Infernape!", and turn a flip before perching on the lip of the fissure. You spread your hands, calling up grass-type energy.

    Blastoise's stare changes to a look of dismay as the scruffy grass around her comes to life, growing out into snaring ropes that grab and drag her forward, towards the edge.

    A blast of water hits the ground right in front of you, sending turf flying and subjecting you to another glorious soaking. The recoil shoves Blastoise away from the fissure and out of the grass knot's clutching tendrils.

    You pretend to recover from the glancing blow while Blastoise gets to her feet, then leap across the fissure and fall on the water-type with a thunder punch. Blastoise sends you dancing away with a mega punch of her own, then stands there panting, the odd white wisp drifting from her cannons.

    No boasts from her now, none of that terrible serenity, either. Blastoise stands quietly, but her gaze is on you. She's bent forward just slightly, poised to move.

    "Infernape," the great Nathaniel Morgan says, "use, uh..." He's taking a while to catch up, but it doesn't matter. You think you know how to play this out.

    Blastoise swats you away when you go in for another thunder punch, then follows with an aqua jet. The edge of her shell catches you hard in the stomach, and there's nothing feigned about your collapse, the winded seconds you spend on the ground feeling like you got hit by a truck. But the burst of water that came with the attack is an invigorating shock, freezing cold that nevertheless makes your flame burn higher as you draw its energy into yourself.

    You can't suppress a smile when Aanya Singh tells Blastoise to keep hitting you until you stay down. You groan loud, long, and pull yourself up, slowly, slowly, slowly. You never make it past a crouch, doubled over with hands balled against your stomach like the aqua jet left you queasy, left hand hiding the right.

    Blastoise shows her appreciation for your acting by dousing you with a hydro pump. You duck your head and weather the blow with a screech of agony you're quite proud of. The water only tickles your skin, but you do have to brace yourself or the sheer force of it would knock you down again.

    "That's a point-blank hydro pump," the announcer says as you stand with head bowed, dripping. "This could be the end, folks. Unless Infernape can pull herself together and go on the offensive, Blastoise has this one in the bag."

    "Infernape, can you move? You have to try to get away," the great Nathaniel Morgan says.

    You can hear Blastoise breathing heavily and guess she's tired from her own attacks as much as anything. It takes a lot to do one hydro pump after the next. The amount of water Blastoise has been throwing around shows how strong she is. No matter. All that matters is there's no way she'll survive your next attack.

    She must see it coming, at least at the very end, must see the golden aura seeping between your fingers and register that something's wrong. Her cannons click as you straighten up and raise your arm straight into the rush of stinging water with white-gold light blazing from your palm. The hyper beam goes off with a squeal of superheated air, and Blastoise is lost in a sheet of light that blanks your vision even through your closed lids.

    "I don't believe it!" the announcer yells. "Infernape was hiding a hyper beam the entire time! There's no coming back from an attack like that--yes, that's the referee's signal!"

    You throw back your head and howl, shooting flames high, high overhead. Blastoise is a crumpled mound in front of you, and the crowd's roar mingles and harmonizes with your own, shaking the air, the earth beneath you, the entire stadium, all the world.

    "Unbelievable! What a comeback, folks! This is the kind of action you can only see at an Indigo League tournament!"

    You look over your shoulder. The great Nathaniel Morgan's slumped against the trainer box's railing, one arm hanging limply over the side. From the way he looks, you'd think he was the one who'd been clinging to the side of a chasm, contemplating the drop. But he realizes you're looking at him after a moment and manages a weak smile, what's almost a nod. "Good... good job, Infernape."

    Well, of course. You smile yourself, glowing with pride and adrenaline and the thrill of victory, and turn to Aanya Singh. What's she going to do now? You hope--you're sure--Blastoise was her strongest pokémon.

    You probably should have guessed who'd be up next. "You!" Electivire says, a big grin spreading beneath his whiskers. "Well, fancy that. I guess I get to school you after all."

    "No way! Blastoise tried already, and I bet she's stronger than you."

    "What?" He chuckles. "You're standing there expecting me to believe you fought Blastoise? Give it a rest, kid."

    You smile to yourself, but the referee's calling the round, and there's no time to say more than that.

    "Slack off! Take a break!" the great Nathaniel Morgan says immediately. He must think you're running on nothing but adrenaline and stubbornness by now. At least after this you can stop pretending to be hurt.

    You flop to the ground and stretch out like you're following orders, but what you're really doing is changing your ability back to blaze. It's probably too much to hope that you can keep absorbing your opponent's attacks without anyone noticing.

    "Thunder wave!"

    You grit your teeth as a sizzling pulse of electricity washes over you, and then your muscles lock up and your face freezes like that. Well, this is a promising start.

    "That's okay. See if you can get off an earthquake anyway."

    "Magnet rise!"

    Electivire hovers over the tremors, floating on a cushion of electromagnetic charge. He glides when he moves now, skating on thin air, while paralysis turns you horribly clumsy and slothful. Electivire darts in and out, landing a couple blows here, another one there, and zips away before you can respond. The great Nathaniel Morgan has you fight back with attacks you don't have to move to use: heat wave, focus blast, even grass knot, which yanks Electivire off his electromagnetic cushion so his own momentum slams him face-first into the ground.

    It could have been an easy battle. Electivire isn't that strong, whatever he says. But though Blastoise's water attacks healed you, sheer exhaustion drags at you with every attack you summon, each a little slower than the last. The noise of the crowd, the droning announcer, even the trainers' commands slip out of your awareness until all that's left is the rhythm of attack, counterattack, energy flowing back and forth between you and Electivire. A tingling sensation sweeps your body as you gather energy, pressure building to a splitting ache behind your eyes, followed by a burst of elation as you let the attack fly. Then a staggering wave of exhaustion breaks over you as your body makes itself known again.

    Electivire sweeps in with a barrage of thunder punches, and your vision blurs and jumps as pulses of electricity race through you, your wrenched tail shrieking pain in involuntary spasms, your nostrils filled with the scent of burning hair and you must have bitten your tongue at some point, your mouth is full of blood. Then it's your turn to gather, gather, and release.

    Your tumble a rock tomb over Electivire, pin him to the ground long enough for an earthquake to reach him. But after that you freeze, cramping muscles locked tight, and can do nothing but watch Electivire climb from the rubble, struggling against your own body while he strides towards you, blinding white electricity arcing between the tips of his tails.

    "Grass knot! Grass knot! Grass knot!" the great Nathaniel Morgan yells.

    You fight back desperate, shaking panic, try to focus on what's left of the grass under Electivire's feet. A thunderbolt breaks over you, and your fear vanishes into agony. You don't even try to open your eyes afterwards, don't try to move, just feel out with your life-sense to find the grass, find Electivire, grow them together and drag your opponent down.

    "Overheat, now!" the great Nathaniel Morgan barks.

    Electivire's pushing himself up again, one arm braced against the ground. The tremors in your limbs are fading. You can nearly move properly, not that it matters. You don't need to move now. All you need is fire, and fire, and fire, until you can't see Electivire through a sheet of white-hot flame. You let everything go, pour flame on flame until there's nothing left, until the whole world is the brilliant shifting glow of flames and the sweet smell of burning.

    When it clears you're sitting on the ground without knowing quite how you got there, breathing hard in dry, smoking gasps. Colored spots drift in your vision, bursting neon colors and then fading. The ground around you is cracked and blackened. Here and there a blob of Muk's poison sizzles, releasing an ugly sour smell into the air. Electivire's still burning, collapsed on the ground with his arms over his head.

    You sigh, closing your aching eyes and letting your head fall forward. You want to leave them closed, to lie all the way down and surrender to sleep right here. But you hear a noise.

    Electivire's moving, uncurling to stand. The fire still burns, orange-red flames licking up his arms and spreading ghostly across his back.

    Color. They're the wrong color.

    You suck in a deep breath, which turns into a fit of painful coughing. Electivire straightens up and turns to you, scraped, scratched, singed, smiling.

    "Endure," Aanya Signh says, belatedly.

    "Not bad, kid," Electivire rasps. "Better luck next time."

    You try to move, to rally muscles that struggle beneath fatigue as well as paralysis, but Electivire disappears in a blur of motion, and the next thing you know you're flat on your back, looking up into some audino's face.

    You sit up fast, then choke on rising bile, clutching your head while the pokémon around you titter. You don't recognize them, can't remember if any of them were there when you got angry after your last battle. You don't really care. You need to know what's happening, if the great Nathaniel Morgan's still in the game. It's hard to see the field from down here, and the miltank standing directly in your line of sight isn't helping. You lean out as far as you can, moving with careful slowness, and see Electivire turn red and disappear. Raticate's crouched on the great Nathaniel Morgan's side of the field, so that's a win for your team.

    You let out a huge sigh and relax, then flinch when something slaps across your shoulders. You twist around, trying both to tear the clinging thing off and glare at whoever threw it, then recoil as a wigglytuff thrusts an energy bar and a carton of juice in your face. "Eat," he says curtly. You bare your teeth at him but take the proffered items and drag the towel higher on your shoulders.

    The great Nathaniel Morgan's recalling Raticate now, and you doubt the normal-type will go out again. He's still caked in poison goo, whiskers drooping and posture hunched with pain. Even his ability can't keep him going forever with poison eating at him. You suck contemplatively on your juice box and look up at the battle screen. One on one. The great Nathaniel Morgan just sent out Mightyena, and Aanya Singh has whatever's beneath the last pokéball icon on the status screen.

    "Let's go, Salamence!" Aanya Singh yells, tossing a pokéball down.

    Oh. You forgot about that.

    "Shit, I knew it," the great Nathaniel Morgan mutters before a tidal wave of cheering drowns him out, and you don't like the twang of nervousness in his voice.

    Salamence stretches and flexes her wings, muscles rippling under deep turquoise scales. She isn't acting particularly threatening, you don't think, but you see Mightyena's ears twitching, wanting to settle back against her skull. Even though humans are supposed to be immune to the intimidate ability, the great Nathaniel Morgan's pale and staring, clinging to the railing as if for dear life. Your own chest tightens with fear. You're so close. Please, please don't let the great Nathaniel Morgan screw everything up now.

    "Salamence versus Mightyena. The final round will now begin!"

    "Fly up and dragon dance," Aanya Singh says. It's one of salamence's most common opening sequences.

    It's so common that the great Nathaniel Morgan must be ready for it, must know how to handle it, so your heart sinks in the long moment of hesitation before he says, "Taunt!"

    Salamence are clumsy on the ground, waddling and bow-legged, but in the air Aanya Singh's dragon is nothing but fluid motion, changing direction with only the slightest tilt of her huge wings. You can't tell whether Salamence's dragon dance is some ritual form or merely the way she moves out of sheer joy, full of flips and rolls that send her looping back and forth over the arena. For once the announcer's silent; the crowd, too, and even you're disappointed when Mightyena's strident barks intrude on the display. A couple pointed comments about how much brain damage Salamence must have after throwing herself off a bunch of cliffs really spoil the mood.

    "Fine. Dragon rush, then," Aanya Singh says. Salamence snorts, nostrils flaring in irritation, and then she simply falls out of the sky.

    "Holy shit! Dodge!"

    Salamence accumulates dragonfire as she falls, flaring green and purple. She hits with the force of a meteor strike, an impact that rattles even the trainers' boxes outside the barrier. The great Nathaniel Morgan braces himself against the railing and yells into the haze of debris, "Get the wings while it's down!"

    "Headbutt into dragon claw."

    You jump as Mightyena comes tumbling out of the cloud of dust, Salamence rocketing along after and raking sparkling claws across the dark-type's side. Mightyena twists around to bite at Salamence's leg, but her teeth glance off the dragon's scales and then Salemence is up and away again.

    "Good. Now draco meteor!" Aanya Singh says. Salamence screeches and throws her head back.

    "Aanya's not messing around," the announcer says. "This is more aggression than we've seen from her all match, and if The Great Nathaniel Morgan can't get his momentum back she's going to roll right over him."

    "Dig!" the great Nathaniel Morgan shouts. Mightyena sends dirt flying while faint specks appear far overhead. The audience's clamor builds as the meteorites grow larger, edged in purple and green flame. You duck your head as they land, each striking with a roar and a rattling impact, spraying earth and fire in all directions.

    You wait until the silence has gone on for several seconds before raising your head. Salamence floats alone over a crater-pocked moonscape, a battlefield torn apart by meteors and repeated earthquakes. Unnatural dragonfire still burns in the pockmarks left by the draco meteor, littering the field with dancing blues and purples and greens. Mightyena pops up near the middle of the arena while Salamence chews down a couple of white leaves that were tucked behind her facial spikes, recharging for another big attack.

    "I think that's good, Salamence," Aanya Singh says. The dragon rumbles an affirmative, her eyes on Mightyena, who stands snarling up at her opponent. "Great. Then take it away with--"

    "Yawn!"

    "Whoops. Protect."

    You groan inwardly as Salamence freezes a moment, a thin glint of silver marking the orb of energy that protects her. Even Mightyena's widest yawn leaves her unmoved. Aanya Singh says, "Okay, now we go. Dragon rage."

    "Dig again!"

    You huff an anxious breath out of your nose. Mightyena's never going to win if she keeps running away.

    Salamence blows a spinning burst of dragonfire at the ground below, then bellows in frustration when the flames clear to reveal a ragged hole in the ground. "Works for me," Aanya Singh says and, impossibly, she sounds amused. You grind your teeth, bearing down even harder when your opponent follows with, "Dragon dance again."

    "Stay hidden. Dark pulse!" Mightyena doesn't show herself, but an arc of black shoots up out of her hole. There's no chance of it hitting, though, not with Salamence swooping and tumbling every which way. Neither does the next, or the next. You turn hopelessly to look up at the trainer's box overhead. What is he doing. What is he thinking?

    "Okay, now earthquake."

    "Get out of there! Get out! Go, go!"

    How could she, when all Salamence has to do is tip her wings into a dive, touch down in what looks like a dainty landing, one foot leading all the others, to set off a wave of chaos across the arena? The ground trembles and splits and cracks, and Mightyena--well, she nearly makes it. She crawls back up the tunnel, reaches the surface just as the ripples start to spread. She has three legs out before the hole collapses and traps the last.

    You only get to see her for a second, paws splayed way out in front of her, tugging uselessly at her half-buried leg while the earth beneath her rolls like an unquiet sea. Then Salamence casually turns her head and breathes a dragonbreath over Mightyena, and the dark-type disappears amidst dancing orange and purple flames.

    "Mightyena!" the great Nathaniel Morgan shouts, and you rock forward on the balls of your feet, tail twitching in agitation. If he's really worried about her he ought to be helping her, not yelling her name like it's going to do something somehow.

    A dark pulse flies out of the cone of fire, and Salamence cuts the attack off with a grunt. She breathes deep to start another, but a second dark pulse brings her up short. Mightyena tosses her head, scattering the last embers of the dragonbreath. She stands on three legs, crushed foot held up at an awkward angle, but she stares Salamence down like she's two times bigger than the dragon.

    Salamence snorts and takes off in a blast of air that makes Mightyena duck her head, eyes closed. "Dragon claw!" Aanya Singh says, and Salamence doesn't even have to land to do it, just rakes past low in the air, claws sparking. Mightyena slides across the ground, side laid open in bleeding strips, but she's on her feet a second later, only to stumble when she tries to run. Salamence sweeps down on her again, and she manages to dodge only by throwing herself on the ground--at least you think that was deliberate, not her tripping.

    She can't just lie there, though, and she can't outrun Salamence, either. Still she tries. Aanya Singh seems content to let Salamence harry Mightyena around the arena with dragon claws, and Mightyena hobbles as fast as she can, tongue lolling. She breaks into an unsteady sprint as Salamence dives, but another dragon claw knocks her off her feet.

    "Mightyena, use--use--" the great Nathaniel Morgan says, but he can't get the rest out. You growl, long and low, the air around you rippling with heat. The healers mutter to each other while you stare at the battlefield with jaw clenched so tight it hurts and your heart thudding loud in your chest and in your temples. He can't do this, he can't, he can't, not again.

    Then you suck in a deep breath as a keening cry rises above the noise of the crowd, silences the healers' chatter. It goes on and on, expanding and wavering mournfully above the battlefield.

    You can't imagine how Mightyena finds the breath to howl while she runs from Salamence, but she does. When her first cry wavers and finally fades, she just breathes deep and starts in on another, head thrown back while she scrambles, stumbles across the battlefield.

    You look up at the great Nathaniel Morgan, your own breath caught in your throat. He has to hear. He has to, he's her trainer, he can't just stand there and do nothing.

    The great Nathaniel Morgan shakes his head like he's waking from a strange dream. Something bumps against your shoulder, and you realize you've run into the side of the trainer's box trying to get a better view. The great Nathaniel Morgan out at the arena, then bows his head down between his arms, still clinging hard to the railing. You watch and worry as he stands there for what feels like an eternity until at last he yells without looking up, "Use substitute!"

    "Get ready to bust it, Salamence," Aanya Singh says, but you can hardly hear her over the scream, the scream you realize is coming from your own throat because she can't, she can't. You turn back to the battlefield, desperate, but of course Mightyena doesn't hesitate, even though she knows she can't.

    She shakes droplets of dark energy from her fur, which stream across the ground to merge and mass up into a pitch-black, shadowy wolf shape, eyes glowing red. Salamence growls faintly, drawing her head back as she gathers fire. You don't know if the dragon recognizes the strain in Mightyena's stance, how she bows her head like she's standing against an attack. Wisps of dark energy drift from the messy spikes of the substitute's shadow-fur, but Mightyena's holding it together, she's doing it, she's not going to let it fail.

    Salamence snaps her head forward and breathes a streamer of dragonfire, sweeping it across the ground towards Mightyena. The dark-type bares her teeth, trembling with the strain of keeping the substitute together. The construct wavers around the edges, its eyes winking like distant stars. Then it slumps into a puddle of thick, oily goo.

    Silence follows, a vacuum created by the indrawn breaths of all the people in the stands. In the hush you fall forward on hands and knees, eyes blurring with tears. You should have won. It's not fair. After everything, it shouldn't end like this.

    Salamence coughs, and the dragonbreath dissipates with a fizz of purple and orange embers. The dragon descends until she's hovering just above the ground, peering at the substitute. She must be wondering just how incompetent you have to be to order an attack your pokémon hasn't even mastered, you think with a surge of hopeless anger.

    "Go! Go now!" the great Nathaniel Morgan roars, slamming both fists on the railing in front of him, and both your head and Salamence's snout snap towards him in surprise. Neither of you is ready for Mightyena to hurl herself into the air, grabbing the dragon's arm in her jaws and clawing long rents in Salamence's side as she scrambles for purchase. Salamence screeches and tumbles sideways, one wing hitting the ground and the rest of her crashing down after.

    "Now that's what I call seizing an opportunity!" the announcer says as Salamence rolls back and forth, trying to wrestle Mightyena off. The dragon doesn't notice the substitute making its way forward in slow, oozing surges until it starts to climb her leg, trying to put itself between Mightyena and Salamence's teeth.

    Salamence squeals and hurls Mightyena away, then rolls onto her side, scraping along the ground to dislodge the gooey, formless substitute. It keeps tenaciously climbing, extending oily black pseudopods towards Salamence's face as it blindly crawls towards its creator. Salamence thrashes and roars while Mightyena gets painfully to her feet, one leg at a time.

    "Come on, Salamence, snap out of it. You've got this!" Aanya Singh calls. "Get her back with dragon breath!"

    Salamence finally rips the substitute from her body and hurls it to the ground, then slams her tail down on it, over and over again in a flurry of earth-shaking blows until the pulverized mess fades into wispy shadow. She stands breathing hard, blood smeared across the scales under her eye where she managed to scratch herself trying to get the substitute off, droplets of darkness dripping from her tail. Then she roars as Mightyena tackles her from the side, biting and clawing in a play rough attack. Salamence's wings flare, and she takes off, dumping Mightyena on the ground and winging off to a safe height.

    "Finish her, Salamence. Dragon dance into dragon rush, one more time." Salamence climbs in a hammering of wingbeats, spiraling as she goes.

    "Just wait, Mightyena," the great Nathaniel Morgan says, and you think she stands a little straighter then, ears tipped forward and eyes trained on Salamence overhead.

    You watch too, fingers digging into your palms so hard your hands ache as you follow Salamence with your eyes. Nothing fancy to her dance this time, just one broad loop in the air as she builds momentum. Then she dives, a comet wreathed in blue-green flames, the end of your hopes for the championship, the end of your search for Mewtwo.

    "Foul play!"

    Mightyena waits until Salamence is within five yards, wings tucked close to her body in a flat-out dive. Then she jumps, propelled more by the black energy blazing around her than her failing muscles. You can't see the strike itself, just a burst of sun-defying shadow that knocks Salamence off course.

    The dragon's dive turns into a tumble, and she hits the ground at an angle, dragging a long furrow across the battlefield while Mightyena lands, limping and cringing from the shock of impact.

    Dragonfire flickers in Salamence's wake. Mightyena stares at the crumpled blue shape, no doubt ready to race in and try to get her teeth around its throat.

    She's still on guard when the referee says, "Salamence is unable to battle. The red corner wins."

    The noise is so loud you don't even hear it at first. You're screaming with both hands in the air, and the roar of the crowd feels like it's coursing through your veins instead of blood, resonating all around you, inside and outside at once. You did it. You won. Absol told you it would never work, but it totally did. This is the best. You are the best. And now everybody knows it.

    You realize some of the healers are patting you on the back, murmuring congratulations. The challenger's box rattles back to earth beside you, and the great Nathaniel Morgan scoops his pokéballs out of the healing machine built into its railing. He spends a minute just rolling them in his hand, looking exhausted, but his eyes narrow when they settle on you. "You. Keep up." He sets off towards the stands, and you follow, floating in a dreamy haze and only vaguely aware of the reporters who crowd around the great Nathaniel Morgan, jostling you without appearing to notice you're there.

    "Mr. Morgan! Mr. Morgan, how does it feel to be going to the finals?"

    "Mr. Morgan! Why do you use so many pokémon without pokéballs?"

    "Mr. Morgan! Can you explain how you chose your nickname for the tournament?"

    The great Nathaniel Morgan plows through like he doesn't even see them, not a "fuck you" spared for anyone. You hesitate a second, airy mood pierced by the sense that something's not right, before plunging forward into the dark, echoey tunnel that leads beneath the stands.

    The great Nathaniel Morgan isn't slowing down. You hurry to stay behind him, try to get close enough to whisper so he can hear without the reporters catching on. "Great Nathaniel Morgan," you start, then yelp when he grabs your arm and drags you sideways into a prep room, slamming the door behind him.

    "Just what in the fuck was that?" he snarls, two inches from your face. You can only stare. He's mad?

    "Well?" he yells. "What the fuck is the matter with you? You just gonna do whatever the fuck you want on the field, and fuck what I say? You think it's funny? You think--"

    You brighten as you realize what he's talking about. "Actually, it was pretty--"

    "Shut the fuck up! Have you gone fucking insane? You see the scariest motherfucking blastoise on the entire fucking planet and, what, you pop a huge boner for throwing yourself right the fuck in front of it?"

    "What are you even--"

    "In the fucking semis? You're going to pull shit like that in a fucking semifinal match, when you know we can't lose? Hell, it was you who wouldn't shut up with the bitching about how much was riding on this, then, you--this? You can't even, you can't--" He's interrupted by a bout of coughing, reaching out to steady himself against the wall.

    "Are you done talking now?" you ask.

    He shakes his head and wheezes, "I ain't done, you--" But his cough gets the better of him again.

    "I knew we had to win that battle. That is why I went out against the blastoise. Because you were losing," you say as the great Nathaniel Morgan slumps down on a bench, trying to get his breath back.

    "You--" he manages to get out, but now you're the one who won't let him get any farther.

    "You were not believing in yourself," you say peevishly. "You were convinced you were going to lose. I had to do something to turn things around."

    "Wh-what?" the great Nathaniel Morgan gasps. "What are you, some kind of fucking shrink? You thought fighting that fucking monster would help?"

    "Yes. I wanted you to get mad so you would stop being afraid."

    The great Nathaniel Morgan leans forward, face livid and teeth bared. "I don't need your fucking help, asshole. I know what the fuck I'm doing. You think I didn't know we were in deep shit? You think I didn't fucking care, like I just wasn't trying hard enough or some bullshit?"

    "Of course I knew you cared. If you did not, you would not have gotten mad when I went on the field. And anyway," you add, cutting off an angry retort, "it worked, did it not? We won."

    The great Nathaniel Morgan stares at you for a moment, then looks past you, like he's contemplating something off in the distance. "We won," he says slowly.

    "Exactly. Thanks to me. I beat Blastoise for you, remember? And basically Electivire, too."

    A brief smile flickers across the great Nathaniel Morgan's face. "Yeah, I guess that was kind of badass."

    "More like really badass. So stop complaining. Now are we going back to the apartment or what?"

    He's taking the pokéballs off his belt instead. His pokémon take shape in dazzling bursts of white.

    "What's up?" Raticate asks. "Did we win?"

    Mightyena jumps on the great Nathaniel Morgan the instant she solidifies, and he laughs and hugs her around the neck. She slobbers all over his face, but he just keeps laughing and laughing, hanging on tight while Mightyena wriggles and bounces on her hind legs.

    "Well, I guess that's my answer," Raticate grumbles. "Hey! Where's the love?" He jumps up next to his trainer, and the great Nathaniel Morgan gathers him under an arm. The human endeavors to scratch under the rat's chin and handle Mightyena at the same time, but the dark-type keeps shoving up against him until she's nearly driven him off the far side of the bench.

    "We won!" the great Nathaniel Morgan says in frank, delighted disbelief. "We fucking won! Hell yeah! Take that, you fucking academy nerd!"

    "Okay, but what happened?" Raticate asks. He pushes Mightyena out of the way and settles himself in the great Nathaniel Morgan's lap, stretching out flat while his trainer scratches along his spine. "Some of us were stuck inside a pokéball for the good parts, you know."

    The great Nathaniel Morgan's head snaps up when you repeat Raticate's question, and for a second he stares at you like he doesn't recognize you. Then he says, "Oh, man, it was fucking awesome. I mean, I guess you know all about the muk, right? But Mightyena fought a salamence, and then there was this fucking blastoise..."

    "I punched an aggron," Graveler offers. She's standing off to one side as usual.

    "Well, it's gonna be on TV, ain't it? Like all kinds of replays and shit. You can see the whole thing." The great Nathaniel Morgan chuckles, a dazed but giddy look on his face. "I mean, it's gonna be on TV. All those losers back at base can suck it, I'm gonna go against fucking Red. Here, come on, we gotta celebrate. I mean, we got the money now, right? We should, like, go out to eat or something. Somewhere all fancy, you know? Come on, I'm fucking starving."

    He pulls himself up with the help of the wall and gently pushes past his clamoring pokémon. Raticate and Mightyena climb over each other, yelling about what restaurant they want to go to. The great Nathaniel Morgan herds them towards the door, Graveler stomping up behind. He turns back to you, arms crossed over his chest. "Well? You gonna stand there all fucking day, or what?"

    You have no idea what he's talking about. He rolls his eyes and motions towards the door.

    "I can come?"

    "Not if you don't get your ass over here right this second."

    You hesitate. There must be some kind of trick. But the great Nathaniel Morgan turns to go, and the door nearly closes behind him before you run up to catch it. The great Nathaniel Morgan ignores you, and you hang around at the rear of the group, curious and somehow hopeful besides. Today is a day for surprises, you suppose.

    Absol meets you in front of the restaurant, then appears at your table before the rest of you can even cross the room, and you grin at her showing off. At first you're wary when the great Nathaniel Morgan insists you sit across from him, but after a couple minutes you realize he only invited you so he could keep up with his pokémon's conversation, prodding you to translate between bites of your food. That makes sense, then. You can settle in and enjoy the dinner, an all-you-can-eat buffet for humans and pokémon both.

    The great Nathaniel Morgan mostly just listens and shovels food into his mouth. Down towards the end of the table Graveler does the same, steadily crunching her way through a pile of rust-red Indigo Plateau rock. You imagine some poor lackey chef getting shoved out the back door with a bucket and a pick whenever the buffet runs low.

    Raticate and Mightyena swap details of their matches, only slightly exaggerated. "What? Your substitute scared the crap out of a dragon? You've got to--well, actually, I can kind of see that," Raticate says. "Anyway, listen, at least you didn't have to literally swim in a muk, which by the way is made of poison death and just the smell could kill you."

    "What, you're saying you'd rather face the salamence?"

    "Honestly..."

    "Well, I couldn't send Mightyena against a muk," the great Nathaniel Morgan says. "I mean, with her nose? She wouldn't be able to take the stench. You did good, buddy. It was a tough fight."

    Raticate stares at him, ears flattened against his skull. "Nate, I can smell better than Mightyena."

    "But you smell worse," Mightyena says. Raticate throws a gnawed chicken bone at her.

    The great Nathaniel Morgan's brows knit together in a frown. "Wait, what? I mean, she's a dog, they got super noses, don't they?"

    "I swear, your lot have the best PR," Raticate says to Mightyena.

    "Don't know what you're talking about, you filthy, disease-ridden vermin," Mightyena says brightly. "Anyway, that's about it for us, isn't it? Now what were you talking about with a blastoise, Nate?"

    "Oh, that. This asshole's the one you want to talk to about that."

    You sit back, so surprised your fork clanks off the plate as you set it down. "You want me to tell it?" The great Nathaniel Morgan nods and makes circular "go on" motions with his fork while he chews.

    "Well, there was this really big blastoise. She was super old," you begin, and smile as you remember what it was like to stare her down across the battlefield, how scary she was. But you won.

    Soon enough you're absorbed in telling the story, arguing back over Raticate and Mightyena's skepticism, getting the great Nathaniel Morgan to back you up on the best parts. Of course you don't mention how you actually won, how you had to change--you don't want the great Nathaniel Morgan getting mad again now.

    Raticate's still scurrying back to the buffet now and again to grab more food, but everyone else seems more interested in chatting and slowly finishing whatever's left on their plates. Graveler's no more outgoing than usual, and of course Absol's been quiet the whole time, daintily murdering a couple of extremely rare steaks. The other three banter back and forth about what it would be like to have a salamence on their team, which somehow evolves into the great Nathaniel Morgan regaling them with the story of how he set a high school teacher's car on fire. "So they kicked me out," he says. "And that was supposed to be the punishment! Holy shit, if I'd known I woulda done it years earlier, saved us all some time."

    In the end even Raticate's reduced to desultory picking at his plate and the great Nathaniel Morgan's dozing where he sits. You're none too alert yourself, stuffed so full it's almost painful. You've been talking for practically everyone, after all, and as lethargic silence settles over the table it's nice to slide down in your chair and not have to say anything, just smile as you watch Mightyena get increasingly blatant about stealing scraps off her trainer's plate.

    This goes on until she gets greedy about some bits of ham at the far opposite side of the plate and ends up knocking everything into the great Nathaniel Morgan's lap. "Come on, come on, let's get back already so I can get some goddamned sleep," the human grumbles. "Someone thought it would be funny to raise my blood pressure right through the fucking roof today. I'm beat." The procession that leaves the restaurant is far slower than the one that arrived, the great Nathaniel Morgan falling asleep on Graveler's back after only a few minutes. Raticate climbs up to join him, curling up to sleep in his trainer's lap.

    By the time you get back to the apartment you're feeling pretty beat yourself. The great Nathaniel Morgan and his pokémon pile off to the bedroom while you contemplate the television. But no, even that feels like too much effort, so you climb into your chair and pick up Captain Rubina Roth, who was guarding it while you were away. Curled up with an overfull stomach and the good captain hugged against your chest and the weariness of the day's battle dragging at you, you settle in warm and content for a good night's sleep.

    Something cold and sharp seizes your shoulder. "Cordierite-eyes." The hissed word is cold, too and loud, coming from about two centimeters away from your ear.

    You sit up too fast, heart racing. The comfortably small chair suddenly feels confining. "What?" For once you don't even try to hide your annoyance.

    Eskar perches on the arm of the chair, behind your head so you have to twist all around to even see her. The sliver moon, just visible through the window, lights her gems like shards of colored glass.

    "Ah, Cordierite-eyes," Eskar sighs. "Sometimes I worry."

    "About what?"

    "About you, Cordierite-eyes." For once Eskar's not smiling.

    "Me?"

    "Yes, you. You worry me, yes, yes."

    "Why?" you ask. You want to sleep. Why can't she just spit it out?

    "The human," Eskar says. "You know that Illite-eyes will be so displeased if she can't get Lazurite-eyes. But I think, ah, I think, when the time comes, perhaps you will not be so willing to hand him over, you see?"

    "What? Of course I will! What are you talking about?"

    "Please, please." Eskar holds up her hands. "No disrespect. You know I like you, Cordierite-eyes. We are good friends, are we not? But I think maybe you are also a little too friendly with Lazurite-eyes. Perhaps you think he is not so bad, yes?"

    "No!" Your flames cast tall, flickering shadows over walls and ceiling. You can't let them go as much as you like, though, have to clamp down on another yell. The great Nathaniel Morgan and his pokémon are sleeping in the next room, or in the case of Graveler, most likely not sleeping at all. "I hate him! Of course I hate him. Don't be stupid," you go on in a whisper.

    "Good, good," Eskar purrs. "But I worry. I do. You see how he tries to manipulate us?" She points to your hand, and you look down. You forgot all about Captain Rubina Roth, and only now do you realize how tight you're squeezing her, so tight her plastic edges are digging into the insides of your fingers.

    "Let me see that," Eskar says, and snatches Captain Rubina Roth away before you can say no. One bite snaps the action figure clear in half, and Eskar spits the upper portion carelessly away.

    "Hey!" you say, and struggle to uncurl out of the chair and go after it. You flinch back when Eskar shoves the remainder of Captain Rubina Roth in your face, brandishing the torsoless legs like a poker. "No, Cordierite-eyes. No. This is how he buys us, you see? With cheap trinkets like this. Worthless trash!" She reaches into her chest and pulls out a chip of rock--one of the gemstones the great Nathaniel Morgan gave her, you realize. Its glossy surface glints in the moonlight, but you can't tell its color.

    "Useless thing. It's dyed, you know. Cheap, cheap trash," Eskar says. "But watch now, Cordierite-eyes. Watch." She drops Captain Rubina Roth's legs and scratches something into the back of the gem, claw squeaking and rasping through a few quick, efficient strokes. "You see?" Eskar holds the gem up for your inspection.

    You squint but can't make out the symbol by the shifting light of your fire. "Illite-eyes' own mark," Eskar says softly. "It means you have her protection. Good for one favor, yes? Take it. Take."

    You reach out, slowly, and Eskar drops the gemstone into your palm. You feel the scratches on it as you close it in a fist, but still can't tell what they form. "My gift to you," Eskar says. "Very precious. It is good to have the regard of Team Rocket, yes? And we are good friends, are we not, Cordierite-eyes?"

    You nod, hesitantly. You don't really want a gift from Team Rocket. You don't want to be friends with them at all. But it could be useful.

    "Lazurite-eyes, he tries to bribe with his worthless little gifts. Pfeh! His pokémon, they love it. But we are not so easily bought, Cordierite-eyes, are we? We will not be swayed by cheap trinkets."

    Not that she gave you much choice, you think with a flash of resentment. But you already had an action figure like that anyway. And Eskar's right, it's a pretty cheap toy. "No. And you don't have to worry. The great Nathaniel Morgan deserves to go to the boss. I told you you could have him, and I meant it. I'm not a liar. I won't go back on my word."

    "Ah, good, good, Cordierite-eyes," Eskar chirrs. "Such a good friend. I am much reassured."

    "Is that it? I want to go to sleep."

    Eskar shakes her head. "Ah, Cordierite-eyes, ah--"

    "What are you doing?"

    Eskar hisses a curse between her teeth, head snapping 180° in a single abrupt twist. You know Absol well, though, and you aren't surprised when she steps from the darkness beside the couch.

    "Absol! We're just talking."

    "I can see that," Absol says. She never looks at Eskar, but the sableye perches tense on the arm of the chair, overwide mouth curved down in a frown. "And why is it that you're talking to this... person?"

    "Because I want to," you say, folding your arms over your chest. "Why are you here? You never visit except for training."

    "This sableye is not trustworthy. It is not safe to do business with her."

    "Ruby-eyes! Please! Such slander!" Eskar says. She freezes, poised on the edge of the chair arm, as Absol tips her blade in her direction. But Eskar's constant smile is back. "Team Rocket always keeps its promises. It's good business, yes?"

    "Eskar's on our side, Absol. I asked her to help with the tournament, and she said yes. A lot faster than you did." You shift around in the chair, averting your eyes from Absol's steady gaze. "We need her."

    "Need can't justify everything," Absol says firmly, ignoring Eskar's affronted gasp.

    You're pretty sure Eskar's only pretending to care what Absol says, but still. You care. It's always the same thing with Absol.

    "You didn't have a problem with me being around the great Nathaniel Morgan, and he's from Team Rocket, too. Is this about him? Are you mad because I'm sending him back?"

    "The human is of no consequence," Absol says. "You are the one I'm worried about."

    "Well, I'm fine. I already told you, I don't want to hear you complain about the tournament anymore. Go away if you don't have anything else to say."

    Absol stands there, looking between you and Eskar. For once you think she's being quiet because she doesn't know what to say. "I don't want you to get hurt," she says at last.

    "Please, please, Ruby-eyes," Eskar says, holding up a hand. "I am not here to hurt anyone. Cordierite-eyes and I are friends, yes? There is no reason to fear."

    "I'm not going to get hurt, Absol," you say. "Now go away already."

    She stands and looks at you, until Eskar says, soft as a breath, "Cordierite-eyes asked you to leave."

    That brings Absol's attention around to her, hard and coldly furious like you've never seen. Absol levels her blade at the sableye again. "You are the one who should leave," Absol says. "I have not agreed to tolerate you."

    "Absol, come on!"

    "Is that so, Ruby-eyes?" Eskar says, and there's real laughter in her voice now. "Cordierite-eyes has made their decision, yes? You can't interfere, watcher-cat. Both of us, we know you are bound."

    "Absol, I told you to go away. I know you're trying to help, but you're not."

    Eskar holds Absol's gaze without flinching, smiling wide, so wide, like there isn't a blade hovering in front of her nose, like Absol isn't standing with claws splayed in the carpet, muscles tense beneath her silky fur. "Cordierite-eyes says to leave," Eskar says quietly.

    At last Absol turns away. "We will discuss this later," she says.

    "No we won't!" you say, as loud as you dare. You sit with your hands balled into tight fists, flames hissing and crackling in your ears while Absol melts back into shadow. She can't make you. She can't.

    "Sorry," you say, unable to meet Eskar's eyes. "Sorry, she just... She can be like that sometimes."

    "Worry not, Cordierite-eyes, worry not." Eskar waves a hand dismissively. "Watcher-cats, yes? Crazy, all of them. Let her worry if she will. You will show her, yes?"

    "Yeah." You take a deep breath and let your flames die back, slowly, to gutter fitfully at shoulder length. "We'll win the tournament, and then she'll see I was right."

    "Of course, Corierite-eyes."

    "So is that it?" you ask. "You don't have to worry. I'll make sure you get the great Nathaniel Morgan back."

    "Ah, Cordierite-eyes." Eskar looks away from you, wringing her hands clean through one another in little puffs of ectoplasm. "Ah, Cordierite-eyes, I fear there is one other thing."

    Your flames are trying to flare up again, from threading fear this time. "What?"

    "Well, you see, Cordierite-eyes, Illite-eyes, she is not pleased. 'Why haven't you found them?' she asks me. 'What are you doing out there? Should I send someone else?' So angry, Cordierite-eyes. So angry."

    "So...?"

    "So I fear I must ask something else of you, Cordierite-eyes. If I were to turn our human friend in, such rewards I would have! But no. Instead I say nothing. And so Illite-eyes gives me nothing, no, not even the smallest treat. So I must ask you for something. Something for Eskar, for her service and her hardship, yes?"

    "So what do you want?" you ask after a moment, but you already know, of course, you know before Eskar tips her head and taps a claw against one gemstone eye.

    Your stomach turns over, bile souring your throat. You wish you didn't have so much for dinner. "That's okay," you manage to get out. "I can give you another eye, if that's what you want."

    "Oh, Cordierite-eyes, you don't understand! Illite-eyes wants Lazurite-eyes so very badly, so very badly indeed. If someone let slip where he was to be found, if they gave just the tiniest little hint..."

    "I know!" It's half a shout, choked down at the last second. You have to take a moment to gather yourself before continuing. "I know, Eskar. It's okay. You can have another eye. It's fine."

    "Ah, Cordierite-eyes! I like you, I really do. Such a good friend." Eskar gives you a dazzling smile. "But I'm afraid my rates have gone up."
     
    Last edited: Apr 5, 2018
  16. Negrek

    Negrek Lost but Seeking

    Because the character limit for the forum used to be lower, Chapter 30 was originally split across two posts. This post contained its second half, and is currently being retained only as insurance against the potential for character limit shenanigans in the future.
     
    Last edited: Apr 5, 2018
  17. Sike Saner

    Sike Saner Peace to the Mountain

    OKAY SO. Finally I've caught up. Probably could've done so sooner, but I'm in something of a REREAD FRICKIN EVERYTHING phase these days, so. On the plus side, that did give me a chance to check out those revisions--speaking of which. It could just be that this is my second time around reading this, therefore kinda knowing what I'm getting myself into this time, but I kind of get the feeling somehow that even if it weren't I'd have had an easier time following the early parts of the story this time around?? At any rate, it was a smoother read, is what I'm getting at.

    First off, loved the poochyena extra. She is such a frickin dog, holy ****. I love it. I love the sheer dogginess of the way she decided to test Nate near the end. And I like getting to read some POV of a pet-shop pokémon; neat to see how one of those views the wild.

    I continue to like the actual frell out of Eskar--more than ever, as a matter of fact, what with her scene in that last chapter. And that conversation with Graveler several chapters back, omg. Precious geology nerds.

    God, speaking of geology. The ****in rock porn conversation. Frickin priceless.

    Some real gems among Child and co.'s opponents through these recent battles. That muk takes the top prize, hands down, but I liked Blastoise pretty well too. And Electivire.

    Anyhoo, this has been a fun few afternoons on my end. :D Still enjoying the heck outta this, and looking forward to more.
     
  18. diamondpearl876

    diamondpearl876 → follow your fire.

    Heh, that's one downside to choosing to be an infernape. Aren't infernape able to subdue their fire, though? It could be suspicious, but with as deep a hole as its in, it could probably get by without attracting attention.

    Good ol' Nate, pointing out the obvious.

    Now that I've read the entire chapter, I have to say his dialogue during the Blastoise vs. Infernape part of the battle was a tad underwhelming. I liked that Nate wasn't forgotten and shoved to the background in favor of letting the child do whatever, because their angry and disobedient dynamic is always amusing and key to them working together, but the dialogue didn't really feel like Nate was really there after a while, if that makes sense. I know he can't go overboard with swearing here, but the majority of his dialogue during this battle segment was just like the quoted portion, stating the obvious and without real emotion or depth added. Basically, his dialogue started to feel forced rather quickly.

    If I were Nate, I'd freak out on her after this comment. Geez. Glad she got beaten in the end. >_>

    Well, I'm glad the child did take advantage of the fissure in some way. XD I wonder if an advanced trainer like Aanya Singh will notice something was off and report Nate.

    Heh, amusing homage to Bagon's pokedex entry here.

    Okay, but I really loved this entire conversation. They're both really stubborn and angry but they come to the agreement that, yeah, things actually worked out in the best way possible, so it's time to celebrate. XD

    MVP of the team, obviously. :p

    I'm still in the mindset that the entire situation surrounding Nate and the child working together is super messed up, but scenes like this make me root for them still. When everything inevitably falls apart, my heart's going to break, I just know it.

    And if the badass conversation earlier wasn't enough, we get some concrete proof that the child actually has a soft part for Nate, which has been less obvious than Nate having a soft spot for the child. NICE. Again, you're going to totally break my heart when this all falls apart.

    Ironic, since the child always wanted absol to come around, not go away for the longest time. I guess some other things have changed, too. And even though Eskar is obviously not a friend anymore by the end of this chapter, the child's not going to admit it was wrong, because it's so stubborn...

    Ugh. Yeah, this chapter hit me right in the feels even though it probably wasn't meant to be a totally emotional chapter. The tension during the battle and all the aftermath stuff was just all really well written. Looking forward to more, as usual. :p
     
  19. Chibi Pika

    Chibi Pika Stay positive

    Hot damn that was a battle! I think I still like the Cradily battle best, but this is a very close second.

    Pfft, this Electivire is hilarious. I love the personality given to all the random side Pokemon in this fic.
    Ahh, I forgot he had Guts! I think I remember that being mentioned because Rats doesn't have it. Speaking of Rats, I miss her. :<
    Alright, I'm stumped. :p I can't think of any game mechanics this is intended to represent, so I'm guess it's chemistry-related.
    That's...actually really cute that this ancient Blastoise was worried her opponent was being abused.
    Aaaaah, I really like that interpretation of Sunny Day! Damn, now I'm mad I never thought of that.
    I actually thought that the protagonist was just gonna pop a Recover or something when no one was looking. But Water Absorb! That's pretty clever.
    I completely forgot she'd never pulled off a Substitute until now!
    Ahahahaha I should've known, you even mentioned foul play as something you'd toyed with in the previous battle. (And while that Swagger combo would've been hilarious in the Avalugg match, that would have been such an ungodly level of haxx. xD So prooooobably for the best that they lost that one, yeah.)
    Oh geez. Absol's actually pretty scary when she's mad, huh?
    Strange place to end it off. I assume the fee's not just gonna be two eyes, as the protag could easily handle that. :p No, the dramatic tension suggests to me that it's gonna be something considerably darker...

    ~Chibi~;249;;448;
     
  20. Negrek

    Negrek Lost but Seeking

    Been a while, right? I have been working on the next chapter, but in addition to it being another long one, I've also been very distracted. However, I finally finished the second draft, which means that the final version should be done fairly soon. In less than a month, anyway. I quite like this next chapter, and I hope you'll enjoy it, too, once it's posted!

    In the meantime, review replies.

    Sike Saner

    Hey, Sike! It's great to see you back again. Hope you've been enjoying your rereads; they sound like a lot of fun. Thanks for letting me know what you think of the revised early chapters. It tends to be hard to get feedback on them since most people naturally focus on the recently-posted stuff, so it's reassuring that you found them a bit more coherent than the originals.

    I'm glad you enjoyed the poochyena extra, too. That's probably my favorite out of the ones I've posted so far, and it was a ton of fun to write. Eskar is too, of course, and I'm pleased you've enjoyed her scenes. She's a bit character who took on a much larger role in the narrative than expected, so it's always nice to see evidence that that wasn't a mistake. :p (Also the rock porn joke, because I am twelve.)

    Thanks again for stopping by. Hope you continue to enjoy the story--we'll be wrapping up the League and going new places soon.

    diamondpearl876

    How I headcanon it, yes, infernape can control the level of their flames, but not extinguish them entirely. The fire going out isn't as bad as it is for the charmander line, where they supposedly just die if it happens, but it is a necessary part of their physiology that burns off waste products in their bloodstream, so toxins start to build up very quickly. The protagonist could definitely have dimmed its fire a lot, but even a faint light is very easy to see in a dark pit like that.

    Hmm, interesting. Nate doesn't have a lot constructive to offer during the battle against Blastoise because he's caught flat-footed and doesn't really have anything constructive to add, but I hope he was more interesting during Mightyena's fight? His role there is pretty important.

    She might very well think something was odd. The protagonist definitely showed some exceptional resiliance in that battle. The issue with cheating is proving it!

    Haha, yup, they get all worked up for a fight and then it turns out there's nothing to fight about anyway.

    No frills, Graveler just gets the job done.

    Glad to hear it! I'm hoping that overall readers don't necessarily hope the characters will succeed at what they're trying to do, because both the ends and the means they use to achieve them can be super questionable, but where they're still sympathetic, or at least recognize that they're kind of stuck in, like you say, a pretty messed-up situation. We'll have to see whether that's worked out at all once we get through the more brutal parts of the story.

    I hope so! Breaking hearts is my business. >:]

    The protagonist is definitely responding better to Eskar telling it it's awesome and has all the best ideas than it has been to Absol's cryptic and fairly judge-y tutelage, for sure. And anyway, Absol isn't right about EVERYTHING... right?

    Well, I had hoped it would be at least a little feels-y. Not in a very dramatic way, necessarily, but this is possibly the happiest chapter out of the entire story, so I was hoping readers would get at least some warm feelings from it.

    Thanks so much for reviewing! It sounds like you had basically exactly the reaction I was hoping for to the recent chapters, so it was a real joy to read all your comments.

    Chibi Pika

    Yeah, I think the previous battle was my favorite as well, but I'm glad this one was an entertaining read nonetheless. There aren't many formal battles left in this story, so I'm okay with having peaked there. :p

    Thanks, I have fun coming up with them!

    Yup, Raticate has guts and Rats has run away. Will we be seeing her again? Unfortunately if so, it won't be anytime soon...

    Yep, it's based on the old chemistry saying "add acid to water, not water to acid." Acids react exothermically with water, so they can bubble and boil vigorously (and possibly splash in your face, which is Bad) if you dump water on them. It would need to be an extremely strong, concentrated acid to produce the degree of burning portrayed here, but blah blah pokémon magic, if pikachu can make lightning in its cheeks muk can make super-strong acid.

    Heh, it's one I used aaaaages ago in a little one-shot back when I first started writing fanfic, and I couldn't resist bringing it back in a bigger story.

    Ahaha, the substitute thing is actually one of my favorite little callbacks in this arc. I figured nobody would expect Mightyena failing at that attack to have any sort of significance, but I already knew it was going to play a role in the climax of this fight. Hope it was a nice little a-ha moment for you when you remembered the earlier bit!

    Yeah, if I'd made foul play the clincher in two battles in a row it just would've been lame. Originally I had Mightyena win against the salamence some other way, but I don't remember what it was and it was dumb anyway, so I definitely had to free up foul play for use here.

    Ooh yeah, you definitely don't want to make her mad. She probably won't actually hurt you, but she can put the fear of God in just about anyone.

    Ah, yeah, I do have a weakness for melodramatic chapter endings. The price is simply two eyes, which the protagonist can deal with, yes. It's not going to like it much, though! (Also I hope ripping out eyeballs is dark enough, lol.)

    Thanks for the review! Again, glad you enjoyed the battle here; it's definitely an important one.
     

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