Chapter 1: The Dive
The street behind Natalie remained empty no matter how many times she looked over her shoulder, but the hairs on the back of her neck prickled all the same. Still there. Somewhere.
She had first noticed the skinny, androgynous figure among the crowd in the park, dressed all in black with their hood pulled up. If they had worn a knowing smile and followed Natalie with their eyes … well, it was a park battle. Spectators came to study the competition. The opposing sandslash had given Natalie plenty else to think about. After, the stranger in black had dispersed along with the crowd, and Natalie had forgotten them as she stepped forward to collect her winnings.
Later, leaving the bodega with supplies for a quick meal, she'd thought she'd spotted them again under a bus awning across the street. But it could've easily been some other stranger in a hoodie, so when a bus cut them off from view, Natalie shrugged it off. She started back for the hostel, planning her dinner and also, of course, thinking about her brother—until she caught sight of the reflection sliding across the display window to her left. That hooded face hung behind her, a smoky blur hovering at their shoulder. When she turned, the figure had already vanished, even though there was nowhere for them to vanish to.
If someone was following her, Natalie knew better than to lead them back to her hostel. The trainer's ed "city safety" modules had suggested going to the police or alerting someone on the street of the situation, but there wasn't a soul in sight and her Gear watch felt like an unsafe distraction. Maybe it would have been smarter to have holed up in a cafe somewhere and waited them out, but it was too late for that now. The souvenir shops and food stalls of the tourist strip had given way to looming apartment buildings converted from the shells of warehouses and factories. Long twilight shadows were creeping in, but Natalie kept her head high and kept walking.
I've got my pokemon with me.
She'd said that to Dad the last time they talked on the phone. It was meant as a reassurance but, as always, she couldn't hide the exasperation from her voice.
Dad had gotten more paranoid than ever about "the urban crimewave" as Natalie approached journeying age. He'd fought her leaving until Mom came down on her side, and even after five months on the road Natalie still woke up most mornings to find a new article about violent crime in her inbox. This morning it had been something about MGMA—Magma, the Masked Group for Mass Action—along with his usual terse reminder to be careful.
Natalie touched the pokeballs at her belt—three plus a newly-caught whismur who'd be worse than no help in a fight. But between the others, she'd be fine, probably. She didn't have anything to compare this to—she'd never had a battle before without a referee or witnesses. Natalie was glad she'd only used Samson back in the park. Her tail wouldn't know her other pokemon, so at least she'd still have the element of surprise in her favor. That was worth something … right?
The problem was … whoever was following her definitely had pokemon of their own. She hoped they didn't have more than three. Or other friends waiting and watching.
No, don't think about that. If she gave in to fear, she wouldn't have a chance.
What did they want from her anyway? Money, she guessed. Not that her casual running shorts and stained backpack screamed money. Maybe it was enough to be short and freckly. Maybe they'd decided she was an easy target.
At that thought, anger burned her fear away and stopped her in her tracks. So, what, was she supposed to just wait for them to ambush her? No way. She'd proven it before and she would prove it again: she could fight back.
Turning sharply on her heel, Natalie threw down Luna's pokeball and called out, "If you want something, come get it!"
A moment later, her mightyena was winding past her legs. They stood together in the middle of the empty street, Luna swiveling her ears as she settled into a watchful crouch and Natalie fumbling to unclip the mace keychain her father had insisted she carry. She steadied herself. But the surrounding shadows revealed nothing, and there were no sounds but faraway cars.
Maybe she'd shown her hand too early. Or maybe she'd let her imagination run away with her.
Then Luna bared her teeth and growled. Faster than Natalie could follow with her eyes, Luna spun and snapped her teeth at nothing—and the nothing screamed, human-sounding and effeminate.
The stranger flashed into view on the other side of the street, cursing, their partly-hidden face like a half-moon in the darkness. But Luna turned away, swiping at an invisible pokemon. Shadows licked around the mightyena like flames, patches of blacker darkness against the deepening twilight.
Natalie's voice caught in her throat—how could she help when she couldn't see what Luna was fighting? The sandslash in the park had at least left furrows when it went underground. There was no way to tell where this thing was going to appear.
"No, Whiskey!" the other trainer shouted. "Let's go!"
Snarling, Luna whirled and bit again, this time catching a mouthful of shadow. The shriek that followed this time was distinctly inhuman. Luna furiously shook her head, and for a second Natalie glimpsed the thing caught in her jaws: doll-like with floppy arms and a gleaming crescent of teeth.
Then the thing slipped from Luna's grasp and melted into the darkness again. As Luna whipped her head from side to side, searching, a cold wind swept down the street. Then the stranger winked out of sight again.
Natalie waited, her mace keychain in a white-knuckled grip, but the shadows didn't stir. When Luna sat back down on the pavement, Natalie knew they were finally alone.
"You okay, Luna?"
The mightyena gave a hesitant wag of her tail as Natalie approached. When Luna raised her head to be pet, a scrap of something dark still hung from her mouth.
"What do you have? Drop it." Natalie tugged it from Luna's mouth, noticing only then that her hands were shaking. It was a piece of fabric, rough, scratchy and—
"Ow! What the hell?" She tilted the fabric scrap to catch the gleam of a straight pin under the streetlight. As she held it under the light, the pin began to smoke and dissolve until there was nothing to show it had ever been there but the dot of blood welling from Natalie's finger.
A banette. That explained the disappearing act but gave little comfort—they were nasty, living bundles of junk fabric held together by needles and malice. Natalie struggled to imagine what kind of person would want to raise one. She hoped the pinprick wouldn't get infected. Sucking her fingertip, she rolled up the fabric scrap—carefully, in case there were more pins—and tucked it into a backpack pocket.
Then she knelt to Luna and pulled her close, digging her fingers into her fur. "Good girl." Sweet, smart Luna, who had eaten a pair of her sneakers in middle school but who always knew when something was wrong. Lightheaded, Natalie held on tight and listened to her thundering heartbeat, trying to slow her breathing. She only let go when Luna started whining and licking her face. Natalie had to push her off, laughing despite her still-jittering hands.
You're okay. Of course she was. Bullies didn't know what to do when someone hit back, and Natalie had given them a reason to pause before they tried that again. Walk it off.
"Let's get out of here, Luna."
Retracing her steps should've been easy enough, but none of the landmarks looked familiar in the dark. Had she crossed Pine Street, or had it been Spruce? The streets in this part of Rustboro curved and didn't let out where she expected, not like the neat grid downtown where her hostel was. Luna trotted cheerily at her side, but Natalie couldn't stop glancing over her shoulder anyway.
When she finally happened across a bar, light and voices spilling from the open door, Natalie's heart swelled with relief. She wasn't in the mood for a drink, but she relished the thought of a place full of people where she could sit with the Nav app and figure out a route home. A neon sign proclaimed the bar On the Rocks. The sandwich board outside listed daily specials and a request to keep pokemon in their balls, so Natalie gave Luna another scratch behind the ears before recalling her and heading inside.
The walls were cluttered with a mix of local sports team banners, vintage liquor posters, and weirdly nautical decor. Among other oddities, Natalie spotted a ship in a bottle and a mermaid figurehead wrapped in string lights. The patrons gathered at the tables were locals—mostly dock-hands, day laborers, and union folks, not trainers. On the Rocks probably wasn't in the guidebook, a world apart from the flashy cocktail bars and clubs downtown, but Natalie liked this better. She wondered if her brother had ever come here, whether anyone knew him.
There was a lot she didn't know about her brother's life. Much of what she did know she'd gleaned from reading between the lines of the emails he'd written to Dad; she'd still been "the kid" when he was writing, as in, Say hi to the kid for me. On visits home, they'd had fun together—he'd taken her out on the bay for a pokemon ride or schooled her at checkers—but they hadn't talked about anything real. She didn't blame him: she'd been a child, and he was a full adult, already on the other side of his badge journey and working a real job. Back then, she hadn't thought to ask him the questions she wondered about now: Was campaign work what he'd wanted or just something he'd fallen into? What did he remember about his mom? Did it matter to him that she was only his half-sister? Had he ever been in love? She'd daydreamed dozens of conversations ... but his imagined answers were flavorless and unsatisfying.
Mostly she remembered watching him train. Bubba didn't invite her along, but he also didn't stop her from following him to the scrap yard. Sometimes he squared off with other trainers and made her sit at a distance. She watched from the sagging seat of a truck missing the hood and all four wheels. Other times he set up targets from the old steel drums and set his pokemon on them. Bubba trained a mightyena, too. Where Luna was clumsy and eager to please, Justice was still half-wild, missing part of one ear and prone to snapping when startled. He could vanish out from under a falling piece of scrap, reappear on the other side, and bite it in two all before it hit the ground. Natalie could tell they liked her cheering for them even though they both acted like the whole thing was no big deal.
One trip home, he'd brought back a poochyena. Hers. Officially, legally, Luna had been just a pet until Natalie turned eighteen. But that hadn't stopped him from teaching Natalie how to train: when to give treats, how to establish authority. "She sees you as her pack. You've gotta give her a reason to listen to you."
The loud scrape of a barstool jolted Natalie out of her reverie. Right. A quick rest to figure out where she was going, avoid any more strangers in black, and then back to the hostel to finally get something in her stomach.
As Natalie scanned for a place to sit, preferably a booth or a table where she could set down her pack and still see the door … she noticed with a jolt that someone sitting alone at the bar had turned his head to watch her. He was too tall and broad to be the stranger who'd followed her, but she wasn't imagining his staring. When she caught his gaze, he smiled crookedly, an unmistakable challenge.
Belatedly, she realized she knew him, sort of. She'd only ever seen him wearing a white button-down—it hadn't occurred to her until now that it must be part of the uniform—and he was almost unrecognizable now under dim light and wearing a flannel open over a t-shirt. But he was definitely the trainer from the gym, the serious one.
She'd never seen a gym trainer battle like him before, like it was personal. And then, like a car skidding to a sudden stop, he would recall his pokemon and wave the challenging trainer ahead, sometimes even if it looked like he was going to win. Natalie had heard that the gym leader herself was known to occasionally award badges to trainers who had actually lost to her, if they impressed her, but this was something else. He seemed bored, boiling under the surface.
They had never spoken—Natalie had only watched his battles from the sidelines—but there was no doubt that he recognized her, too. His smile made her wonder again whether the stranger in black had more friends watching her. But a gym trainer? Maybe not. Then again, what were the odds of running into him here after what had just happened?
Natalie took out the scrap of fabric and squeezed it tight as she strode towards the gym trainer. She tested the words in her mind: Recognize this? Or maybe, Care to explain?
But he spoke first, his tone lazy and almost playful. "So, you following me now? I can offer advice about Roxanne if you want it that bad, but I don't think it's worth that much effort, to be honest."
She ground to a halt. He thought she—?
He leaned back against the bar. "Or you looking for a fight? Doesn't count for anything if it's not inside the gym, you know."
"No, I …." He was as surprised to see her as she'd been to see him. Of course. What had she been thinking? Natalie laughed in relief, feeling her face color. Dad's articles had gotten to her. "I just got a little turned around on my way home."
The gym trainer raised an eyebrow. "Big detour."
"It's been a long day …. Almost got mugged, actually."
She must've looked as tired as she felt because the gym trainer's face softened. "Oh. That sucks."
"It wasn't actually a big deal." Even as she said it, she started to feel calmer. Under the string lights and surrounded by chatter, the incident already felt far away, easy to explain. Now it made for a good story—after all, nothing bad had come of it. Raising her chin, she added, "Scared them more than they scared me, I think."
He smirked again, and this time Natalie saw it with fresh eyes. She wanted to laugh again. He was flirting with her, and she'd taken it as a threat. What was wrong with her? Maybe she could use a drink after all. Some normalcy.
"Mind if I sit?"
"Go ahead." He flipped shut the book that lay on the bar next to him.
Natalie snorted. "You were reading in a bar?"
"Yeah." He shot her a look that added, duh.
When Natalie moved to set down her backpack, she realized she was still clutching the weird fabric scrap. She shoved it back down into a pocket, stealing one last glance at the door.
"No one's gonna fuck with you in here. You're okay," he said, not unkindly.
She shook her head. "I know. I was just thinking my dad would kill me if I became another headline." When she hopped onto the stool, she discovered to her annoyance that her feet didn't touch.
"Area girl fatally murdered by crime. Details at eleven."
"Right." She grinned. "I'm Natalie, by the way."
"Mark. Cheers, Natalie." He raised his glass.
She glanced at the chalkboard menu and her eyes immediately glazed over—too many options and none of them familiar.
"You probably want a Red River," Mark said after a few moments. "Cheapest thing that's still drinkable."
"Alright. Thanks." He was right—cheap was what she was after. She considered food but balked at the price listed for a sandwich. She'd drink slowly then, and when she got back to the hostel she'd make her own sandwich. Natalie flagged down the bartender and then said to Mark, "Must be nice getting paid a salary to battle."
"Don't be too jealous. I'm hourly."
He took a long swig of his beer. Natalie cut a sideways glance at him, watching how his Adam's apple bobbed when he drank. She'd never planned to talk to him, and it was strange to be sitting so close after a week of observing his battles. He was different from what she'd thought. Even his accent was unexpectedly Unovan—she hadn't picked up on that before.
Gods, no wonder he'd assumed she was following him—she had spent the better part of a week looking at him. Not that he seemed to mind it now.
The bartender slid her drink over, and Natalie was grateful for something to do with her hands. She took a long drink, taking a moment to imagine how the rest of the evening might play out. It hadn't been a bad night, actually. She'd won her battle in the park and earned some cash. Then she'd fought off an attacker—an invisible one, at that. And now … she was enjoying herself. If nothing else, she decided, this could only enrich the story of her night.
Natalie took another drink and then turned toward Mark with a question already springing from her lips. "Do you even like working at the gym? The way you were battling …." She caught herself, wondering if she was crossing a line.
But Mark shrugged. "I won't be there forever, and until then … I've got responsibilities, and it's decent money."
The thought that training could become another job to weather through was a sobering one. Her friends back home had gone to school for teaching or business, and Natalie had thought of journeying as an escape from all that. But, if she were being perfectly honest with herself … she knew she didn't have any special talent or love for battles. Despite having two pokemon with a type advantage, she still hadn't even made a move for her Stone Badge yet. She didn't want to think too hard about what she'd do when she decided she'd had enough of this lifestyle.
As if reading her mind, Mark added, "I'd rather be around real people. Spend too much time with trainers and you lose perspective."
She grinned again. "What, and trainers aren't real people? I don't know if you noticed, but you've got a belt too." He carried six pokeballs to her four.
Mark snorted. "There are all kinds of trainers. I see plenty of them every day, and almost none of them can see two inches past their own ambition. No clue about anything else, just badges and bullshit."
Natalie gave out a laugh of surprise, almost choking on her beer.
He watched her reaction with cool amusement. "You're clearly not in a hurry to get your badge. Most people are in and out in a day or two, you know."
"Sick of me already?"
Mark smiled but didn't rise to the bait. "So what are you doing in Rustboro?"
"Good question," she said with another laugh, shaking her head. She ran a finger over the bar, gathering crumbs as she gathered her thoughts. It wouldn't be a lie to say that she was training and rounding out her team ... but she didn't want to hide behind excuses. She wanted to talk to someone about it, and it certainly wouldn't be her parents.
At last Natalie said, "I've been thinking about my brother a lot since I left home. Like, I'm probably walking all the same places as him, especially here in Rustboro. He was a trainer too, for a while, but he quit, I guess. Ended up here working on an election campaign. And then ... he disappeared."
She added quickly, "I mean, it was ten years ago—I didn't even know him that well. But …." Natalie raised her hands helplessly. "I dunno. It's just this weird part of my life."
Mark nodded slowly. "So you're trying to find out what happened to him?"
"Maybe? Not necessarily. I mean, what am I really gonna dig up that the police couldn't? Probably nothing." She cut herself short. "Gods, that's depressing. Sorry."
"Don't be. I asked."
She flashed him a grateful smile. "I guess I feel closer to him when I'm here. I don't want to forget him, you know? He was such a good person—better than me, anyway."
"What makes you say that?"
"Oh, I dunno." Words failing her, Natalie turned to her drink. When she looked up again, Mark still had her fixed in a stare she couldn't quite read. But she appreciated that he was listening so intently. She said, "He was always doing something big. Like with Devon Horizon. Did you hear about that?"
Mark smiled humorlessly. "I can guess. Pipeline failed?"
"No, but you're close," she said, surprised. "An oil tanker. It crashed into the reef off the coast of Slateport and … I was pretty little, but I remember it was bad. They had to close the beach for a long time. Bubba—my brother, I mean—he came home to help with the cleanup, and he even convinced Mom to let him foster a pair of pelipper in the guest bathroom."
She still remembered the pelipper's reptilian yellow eyes. Her parents hadn't let her near them, and for good reason: they were raggedy with stress, but each still had a wingspan more than twice the length of her little child body and the strength to break her neck with one wing swipe. But just once, after making her swear up and down that she wouldn't tell her parents, Bubba had let her pet the sleek feathers at the crown of the female's head. He'd kept a firm grip on Natalie, ready to snatch her back if needed.
When he finally released them back into the wild, Natalie had cried.
Aw, don't worry, Small Fry. You can catch your own someday.
That had been about ten years ago, too. They didn't know when exactly Bubba had disappeared—he'd been busy, after all, and had sometimes gone weeks without calling or emailing—but it had certainly been the last time Natalie had seen him.
Mark's voice broke Natalie from her thoughts. "Not a lot of people are willing to look closely at the fucked up parts of the world and try to do something about it."
"No," Natalie said, "definitely not."
She winced, thinking of a line from one of Bubba's emails that had hurt to read: I never thought the man who taught me to shoulder my responsibilities with pride would be so fast to abandon his own. It wasn't a secret that he and their dad had fought—the Armstrong family showed both love and anger with loud voices—but she hadn't realized it was like that. She couldn't exactly ask Dad about it without reopening old wounds … and explaining why she'd dug around in his emails in the first place.
Mark raised his glass and said, "Well, here's to your brother, then."
She took a deep breath and smiled. "Thanks." They clinked glasses, and she drank deep.
Talking about Bubba felt good, Natalie thought, and Mark was easy to talk to. It had been so long since she'd had a conversation that went beyond battles and travel stories. She opened her mouth to ask Mark about his family—
"And what about you?" he asked.
"What do you mean? I just told you my entire family history."
"That was your brother. What about you? What do you care about?"
"A lot of things, but …." The room suddenly seemed louder and smaller than it had before. She was reminded uncomfortably of Mom asking, But what's next? "I'm trying to figure it out, I guess. I'm not really political like he was."
Mark was quiet for a moment. Then, pointing with his eyes, he said, "You see that woman sitting over there?"
It was obvious who he meant. She had long, long hair and spoke heatedly with a small group sitting in the corner, too far away to be heard. A breloom perched atop a stool next to her and dipped its muzzle into its own beer mug, lifting its head every so often to lick away the foam.
"I thought pokemon weren't allowed in here."
"They are for her. If she leaves, then all her friends stop coming too, and the owner doesn't want to lose all that business. Erica Spitfire is a hippie, but people around here listen to her." Then, catching the look on Natalie's face, he added, "Yeah, I know, but that's her real name.
"She's got an interesting story: A couple years back, she was close to taking the title and a big cash prize." He paused for effect, spreading his hands wide and then turning it into a shrug. "But she came back instead. She decided she was a better organizer than a trainer, and now she's one of the last things standing between DevCo and their pipeline."
Not understanding, Natalie nodded anyway.
"The point is, you don't have to be a politician to do something. You just have to give a shit."
"I guess so."
He smiled, leaning forward, and there was hunger in it. "I think you could make a difference in the world," he insisted. "If you really wanted to."
A nervous laugh burst out of her. "Maybe!"
Before she could think of something clever to say, Mark's phone buzzed. "Hang on." He squinted at the screen and then he growled, "Shit. Shit. I have to go—right now." He jumped up, slinging a messenger bag over his shoulder and tossing in his book.
"Everything okay? Emergency at the gym?" she teased. Her heart sank, just a little.
"Something like that." He set his jaw and smiled grimly. Then he turned and gave her a real smile. "We'll have to finish this conversation later though."
"I wouldn't hate that."
"Great. You know where to find me." He started for the door, calling over his shoulder, "Get home safe." Without looking back, he slipped between the tables, out the door, and into the night.
Natalie let out a long breath and leaned back against the bar. What a weird day. She reached for her beer. Then she thought about the long, dark walk that awaited her, and she abandoned it on the counter half-full.
She made it back to the hostel without incident, and in the shared kitchen space, she finally made her grilled cheese. Then a second one. A pair of trainers fussed with a saucepan over the burner next to hers, gabbing about how they'd fared at the gym. Natalie licked grease from her fingers and fought the urge to laugh, thinking badges and bullshit.
She considered chiming in with her own story, flashing the scrap of banette cloth to see their stunned faces, but it wasn't worth the questions that would arise. Natalie was tired and didn't have to prove herself to them—they'd head on to the next town by morning.
Staying in Rustboro had been her choice, but the thought of being left behind made her suddenly lonely. She started a text message to Sonia, her best friend from home, who'd stayed to take classes at Slateport College. But Natalie couldn't make herself finish any of the sentences she started. Today I fought a—no, she didn't want Sonia to worry. I met someone—nothing had happened, though. A non-event.
Natalie knew what Sonia would ask, a question she'd asked herself several times: what are you still doing in Rustboro? She still wasn't sure. Who was left to prove herself to? Bubba was gone—and had been for years before she arrived. She imagined herself rusting in place here like the abandoned factories she'd seen on the edges of town, and then she pushed the thought away. Rustboro already had Bubba, and it wouldn't have her, too.
Tomorrow, she decided, she'd claim her badge and be done with it. And then … well, she didn't have to decide what she wanted to contribute to the world all at once. For now, she could handle dishes and then sleep. Tomorrow she could figure out making the world a better place.