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Beasts and Beauties [Sun & Moon]

Discussion in 'Fan Fiction' started by dietofwurms, Mar 17, 2018.

  1. dietofwurms

    dietofwurms i see stars

    Welcome to "Beasts and Beauties"!

    Table of Contents
    Chapter 1 (Prologue): Ferals - In which the kahunas must deal with an unusual situation.
    Chapter 2: Scratch My Back - In which Lusamine hosts a visitor.
    Chapter 3: The Mirror - In which Lusamine and Guzma find things to admire--and use--in one another.
    Chapter 4: Legacy - In which Guzma and Plumeria face a changing future.
    Chapter 5: Divergence - In which Guzma makes a righteous mistake in a strange land.
    Chapter 6: Hunter - In which Guzma seeks monsters.
    Chapter 7: Eschatology - In which Nanu contemplates the end of the world.
    Chapter 8: Tributary - In which an offering comes to Aether Paradise.
    Chapter 9: The Smothered King - In which Guzma learns a new routine.
    Chapter 10: The Queen's Pawn - In which Guzma, Faba, and Lusamine attend a dinner party.
    Chapter 11: Sellout - In which Guzma prepares for public life and Team Skull adjusts to anarchy.
    Chapter 12: My Best Self - In which Guzma chooses the best version of himself.
    Chapter 13: C'est La Vie - In which Lusamine makes important decisions about their future.
    Chapter 14: The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea - In which Guzma has a long-overdue rematch.
    Chapter 15: Ronin - In which Guzma responds to some insistent letters.
    Chapter 16: Faces in the Earth and Sky - In which Guzma faces treachery.
    Chapter 17: Everything Will Work Out and Be Okay - In which Guzma talks to old acquaintances and everything is okay until it isn't.
    Chapter 18: Bad Hand - In which Nanu works from some old suspicions, and Guzma tries to go home again.
    Chapter 19: Lover's Leap - In which Guzma visits Mele'mele and contemplates letting go.
    Chapter 20: Trouble - In which Nanu and others consider their wedding plans.
    Chapter 21: White Knight - In which Faba and Guzma commiserate.
    Chapter 22: Crash and Burn - In which Lillie and Gladion go to a wedding.
    Chapter 23: Entropy - In which the wedding does not go as planned.
    Chapter 24: Ego Sum Nihil | Memory_Disc_1 - In which Lucienne meets an interesting man.
    Chapter 25: Ego Sum Nihil | Memory_Disc_2 - In which Lucienne's father decides on some matters.
    Chapter 26: Ego Sum Nihil | Memory_Disc_3 - In which Lusamine loses everything.
    Chapter 27: Ego Sum Nihil | Memory_Disc_4 - In which an intruder appears, and Lusamine enlists a loyal minion.
    Chapter 28: Ego Sum Nihil | Memory_Disc_5 - In which Nihilego speaks its mind.
    Chapter 29: Ego Sum Nihil | Memory_Disc_6 - In which Lusamine and Nanu discuss their connections.
    Chapter 30: Monsters - In which Lusamine must face some monsters.
    Chapter 31: A Glass Darkly - In which Lusamine tries to leave.

    This is a chaptered Sun & Moon fic, focused mostly (but not at all exclusively) on the characters of Guzma and Lusamine. It is based on the plot and characters of the game, so you'll need a basic knowledge of Sun/Moon to understand what's going on, at least in the beginning--until, of course, things go off the rails.

    This story has been running on FF.Net and Ao3 for a while, so it's gotten an audience already. I'm here in the interest of broadening my audience and maybe getting some more thorough feedback. I very much enjoy comments, questions (either curious or critical), criticisms, and recommendations. I am looking for nit-picks such as typos or awkwardly-worded sentences. I will try to respond to such posts in a timely manner as well.

    If I had to sell this story to you… I would tell you it's a drama that deals with the issue of grief, and how, when left unchecked, it can ruin a person's life, as well as the lives of those around them. It's a story heavy on angst, bad choices, and the struggle to escape the past.

    Expect some action/adventure, drama, and romance elements.

    Content warnings: Rated around T/PG-13. Minor blood/violence, minor horror elements, implied and referenced sexuality. References to depression, suicide, substance abuse. No real cursing to speak of.

    Other content/Trigger warning [may spoil some of the plot]:
    Themes and implications of physical/emotional/sexual abuse, including the (undepicted/undescribed) abuse of a child. Nothing is graphic, but these topics are thematically prominent in later parts of the story.

    *I'll be updating every couple days for a while (this is a long story--some 250K words so far), to give readers time to read and write feedback as they like.

    Now, onward!:

    Chapter 1 (Prologue):
    Ferals


    It was a bright and windy day that early morning after Po Town fell.

    Once news had gotten out, accompanied by the plethora of pictures, video, and frantic phone calls from citizens, all of which splashed across the news, it became clear to the Alolans that something must be done. The police force, which had been supported for years and seemed to have been able to handle the regular outbursts of Team Skull mischief, crumpled entirely within hours―one small cabal of thugs rolled into the Po Town station, and the chief and all his officers scattered like roaches, eventually retreating to more amenable grounds on the east coast of Ula'ula island.

    "Pathetic," Hala grumbled.

    Olivia nodded in agreement, skimming over the headline. "They've gotten soft. But it's not just their fault, is it?"

    Hala scratched his beard and examined her expression carefully, and though he didn't outwardly express his opinion, one could tell he knew what she meant. A thoughtful grumble came from his throat. "Well, here we are." He looked out over the room, catching the attention of the other captains. "Is everyone here? Who are we missing?"

    The kahunas and assorted captains sat in a scattered arrangement of chairs, a sofa dragged in from another room, and one footstool (which Olivia planted herself on, in order to be closest to Hala). They had all gathered on short notice at Hala's home on Mele'mele―Ilima, Lana, Mallow, Kiawe, Molayne, Acerola. They knew Mina, the waifish artist, wouldn't be making the meeting―her head was still in the clouds somewhere in Poni Island valley.

    The figures nervously looked around, measuring one another, and finally Mallow spoke up. "Is Hapu coming? I thought she was standing in for Lopaku―"

    "No," Acerola said. "I just talked to Hapu―her grandmommy's sick."

    Hala frowned and made another deep, rumbling noise that implied deep thought. "That is unfortunate… And hardly a good omen." As he said this, another thought occurred to him; he searched about. "Where's Nanu?"

    "Uncle Nanu's on his way," Acerola mewled. "I woke him up myself; he'll be here, promise!"

    Knowing he'd be late caused a wave of unhappiness among them; Kiawe was brave enough to verbalize his impatience. "He'd better hurry up! He's the one with the most to answer for!"

    Mallow, sitting close by, swatted at his shoulder. "It's not his fault!"

    "Well, he's supposed to protect Ula'ula, isn't he?"

    Molayne, who had fitted himself in a chair yet still towered over his fellow captains, smiled in spite of the tension. He tried to speak up on his kahuna's behalf. "Come on, Kiawe. Don't you think…? It's not very fair; that's putting an awful lot on one person, isn't it?"

    "Yeah!" With a yelp of solidarity, Acerola put her hands to her hips. "'Sides, it's our job too."

    "He has a sacred duty, is all that I mean," Kiawe said. "He was chosen by the tapu. He should accept responsibility."

    ...And as if triggered by their argument, the door rattled loudly and opened to reveal Kahuna Nanu.

    They stared. He looked like he had just rolled out of bed, with his breakfast in hand: a mug of coffee and the nub of his morning cigarette. He returned their looks with a bleary gaze and a muffled, "'Morning, kids."

    Acerola squealed, "Morning, Uncle Nanu!"

    He winced at the high-pitched voice, planting a hand over one of his ears. "Girl, have some mercy, will ya? It's early, and it's the weekend… Criminy―"

    Molayne stood to his feet and made skittish gestures at him. "M-Mr. Nanu, please, you have to explain it to them―!"

    But Nanu glared him down, waved dismissively, and gruffed at him to sit. Molayne obeyed.

    "Kahuna Nanu. We're glad you could make it," Hala announced. He just barely disguised his irritation. "But please put that outside."

    "Put what―" He looked into his hand, and remembered the burning cigarette. "Oh, gotcha. One sec, kids."

    While Kahuna Nanu staggered out onto the doorstep to stamp it out, the rest of them sat silently, holding their breaths for the start of the troubling meeting. It was his island, after all, where this had all happened: they knew emotions would be running high. Nanu didn't show any sign of anxiety, however―he came back inside, slowly dragged a chair from the wall and into the circle, then collapsed into it with a heave. He spilled a bit of coffee on himself in the process, so he casually wiped his jacket down with his free hand, then realized everyone was gaping at him. He crossed his legs and grunted irritably.

    "Well, Hala, seeing as you're in the big chair, how about you start us off?"

    "How about you start by explaining how this all happened?" Kiawe demanded.

    Everyone held their breath; Nanu slowly turned to him, his eyes burning with a powerful disdain, and growled. "Simmer down, kiddo. Wasn't talking to you anyway."

    Kiawe frothed and sprang onto his feet. "'Kiddo'?"

    "Hala!" Nanu snarled, "Get your house in order, or I will!"

    "We could say the same to you!" Kiawe taunted, though by then Hala motioned for him to quiet himself, and Mallow had yanked him back into his seat, scolding him.

    As the outbursts settled into silence again, Nanu gazed around himself, seeing their tense faces. He made a deduction and snickered dryly. "Well, isn't this fun. Guess I got picked as the scapegoat before I even got here."

    "It was your officers who folded," Hala reminded him.

    But Nanu gave him a withering glare. "I'm retired, Hala, and you know it. Those fresh-faced babies they put in that station were doomed with or without me. 'Sides, if you're gonna point fingers, start with yourself."

    "I beg your pardon?"

    "That boy… Who's taken over Team Skull. One of yours, wasn't he?" With that comment, he grinned cruelly. "What a shining example of your tutelage, eh?"

    Just when Hala was about to leap to his own defense, their squabble was interrupted.

    "Stop!" Olivia jumped to her feet, barking her admonishment at the two of them. "Is this what you came to do? Take potshots at each other like a couple of children?"

    "Hrrngh." Nanu scratched the back of his neck and turned away. Hala, too, quieted.

    "There's probably plenty of blame to go around," she continued. "But this meeting is for discussing a plan of action." Seeing she had everyone's silent attention, she decided to make the first proposal. "The most obvious thing to do, of course, is fight back." Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Nanu lean back and roll his eyes. She chose to ignore it. "Suffice to say, if we kahunas and captains combine our pokemon, we should be able to drive them out of the town and return things to normal. I know the Alolans haven't seen an operation like this in a long time―but these are mostly kids, and their advantage is in numbers, not strength."

    Hala, absorbing her suggestion, shut his eyes with intense contemplation. He clutched his knees with his hands; he appeared troubled.

    Meanwhile, though, Kiawe crowed. "I agree! If they think they're so tough, let's show them what we're made of!"

    "But that sounds… A lot like a war," Mallow said.

    Her discomfort was evidently shared with Lana, who asked, "Can't Tapu Bulu do something? Isn't he the island's guardian?"

    Suddenly, Nanu guffawed with a loud, hoarse laugh. "The two ladies are on the money." He turned to sneer in Mallow and Lana's direction. "It sounds like a war, huh? Sweetie, that would be 'cause they're starting one. As for the tapu―trade secret, so listen close―they don't give a Rattata's tail about human affairs. You can thank your ancestors for that."

    Ilima, not one to allow unchecked cynicism, cut in. "Have you actually tried contacting Tapu Bulu?"

    "No, matter of fact, I haven't," Nanu said. "Bulu likes to be left to himself. I can sympathize."

    Olivia decided to speak again. "Nanu, I'm sensing you don't like this plan."

    He cocked an eyebrow at her. "You think so? Heh."

    "Please, Nanu," Ilima said, "give us your thoughts."

    "All right, all right. You wanna know what I think? I think it's a crappy idea. Let's imagine this, now. You all get together, gather your forces an' all, and invade. You go an' start a war with these kids. You'd probably win, but then what? Where are these kids gonna go? Run 'em out of one town, and they'll move onto the next―they trash the new place, we chase 'em down, run 'em out again―and they keep goin'. Soon we've got a mess of ruined towns all over the islands. Unless we arrest the whole lot―or hey, it'll be war, so what's a couple casualties?"

    If the discomfort was mild before, it was excruciating now. The young captains fidgeted in their seats, and the other kahunas cast their eyes on the floor and walls.

    "You're right about one thing. They're just kids. Rambunctious and obnoxious, yeah, and they've done their share of property damage, but you overblow this, and it'll be blood on your hands."

    "Nanu," Hala said, at last lifting his eyes solemnly. "I'm afraid I share your trepidation. A show of force at this time may do more harm than good."

    With only three kahunas, Hala's opinion could break Olivia's proposal. Olivia didn't like the direction this had gone―she crossed her arms. "Then what should we do? What other options are there?"

    "How about stay out of it?" Nanu suggested. "It's my island. My responsibility. I don't want any of you goodnicks sticking your nose where it doesn't belong."

    After some more reflection, Hala asked, "And what would you do?"

    They expected Nanu to blow off this question, but to their surprise, he sighed with cool introspection, sucked a deep sip from his by-now cold coffee, and started to explain. "We've got lots of feral Meowth on our island. I've got lots of free time, you know, being a retired cop―so I've learned a lot, about how to deal with 'em. Here's the thing. They could be the nastiest, spitting creatures you ever seen. Won't let you touch 'em, or hardly look at 'em. But if you take 'em, and bring 'em inside, and make 'em live with you―sure, they scrap with each other, they tear up your furniture, make messes on the floor―but after a while, they get used to you. A couple months of that, and even the most vicious ones curl up in your lap."

    "...And what does that mean?"

    "Contain them. Let them have Po Town. I'll move in, somehow. Chaperone, do what I can. Shoot, maybe I can work with 'em."

    Olivia scoffed. "You want to babysit a bunch of thugs?"

    "That's more or less my plan, yeah. Ain't like I got much else to do with my time." He slurped at his coffee again, giving the others time to process his idea. "Welp, that's all I have to say, really." He promptly got up, pushed his chair back, and started for the door.

    "Where are you going?" Hala demanded. "We haven't voted on our final decision!"

    "Go ahead and vote. I'm not changing my mind. Just know, if you invade my island without my permission? You'll come to regret it."

    "Is that a threat?"

    Nanu just shrugged and scratched the inside of his ear. "A good faith warning. See ya 'round, kids. For better or for worse."



    In the end, Nanu didn't wait to hear their decision. It was that afternoon that he trudged his way up the long path toward Po Town, cutting past the meadow and lifting his coat collar against the cold wind. The way the mountain leaned against this valley pushed storm-clouds there almost perpetually, causing torrents of rain to dump over the grassy plain. The ground had an uncomfortable, swampy feel that squished with mud as he trekked it, but thankfully, soon enough, he saw the police station brightly lit in the dark.

    Though he could hear music thumping away from inside, he paused a while to take the picture in. A police cruiser, its windshield and windows all bashed in, sat dejected nearby. Neon paint smeared the exterior of the building in gaudy symbols and slang, and some of the interior furniture, probably pushed through a broken window, soaked up the rain. What a mess. After a minute or so passed, one grunt opened the front door, and the sound of loud laughter, rap music, and broken glass all rolled out into the night. The grunt said something to the others, but Nanu couldn't understand it, not from this far away.

    In the brief moments before he walked up to the grunt and talked to them, he thought on those children and pictured them, as he remembered them, running stupidly about with their shiny baubles and dreams. These children all wanted to be someone once, hadn't they? The cream of the crop had since floated to the top of the hierarchy, becoming captains and champions, but what of these? These lumps in the flour, this chaff from the wheat―dreamers with no dreams left, who had every ambition swallowed by mediocrity and the chokehold of tradition…

    I get it, he mused. The world's spit on them, and they're spitting back.

    Those thoughts made him hate being a kahuna all over again.

    "Hey!" The grunt called out at him. "Hey, you! Who's there?"

    So then, it was too late to surprise them. Nanu pushed his way forward, doing his best to stay in the light.

    "A cop?" The grunt took notice of his outfit immediately and yelled into the station. "Yo, a cop's here, fam!"

    "What?"

    "Where!"

    "Get 'im!"

    Hilariously, they fell over each other to crowd through the doorway and give him nasty, unwelcoming looks. A girl in blue pig-tails approached him first, puffing out her chest to look tougher than her small stature implied. He didn't realize it until she got close, but she waved a small knife around to back her posturing. "Back off, copper! Didn't we chase yo' butts outta here?"

    He didn't flinch or move back. "Not me, Blue. Doesn't matter, though. Not here to fight you. Need to have a chat with your boss."

    "Big G? Yeah, right, old man. You ain't talkin' to nobody, not after I'm done with you." The knife in her hand swayed, swayed back and forth, like a serpent waiting to strike.

    He heaved an exaggerated sigh. "Blue. I've had a long day. Don't wanna have to man-handle a little thing like you. Now put the knife down, and―"

    The blade interrupted him with a silvery, whispering sound as it swiped toward his chest. He easily dodged―she was bold, but unskilled―and when she clumsily toppled over herself, he swooped in, grabbed her wrist, and let her fall the rest of the way to ground.

    He had her arm straight up in the air, and twisted it painfully against his knee. She started screaming in pain.

    "Hey!"

    "Let her go!"

    He felt an empty soda can launch against his head; he ignored it and prayed they wouldn't throw anything more damaging. "I can break your arm like this, Blue. A little pull this way―" He demonstrated; she shrieked again. "Drop the knife."

    "Stop!"

    "Leave her alone, copper!"

    They closed in around him like hyenas, but didn't dare physically intervene. The girl was moaning, writhing, and begging in the mud. The rain drenched them both for some long seconds until finally, her grip loosened, and the knife dropped.

    He stepped on it and let go of her. A swirl of curses, threats, and taunts started around him, but even as she got up and limped back to the group, none of them followed through. Mobbing Murkrow. All noise.

    "I said it before, and seeing as you all have only a couple brain cells between you, I'll say it again: I don't want to fight. I want to see your boss. Now."



    It's hard, Nanu decided, to sum up a relationship with a town. They at first distrusted him, granting him cheap rent for use of the police station only because they needed the easy cash flow. They called him "cop" and "old man" and "geezer." But from then on, the picture gets fuzzy: within months, his name became a polite "Mr. Nanu," or "Officer Nanu," and within even more time, the grunts favored the warmth of "Uncle," as in, "'Morning, Uncle Nanu!" and "Hey Uncle, how are the Meowth today?" (because old habits die hard, and the empty space in the station could do nothing else but fill up with ferals).

    He couldn't decide if it all meant something. He didn't know what difference he had made in that year. Sometimes it felt like he could save them, bond with them―bring over some malasadas, swap stories, sit patiently through their ungodly freestyle sessions. Plumeria proved more amenable than the boy, but even Guzma, especially after a drink or two, came to crave his paternal doting. (And after too many drinks, Guzma would let it slip, slurring and whiny, "Da-a-ad, I know―").

    But other days, it all fell right back to the spitting, hitting, and biting―thrown beer bottles and threats to cut him open like a fish. He comes home, it's covered in graffiti, and he just doesn't know.

    Still, it wasn't the worst life he had chosen for himself. The rent was cheap. No day was boring. And he didn't need to have a roommate, which meant every night, he was greeted the same way―the mewls and purrs of his loyal clan. Meowth, at least―he mused as he scratched their ears and murmured sweet-talk―don't care who you are, or whether you've failed, or whether you're very interesting.

    He could live like this forever.

    -

     
    Last edited: Sep 5, 2018
  2. TheAlpar

    TheAlpar Journey Enthusiast

    That's a nice, small deconstruction of those types of openings which are usually kinda boring and nondescript. Great way to set up the mood as well.

    Most Alola fics I've read have tried to keep the super cheery and goofy aspect of the games and Team Skull, or they've gone the completely opposite route and made everything gritty and grimdark. It's nice to see a story where there's a nice balance being struck.

    I like the personalities you've given the kahunas and trial captains; each one got something to say and you can see how much they care about the troubles of Alola, in their own way. Kiawe being so hot tempered caught me off guard, though I suppose it makes sense in retrospect. Overall the whole scene felt smooth and well written.

    I can't think of any criticism so far; it's a well polished first chapter and it makes me curious as to what will happen next. Consider my interest piqued; I'll be following this story from now on :D
     
  3. dietofwurms

    dietofwurms i see stars

    Thanks! I appreciate the comment about the balance between cheery/grim, because that is one aspect I really focused on. It's going to be a dark story in many ways, but I try to keep a bit of the innocence of the original content.

    Anyhow, we can move into chapter 2, i.e. where the plot actually starts:

    Chapter 2:
    Scratch My Back

    Two years later…

    Madame President Lusamine did one more walk about the room, straightening every object she passed―the chairs, the plates, the tea cups, the pictures on the wall, the curtains on the window. Anyone could have rightly told her that such care was unnecessary―she was not meeting a king or a diplomat today, as she did other days, when her halls hosted the most glorious figures in the vast continents.

    She checked the mirror again. Licked down the last stray hair, adjusted her pearl necklace, and tightened the pull of her white, lace-trimmed dress. Pose from the front… From the back… She could not identify a single flaw. A wide smile perfected her face.

    In those few moments before her guest arrived, she considered her fortitude in difficult circumstances. These months had not been kind to her. After a long year of knowing that one child had betrayed her, she recently experienced the pain of another betrayal―a deeper one, from the child she had truly believed in. Not just betrayal―sabotage, or all her hopes and dreams.

    But Lusamine did not give in so easily. She believed that fate might close a door, but would open, for her, another window.

    Her tea room would be the perfect environment for this new lease on fate. Unlike the dining hall, which had gaudy chandeliers hanging above a long stretch of immaculate table, the tea room carried a certain intimacy and lightness. The table in the center of the room seated two, three at most, and the east-facing window allowed a sweet, salty sea-breeze to wash in the moonlight. Bright flowers arranged in a vase on the side table, permeating the room with their aroma. To her, this room perfectly spoke of the love she felt―her sweeping, bright, all-devouring love. In fact, when she sat in this room, one could swear that the room was as vital to her as her heart.

    Ms. Wicke came to the door to tell her the guest was ready.

    "Bring him in."

    ...The creature that entered the door―there was really no other way to describe him―certainly could be called imposing. The Team Skull Leader Guzma stood at an awkward, lanky height, which he compensated for by slouching over like a ghoul; his ridiculous sunglasses covered his face and the hood of his jacket was up. Before she could even attempt a greeting, he swiveled his head around the room suspiciously, as if worried that something was prepared to leap out and bite him.

    "Mr… Guzma, I presume?"

    He snapped to attention, but she couldn't read his facial expression, not with those sunglasses.

    "If you don't mind," she started, trying to be gentle, "would you remove the items from your head?"

    "Aw, yeah," he slurred, smacking the hood down and yanking the glasses upward. The force of his movements pushed his mess of clumpy white hair backward and out. "Sorry, lady, I was tryin' to be, you know, inconspicuous."

    She briefly wondered if he knew what that word meant.

    "M-a-an, lady, you have got quite the place here. You must have money, huh?"

    She redirected his attention by offering her hand. "It's a pleasure to finally meet you in person, Mr. Guzma. I'm Madame President Lusamine. I trust the trip here was a pleasant one."

    "Yeah, hey," he quipped, shuffling over and grabbing at her hand. He shook a little too hard. "Nice meeting you."

    The boy was a little raw, she told herself. A little… unformed. But at least he seemed housebroken.

    Ms. Wicke appeared suddenly beside him. "Can I take your coat?"

    "What? Nah, it's good." He bunched up the coat around his shoulders, warding her off as if she were a thief. He obviously wasn't comfortable with a stranger handling his personal belongings.

    Ms. Wicke left them momentarily, and Guzma hadn't moved very far, still lingering in the doorway. From his expression, Lusamine guessed two things were going through his head: first, he was vastly under-dressed for the occasion (did it bother him? She couldn't tell), and second, Lusamine did not look anything like he had imagined. Perhaps in reading her letter, he pictured her as some stuffy old woman, or imagined her with the curt, sharp command of a woman in business attire. Not a woman of her softness and angelic glow.

    The boy, no doubt untrained in self-control, couldn't help himself. He looked… Up, down, traced her figure, thought about it… And she noticed every glance.

    "Please come in," she said.

    He dutifully walked in and plopped into his chair. It took a minute for him to realize, though, that Lusamine was still standing next to her chair and giving him an expectant, but polite, look. He puzzled over her reaction. "Are you gonna sit, or…"

    "The gentleman," she said calmly, "always seats the lady."

    "What?"

    She smiled, patiently repeating, "The gentleman always seats the lady."

    "Oh!" Flustered, he stood to his feet, hurried behind her, and started pulling on the chair awkwardly. While his technique proved unpracticed, Lusamine was successfully seated with no injury.

    He rushed back to his chair, visibly relieved.

    Lusamine studied him as he settled in. The unfamiliar context into which he'd been thrown―a glistening, rich, pristine place―had begun to take a toll on him. He shrank where he sat, becoming withdrawn and wary of his surroundings. She labeled him mentally. Malleable.

    "So Miss… Miss…" He had obviously forgotten her name.

    "Miss Lusamine. You can call me Madame President."

    "Miss L," he continued, compromising, "I wanna know―"

    Ms. Wicke appeared as if from nowhere beside him. "Would you like some tea?"

    "―Huh? No."

    "How about some coffee?"

    Irritation spiked his voice. "Nah, thanks, I'm good."

    Ms. Wicke took the hint and moved to Lusamine, filling her cup with fresh tea and fixings.

    Guzma got the sense that they weren't ready to delve into the meeting just yet. He shook his head and tried to think of something to talk about. He kept looking in every corner, tracing his eyes along the walls and through doors, as if searching for something. Details didn't add up, so he asked, "You live here alone?"

    "Yes. For now. My husband is… gone, and my children left me."

    "Oh." He waited for her to continue, but in the ensuing awkward silence, he shuffled his feet. "Uh, sorry?"

    "A mother does her best to love and care for her children, but they make choices, too. I can only wonder… What mistakes I must have made… I must have been a terrible mother."

    Guzma's hairs stood on end; she looked like she might cry, so to diffuse the situation, he mumbled, "You, uh, seem nice enough to me."

    "What a kind thing to say," she purred. With an elegant sweep of her hand, she cleaned a single tear from her luxurious lashes. "I do owe my children one thing. You came to my attention through my son. He's worked for you―you've taken a liking to him, haven't you?"

    "Your son?"

    "My little boy… Gladion."

    Before he could stop himself, he let out a snort of a laugh. "What!? He's your son? Pffsh! Wow!" He noticed her leaning back to dodge his spittle, so he meekly cleared his throat to signal he was going to tone it down. "Uh, I mean, yeah, I guess I see the family resemblance."

    "While he brought his troubles on himself, I do appreciate your attention toward him."

    Those words, in that particular order, triggered a strange impulse in Guzma's brain; he twisted the heavy ring on his finger and blurted stupidly, "It's nothing weird."

    She sipped at her tea, then gave him a querying look over the ceramic cup.

    "Uh, y'know, it's not something weird, if that's what… You were wondering."

    "I'm not certain what you mean," she said, a little cross that she didn't, "because there's nothing strange about helping a person in need."

    "Y-yeah. That's what I meant."

    Lusamine watched carefully as he fidgeted and turned various colors. She made another mental note. Her noticing his softer side had spurred this outburst―interesting. Insecurity. Obsession with others' perceptions.

    "So, wait." Guzma's eyebrows stitched together in the form of deep, difficult mathematical thought. "If Gladion's your son, then you've gotta be…"

    "It is not normally proper to ask a lady her age," she said, "but I can indulge your curiosity, if you wish."

    "...All right," Guzma allowed, waving a hand. "I'll bite."

    "I'm forty-two, as of this year."

    All the money she spent on her physical upkeep was worth it, she thought, for these moments alone: when she proudly waved the number in front of a young man, and had the privilege of watching their expression turn, like they had just discovered something horrible about themselves. Guzma was no exception. He sort of laughed at first, choked on the number, and descended into a quiet that she pinned immediately. Ah-hah, Mr. Guzma. That thought you had when we first met―that nasty little thought you entertained when you stole that look―how does it sit with you now?

    Then, to her genuine shock, he managed to speak, haltingly, politely. "You looking good, Miss L."

    Her laughter forced her to put down her tea; it rang out like clear, silver bells in the fresh morning air. "Oh, my!" She placed a hand to her chest. "I must say, Mr. Guzma, you are full of surprises!"

    He smiled awkwardly and tried to laugh, too, but he didn't get what was so funny.

    "Well! Let's not delay any longer, shall we? As I stated in my letter, I have a proposal for you that I think can benefit us both."

    "Cool." He leaned back in his seat and folded his arms. "I'll hear you out, Miss L. Make it good, though."

    "Thank you. Some of this will require some technical background―I hope that suits you?"

    He shrugged indifferently. "Whatever."

    "...My husband―rest his soul―discovered the existence of wormholes that can transport both energy and matter between our dimension and another. Our researchers call this other dimension 'Ultra Space.'"

    He didn't look particularly intrigued―but he didn't tune out. She took this a good sign.

    "At Aether Paradise, our labs have been experimenting with and monitoring these wormholes; our best current evidence shows that, within this dimension, there are... Alternate beings. Living creatures analogous, though materially different, from pokemon. For clarity's sake, we call them beasts."

    "So… There are monsters, living in some other world."

    She folded her hands and gave a glowing smile. "An apt summary, Mr. Guzma! Now, the environment in which the beasts live is very harsh. To survive, these beasts must be incredibly powerful. We are developing a device that will allow us to capture and use them."

    She expected he would need more time to process all this, but a steep frown showed some deep thinking going on. "Why would I want to help you―"

    She cut off his question to reach over the table and place a hand on top of his. He lurched a little at the sudden touch, but didn't remove himself from his seat. "Can you imagine?" she hissed desperately. "Those poor beasts… Lost in a dark, cruel place, devoid of compassion and gentleness―does not such a condition demand our moral action? If I have the opportunity, then don't I also have the obligation to save them, and give them my love?"

    "Uh…" He gawked at her, not sure what to make of this sudden, hopelessly sad stream of consciousness. He thought about moving his hand, but couldn't finally decide to do it. Lusamine looked at him intently, waiting for an answer, so he gave the one he thought she wanted. "...Yes?"

    At last, she lifted her hand and floated back against her chair. A smile, warm and sweet as honey, spread across her lips, and her voice dripped. "To do this… I need you. Will you help me?"



    Guzma forced himself to do a hard reboot.

    None of this had gone as planned.

    When he first grabbed the letter from a trembling mailman outside the city gates, he saw the golden symbol representing the Aether Foundation and almost threw it away on that merit alone. The group had been nothing but a huge pain: constantly harassing his grunts in other cities, interrupting their operations, taking back pokemon they had fairly snatched. He expected the contents to either be a threat or some weaselly plea for compassion.

    But when he opened it, he found a neatly handwritten letter. It contained no accusation of wrongdoing. No pleas. Just an outpouring of prim, flowery prose that forced him to find a dictionary in order to suss it out. In the end, he determined uncertainly that it had something to do with a business deal, which would be discussed at Aether's base.

    What the heck, he remembered thinking. I'll get to see how the other half lives.

    He planned on balking at the deal and messing with some uptight business hag, while getting a free meal out of the process.

    Instead, he was sitting in front of an empty tea-cup and a sweet, otherworldly being that might have glided its way down from heaven―a lonely, sad, beautiful woman whose body whispered yes, eyes purred please, and lips sighed closer. Her age had jolted him, to be sure, but the number faded after a while against the harsh glow of everything else. And when she touched his hand, her fingers pulsing with radiant warmth, he felt his stomach do a flip.

    I need you.

    He tried to swallow. His mouth had gone dry, and he wished he had asked for some water.

    Will you help me?

    Butt heads. Say no. It was his personal rule. But she looked so… frail and needy, in that moment. And how many young men can really resist the siren call of a gorgeous woman in distress?



    He choked out his question. "How?"

    His response made her smile wider. "I need two things. The first―some crucial equipment was stolen from our lab―without it, we cannot trigger controlled openings of the wormholes. I need your organization to find the thief and steal the equipment back. That is," she said, "what you do, isn't it? Steal things?"

    "...Yeah."

    "Then this should be simple!" She leaned over, plucked a folder from a white briefcase, and handed it over. "Here's the dossier. It gets a bit technical, but the crucial information is there on the first page."

    He took it, glanced at the picture, and tilted his head. "It's a pokemon?"

    "Think of it more as… A ball of potential energy."

    "Whatever." He dropped it onto the table. "What's the other thing?"

    "That? That is another matter. Once our capture technology is prepared, I will be making the first trip to Ultra Space… And I need a strong, daring trainer to accompany me."

    That bit of flattery was a bit on the nose, even for Guzma. "Is it dangerous?"

    "The risk is incalculable. But should we succeed, we will have exclusive access to the most powerful beings science has ever discovered."

    "Do I get to keep some of them?"

    "Oh, that's one part of your compensation. As for the other…" She flashed a smile. "This is where I think your interests truly lie." With one more flick of her wrist, she produced a brilliantly-colored advertisement. The paper read, "THE AETHER FOUNDATION INVITES YOU TO EXPERIENCE THE SUPREME ISLAND CHALLENGE AT AETHER PARADISE!"

    Guzma didn't get it. "Uh… so... "

    "When a trainer completes the Alolan island trials, what else can they do? They are at the peak of their career, but no challenges remain. I believe it is time to innovate. With the beasts at my side, I will host the most daunting challenge of them all! Trainers from around the world will flock here, all for the sake of battling these unique creatures! Of course, we'll have to require a fee―a donation to the Foundation―"

    "That's great, but―"

    "We'll need a kahuna and a captain, won't we? To have a proper island challenge, that is."

    "You…" He perked up. "You want me to be captain?"

    "Don't sell yourself so short, Mr. Guzma! I'm not much of a trainer―and captains do so little by way of battling challengers, don't they? I'm asking you to become Aether's kahuna."

    For a while, he went completely quiet with shock.

    She filled his silence with a flurry of papers drawn from her carrier case. "Naturally, the Foundation would pay you for your services―you would be compensated for room and board, travel expenses, a personal stylist (you'll be making media appearances; it's truly a must), your officiating wardrobe―" She pushed a document to him, pointing. "It's all detailed here in the contract."

    "How much―"

    She anticipated the question and pointed to the bottom number.

    His eyes crossed a bit when he first saw it; he blinked, stuck his finger on it, rubbed his head, and asked, "Uh, what's… 'Per,' 'per diem' mean?"

    "That's payment per day."

    "Every day?" He began visibly sweating. "Wait, this isn't… This isn't real, is it?"

    "Hmm?"

    "This…" He smiled, like he had caught her in the act. "This is some kinda joke on me, right? Ha, ha, at big, bad Guzma, the sucker!"

    "That would be quite an elaborate―and strange―joke, don't you think?"

    Her logic definitely struck him; he looked at the paper again, scratched his head nervously, and looked up, searching her expression. "I should, uh, have a lawyer look at this, right?"

    "Oh, yes, indeed! When it comes time, we'll have a lawyer go through it with you―"

    "Not your lawyer," he countered hotly. "I want my own lawyer."

    "Lawyers cost money, Mr. Guzma. Quite a lot, in fact. Do you have the resources to hire one?"

    By his strained silence, she knew he didn't.

    "Well." She placed her hands on the papers in front of her. "Let's put a pin in that, shall we? Besides, this contract isn't on the table quite yet, remember? This can't happen without your contribution. So first… Return Cosmog to me. Second… you help me capture my beasts. And then… Only then, does this become negotiable." She placed her hand on the contract and pulled it back toward herself. She reveled in watching his expression change as his dream, everything he ever thought he wanted, slid back and disappeared into a folder. "Do you think you can do that?"

    He answered forcefully. "Obviously."

    "Good. Now," she said, nodding to Ms. Wicke, "it appears dinner is ready. Shall we go?"

    "Yes, ma'am."

    Lusamine did not move. Guzma gradually worked his way to his feet, thought for a second, then proceeded to walk behind her to pull out the chair for her.

    (Oh, how she beamed.)



    When Nanu saw the limo pull past the station, he knew it smelled like trouble. He had poked his head out, watched it disappear into the dark horizon, and grumbled to himself. He pulled a cigarette pack from his coat and tapped it without looking, only to find that it was empty. "Hrngh." He gazed out toward Po Town and its looming walls. Just as he decided to make an investigatory trip, a voice called out to him.

    "Hey, Uncle."

    He turned in surprise. A young grunt―a boy, from what he could tell, (cripes, they get younger every day) stood off near the lamp post. A Meowth was rubbing the boy's ankles and whining for food. Nanu frowned. "Hey, kid. I know you?"

    "Uh, I 'unno," the boy responded. "I know you."

    "Whatever. I'm walking to Po Town, so I need you to run an errand for me."

    "What kinda errand?"

    He peeled a few crumpled, moist bills from his pocket. "I need you get me some cigarettes. The Sunrise brand, not that cheap crap from Kanto."

    The kid looked at the money, but shook his head. "Don't they card for that?"

    Nanu huffed irritably. "...You don't have a fake ID? What kinda useless punk are you?"

    The kid shrugged and stooped down to pet the Meowth. "I 'unno. I'll take the money, though."

    Snort. "Yeah, I'm sure you would." He stuffed the money back down into his pocket, but didn't immediately stalk off. The boy caught his attention again. He ended up watching him for a solid minute just petting the critter, just letting it bump his legs and wind its way between them. "It likes you," he finally said.

    "Yeah, I guess."

    "You want it?"

    The kid turned shy and didn't have an answer.

    "Look, I got too many already. You'd be doing me a favor. One less mouth to feed, and all that."

    "Okay."

    He waited for the boy to say anything else, but these kids had no home-training. "...Don't thank me, or anything."

    "Screw you, old man."

    Nanu guffawed and turned for Po Town. "Ye-eah, you're welcome, kid."



    Getting into Guzma's room was no problem; around this time of night, the grunts scattered throughout Po Town searching for food, leaving the room unguarded. He knocked, and a beat of silence later, he decided he had been right: Guzma left.

    In a limousine, of all things.

    "...The heck have you gotten into now?" He shook his head. He doubted he would find any real clues, but snooping always picked up his mood.

    He turned the lights on and found it had its usual crud-infested mystique―dried husks of pizza pushed under furniture, fresh graffiti paint on the wall, empty beer bottles, and that idiotic throne chair that Guzma had dragged in from God-knows-where. Nanu scratched his chin. What a dump.

    He bee-lined for Guzma's laptop and prodded at it, but the lock-screen popped up and stonewalled him immediately.

    "Eh."

    Where else could he look? It wasn't as if Guzma had a work desk. He started for the liquor shelf―seeing as Guzma frequented it often enough.

    ...But unbeknownst to him, a monster lurked behind him. It crept forward… It tensed its muscles… It bent close over him, waiting for its moment...

    ...Then bumped its head into the center of his back.

    "Oof!" A bit startled, but not hurt, Nanu balanced himself against the bed and turned to the Golisopod. "Cripes, you scared me!"

    Undeterred, it whistled and clicked and otherwise made an excitable racket.

    "You smell it, don't you? You greedy lug." He sighed, stuffed his hand inside his pocket and drew out a couple beans. "Come on, eat up. Just don't tell the kid―he'd probably 'rap' at me about it, or whatever."

    The Golisopod warbled and snatched them out of his hand, swaying its huge body in a sort of happy, rhythmic fashion as it chewed.

    "You gonna help me? His computer's locked, so unless I find some sort of paper trail, I'll probably be stumped."

    It stared blankly at him, waiting for more food.

    "All right, here's what I'll do…" He reached back into his pocket.

    Nanu had decidedly mixed feelings about the Golisopod. Being Guzma's favorite, it was over-trained, over-powerful, and spoiled bloody rotten. Its most notorious habit was breaking out of its ball at any old time it wanted and roaming the mansion. It had gotten fat from eating human food all day, and could be a real bully if you held food that it wanted. Guzma found its mischief hilarious, so he never scolded it, exacerbating the problem.

    Nanu tried, though, when he could, to teach it some manners.

    "Hey! Stay. Now, listen." He held up a bean. It stepped forward a bit, and he gruffed, "No, you don't. Here's the deal. You find me a lead about where he went, and I give you a treat. Got it?"

    It tilted its head, looked longingly at the bean, and shuffled its feet in frustration.

    "Come on, you lard. Clock's a-tickin'."

    The Golisopod grunted, turned for the dresser, and started clapping its oversized arms around, hoping to find an offering. A few wooden thumps later, it shuffled hurriedly back with a sock dangling on its claw. It then―very gingerly―dropped it into his hand, and sat back expectantly.

    Nanu gave it a dry look. "Uh-huh. You think I'm an idiot, don't you?"

    It warbled again, gesturing at the bean with impatience.

    "...Well, you'd be right." He handed the bean over. "It's my fault for not, eh, being more specific."

    The Golisopod chewed, and he started toward the drawer to replace the loose sock. He stooped down carefully―he had to watch his back―and a young girl's voice spoke over him.

    "Hey, Officer. Don't you need a warrant?"

    He straightened up and turned to find Plumeria leaning in the doorway, watching him with some amusement.

    "Old detective instincts," he said. "Hard to give up."

    "What are you investigating?"

    "Sock-related crimes, apparently."

    Golisopod whirred gleefully at the sound of Plumeria's voice, so she slapped her knees and whistled. "Hey Goli-i-i! C'mere, boy!"

    It charged past Nanu and stuck its face into her open hands. She proceeded to rub its cheeks, scratch its chin, kiss its nose, and burble baby-talk at it; unable to contain its excitement, it screeched and stomped the floor.

    "Good boy! Good boy!"

    "Ugh." Nanu shuddered. "How do you plant your lips on that thing?"

    "How can you not?" She shook Golisopod's head back and forth playfully. "He's such a cutie! Yes you are! But you gotta go back in your ball now! Yes you do!" With that song and dance done, she dug the ball out of the upturned bed-sheets and put him back inside. She placed a hand on her hip and saw Nanu digging through Guzma's sock drawer. "What's up?"

    "I'm looking for Flunkie; you know where he went?"

    "… He went out, didn't he? And, you shouldn't call him that."

    "Why? It hurt his feelings?"

    "Yes, actually."

    He studied her face for a second to gauge her seriousness, and to his surprise, she appeared to be dead-so. He sighed. "All right, Rainbow, but just 'cause you asked so nice." He kept rummaging through clothes. "You don't know who he's meeting, do you?"

    "No."

    "Is it a date?"

    She cocked an eyebrow at him. "How should I know? Are you jealous or something? Think you're gonna find some girl's underwear?"

    He paused, then smirked at her. "Who am I to judge?" He dug deep into the drawer, apparently searching for any items that might have been squirrelled away for secrecy. "You see that limo that picked him up? The whole thing looks fishy."

    "You're worried about him?" She sounded surprised.

    Nanu didn't respond at first, then mumbled, "Shoot, aren't you?"

    Plumeria thought on this for a second, and though she didn't admit it, it was true. Guzma hadn't been himself lately―he had been more restless, more prone to drinking himself into a stupor, more enraged by the slightest conflict. It had gotten even worse after Guzma found that homeless kid―Gladion. The kid was stupid-strong but didn't cohere well with the other grunts, so Guzma's insistence on hiring him caused some friction in the gang. What was it that Guzma saw in him? Plumeria could guess: she, after all, remembered what Guzma was like when they first met, when he first ran from home. She recognized in both Gladion and back-then-Guzma the same desperation for freedom: the relief at finally clawing their way out of home, the raw rebellion of wearing tacky gothic clothes, and the wrath against the deserving and undeserving alike.

    In other words, Guzma looked at Gladion and saw himself.

    No wonder he pampered, defended, and gave leeway to the little snot-nosed brat. So what if he doesn't live at the HQ? So what if he doesn't wear the gear? So what if he talks back? So what if he gets paid too much?

    Plumeria reached out and touched Nanu's forearm. "Hey, Uncle."

    "Huh?"

    "… He'll probably tell me… Eventually. I promise, if it turns out it's bad, like, really bad? I'll come to you."

    If Nanu had the capacity to look touched, he might have shown it then. He blinked. "I ain't lookin' to make you a rat."

    "No, it's okay. I trust you."

    "...Hmph. Just as well. Don't think he's hiding any clues in his sock drawer, anyway." He pushed it shut. "Say, Rainbow, you know where I can get any cigarettes around here? Sunrise, none of that cheap Kanto crap...."

     
    Last edited: Mar 31, 2018
  4. TheAlpar

    TheAlpar Journey Enthusiast

    Well damn, I gotta say it. This might be my favorite depiction of Lusamine and Guzma I've ever seen. Their scene together flowed perfectly and displayed both their personalities so strongly that I gotta applaud you on your prose. You could see how Lusamine subtly influenced and tried to manipulate Guzma to accept and you could see how Guzma, despite being the boss of a criminal organization, is still young and naive and prone to that kinda stuff.

    Other than that the chapter was pretty good with everything else. Nanu's side was hilarious as always, I would honestly read a fic fully dedicated to him dealing with Team Skull. Golisopod and Plumeria are a delight and I want to read more of them.

    All and all, really solid chapter. I will patiently await for more.
     
  5. dietofwurms

    dietofwurms i see stars

    I've contemplated doing a Nanu spin-off... Anyway, glad to hear you're enjoying it so far.

    Without further ado:



    Chapter 3: The Mirror

    "Hey!"

    Branch Chief Faba almost jumped out of his skin. He narrowly saved himself from toppling face-first into the floor after his foot caught on something large and firm in the middle of the hallway; it was the loud, inhospitable voice that actually caught his attention soon enough to save him. He yelped, fumbled, caught his balance.

    "Ow!" the other voice grunted.

    Faba recovered and turned to scold whoever had gotten in his way. But then he saw who it was: the boy.

    Faba had seen Guzma in Lusamine's home enough times to both recognize and purposefully avoid him. The young man had a sour temper and no respect for his elders―except for, naturally, Lusamine, whom Guzma seemed all too happy to follow around while panting and whimpering for attention. Everyone else, Faba included, got the nips and bites.

    Guzma rubbed his ankle and muttered harshly. He sat in a chair against the wall, but had stretched his extraordinarily long legs out in a relaxing pose and gotten distracted scrolling through pictures on his phone. To be fair, Faba was distracted, himself―and so neither noticed their collision course until it was too late. "God, watch where you're going, huh? I should pound you!"

    Faba sucked in a breath, ready to say something, but thought better of chiding Lusamine's new pet. He cleared his throat and brushed himself off. "What... young man, are you here for something?" He glanced around, looking for supervision. Apparently, Guzma was a frequent enough visitor that they let him roam about. How annoying.

    "Yeah, I'm waiting on Miss L. Aren't you a lab guy? She said we're touring it today, or something."

    "Yes, quite right. Wait here."

    "That's what I've been doing," Guzma shot back hotly. "Who hired you?"

    Faba grimaced and kept walking.



    When Faba entered Lusamine's bedroom, he found her calmly seated before her vanity table and applying her mascara. He knew she noticed his entrance via the reflection, but announced himself anyway.

    "Good morning, Madame President."

    "And good morning to you, Branch Chief," she said. "I trust everything is in order. But is something on your mind?"

    Faba, surprised, tapped a finger to his lips. That woman… She can spot reservations from a mile away. He knew better than to dodge the question. "I have to say," he said, "your taste in protégés has gotten worse. Whatever is it that you see in that unkempt mutt?"

    She put her mascara aside and fluttered her lashes into the mirror. "I see great things in his future."

    A dry smile spread over his lips. "Hmm… He is a gullible little tramp, isn't he? Eating out of your hand over talk like that." Faba shook his head. "...This is why I stay away from women."

    "Oh, is that the reason?" Lusamine teased, folding her bangs back.

    "Don't get me wrong. He's your toy, Madame President, and you should feel free to play with him as you like." He rubbed his chin. "I just hope you don't intend to let him clomp around my lab like a brute."

    "Really, dear, you underestimate my talents. Under my guidance, he is becoming quite the gentleman."

    "Madame President, the day you make that into a gentleman is the day I take off my gloves and eat them."

    She tilted her head and gave him a coy, sweet, devilish little smile. "Faba! I never thought of you as a gambling man."

    He paled a little and crossed his arms. He decided not to let her take him at his word. "The lab is ready for you. I hope I'm not expected to escort him down?"

    "Oh, no. Send him here, please." She swiveled back around and started brushing her hair in long, even strokes. "You won't mind waiting for another hour for us, will you? I must speak with him in private."

    He cocked an eyebrow. "To your bedroom already? You really do intend to spoil him."

    "Faba," she sighed, putting on airs of disapproval but not dropping her smile, "you are a wicked creature."



    Guzma greeted her from the doorway. "Good morning, ma'am."

    "Good morning, Mr. Guzma," she called out, pleased that he had remembered his etiquette. "I'm so sorry―you came all this way, and the lab technicians aren't quite ready for us yet. Please, come in! It shouldn't be much longer."

    Guzma, like Faba, evidently felt the connotation of being in her bedroom; he slunk in, keeping close to the walls, and looked quickly for a place to seat himself in a neutral fashion. The bedroom, like all the other rooms, had a breathless, intimate feel, flush with light and golden colors. It made a person feel that they ought to be walking on their toes.

    Guzma did find a chair and sat in it―gently.

    Lusamine began to fasten her earrings and looked up at him. "And how is everything since we last met?"

    "The same."

    "Did you confide in your friend yet? Her name―"

    "Plumeria. And, uh, no. Not yet." He slouched in the chair. "I'm… waiting for the right time, you know?"

    "You think she won't understand."

    "What? Nah, she'll―! She'll get it."

    "And Gladion?"

    "He doesn't know nothin'."

    She eyed him. There were some things she didn't tolerate.

    "―Anything. I kept the mission to a small group, just like you said. But we haven't found nuh―anything."

    "Good. Keep it just like that. Don't feel the need to rush things along―that's when mistakes are made."

    "Yes, ma'am."

    At last, she was satisfied with her appearance; she gave herself one look over, twisting her face side-to-side in the mirror, then sat back, looking pleased. "Well! Since we have some time today, I thought we might have a talk." She lifted herself from the chair, before he even had a chance to offer to unseat her; on cue, he stood up as well. She reveled in his momentary confusion, then patted the now empty chair. "Mr. Guzma, please, come sit."

    He looked at the chair, then her, then at the chair again.

    "It's all right. I won't bite."

    "I know," he said hurriedly, "but, uh...You're not gonna give me a makeover or something, are you?"

    She laughed. "Now, now, you'll see."

    Guzma might have objected more, but curiosity got the best of him, as did the temptation of the open offer to sit so close to her. He stuffed his hands in the pockets of his jacket, lifted his shoulders, and sat before her.

    She pressed against the back of the chair and placed her hands on his shoulders. "Sit up straight, won't you?"

    (He did.)

    "Now." She softly brought her fingers to his face, touching his cheek and jaw only enough to communicate intimacy and send a shiver down his spine. She positioned his face to directly gaze into the mirror's reflection. "Look."

    His eyes at first swiveled up at her uncertainly, but he eventually obeyed.

    Quite a picture they were together, her fragile luminescence and perfection hovering over him, this hard and ragged man with sharp eyes and starving face. Starlight, she thinks, raking its glow over barren land.

    "What do you see, Mr. Guzma?"

    "Uh, I see…" He couldn't find in her expression what response she wanted, and neither did he get this gimmick. "Me? And you, too."

    "Yes, of course. But what else do you see?"

    "...The room?" He looked up at her, a puppy-dog plea for approval.

    So the boy lacked imagination. She couldn't fault him for that. She laughed gently and circled her arms about his neck and shoulders. (She could feel his temperature rise as she pressed her chin to his temple). "Do you know what I see?"

    His eyes widened, and his breath held. He watched her from the reflection.

    "I see a young man with a coarse and rough exterior just waiting to break open and reveal something immaculate."

    By the way his eyebrows scrunched, she could tell he didn't know what to make of that.

    "Do you see anything now, Mr. Guzma?"

    After a moment of introspection, Guzma felt he understood; he split his lips in a toothy, roguish grin. "Yeah. I see the best kahuna in Alola."

    She smiled.



    And the mirror.

    It smiled back at her.

    Her little prince… Bold… Brave… So grown for his age…

    Her little princess… Joyful… Loving… Compassionate…

    And her king…

    All, all fell through her fingers like sand.




    "...Miss L?"

    She snapped back and saw Guzma squirming uncomfortably under her grip. Her fingers had tightened into the cloth of his shirt. He looked more worried than frightened, though.

    "Are you okay?"

    "Ah…" She released him slowly and rubbed the tips of her fingers into her forehead. She smiled weakly to reassure him. "I'm sorry, it seems I was lost in thought."

    He had his eyes on her, watching her.

    Lusamine sighed deeply, like a pain had been lifted, and to his alarm, began to fidget with his hair. "Hmm. It really does have a mind of its own, doesn't it?" She gave it an invasive pull, running her nails along his scalp and making him twitch.

    "Ah, hey, you think the lab's ready for us―?" He started to work his hands over his head to ward her off.

    She shooed them away with her fingers. "Tut-tut! They'll be sure to call us. Now let's see what I can do… Here, take these out of the way," she said, lifting his glasses from his forehead.

    "Whaddaya doin'? I said no makeover! This was a dirty trap, wasn't it!"

    She picked up a fine comb and shushed him. "I'm just going to fix your hair, you silly thing. Put your hands down and sit still."

    He wheezed overdramatically, hot with anger. He might be easily manipulated, but he was not easily contradicted. However, with time, thoughts bounced around in his head, easing the puffing in his chest. She had seemed so sad, just a moment ago… A far-off look that he recognized, a paralysis that succumbs someone with no one to turn to. A mother like this has probably sat here countless times, fixing the hair of her children, perhaps even her husband. So perhaps now, she mothered others to stave off this crushing loneliness―and who was Guzma, after all that she promised him, to deny her the smallest bit of relief? He swallowed a grumble and assented.

    But―"Ow."―he quickly realized he was not just sacrificing his dignity, but his comfort as well. Knots in his hair popped and follicles snapped under her aggressive hand; he hissed and gave the table a punishing kick. "Ow! Geez, lady!" (Pain, it seemed, threw his politeness hurtling out the window). "You're ripping it right outta me!"

    "If you combed it through regularly," she scolded, "it wouldn't hurt nearly so much. Honestly, I think we ought to go over some basic personal hygiene."

    "Ugh! Please, don't."

    Mercifully, the knots worked themselves out in due time. After a few more minutes of yelping and complaining, the pain gradually eased, replaced with the soft, blissfully smooth sensations of bristle and delicate fingers weaving through his scalp.

    Okay… 'snot so bad… It was even a little soothing to his nerves. Not that he would ever admit it. He slumped a bit in his seat and sniffed dryly.

    Lusamine noticed. Not that she would ever tell him that. But she did take note.

    Lusamine had a file on him by now―pages thick, much of it hand-written. The background file she had originally compiled served as her guidebook for topics to bring up frankly, subtly work into conversation, or avoid completely. Every following meeting with him proved eminently fruitful: giving him the slightest positive attention melted him. She had never met a young man so eager to natter on about himself.

    Today, she had decided to broach the one subject she thought she would keep quiet. She continued to brush his hair, albeit slower than before, "Mr. Guzma, where do your parents live?"

    She could see him tense. "What?"

    "Are they local? You told me you grew up in the area."

    "Well―they―" His jaw slackened from thought. He didn't know how this had become the topic of conversation. "Still live in the same house, but…"

    "Oh, on Mele'mele? How pleasant." As she saw his expression tighten, she continued to speak carelessly. "Let's see… Mele'mele… Isn't that where the professor lives? I do believe I've had him and his wife over at least once―she's a physics professor, isn't she? What a lovely couple."

    Guzma's voice descended noticeably and he averted his eyes. "Yeah, they're… Great."

    There it was. Another reservation. Having found it, she decided not to prod it any further. Besides, she had a more pressing interest. "Since your parents live so close, you must be able to visit often. How convenient."

    "Uh, yeah―sure―why are you asking about my parents?"

    "Oh," she said, waving a hand, "just small talk. What are they like? What do they do for a living?"

    "I dunno. They're normal, I guess." He fidgeted with his foot against one of the vanity table's legs. That apparently was all he was willing to divulge on the matter.

    She would have liked to continue, dipping her toes into the flood of things he would only ever say by omission.

    But the telecom rang, and Faba―no doubt taking some pleasure in inconveniencing her―made sure to let her know that they really could wait no longer. So she put a pin in the conversation, summoned Guzma along (not commenting on the fact that he immediately ruffled his hair with his hands, as if to say I'm not yours―yet), and for a nasty moment, fantasized about pressing a literal pin into Faba's pronounced, clammy forehead.

     
    Last edited: Mar 31, 2018
  6. TheAlpar

    TheAlpar Journey Enthusiast

    God, Lusamine is just... ugh. I mean don't get me wrong you write her beautifully but every single thing she says and does makes me extremely uncomfortable. Maybe it's because I've met my fair share of manipulative folk but she checks every single item in the box perfectly. Great job portraying that.

    I also like her and Faba's relationship, how he isn't scared of speaking his mind and yet Lusamine seems to never lose a verbal battle against him.

    And Guzma's profile... yeah that fits to a T. The poor guy really is starved for attention, I feel pretty bad for him.

    Amazing chapter as always!
     
  7. dietofwurms

    dietofwurms i see stars

    Chapter 4: Legacy

    Guzma surveyed his kingdom.

    Po Town, it could not be denied, had certain aesthetic value. The bones of the town, under the rot of untreated roofs and layers of splashed paint, had signs of the class of people that used to live here. High walls, high hedges, high gates: all to keep the riff-raff out. It was the reason he had targeted the town in the first place. Not only did it host some of the richest people in all the islands, but it stood as a symbol of safety and order. To knock it down and spit on it―that was truly a black eye in the kahunas' and captains' faces.

    But even the outward shell of the town―the exoskeleton, the carapace that hung over what the town used to be―had value for the right person, under the right circumstances. You had to be the sort who liked the gloomy sag of crushed dreams, the nihilism and anger inherent in smearing paint and breaking glass. It also helped to be drunk, hungry, and at odds with your uptight parents. If you have ever been alone or taken a beating or felt fear, Po Town felt like poetry, just being there. There was fun in Po Town. And there was also sadness, and fist-fights, and sleep that went on too long because there was really nothing to do in Po Town.

    After two years of living here, Guzma was only now starting to see it, he thought, for what is was. He finally had something to compare it to. The energy he felt buzzing at Aether Paradise, its illumination, its ruthless structure and efficiency, its depth―to spend hours there, interacting with such people, and then to be dumped off at the Po Town front gate―every time, it felt like being kicked into the mud face-first. It had an initial shock, a humiliation, and a grueling sliminess that stuck to him for hours. He would walk past two drooling idiots manning the gate, weave about the cars that had been smashed and since reduced to shelters, glance outward in search of the light from the mansion (the only building they could afford to keep powered), marvel at the new pile of garbage that started in the center of town square, and arrive at the main house, his body drenched in sopping rain.

    And he stood there in the doorway, dripping and carrying a black cloud with him like an adornment.

    He heard the occasional grunt call after him, but he didn't answer.

    "Guz-ma!"

    "Hey, Big G!"

    "Yo, Boss! Yo, G!"

    ―What was that smell?

    He had never noticed smells before. He never noticed how the whole house faintly reeked of beer and urine, rotten things and neglected things. In fact, it was one of the first things he realized after his first meeting with Lusamine―sitting in the tea room, nothing but the sea and flowers to breathe in, and her perfume too, like a garden blooming in June. But another smell hit him by contrast, and he realized it was him. He stank. When was the last time he bathed? When was the last time he changed out of these clothes, or washed them for that matter? He could think of no other experience that mortified him more, than sitting there with this perfect nymph and realizing he smelled like a ripe hobo.

    ...He had stepped in something on his way up the stairs―something wet and unpleasant. He kicked it and scraped it from his shoe and cursed harshly―was it so much to ask? Just to pick after yourself? Just to not completely trash the house he lived in?

    He took a left, past the chandelier that a grunt had knocked down earlier this month. At least he got to pound the kid. Most of the time he can't figure out who's doing what around here.

    Kept going… Past Plumeria's room, past some sleeping quarters where he could hear thumping music and hysterical giggling...

    He must have spaced out for a moment, because a grunt took him by surprise by snatching his wrist and shouting with excitement. "Woah, that watch is swag, G! Where'd you get it?"

    Guzma allowed the grunt to hold his wrist for a few more seconds, as the attention pleased him. He twisted the gold watch under the faint light, showing off its brilliant glisten. "Oh, that? Snatched it off some old tourist."

    "You gonna pawn it?"

    Guzma flinched and yanked his hand away, like the grunt had said something offensive. "No way!"

    "You right, you right. Looks baller on you."



    When he shut the door and fell onto his bed, one of the legs collapsed. Again. He had to get up and fix the cinder block currently propping it up.

    Then finally, finally, he was able to sprawl out, stare at the ceiling, and contemplate.

    His room had not changed since he left that afternoon, but like everything else, his view of it changed. He sucked his teeth at it―its stacks of dirty laundry and food he didn't remember eating and spray-paint he didn't remember spraying. Eventually he turned his head at the sound of water dripping from the wall.

    "Oh, hey it's a new leak." He stared at it and muttered under his breath. "At least the others got company now, huh."

    His joke failed to cheer him up.

    Maybe this will. He brought his wrist up to his face, sticking it into his brand new watch. He unfastened it and held it up against the light. The shine hurt his eyes. He looked, for the hundredth time, at the engraving on the back of its face.

    To Future Success.

    His heart skipped a beat.

    He hadn't even taken out the check currently burning in his pocket. Lusamine casually handed it over, saying it was 'a little something,' and he felt faint when he saw the number.

    Twelve days, he told himself. It would be twelve days before they met again. She had to space out their meetings―he understood that―but he felt like it was a sentence, and Po Town was his prison.

    Drip, drip. He thought he was hearing the leak at first. He turned his head.

    Golisopod was sitting right across the room, staring and drooling at him.

    He shot up and jeered. "Hey―buddy!"

    It bolted for him.

    "Get your ugly mug over here!" When it reached him, he laughed, latched it into a headlock, and noogied its head. If Plumeria was its babying mother, Guzma was its roughhousing father. "You miss your boy? Huh?"

    Golisopod whinnied and butted into him, eager to start their ritual.

    The pokemon had quickly learned that whenever Guzma left for the evening, he would return with food stuffed down his pockets and an incredible need to talk. With no one to confide the details of recent developments, Guzma had resorted to venting with Golisopod; he doubted it understood much of anything he said, but it made him feel better, and Golisopod loved being lavished with attention.

    He stuffed his hand into his jacket pocket. "You wanna know what your boy got you?"

    Golisopod could hardly contain its excitement; when he brought out the pastries, it almost tackled him.

    "Hey, easy! Here, here." He held out the three small, floury lumps. "They're 'scones.'"

    Golisopod chirped at him.

    "Yeah, I never heard of 'em either. They're all right, though."

    Satisfied with his explanation, it promptly shoveled them into its mouth, briefly coughing on the crumbs.

    "Look what else I got―she called it a, a, 'commemorative' gift," he said, pointing to what he swore was a solid-gold timepiece. When she first said the word to him, he latched onto it, its syllables, the way it sounded over her lips―and he repeated it to himself over and over, as to not forget it. Commemorative. Commemorative. He waved the watch in Golisopod's face. "Check it out!"

    Golisopod, evidently impressed by its color, starting searching it with its mouth.

    "No! Hey!" He smacked it. "Don't eat it, dummy! It's important!"

    Dejected but not hurt, it planted its face on his lap, drool pooling on his pant legs.

    "What a night. They got some crazy stuff in that joint," he said. He thought on the lab, the equipment he didn't have names for, the monitors and scientists. Much he didn't understand, but Lusamine explained some of it, and Faba did, too. Guzma tilted his head, hearing a question Golisopod had no way of asking. "I think it went a'ight. Don't get me wrong. Miss L can kinda, uh, get annoying sometimes. Like tonight. She kept―" He remembered something that had, in particular, hit a nerve in him. He huffed. "Ooh, Kukui," he mocked in a feminine, falsetto voice, "he's so wonderful, isn't he, and his wife is just lovely, and everything's lovely―" He growled. "Ugh! He can bite me."

    Golisopod stared at him. He read its expression―or perhaps projected.

    "I'm not jealous," he countered. "What's there to be jealous about? He's such a loser! Never completed the trials! I was there! I saw him chicken out! And, 'lovely wife'? Please! I can't believe he married that―! Like, are you serious? The dorkiest chick in school―I was in classes with her―she was that brain trust kid who'd remind the teacher to give us homework. And―this one time, I told that jerk-off Kawika―you remember him, right―that I was gonna cut his dumb face if he kept touching my stuff, and she snitched on me, it wasn't even her business, I got sent home and everything!"

    (He leaves out the other details―that the teacher searched him and found a small pocket-knife―that she announced, out loud for everyone to hear, 'wait until I tell your father about this'―that he cried and begged her not to, in front of the whole fifth grade class, pretty much demolishing his rep in one fell swoop.)

    "'Sides, why should I be jealous? I got a house, I can do whatever I want, I got the crew, I could get any girl I wanted, so―and I got the best partner, right?"

    At that, Golisopod roared its approval.



    Guzma, still feeling off, decided to do the one thing he knew would lift his spirits.

    "I don't wanna hear excuses!"

    From his throne―his favorite place in Po Town―he grabbed and hurled an empty beer bottle at the hapless grunt's head. The grunt just narrowly dodged its trajectory by throwing himself onto the floor, and after cringing at the sound of its smashing on the wall, he remained there on his hands and knees. "P-please, Boss! We looked everywhere, just like you said!"

    "It's almost been a month! And what have you got for me, huh? Zip! Nothin'!"

    The other three grunts, who had been standing and shaking up until this moment, decided to follow their comrade's pose and fall to their knees. "Boss, it ain't our fault, see? The cops are up in our grill more than usual―"

    "Screw the cops! Whatta you, spineless?" He pounded the arms of his chair, producing a sound that sent them cowering. "One pokemon! That's all I want! Is that so hard? The thing's a ball of energy, it's gotta stick out like a sore thumb!"

    "Boss, maybe if we had, y'know, more crew on it―"

    "Are you telling me," Guzma growled, "that you're incompetent? Is that it?"

    It took a few hard seconds before one of them had the courage to speak again. "G, why ain't Gladion on this? He covers lotsa ground, don't he?"

    Guzma glared daggers into him. "How many ways I gotta say it, numbskull? Secret operation! 'Secret' means we don't include nobody else."

    "But you always say―"

    He knew what the grunt was going to say. You always say Gladion's the best fighter we have. They weren't wrong to bring up the contradiction. But Lusamine had impressed great warnings on him. If Gladion found out about this search, it would play their hand. It might even destroy everything they were working towards. He grit his teeth and stood to his feet, speaking darkly. "Ya'll ain't gettin' it, are you?"

    They froze. Him removing himself from his chair did not bode well.

    "This mission… I picked you because I thought I could count on you. Are you gonna make a fool outta Guzma? Huh? You gonna make Big, Bad Guzma a joke?"

    He stepped down the small set of stairs, eventually looming over each of them with a sour, vindictive look.

    "Don't bring me no more excuses. This could make or break Team Skull. Or it could make me… break you. Got it?" He surveyed their expressions but wasn't satisfied. So Guzma grabbed the nearest grunt by the front of his shirt, pulled the kid upward, and twisted the hard tip of his knuckle painfully into the kid's temple. The grunt whimpered under his grip―it felt brilliant. "Get. It. Through. Your. Head."

    "Yeah, Boss! Okay, Boss!"



    Plumeria, seated against the wall and atop her bed, had been typing on her laptop all that evening as she heard the screaming and breaking glass going on across the hall.

    The emperor is raging again.

    On other days, she might have eventually gotten up to see what the fuss was about, maybe even intervene before somebody got a concussion. But the bed was comfortable today, and she felt she needed the order and peace of her neatly-preserved bedroom more than she needed to tear Guzma's hands from some grunt's neck.

    So she ignored it.

    Several minutes later, however, it seemed Guzma meant to entangle her anyway; after the pitter-patter of terrified grunt feet passed by, his recognizably hefty clomping approached her door.

    Please don't, she internally pleaded, but it was no use. Guzma had decided to come by.

    He opened the door―didn't knock―and poked his head in. "'Sup, Plume?" He kicked off his muddy shoes before entering. There were rules even he obeyed in her realm.

    "Hey." She looked up from her laptop momentarily, but when he didn't elaborate on his greeting, she asked, "Do you want something?"

    "Pffsh. I dunno." He gave her a purposefully stupid look. "You wanna make out?"

    Plumeria chucked her Lapras plushie at him―hard―and struck him square in the gut. (He grunted and keeled over dramatically, feigning injury.) "Shut up," she barked, though she was smiling. She watched his little performance for a second―shook her head admonishingly―and dropped her smile. "Guz, seriously though, I'm kinda busy."

    "Doing what? I just wanna hang." He stooped down to pick up the projectile, stuffing it under his arm and strolling over to her bed. He fell onto the bed, sprawling obnoxiously in her personal space, and planted the Lapras on his chest. "You ain't got time for me?" He tried to peek at her computer screen. "You writing?"

    She pulled it away from him. "You mind? It's private."

    "Tch." He laid back to stare at the ceiling, then started examining the plushie she had struck him with, tilting it side to side with his hands.

    She smirked to herself. For all the blustering, screaming, and threatening he did, he could be such a dork.

    "'Dear diary,'" he said, suddenly puppeteering the Lapras with a light, girly accent, "'I started my period today, and―'" Thump. "Ow!" He clutched his chest where she had pounded him with her fist. The pain made him snort with laughter and roll onto his side.

    "You―ugh!" She punched him in the back, too, eliciting more winded, pained snickering. "I'm about to kick your rear outta here―"

    "Ow! Okay! I'm sorry!" He shielded himself and returned to his position on his back. "Look! Plume! I need to talk to you." He saw her cold expression and upped the whine in his voice. "Please?"

    She intended to say no. But she then noticed the watch, and remembered that he had been gone half the day, and it all began to fit together in her brain.

    She had of course noticed these frequent outings, but ever since they amicably broke up a million years ago, they had agreed to stay friends and stay out of each other's personal business―as much as could be expected when living under the same roof. Plumeria had historically been very good at following this rule, even when Guzma screwed it up by not following it himself. So she hadn't asked or bothered him about his outings.

    And now he cracked open a door for her.

    She sighed, shut her laptop, and gave in. "About what?"

    "Do you ever…" Guzma frowned and kicked against the headboard. "Y'know, wonder where you're gonna be in ten years?"

    "No," she answered easily. "But my dad once asked me that when he caught me with a cigarette."

    He caught the cynicism in her voice, and it infuriated him. "I'm being serious!"

    Plumeria gave him a suddenly critical, judgmental look, at first triggered by his behavior, but now triggered by something she noticed. She had to do a double-take. "Guz, did you do something with your hair?"

    "What?" He clasped a hand over it self-consciously. "No."

    "...Would it have anything to do with why you preened for like an hour before you left?"

    "Hey! None of your―"

    "Business, right."

    "So?"

    "So, what?"

    "Do you, like, see yourself here by then? In this house?"

    He was so ridiculously earnest. She snorted at him. "I dunno, Guz, I don't think about next month that way."

    "Well―" This conversation obviously had not gone the direction he intended. He fumed. "I don't! See myself here, I mean!"

    "Okay? Whatever."

    "Don't you hate this place sometimes?"

    Plumeria popped her gum and shrugged. "It could be worse."

    "There's nothing here, Plume! Even the street kids know that now! This whole place is a dump." He folded his arms hard against his chest, muttering bitterly, "No wonder people are leaving."

    Plumeria just about gasped. "Oh my god... This is about Katya, isn't it?" She didn't know why she hadn't made the connection before. It had been several months since Katya left. Plumeria still felt an internal wince when she thought about it. The whole thing had been so stupid. Katya―seventeen, dark-skinned, drop-dead gorgeous. Guzma couldn't help himself. The girl never expressed any interest in him, often casually inserting references to 'her boyfriend' who lived in Malie City to ward him off, but he persisted in embarrassing himself, though never mustering the guts to make a real move on her. He just hovered around her, acting pathetic. Mercifully, Katya stayed only a few weeks before announcing Team Skull was "boring," taking all her stuff, and moving to Malie to move in with her boyfriend and work as a waitress.

    Guzma pouted for weeks.

    "Guz. Everyone knew you had a dumb little crush on her―"

    "What! It's―" He flushed and pulled his sunglasses over his face. "It's so not about
    that! God, that was forever ago!"

    Plumeria wasn't sure she believed him.

    He thought he would be able to explain it better. Of all the grunts, so few of them were older than fourteen―and so many of the older ones would reach sixteen, maybe seventeen, before yawning, looking around themselves, and deciding they had better use of their time. All of the Old Guard―the kids they formed Team Skull around years ago―had cycled out, each finding their own excuses for abandoning the cause.

    "Look, Big G, my girl's knocked up, and― "

    "My old man says he can get me a job― "

    "My gramps is letting me move in― "

    "Just need a change in scenery, yo, no hard feelings, G― "


    Now their gang was formed around a pack of fresh meat―babies―who feared him but lacked the bond of friendship he remembered having with the previous generation. He didn't think it manly to admit, but there were nights when he choked with pain, missing the crew he had thought would be his brothers and sisters for life.

    Time moved forward, trampling him underfoot.

    And now, he was beginning to think he felt it, too. The looming―the annoying throb that had started at his coming of age, slowly leeching the joy from things he once found enjoyable, hilarious, or exciting. More and more, the motifs and activities around him felt painfully boring to him. He began to think about things he didn't want to think about: life and death, and meaning, and purpose, and legacy. Things that would, in the adult world, translate to inanities such as mortgages, careers, marriage, and children.

    He had thought he would live in the daze of adolescence forever. But now, his vision cleared, and he saw things that the others didn't―future possibilities, impending crises…

    It bothered him, like an unreachable itch.

    (He thinks suddenly of Lusamine, her nails gently sprawling through his scalp, giving him chills… Promises whispered in his ear...)

    "Plume. I gotta tell you something."

    She was listening.

    "... It's just, you can't freak, okay? Because I've been thinking, about the future, you know? And, hey, it's not like we're rolling in the money, either―"

    Plumeria couldn't tell what he was getting at. "If you're so worried about money, just charge Nanu higher rent."

    "That's your plan?! Squeeze one geezer for his pension!?" He sat up and slammed his fist down. "It doesn't even come close to solving anything!"

    "...And you've…" Plumeria looked one more time at the gold watch. "What, got a way to solve it?"

    For a time, Guzma went quiet. It looked almost as if he was ready to chicken out of something, but was going to force himself into it anyway. He folded his legs under him, leaned conspiratorially close, and spoke. "You can't say nothin' to nobody." He glared at her. "You have to promise."

    "Guz…"

    "I'm dead serious. Anybody finds out―we'd be screwed."

    She thought about her promise to Nanu. "Okay."

    "You know the President of Aether?"

    "At Aether?" That organization―they didn't call it by name often, usually just using pejoratives like 'those white-hats' or worse. "I guess I've heard about her."

    "Yeah, well…" He started fidgeting with his watch. "I'm sort of, working with her."

    Her eyes went wide and her mouth shut tight. She felt like the floor had fallen out under her―like the world had started spinning and wouldn't stop. A gasp left her when she finally spoke. "Working with her!"

    "Shh! God! Not so loud!"

    "Are you crazy?" she hissed, giving him the courtesy of lowering her voice. "That is the single most― what, like her errand boy or something? For some corporate witch?"

    "That's what I thought at first, too, but―she's actually really nice, okay? She's not like other people―not like anyone."

    She saw a glow of genuine admiration in him. She was hearing shades of Katya, but she dared not suggest it.

    "She believes in me, Plume. She thinks I can help her―that I can be somebody."

    "...You're ditching us for some stuffy rich lady?"

    "I'm not ditching anybody!" He bunched up his coat. "Look―" He dug out the check and waved it in her face. "She gave this to me tonight! Called it 'a little something'! Just think about―think about what we could do with this, with the cash that's still comin'―"

    She took the check, looked at it, but couldn't find words.

    "This lady―I know it's crazy―but she could give us everything we've ever wanted―and she wants to, she wants to help us―she wants to meet you, too. I promise, once you talk to her, you'll get it, you'll see what I mean."

    What could she say?

    He transformed in front of her; he vibrated with an energy and excitement normally foreign to him. When had she ever seen him this passionate, this enthusiastic? To knock him down now―when, admittedly, she didn't have all the information, and hadn't even given it a chance―felt senselessly cruel.

    Guzma saw the uncertainty in her eyes and jumped for it. He reached over and took hold of her hands.

    "Plumeria. I know―! I know I've been a real screw-up lately, but you gotta trust me on this."

    ...She thought about Nanu again, about his suspicions. She realized she would have to keep secrets from him now, would have to lie to him…

    But it all seemed too good, too promising.

    Guzma dropped her hands. He felt her acquiescence somehow. "Besides, she wants us to steal something back, from a thief. I figure that makes us the good guys this time, right?"

    "...The good guys," she repeated, marvelling at his saying it.



    It wouldn't be long, now. Plumeria would visit the Foundation, too, alongside Guzma; she would see the halls and windows that sang sweetly to him. She would shake hands with that woman, and sit for tea. Lusamine would notice traits in Plumeria that Guzma had always missed―her gentle poise when seated, her ease in using multiple forks, her comfort in sweeping mansion landscapes.

    Plumeria would not be seduced. She knew all too well the lies that could be built into beautiful rooms and carefully crafted smiles. She had run from those lies before.

    But the lies tasted sweet, didn't they? Sweet like success, sweet like an ungotten Katya, sweet like the pure music of a spoon against crystal.

    (Again, again, Guzma didn't stand a chance.)

    -

     
    Last edited: Mar 31, 2018
  8. TheAlpar

    TheAlpar Journey Enthusiast

    I'm sure there's a certain charm to Po Town, as Guzma put it, but those kinda charms tend to dissipate the longer you stay in there. At some point sticking it to the man goes from a party to... well, surviving, and that's always tough. As someone who's been in a similar position to those teens of Team Skull... yeah, I can kinda see why a lot of members are leaving. You portray that feeling of helplesness really well throughout the chapter and you set the mood perfectly. That's not something a lot of writers can do.

    As for Plumeria, somehow it doesn't surprise me that she's from a well off family. She's probably the most down to earth and serious of the bunch, which is ironic since she's the second in command. I'm curious to see if Lusamine will be able to manipulate her just like she did with Guzma.
     
  9. Dragonfree

    Dragonfree Just me Staff Member Moderator

    Huh. I started reading this sort of by accident - skimmed a bit in passing, was intrigued and read the rest of the scene, read a couple previous scenes for context, then ended up actually reading the whole thing.

    You've really hooked me in with the characterization of Guzma and Lusamine. I found their dynamic interesting but unexplored in the game, so the concept of expanding on it intrigues me, and so far you've done a delicious job - Lusamine's deeply creepy manipulativeness as she takes calculating notes on how to press his buttons and casually wraps him around her finger, Guzma's insecurity and confused desperation for validation still cloaked in his performative tough-guy attitude. I really enjoy characters like Guzma as you're portraying him here, as well as skilled manipulators who really know how to dig into the psychology of their target, and all in all you're hitting both of those targets expertly and I'm intrigued to see where that dynamic will go from here.

    I did find it a little jarring how you write most of this sticking to one character's POV in each scene, but then sometimes you switch POVs in the middle, or state the thoughts of a different character suddenly in one paragraph. It also creates some ambiguity as to whether you're describing character A's actual thoughts or feelings or character B's perception of their thoughts or feelings, which for this kind of story is a distinction that matters. Might be something to look out for in the future and consider whether you can use a scene break, or otherwise avoid the mid-scene head-jumping, perhaps?

    The first chapter feels a little out of place at the moment, I feel, and I'm kind of surprised you chose to open with that instead of with Guzma and Lusamine, given you say they're the main focus - it doesn't seem super-relevant to the continuation, outside of establishing a bit about Nanu's relationship with Team Skull (I actually read the first chapter last, and before I did didn't feel like I was missing much), and overall I found it less engaging than the following chapters - although, like I said, the Guzma and Lusamine bits really play to my particular interests, so that's definitely part of it. Nanu's unusual approach is fun, and Po Town and the general sadness of Team Skull, how it's just a bunch of troubled, lonely, washed-up kids who failed their island challenges, was one of my favorite things about Sun and Moon so I liked the last bit where Nanu becomes this substitute parental figure to them and Guzma in particular. But the meeting at the start felt a bit talking-heads-ish, particularly before Nanu showed up, just a bunch of different minor characters exchanging a lot of words that seem to be of little consequence. All in all, I don't think you quite open with your strongest hand here, and that the stuff you do establish in that scene could probably be established in less space elsewhere if you cut it entirely - but that's just my take.

    Chapter two is captivating, though, showing Lusamine sizing Guzma up, studying his reactions to what she throws at him, while he's a fish out of water, confused and defensive but still shrinking automatically into obedience and trying to please her. Her use of sexuality and intimacy to push that instinct further and just melt him into submission is so unsettling and so Lusamine. The way she refers to Nebby as a piece of 'equipment', and that tailored kahuna offer, and the money, and the "Well, you can't afford your own lawyer," brr. So creepy and wrong. And Guzma just can't properly see that for what it is, not with her touching him and saying she needs him and he'll be the strongest most important kahuna.

    Also, Golisopod is adorable, what are you talking about Nanu. Plumeria is great; I love how she talks to Golisopod like a dog, and her and Nanu both being concerned for Guzma. You have no idea. I did find the Nanu scene a little abrupt, though, in the sense that if anything made me expect chapter one to give extra context, it was that, but then it didn't really - the last we saw of him was him having a very uneven relationship with Team Skull, then here we start with him already in motion investigating what happened to Guzma, without context about how uncommon this is, exactly why it has him so worried, anything about what he actually witnessed beyond there being a limousine. It works, and the reader can piece it together just fine, but still, I feel vaguely like there should have been another Nanu scene in there somewhere.

    Chapter three continues along similar lines as chapter two. You do a good job with Faba in a short space while establishing insidiously how Guzma's not by any means her first 'pet'. Her asking Faba to give them an hour and then telling Guzma they're just not ready for them yet, the whole bedroom aspect, still with the sensual touching - God, she is so creepy. Run, Guzma! This is Not Normal holy god do you not see it (of course you don't). His concern about that one moment of possibly genuine vulnerability, and how it leads him to accept something he wouldn't have otherwise, is just painful. I'm intrigued to see Lusamine probing about his parents, and of course noticing his defensiveness and itching to go deeper - I'm guessing we're about to learn more about his family situation in later chapters. And then she's going to use it against him, of course, because she is Lusamine. Fffff.

    I love chapter four a lot. Guzma's thoughts on Po Town are spot-on, and the restless dissatisfaction he's starting to feel now that he's got something (on the surface) less crappy to compare it to aches. I love his relationship with Golisopod. And his burst of jealousy about Lusamine bringing up Kukui once, and that bit of sad little backstory about Professor Burnet, is just delightfully pathetic. I love him.

    Gggghhh.

    It's tragic to watch him taking out his frustrations on these kids that he doesn't really know, kids that replaced the people he really cared about. I think your interpretation of Team Skull makes a lot of sense - high turnover, Guzma sort of lingering behind with these teenagers while everyone with the slightest bit of connection and family eventually leaves for more stability. Guzma and Plumeria's relationship is great, silly familiar interaction coupled with genuine caring and a hint of actual, equal, non-manipulative intimacy, where he can start to admit what he's feeling to her. It's also interesting to see how Plumeria clearly comes from an upper-class background - wonder what drove her to join Team Skull, and how the ever-observant Lusamine might use against her.

    Overall, I can't wait to see where this goes, and I'll try to keep up as you post - can't promise reviews for every chapter, but I'll definitely be reading.
     
  10. dietofwurms

    dietofwurms i see stars

    I'm working in an omnipotent third person here, which can get hairy when working with so many characters' internal lives; I try to keep the close-third shifting minimal per scene but I would think it's clear who's thinking what. I can do a close read (chapter 2 might be the culprit you're pointing to?) to assess this a little more, but it may also be the case that this confusion will lessen over time as the writing style gets more consistent chapters-in.

    I agree with this; I think a part of it is when I began writing this, I had in mind a very different structural approach than what I ended up with, so while there are some nice character moments in the first 5 chapters, there's going to some connective tissue between chapters left wanting. All I can say is I would hesitate to cut it entirely because Nanu is going to be recurring and important (for reasons that will show), and even if I cut the talking-heads stuff in favor of preserving some Nanu context, I'm not sure where I would merge that material elsewhere. It's certainly food for thought.

    Again, I sort of see this? But at point I'm more inclined to cut back on scenes and information rather than trying to crowd out the front chapters with more establishing scenes. Not sure what crucial information would be conveyed by adding more Nanu here or in a previous chapter.

    Thanks for your kind words and extensive feedback, though. This is the kind of stuff I'm interested in hearing. I hope some of these structural problems iron out after chapter 5 (because that's where, IMO, the story and plot finds its real footing).
     
  11. dietofwurms

    dietofwurms i see stars

    Quick note: A big time-jump here to signify the passing of the events in the canon game. Enjoy the divergence!

    Chapter 5: Divergence

    Dark.

    Cold.

    Alone.

    Afraid.



    The air, thick and oppressive… The sounds emanating like the frightened screams of tortured animals… His skin covered in residue, some thick, slimy fluid that wouldn't come off, no matter how he dug his nails into it… It burned his skin and made his eyes water…

    A rash had broken out all over his arms…

    Finally, he stooped over and vomited. The vomit was black and oily, and stuck to his teeth, delivering a sour and nasty taste.



    Guzma's heart hadn't stopped pounding.

    This place…

    He crawled forward on his stomach to the opening of his hiding place, a small crevice in the wall he found after blindly running for his life through the tunnels. He looked up.

    This dimension―Ultra Space―looked nothing like he had expected. It had a dreamlike quality to it, decidedly nightmarish: strange rock formations that seemed to grow from the ground and tangle into the ceiling; strange colors shining from unnatural places; impossible sources of light; some sort of dusty mist swirling around and choking the air.

    The stones that lined the floor, walls and ceiling of this immense cave structure were black, deep black, seeming to absorb all light that it touched. He could hardly see ten feet in front of him.

    And the monsters…

    His encounter with that jellyfish-thing was enough to convince him to hide and not come out.

    Guzma hissed in pain, again clutching the rash on his arms. The pain got to be so bad, he sat up, pinned his arms between his thighs, and pressed as hard as he could. He groaned, cursed, gasped, and rocked himself.

    He had tried for hours to find Lusamine. In their jump to the new dimension, they had somehow separated; perhaps the portal spit them out in different places. He had no way of knowing if this difference would be in yards, miles, or light years. She might be on a different planet, for all he knew.

    Lusamine was the one with the beast balls―tucked away in her expensive white and gold handbag slung over her shoulder. She had dismissed his request to carry some of his own. Just the first sign of bad things to come.

    So he came to learn the first hard lesson of Ultra Space: never wrangle a beast with your bare hands, no matter how much you want to subdue it.



    In the dark, a woman walked alone, teetering uncertainly, as if drunk.

    She tilted her head suddenly.

    "Mohn?"

    Her voice was faint, choked by the thick mist.

    "Mohn, can you hear me? I can feel you. Darling, love, whisper to me." She twirled slowly, like a ballerina, and slid down to her knees. She closed her eyes and encircled her body with her arms, embracing herself tightly. Her sighs roll from her breast with a passionate, carnal tone. "It has been so long… since I've felt your touch… If you knew… how alone I've been…" Finally, she opened her eyes and gazed upon the world.

    ...What did Lusamine see? She did not see the strangeness of this place, or its sharp shadows and teeth. In her eyes, this world brushed up against her skin like black satin, and it shone like diamonds. She felt, from the moment she awoke in this place, as if she could bury herself in it, love it. Indeed, that was what she intended all along―wasn't it? Find the beasts and love them to death… Again and again… As many times as it took, to find what she had lost.

    She did not realize that her murmurs would carry and rouse a slumbering creature in a nearby cave. It rolled, grunted, clawed at the soft dirt as it heaved itself upward.

    Footsteps approached her―crunches in the rubble. Then the creature spotted her and shouted aloud.



    "Miss L? MISS L!" Guzma tripped over himself in his scramble to reach her. "Geez! I thought you were done in or somethin'! I―I've been looking for you for forever! Are you all right?!?"

    She breathed out, annoyed, and shushed him.

    Confused, he looked her over. She continued to sit hunched over on the ground. "Uh, what are you doing?"

    Lusamine, apparently realizing he was going to continue interrupting her, pushed herself to her feet and began brushing herself off. Guzma tried to help her, but she batted his hands away.

    "So… You… Ain't been hurt, or nothin'? Have you caught any beasts?"

    She lifted her head, looked at him with an eerily vacant expression, and shook her head. "Who are you? You're not my husband."

    Guzma felt himself fly into a panic. "Ma'am?" He took her by the shoulders and tried to give her a light shake. "Please, listen! It's Guzma, remember? I don't know what the heck's goin' on, but―"

    "...Do you…" Her eyes darkened and she leaned close to him, until her lips breathed warm air on his. "Want to be my husband?"

    "H-hey! Geez!" He pushed her back and had maneuver one of her hands away from a particularly inappropriate region of his body. "Uh-h, look, lady, I think there's something in the air, or the jump crossed some o' your wires, or somethin'..."

    "Nonsense. I have never felt better." She turned around, swaying her head dreamily. "There is so much beauty here. Don't you agree? Oh, I could live here forever!"

    "Ma'am, listen, I'm glad you're enjoying yourself, but, uh―I've been thinkin'―how we supposed to get back, exactly?"

    She cackled, fell into him, and pinched his cheek. "Oh, you darling, silly boy! Why would we do that?"

    ...This did not bode well. He felt his legs shake under him. "But we―gotta get back, you promised, you promised I'd be a kahuna―"

    "I don't know what you're talking about. Now, leave me alone." She broke away, sat primly on a nearby rock, crossed her legs, and refused to go any further. "I wish to stay here… With my precious beasts… Nihilego…" Her eyes trailed upward toward the ceiling. "They're here… They're singing to me…"

    Guzma froze. He strained his hearing, but couldn't hear any sign of them. It was then, though, that he saw the markings on her arm. He stumbled forward desperately, taking hold of her nimble limb. The red blotches―suddenly, everything made sense. "M-miss―oh god, they got to you, didn't they?"

    "Such power… and beauty…" She swooned. "All they want to do is share it with us, darling. Their love..."

    "It's poison, Miss! They got you messed up in the head!"

    She pulled away her arm and chided him. "Oh, whatever do you mean? I told you to go away. I don't need you."

    "Lady!" He stomped his foot down to show his impatience. "I don't care if you have gone nuts! We ain't staying here, and you gonna listen to reason, whether you like it or not!"

    Lusamine tossed her head at him, at first to show her disapproval of his rude talk, but she saw his rash and gasped a loud, pleased gasp. She rose to her feet and practically floated over to him. "Young man…" Her eyes, dark and wet, searched him greedily. "Tell me… What glories did they show you…? What sweet things did you taste…?"

    She reached out, smoothed her fingers over the wounds… He found himself too paralyzed with terror to move.

    "Oh―do you hear it? Guzma." The fact that she suddenly remembered his name didn't comfort him. Her voice turned almost robotic, humming with a tight vibration. The screech of the creatures began again, echoing along the cave's walls. "They're coming back. They want you to stay. Won't you? Guzma."

    She tightened her grip… And he cringed, threw her off, and ran as fast away as he could. "G-get away from me! You're crazy! You're―!"



    He runs, runs.

    He tries not to think about it, but the memory is so fresh and vivid. It springs to life, and he lives through it again as he runs desperately through the dark.

    The sting of its tentacles latching into his arm, the voice that erupted in his head like a drill through his skull. It pulls on him; he fights and it digs in harder.

    Guzma, Guzma,

    Share with us,

    Show us,

    We see anger, anger, anger in you

    Let us share the anger together


    He felt his hands moving on their own, his thoughts thinking on their own. Visions unfurled before him of people he knew, despised, and hated-

    Together, the Nihilego said, crush them, destroy them, make them pay.

    He watched himself do things to them. Horrible, unspeakable, incomprehensible things. He tried to scream out in terror, but his voice laughed instead, a high-pitched, cruel laugh. He tried to stop, but his hands only tore into them with more ferocity.

    Yes, we see what you want, kill, kill, kill,

    Until finally, he had a vision of himself, and his hands enclosed around his own throat, and he watched the life leave his eyes.



    So, here he was. Back to where he started; back to crouching in a hole, miserable, terrified, and trying to stay small and invisible.

    He spent much of the next few hours rocking on his feet and feeling sorry for himself. He had no way home. Lusamine was far gone. Monsters were everywhere, roaming with their eager mouths for prey.

    "I'm gonna die here," he eventually sniveled. He hadn't heard any monsters pass by for what felt like decades, and the silence was starting to drive him crazy, so he talked to himself. "Super job, Guzma. Way to go. Listened to some crazy lady, and now you get to die in some hole―" His stomach growled and he thrusted his arm against it. "Ugh, I'm starving―" More urgently, his voice started to crack from thirst. He'd been walking and running for hours. If he knew this was going to be a one-way trip, he might have packed a water bottle or something.

    He swallowed hard, trying to moisten his dry throat.

    A thought occurred to him. "I wonder if anybody's gonna come for us." This gave him a tiny spark of hope. "Yeah, her kids―maybe Gladion'll―" He shook his head. "Not Gladion. Kid has reason to let us rot." Not that he'd ever admit it, but he was starting to feel guilty for pulling the wool over him. The poor kid probably went through a lot, ran to Team Skull to escape it all, and now Guzma had thrown him back into this mess. "Lillie might." Guzma knew her only from a distance, but she struck him as pure and innocent enough to try and save people who didn't deserve it.

    He shivered from cold. Despite his momentary optimism, no matter how much he wracked his brain, he couldn't think of how they would get here. Opening the wormhole had taken months of preparation.

    For that matter, who would be stupid enough to come here on purpose?



    Lillie was different than he remembered. The last time he saw much of her, she wore that frilly white dress and hat, and a desperate look on her face. She had changed clothes, something a little more sporty, and tied up her hair, but she still had that diminutive, frantic feel to her: like a mouse caught by the tail.

    He told her: your mother's far gone.

    And she said, stiff with determination: I don't care.

    Was this little girl going to out-courage him? Her and that snot-nosed Kanto trainer―were they going to show him up this quickly? While he had cowered in the dark, waiting for death to come in one form or another, they immediately stormed forward into the tunnel to find and extract Lusamine. He started to follow them, but trailed behind in such a way that he could excuse himself. He was thirsty, and hungry, and tired, wasn't he? Hearing the screeching chorus of Nihilego was the last straw for him: he sat himself on a ledge and watched them go.

    In the end, he saw but couldn't hear much of the argument that went on between mother and daughter. He caught the gist, or so he thought: Lusamine didn't want rescuing, preferring the nasty glamour of this world; Lillie accused her of using people and pokemon to her own ends.

    He thought he heard Lillie say his name, followed by pensive silence.

    Please, please wrap this up. He wanted Lillie to give up already. To let the crazy woman lavish her love on monsters for eternity, and bring him home.

    But he couldn't drop his meandering thoughts: his intense memory of the Nihilego's touch, Lusamine's faraway look when he spoke to her, the moans that roused him from his nightmare-fueled sleep―Mohn, where are you, Mohn, can you hear me? All of this wrapped up into a tight, throbbing lump in his throat―all the pity that drove him to help her in the first place. She was sick, that was all. She was lonely and hurt, and he felt that he was the only person in the universe who truly understood that.

    He stood up, suddenly. A desire consumed him―a desire to explain this to them somehow, to try and man-up and fix what he had no doubt enabled by letting Lusamine boss him around. All along, I should have been more assertive, right? If I just told her how I felt, we could have avoided this―

    But his delusion was short-lived. He stepped into the chamber where the argument had quelled for the moment, and witnessed Lusamine release a Nihilego she had captured. He froze. The terror washed over him again. He gripped the wall and watched helplessly.

    Lusamine gazed upon the beast, reached out her arms, and let it slip its arms into hers like the sleeves of a fine silk dress.

    She was merging with it.

    They weren't going to intervene.

    How could they? They were little kids―and that beast―

    Was it courage or cowardice?

    Insanity, or clarity?

    Fight, or flight?

    Whatever it was, the decision he made in that split second sent him crashing forward.

    He felt and heard a series of rapid-fire sensations: the impact of his body against Lusamine, the gelatinous snap of the creature's tentacles as their grip broke, the shredding of his palms when he skidded across the rocky floor, Lusamine screaming at him, Lillie screaming for him, and then, at last, the Nihilego.



    It had changed.

    Its cry had deepened, down from its excitable squeal to an outraged, earth-shattering roar; its body started to swell, darken, and harden with hatred; where its tentacles had broken, black and noxious sludge oozed across the floor.

    Guzma had only a second's worth of time to lift himself and fall onto his back―Lusamine had landed several feet away, conscious and throwing curses at him that he couldn't possibly hear.

    It moved quickly. He only just started to process what was happening, and it was upon him.

    In the darkness, he could see little of its purpling flesh―but by the light filtering from above, he saw its maw opening beneath its melting body―spiralling with delicate fangs glistening with moisture, and spewing a hot and putrid smell that made him woozy. Its wounds splashed sludge on him―it burned where it landed, and he flailed uselessly to avoid it. It hissed, and one of its free tentacles finally lashed out, splitting open his shoulder.

    He screamed hysterically, deliriously―

    The noise exploded in his head.

    GUZMA GUZMA GUZMA

    DIE DIE DIE


    It latched onto his hands, sucking them into its body and twisting them, until he could swear he felt his bones snapping. He tried to aim a kick at its face to free himself, but it anticipated the move, absorbed his leg, and wrapped another tentacle about his throat.

    The teeth-like spines buried into his neck, sending a surge of pain and venom through him all over again. He convulsed, screamed.

    Faintly, he heard Lillie screaming, too. "Mr. Guzma!"

    His vision darkened, his hearing and blood vessels popped, and slowly, slowly, he felt his lungs seize shut.



    "Please help us! Nebby―!"



    Whirling.

    Something shined, enveloping them in harsh light, and knocked both him and the beast through the air. The tentacle around his throat dissolved into a soupy mush, allowing him to gasp for breath; his hands and feet, too, freed themselves to whip around as he first flew and then fell back down to earth. With a thud and a crunch, he landed onto the floor.

    His vision hadn't straightened, leaving everything around him fuzzy and indistinct, but he could make out a white, cloudy shape that must be Lillie. She ran up to him. "Mr. Guzma!" He felt her take his hands and help him stagger to his feet.

    Loud crashing boomed behind them. The monster and the legendary beast tangled against the cave wall, smashing into its rock face, biting, roaring, hissing.

    Lillie must have had a better view of the fight than he did, because she gasped with concern. "Nebby―!"

    Countless Nihilego appeared around them, all shrieking their protest. The floor shook and the walls crumbled. Everything was falling apart around them.

    ...And Lusamine stood to her feet, drenched with rage.

    Guzma, still shuddering from the agony of the venom's effects, didn't see her coming. She flung herself at him, pulling on his shirt and shoving him against the wall.

    "You idiot! Sniveling coward! What have you done to my beautiful beast!"

    "Mother, stop!"

    "Everything!" She screamed in his face. "You've ruined everything!"

    The monster and the legendary beast gave one last throttle against the far wall, sending a shockwave of breakage throughout the room. The three of them felt the cave floor moving out from under them―the wall Lusamine had backed him into fell away, pouring into a hollow shaft below―

    Lusamine and Guzma fell together, and Lillie, jumping at the last minute to safety, cried after them.



    The strange thing was, beyond the sensation of falling, he didn't feel much. Guzma was aware of the rocks grinding through him, bashing his skull and arms and torso as he stumbled further and further down the cave shaft. He was aware, too, of his holding onto Lusamine tightly, feeling her pained writhing as she endured the same beating. It was as if, he decided―as he had a lot of time to think during this fall―his brain had felt the maximum amount of pain for the day, dulling everything else.

    They fell―and smashed―and fell some more―until the bottom of the hole swallowed them, immersing them in something deathly cold, thick, and silent.

    It took a few seconds for him to realize what it was.

    Water.



    For a time, he considered staying there.

    The icy cold washed against his skin and bones, numbing the pains, soothing his eyes and throat, cleansing him. He floated, his mind going dark and peacefully quiet.

    He almost surrendering to it, letting it take him. He let out a breath, and watched it dimly float up to the surface and disappear…

    A white and gold angel drifted above him...



    His survival instinct finally kicked in, pumping his legs and arms. He flailed, spun, clawed―felt his breath running out and burning his lungs. He was just now regretting holding the dubious honor of being the single worst swimmer to have been born and raised on a tropical island. Fortunately, instinct for it proved strong enough to send him to the surface.

    As he broke through and gasped for breath, he suddenly realized he had lost Lusamine. He spun around, spotted her drifting afloat a few feet away―face-down.

    "Miss L!" The black water filled his mouth, briefly choking him. He paddled desperately in her direction, cursing his sluggishness, but eventually managed to flip her over and scoop her into his arms.

    Lusamine's body rag-dolled in his grip, limp and lifeless; her head lolled back against his shoulder. Water sputtered from her mouth, though, signifying that she still breathed.

    The tunnel they had fallen into had even less light than the cavern above, making it impossible to see if there was any hard surface to retreat to. Guzma had to guess, paddling slowly with one arm in a random direction. It took an excruciating amount of time―in his exhaustion, it felt like hours―but his feet finally touched bedrock, and he was able to claw around in the dark to find solid ground.

    He hoisted her onto shore, dropped her, and panted, desperate to catch his breath. He noticed the handbag strap tangling up against her neck, so he unlooped and removed it from her, deciding he'd better carry it in her stead.

    It was surprisingly hefty over his shoulder; he opened the bag, just to satisfy his curiosity. The beast balls were all still there, if a bit soggy from the trip. He recalled the first time he saw them and picked one up in the lab, to the detriment of Faba's heart condition―young man, that is worth more money than you've ever known, put it down this instant!!

    Lusamine moaned. He jumped, shut up the bag, and knelt down next to her. "Miss L?"

    She didn't speak, only turning her head to the side.

    "You―you feelin' okay?" He pushed his hand under her head to lift her, and felt a sizable lump on her skull. He winced. "Your head―"

    She rolled her head to face him. Her eyes just barely opened and had a faint glimmer of recognition. "...Guzma."

    "I'm sorry!" he blurted, upon seeing her eyes meeting his. "Miss L, I― I freaked, I wasn't thinking right, I―"

    A random cluster of synapses fired. She reached up, smoothed her hand over his cheek, and smiled at him. "My… beautiful boy…"

    She fell limp and unconscious. His heart wrenched so hard, he could swear it was trying to turn itself inside-out.



    Guzma felt―approximately―like he had been put through a blender. Wet, battered, scraped, choked, burned, stabbed, woozy, a little nauseous, and sore. Someday, he thought, I'm gonna write down everything I'm feeling right now, and it's gonna be a world record for misery.

    "I better―" He staggered over to the pool and puked a little into the water, easing his nausea somewhat. "Ugh, I better be getting paid for this."

    Guzma sat down on the ground. It was about all he was physically capable of doing for the moment. Off in the distance, rumbling still wracked the walls; a rush of air, dust, and rubble crashed through the chute, spewing into the water where they had fallen in. He flinched.

    "Geez. What's goin' on up there―?"

    He bunched himself up again, a bit uselessly―he was soaked to the bone, and wouldn't be warming up any time soon―but the frigid temperature of the water passed after a few minutes, allowing the pain at his neck to start again. He nervously poked at it. The flesh was tender and sore, pimpled with some sort of cyst-like bumps that bled if he pressed too hard.

    "Aw, god."

    He could feel the venom traveling again, crawling and biting through his veins. He sat very still, worried that moving around would just spread it further―or faster.

    Then he heard a faint voice echoing down the chute. "Mr. Guzma!" Silence for a moment, then more urgently, "Mother! Mr. Guzma!"

    Lillie's voice. He thought about crawling over to the chute to return her call, but the very idea pained him, so he sucked in as much air as possible and gave a good yell, hoping it would reach her. "We're―" His voice cracked. He coughed. "We're here!"

    "Are you hurt? Is Mother all right?"

    He decided not to go into detail. "We're okay!"

    For a few seconds, she must have been debating or discussing with someone. After a bit of back-and-forth, she yelled down, "Please, stay where you are! We'll find a way to you!"

    He did not have the iota of energy left to respond affirmatively; he mumbled something, slumped against Lusamine's unconscious body, and might have nodded off on the spot if he hadn't heard something.

    Out of the shadows… He suddenly realized they weren't alone. All the noise of screaming, crashing, and splashing must have gotten something's attention.

    Maybe… If I stay completely still… It won't see me.

    Then he saw it.

    With every blink, the venom coursing through him played games with him, causing him to hallucinate different horrors: he saw the creature rip his head from his body, he saw it breathing fire, he saw it grow additional heads, he saw it growing in size, he even heard it screaming his name and confronting him with every sin he had ever committed. Finally, he resolved to keep his eyes open, forcing himself to stare at it and see it as it was. It pulsated, red and strange in the dark, but gradually, a steady shape remained. It was tall, bulbous, somehow insect-like in its movement.

    He heard it―for real this time―growl and creep forward.

    Everything in Guzma's body told him to run. Adrenaline gave him the boost to scramble upright, and his feet even acted on their own, turning the other way, but he saw and remembered Lusamine. He couldn't leave her here. He was in no condition to carry her. He was the only thing standing between it and an unconscious her.

    The creature took another step in the soft dirt.

    No more running. No more hiding. He grit his teeth, sweating bullets, and threw himself back around. He screamed, "Stop right there!"

    To his genuine surprise, it hesitated.

    This emboldened him to embrace the insanity. He crossed his arms and laughed. "Who you think you comin' up against?"

    It shuffled closer.

    But he didn't budge. He planted his feet and wildly pumped his arms as he roared, "You stinkin' monster! Don't you know anything? This here's big, bad Guzma! And I ain't afraid of nothing or nobody!"

    The beast whirred, grinding its limbs and wings with an increasingly loud, threatening grumble. It took yet another, exploratory step forward.

    He grinned broadly, sweat pouring down his face. "Gotta hand it to you, you got guts! I like that!" He pulled the handbag forward against his hip; his hands shook so badly he could hardly open it, much less find the coordination to pick up a single ball and hold it in his hand. "But let's see… What you got…"

    His memories after hurling the beast ball were decidedly fuzzy: he remembered, faintly, a sizzle, a crash, something warm in his hand, and darkness, darkness, darkness, punctuated with flashes of lightning.

    This time, when he falls, the soup that is his consciousness swirls deeply. No more half-measures―it goes down, all the way, until he cannot wake up.



    In his dream, there's pain. Agonizing pain.

    And then there is open air, fresh in his lungs.

    He sees―or thinks he sees―hands stooping over his body, lifting him, and then he feels―or thinks he feels―the dry warmth of a bed.

    The pain doesn't leave yet―

    ―But it's safe, and he sinks, and he sleeps.



    When Guzma awakened, he felt sunlight prickling his hands. He moved slightly, rustling against a heavy blanket weighing down his chest. His eyes peeled open, revealing a cream-colored ceiling glowing with sunlight that filtered through a large-panel window above his head.

    He heard birds. The whirr of insects.

    He tried to move again, but it was as if his body hadn't been used in centuries; it dragged stiffly, almost impossibly. He barely had the strength to turn his head against his pillow. He gave the room a quick examination. He didn't recognize it; the walls were some kind of adobe, there were bookshelves, a dresser… A Meowth curled up in another bed.

    The unfamiliarity of the room drove him to try and get up again. He heaved himself upward. He kept expecting pain to flare through, stabbing into him all over again, but it never came. All that remained was a crippling exhaustion and stiffness from sleeping too long.

    Just as he successfully propped himself up against the headboard, the door at the far end of the room opened.

    Guzma, at a loss for who it could possibly be, grabbed the bed cover, as if it could actually do anything to fend off an enemy.

    A little girl walked in. He didn't recognize her. She was tiny, dark-skinned, big-haired, and wore elaborate riding wear; she didn't enter very attentively, but when she saw him awake, her expression brightened with a smile. "Well, good morning, big fellow!"

    He was so confused that he couldn't return her greeting. She didn't seem to mind―she strode over to his bedside, and was so short that he had to look steeply downward to meet her eyes, even while he was sitting on the bed.

    "You're finally awake. I really am relieved!"

    It was then that his brain chose to notice he wasn't wearing any clothing beyond his boxer shorts. He tried to bunch the bed-cover over himself a bit more thoroughly.

    "I don't believe we've formally met. You're the leader of Team Skull, aren't you? The regalia you wore around your neck made that obvious enough. Guzma's your name, isn't it?"

    "Uh, yeah." He still felt dizzy; the colors of the room whirled. "You.. You're…"

    "I'm Hapu. The kahuna of Poni Island."

    "Ka… Kahuna…?" He had to squint at her. A small girl? A kahuna? For that matter―Poni Island? He twisted himself, trying to put his feet to the floor.

    Hapu stepped forward, easing him back by his shoulders. "Easy there, friend. I don't think you ought to get up; you've been through a lot."

    "How long was I―?"

    "This is your third morning here. Grandmother says it took until late last night for your fever to break."

    Three days? It was already worse than he thought. "And―and, Miss… Lusamine, where is―?"

    "The Aether President?" Hapu pondered this deeply, shutting her eyes as she recalled it. "It was the most shocking thing. As we descended the mountain, an Aether Foundation helicopter swooped down to evacuate her for emergency medical assistance. Her condition was not as poor as yours, you see, but she was still unconscious."

    "Her," he muttered, heartbroken, "but not me."

    Hapu studied his crushed expression, but had no way of understanding how much this meant to him. This, for Guzma, was final evidence of his verdict: unforgiven. Left behind. Discarded, like used-up rubbish.

    Hapu shook her head. "We brought you here―my home in Poni Valley. Grandmother is a skilled herbalist; Lillie entrusted your health to her capable hands."

    "...Lillie?"

    "Oh, yes. She stayed here the first night. The poor dear. She could hardly bear to leave your side."

    He didn't expect this gesture of loyalty, and at first it baffled him.

    Hapu saw his confusion and tried to answer for it. "She said you saved her mother's life."

    "I didn't…" He turned to the window bitterly. "I didn't save nobody."

    She watched him, unsure of what to say, and eventually changed the topic. "I think you should know: the International Police also stopped by while you were still unconscious. They wanted you for questioning, so naturally, we had to turn them away. I don't know what sort of trouble you're in, but you ought to contact them as soon as you're up to it."

    She really was a naive kid. He nodded. "Uh, right. Sure. I guess… A lot's gone on, huh?"

    "These have been strange times. Those wormholes that opened so suddenly… Those beasts running rampant, causing all sorts of chaos… Rumors surrounding Aether… No one seems to have an answer."

    "...The beasts...?" Guzma had assumed Aether would have snapped them up by now.

    "Trainers from all around have tried to fight and capture them, to no avail. The tapu have done their best to drive them from residential areas, but… It truly is a quandary."

    Now, this definitely struck him as odd. He frowned as he mulled it over.

    Hapu seemed to realize something, and clapped her hands together. "I'm sorry! Here I am, talking on and on when you must be famished. Grandmother told me you haven't kept much down, aside from the occasional broth. Would you like something to eat?"

    "Yeah, sure―"

    Hapu turned for the door, and he called after her.

    "But―hey, kid!"

    She didn't correct him for his improper form of address, only looked at him questioningly.

    "Where are my clothes, an' all?"

    Hapu interpreted his agitation as an effort to leave and put a hand on her hip. "I still think you ought to focus on resting. As for your belongings, they are safely under your bed, if you wish to check on them. I'll tell Grandmother you're awake―we'll bring food shortly."



    When she left, he dug his hand under the bed awkwardly, grappling for whatever he could pull out. He slid out his jacket, his bling, his pants (pokeballs safely attached), his watch―he did pluck the watch up to check if it still worked. Its glass face, unsurprisingly, sported a large crack, but it made ticking sounds and looked to be in working order.Thank god. He slipped it onto his wrist.

    Then his hands felt and pulled on something large and leathery.

    ...Well, this was odd. This wasn't his―

    "Handbag."

    The white and gold handbag.

    He slid it out, stared at it for a second, then felt a powerful wave of realization.

    "Holy―"

    He yanked it upward, landing it in his lap. He unzipped it, opened it. The beast balls.

    His heart leaped. He could have wept with relief. "They're here," he whispered to himself. "They're all here!" He passed his fingers through them, just to prove they weren't the product of his fevered brain. They were smooth and warm to the touch.

    ...A thought struck him, then. Was this why...? Had Lusamine put all her proverbial eggs in one basket―was he holding her entire supply? Perhaps upon returning to Aether, and realizing she no longer had them, she assumed they had been lost in the inter-dimensional scuffle, never to be recovered. If that was true...

    He grinned, scooping the bag up with his arms and clinging it to his chest. The beast balls glistened with promise.

    "I can still fix this... I still have a chance…"


    Guzma could see the future out in front of him and could not wait to bury his teeth into it.

    -

     
    Last edited: Mar 31, 2018
  12. TheAlpar

    TheAlpar Journey Enthusiast

    Well... holy crap, what even the...

    That's about as abrupt a jump from chapter to chapter as I've ever seen. And... honestly? It doesn't bother me in the slightest. For a little while I tried to think of what we could've missed but... I think you covered all the essentials pretty well. Sure, we could've have a lot more chapters before this, but they weren't 100% necessary. I like that you jumped right into what was important, and now I can see the true point of this entire fic.

    I cannot wait to see what Guzma battling the Ultra Beasts will be like; I'm exctatic to see it :D

    Again your prose shines through with this chapter; the entirety of Guzma's misery in this place is very believable and I can almost feel it alongside him. Great job; seriously.
     
  13. dietofwurms

    dietofwurms i see stars

    Chapter 6: Hunter

    Every child in Alola, at some point, is taught the stories of the Little People, the Menehune, who live deep in the islands' forests. These tiny people, analogous to the myths of trolls or elves, were said to have built the mysterious rock formations sometimes found in hidden valleys and meadows; they burrowed into mountain-sides, hunted game, and played wicked tricks on any who dared venture alone in the woods. These stories were never told in earnest―by the time most children learned them, they were too old to believe in them. It was just another way for parents to tease their children―don't go too far, or the Little People might catch you!

    It's strange, though, how stories not believed can haunt you.

    Guzma hadn't thought about the Menehune in what―fifteen years?―but here, in the rainy depths of Mount Hokulani's forests, feeling the freezing rain slide down his back, his eyes tracing the evening shadows of wind-blown trees, he thought of them again. In fact, he could have sworn he had seen one.

    He breathed out fog through his half-mask and shivered. His mind, feeble with hunger and exhaustion, played tricks on him. It was easy to see figures in the moving shadows and mist; it was easy to hear the trickling raindrops falling from leaves as small bare feet scuttling over the ground. He thought he heard goblin-giggling, foul mischief-plotting whispers, the rattle of spears tipped with sharpened teeth. In his mania, the glints from splashed rain even appeared like beady, hungry eyes.

    His eyelid twitched, and he shook his head to clear the cobwebs. He squatted, pulling his hood tighter over his head and fixing the position of the goggles over his face―eventually giving up on making them comfortable and pulling them down around his neck. No one around anyway. The nearest road with any potential witnesses was a good half-mile away, far north from where he intended to go.

    From the mountainside, he can look out, down past the tips of the trees, and see the looming walls of Po Town.

    He muttered a curse, heaving his backpack, and took a step down into the valley.

    Guzma had been out here for too long and too alone.

    But it was getting dark, and he had a long way to go.

    In the past weeks of traveling, hunting, and running, Guzma had learned much. Among his lessons: his adolescence had not prepared him for the roughness of living in the wilderness; he could not stand being alone; the beasts terrified him more than he could have ever anticipated; and last, the beasts could sense one another and, for reasons he didn't understand, him.

    Though he had no way to confirm his theory, he assumed it was smell, or something like smell. Maybe the beasts picked up on each other's scent, and after a visit to Ultra Space, he smelled like them, too.

    It meant his strategy was the same tonight. Bait, and track―walk in a wide perimeter in a hot zone, and then use his own beast to finally flush the other beast out.
    Incidentally, this strategy had failed not once, but twice so far this week.

    (He was getting really, really tired of these sopping, soggy, fog-laden woods. His socks, even under his heavy boots, soaked through by the first morning, and had been wet ever since.)

    Finally, Guzma stopped, looked about the familiar patch of forest that he had circulated so many times before, and plucked a ball from his pocket.

    "Alright, Lady, you're up."

    When Pheromosa materialized before him―prim, ethereal, elegant, glowing―he didn't waste any time. He slouched toward the ground and gave her a determined look.

    "You know what to do."

    Then he waited.

    The roach beast did not offer a nod or any other expression he might have received from a pokemon, but she slowly straightened her form, craning her slender neck upward in an attentive manner. Her sweeping antennae twitched and flowed ribbon-like in the breeze; she took small, deliberate steps to turn herself in every direction. Her transparent, milky carapace dripped with rain, and the faint light she emitted made the winding droplets sparkle in the darkness of the evening like fine crystals. She looked. Waited. Looked another direction. Pondered. She did, for a moment, look in his direction, but not at him―her purple gaze was so focused on her task, that she looked through him, like he was a speck in her field of vision.

    Guzma didn't rush her.

    She stepped westward, but he didn't let himself get excited. She was adjusting her position―that was all. He followed her carefully down a rocky incline, watching his step but also keeping his eyes on her.

    The two of them walked a crooked path, cutting through the trees, stopping occasionally. It must have been a solid ten, fifteen minutes before Pheromosa froze, lifted her antennae in a stiff arch, and locked her gaze in a cardinal direction.

    Guzma started digging in his jacket pocket, fiddling with the beast balls resting there, and let out a hot, anxious breath. She felt it. He recognized the posturing as clearly as if she had screamed it. His ears filled with the frenzied beating of his heart.

    When she started to bend down, limbs tense, he had to whisper to her. If he let her, she would shoot out into the night like a comet and never be seen again.

    "Easy… Easy…" He licks the dryness from his lips. "Wait for me."

    Evening had come. It became dark―truly dark. And they crept their way along the incline, deeper and deeper into nowhere, deeper in the direction of a Wild One.

    When he first encountered the creature days ago, he underestimated it. Its tiny stature and papery wings made it appear fragile and easily subdued. But it went on the make a fool out of him for the next three days.

    He had a plan this time, though. A good plan. He wouldn't be caught off guard again.
    By the glow of Pheromosa's body, he could see a little, and he spent every step looking about, keeping his eyes peeled. Her antennae continued to twitch intensely, so he knew it had to be close.

    -

    The Kartana folded itself into a flat, straight shape beneath the dripping leaves.

    In its brain, if one can call the vague stimulation and energy that drives its body a 'brain', it understood very little. Its processes primarily functioned to intake stimuli and respond appropriately―to run from pain, danger, heat, moisture―to attack aggressors―to sense and seek out sustenance. And ultimately, it had thrived in its world. Ultra Space offered the safety of dark, a thick and consistent atmosphere rich with minerals, and barren rock into which it could nest. But since coming to this world, snatched by the sudden opening, it suffered for its maladaptation. Here, the atmosphere was wet, dynamic, and thin; light blinded it by day; every surface it rested on crawled overcrowded with fauna and flora, some of it microscopic but nonetheless pervasive.

    The Kartana did not feel fear―its brain was nowhere near advanced enough to produce such an emotion―but it flattened, readied its golden-tipped wings, and listened to the steps of the creatures that came near, each of them vibrating with the tempting wormhole energy. One idea shivered through its neural processor, giving it life: home.

    -

    Guzma looked up at the branch and let out an excited shout.

    "There!" Before he gave himself time to think, he fell forward, wrestling his goggles back on. "Lady―!"

    And he saw her go―a white streak of light into the black woods.

    He yelped and broke into a full breakneck run after her. His head felt light, his body protested, and his heart pounded like it would at any moment break out of his chest. But he went, and hollered as loud as he could between his gasps for air. "Go, just go, just get it!"

    Guzma's eyes had adjusted to the dark, enough to slam himself successfully through the brush, dodging trees, heavy branches, and other obstacles. He felt rain and branches whipping him in the face―those goggles weren't only a disguise―but he steeled himself and strained his vision. Off in the narrow distance, he could see the faint white blurs that were the beasts, clashing, chasing, and rushing one another. He pumped his legs as hard as he possibly could, until his lungs started popping from the strain, and he still felt himself falling behind.

    "Bring it back! Back, you hear me!?"

    Screeches, slices in the air―he hears impacts whistling through the trees. Wooden crashes fill the forest as trunks are toppled and cut apart; birds flee into the air in panicked flocks.

    His biggest nemesis in the chase, as usual, was not the dark or the winding pathways, but the moisture: the loose earth crumbled under his feet, stumbling him; hills sank, mud sucked on his feet, and rocks, slick with rain, slipped his feet out from under him. But he had learned to fumble his way through it―thrust his arms wildly out to collect his balance, move with the falls, slide with the collapsing hills―hit the ground hard, batter himself countless times, but throw himself back up to keep running. He lands badly on his ankle, he slips and bangs his hip on a rock face he doesn't see, but he grunts, and he pushes, pushes, pushes himself through the woods.

    Finally, his frantic running and all the bruises that came with it paid off.

    -

    Pheromosa and Kartana shared strength and speed. Neither found an upper-hand straight away, each landing blows that winded the other: the roach swung her agile legs, kicking it against rocky earth and wood. And the origami figure swirled through the air, delivering cuts to her flowing carapace and knocking her back.

    They circled in a small clearing, eyeing one another, burning with alien desire and frenzy.

    Guzma, breaking out of the woods, witnessed this circling and took it as a sign. He fumbled backwards, crouching into the brush to observe from afar.

    "A'ight. So…" He dug around his pocket, drawing out the glittering blue beast ball. He pressed it briefly to his forehead, as if attempting a psychic connection. "Zap, I swear to god. Do not screw this up for me. Got it?!"

    He shut his eyes and gave a silent, earnest little prayer for this to work.

    "Okay."

    He crossed his fingers, too, just to be safe.

    "Zap, you're up."

    As Xurkitree emerged, he took an instinctive step backward. Too many times, he had suffered for standing too close and taking a hit of static electricity; it always crackled lively as it first unwrapped itself and stood on its corded legs. It stood tall―taller than Guzma liked―and swayed its limbs freely. He tried to get its attention, but with its blank, spiked head, he could never tell if the creature was legitimately looking at him.

    Guzma puffed his chest and summoned his most authoritative voice. "Alright―listen up! Lady's got this one on the run―so I need you to―"

    ...And almost immediately, the Xurkitree wobbled its arms and began ambling towards the tree trunk directly behind Guzma, even nudging him out of the way with its thick, rubbery tail.

    He had to stumble to keep his footing. "Zap, where are you―hey!"

    With a curious, electrical burble, it lifted its arms and began to tug and crawl its way into the tree branches.

    "Get―get down from there! Hey! I'm talkin' to you! I didn't say―"

    Branches snapped under the pressure of its feet, sending sticks and leaves tumbling onto Guzma's head. He ducked, dodged, and swore profusely. Finally, Xurkitree seemed to have found its place, settling and perching on a large branch some thirty feet above the ground. Rather than express any interest on what happened below, the beast hummed, playfully rocked its sitting place, and explored the leaves with its copper fingers.

    "Ugh!" This was exactly what he was afraid of. Guzma growled and tugged at his own hair, cursed, then shook a finger at it like a disobedient puppy. "B-bad! Very bad! Understand?!"

    It made a buzzing, hissing noise, and wrapped another rope of cords about an adjoining branch, solidifying its hold. (These beasts―he could never tell if they were hearing him, feeling the impact of his words, feeling any emotions―)

    "That's it! When―when this is all over, you're in big trouble, hear me? You're gonna hurt, I swear it!"

    Xurkitree showed what it thought of that threat by spitting a blue snap of lightning below it, landing right before his feet. He scrambled backwards; he could swear he heard its sizzling giggles.

    He knew it was going to make matters worse, but he still lost his temper, stomping the ground and screaming at it. "You think that's funny, huh?! Just wait! I'm gonna bust your bulb so bad―!"

    ―Another snap of electricity at his feet, another yelp, and then their little feud was interrupted.

    The Kartana flew, slamming into a nearby tree and spraying splinters everywhere. Guzma flinched, covering his face, so that he could hear, but not see, the impact of Pheromosa crashing into the tree as well. He collapsed and crawled momentarily for safety, but as soon as he found cover, the two creatures had flown off again, continuing to pound each other.

    He wheezed from the dust, but did not give up on his recalcitrant beast. "You see that?" he shouted up into the tree. "All I need! Just hit that paper dude! As hard as you can! I think that'll be enough!"

    His pleading worked―or perhaps the proximity to the fight stirred up its innate desire to battle. In any case, Xurkitree swung upward, buzzed emphatically, and lifted its arms to the storm-clouds above. It all happened devastatingly fast: a rumble in the clouds, a flash, sparks raining down on Guzma's head, the sharp smell of burning wood―

    Lightning licked out, crackling and lapping up a path on the shuddering ground. Pheromosa squealed in protest after narrowly escaping its trajectory. When the first bolt dissipated, more bolts rained down randomly, crashing into stones and brush and trees.

    "Aim! Aim, you stupid―!"

    Just when Guzma was sure the whole forest was going to set fire, the Kartana whirled into the air, poised for a fast turn, and was lit up, a needle at the end of a thread of white lightning.

    Guzma expected a scream―some show of pain. But the current of electricity faded, and the Kartana twirled silently for a moment, drifting, floating downward. Then, at last, it fell to the ground and went still.

    Guzma didn't waste a single second: he bolted, dug around for a free beast ball, and chucked it. All the possibilities flew through his head―things that could go wrong―for a second, he thought his luck and fortune were about to evaporate, some natural cataclysm ready to crash down on top of him―

    But the ball made contact, took it in, glowed and shook, and―locked.

    When he jogged over to it, he still trembled, like some tension hadn't relieved yet. He approached, shakily picked it up with both hands, felt its warmth between his palms...

    -

    Guzma shrieked. "HA! YES! OH MY GOD!" With no one around to watch, he exploded into hooting, screaming, hopping around, and in general making a gigantic fool out of himself. He pumped his fists in the air, kicked up rubble, kissed the beast ball passionately. "THOUGHT I COULDN'T DO IT, HUH? BUT YOUR BOY DID! THAT'S RIGHT! ME!"

    In his relief, he fell to his knees and laughed hysterically.

    "I DID IT! I FINALLY DID IT―!"

    ―Then, abruptly, his laughter faded. He looked around himself. All the joy sucked out of him, replaced with a strange sense of dread.

    Something wasn't right.

    -

    He heard something in the forest―his mind, in a tizzy, thinks again about the Menehune and their rustling bodies―

    Pheromosoa still ran wild, her long legs propelling her into a cluster of trees; Xurkitree still clung to its top branch, screeching and throwing bolts down at random spots on the ground.

    Then he saw it. Something else―the thing both his beasts were pursuing in their madness―and it was coming straight for him.

    ―He was wrong.

    Devastatingly wrong.

    There were two of them.

    -

    The second Kartana aimed for his head. It was strange, realizing that and thinking, if I don't dodge this, my head's gone, it's gonna fly off mid-air, land a few feet away, roll a bit―

    Guzma threw himself onto the ground, bracing his arms over his head, and heard the whistle of sweeping metal pass within inches above him, leaving him unharmed.

    He screamed frantically, thinking it might come back around. He just barely managed not to sob from terror. "Lady! LADY!"

    He thought he heard her coming―the distant thudding of her feet―but he also heard another sound, more pertinent and sharp. Like a thunder-clap, a loud creaking of a rusty hinge, a series of popping noises that came faster and louder as he listened. Fearing that getting up meant another near-miss decapitation, he moved his arms to peer about his surroundings while still on the ground.

    He saw, too late, the growing shape of a tree cut down by the Kartana's wing, the trunk collapsing and falling in his direction. He panicked, pushed himself up―lost his footing in the mud, costing him even more precious seconds before he was doomed to be crushed―and felt a hard impact at his back. He briefly enjoyed the sensation of being carried through the cold, misty air.

    Though Pheromosa had successfully snatched him, and though they had jumped some far distance, the tree's outer branches still crashed around them, snaring his body; a series of lightning-loud snaps filled his ears; whip-like branches lashed and cut into his legs and arms. He shouted and struggled against the pain, nearly causing her to lose her grip.

    The ground shook, rubble and mud sprayed, but they landed relatively unharmed. It took a few seconds of his thrashing around to untangle them both from the leaves.

    "We gotta―" Guzma tried to speak, but he gasped for air so hard that it got to be impossible to get words out. He gripped his chest and wheezed. "We gotta― we gotta―!" He tried pointing with his free hand, gesticulating frantically in the direction of the wild beast's escape.

    Pheromosa gave him an expression that he highly suspected meant, are you serious?

    He caught his breath enough to angrily rebuke her. "Can't―let it get away!"

    Though badly shaken, Guzma stumbled over the rest of the downed tree and tried to start running for it. It became quickly apparent, though, that he had spent the last of his energy; he dragged, huffed, and staggered to a halt. He looked back at Pheromosa, who still stood where he had left her.

    "Whatta you waiting for?"

    But Guzma knew that it was over. The wild beast had run, no doubt at the peak of its strength; Xurkitree still dangled in its respective tree, having gotten bored of the whole affair and not receptive to orders; Pheromosa had done more than her share for the night; and Guzma had almost died twice.

    This was it.

    He felt his denial melt away, and anger blister through him.

    "Stupid―stupid!"

    He didn't have the energy to throw a tantrum, but he did give a nearby rock a solid kick.

    -

    "So…"

    Guzma drew his gaze up ahead.

    It had been a long walk back to camp―longer than he remembered it ever being―but he couldn't tell if the distance was longer or his steps were sagging. The trudge could take forever if he let himself retrace every mistake he made.

    Pheromosa walked carefully ahead of him, there primarily to illuminate his path, though as always, there was a selfish motive to his freeing her. He liked watching her. He liked trying to talk to her.

    "Thanks for saving me."

    He tells her this, even though it isn't necessary. Pheromosa, as if she knew this, didn't stop to acknowledge his gratitude.

    "I woulda been mincemeat―" He decided to change the subject. "Hey, at least we got the one, right? So we've got half the job done―and I think that'll be―"

    Pheromosa had yet to slow down, turn her head, or make a sound.

    He scratched his head. Why was it that every time he talked to her, it felt like a date that was going really badly?

    -

    Camp, as he called it, resembled very little of the tented variety―he had no fire, no constructed shelter, and no amenities that might accompany a more accomplished survivalist. All that he had claimed for himself was a narrow cave up along the mountainside, high enough to ward off casual hikers and covered by a thick enough layer of trees to obscure anyone's view of the place from below. The cave was a narrow opening in the bedrock and not particularly deep, but there was space enough, and most importantly, it stayed dry even in the harsh weather.

    The rain had steadied by the time they reached camp, spilling streams of water over the mountainside, so it took some careful maneuvering of his feet not to slip and break his head open. He prayed Pheromosa was paying attention.

    Upon successfully hoisting himself onto the ledge, and crawling upward to the entrance of the cave, he noticed one thing out of place. Golisopod sat on its haunches, wedged into the cave's mouth, and appeared to be garbling its displeasure.

    Guzma got closer, looked it over, and shook his head in aggravation. "Did you find anything?"

    Golisopod squawked bitterly and tried to wedge in harder, away from the rain.

    "Did you even try?"

    Golisopod stomped huffily, which he interpreted as a sarcastic 'what do you think?'

    He looked quickly about. The others―his Ariados, his Masquerain, his Pinsir―were nowhere to be seen. Presumably, they were still foraging and eating, as he instructed them to. They had adapted to their new circumstances, even making a game out of it. But Golisopod, he now regrettably realized, was too spoiled rotten and lazy to be told to take care of itself. It shunned the berries and the edible flora of the wilds, preferring to hassle Guzma for his limited prepackaged goods.

    Guzma let himself get irritated. "Fine! I guess you're starving then, huh?"

    Though Golisopod grunted and complained after him, he stalked past it to throw down his backpack on the cave floor. He let out a heavy, echoing groan and spilled his body down to the ground. He lay there for several minutes, until his head spun and threatened to sleep.

    "Nuh," he grunted, rolling over. "Not yet, not yet―"

    There had to be something to think about, something to do. He could dwell on his failure tonight, or his brief moment of success, but that could keep him up all night.

    He looked back out the mouth of the cave. Golisopod had settled against the wall, pouting. But beyond that, outside, Guzma could see "Lady" standing a little ways off, her carapace puffed up over her head to shield her from the rain.

    Guzma had never been very creative in naming things, and his nicknames for the beasts, in lieu of knowing their technical ones, revealed this: "The Big Guy," "Lady," "Zap," "Rocket," "Muncher," and of course the dreaded "Jellyfish."

    He hadn't worked with all of them. Most of them spelled trouble. "Rocket" was the size of a tower and could probably scorch a city with a sneeze, and "Muncher" the size of a house; he didn't bring out "Jellyfish" for obvious reasons. So he was left with "The Big Guy," whom he distrusted intensely (it was hard to trust a creature when your first memory of it, even if it was merely a venom-induced hallucination, was seeing it rip your head from your body), and "Zap," who had proven tonight to be as uncontrollable as ever.

    And then, there was "Lady."

    Guzma could not decide whether he loved her or feared her the most. There were so many disturbing and hauntingly beautiful parts to her. Her bipedal body, slim and elegant, stood only a few inches shorter than him, making her both easy to interact with and a little too eerily human. Her large, purple eyes would watch him steadily with an impenetrable emotion―perhaps curiosity, perhaps affection, perhaps something… else. Certainly, she was the calmest of the beasts, the easiest to control, and listened most carefully to him, but she remained… Cold. Set apart. Resistant to touch, even after weeks of building trust. Almost deathly silent, aside from the occasional, child-like coo. In the evenings, if he allowed her to, she would stand on some precipice away from them, staring out into the stars with heartbreaking longing. As if this world and all its inhabitants, including him, did not meet her standards.

    No wonder he called her "Lady"―no wonder he sometimes slipped out a "Miss," or "Ma'am."

    Though she could come off as a bit snobbish, he had consistent fits of pity for her. So when he saw her now drenched in the rain, he couldn't stop himself from getting up, throwing his hood over his head, and approaching her.

    He stood next to her silently at first to warm her up to his presence.

    "You wanna get out of the rain?"

    Pheromosa stood perfectly still, like she hadn't heard him.

    "You could… You know… The cave's got plenty of room."

    She regarded his words by turning her head slowly, giving the cave a critical eye, and tensing. Puzzled by her reaction, he turned, too, and found her and Golisopod staring at each other uneasily.

    "Tch! C'mon!" He let out a frustrated growl. "We talked about this!" He still hadn't much luck getting any of his beasts to interact with his pokemon. Whenever he freed the beasts and pokemon near each other, they would glare and hiss, scuttle away from one another, raise their respective hackles, and not budge an inch closer, no matter how he pleaded or bribed or threatened. "Look, he won't hurt you. He's just dumb."

    She looked at him, then at Golisopod, then at him again―fluttered her eyes like he was nothing―and, unmoved, turned back to look over the valley.

    "...Whatever. The others are out looking for grub. Maybe you oughtta go, too."

    She didn't respond. Something off in the distance had captivated her; he tried to figure out what it was, but had no success.

    "...Or-r-r, you wanna hang with somebody else? I could, uh, bring out The Big Guy. Seein' as you're both bug beasts, an' all― or I could put you back in your ball―"

    Still no response.

    He sighed, giving up. "A'ight, Lady. Do what you want." He didn't leave right away, instead puffing his shoulders and letting his thoughts spin in the freedom of the dark. But he didn't notice until it was too late that the exhaustion he had shoved off, and off, and off, was creeping in.

    He falls forward.

    -

    His sight darkens for a moment in his reeling; when it returns, Lusamine stands beside him.

    Lusamine is not herself.

    She wears a flowing nightgown, soaked and clinging to her body. Her feet are bare on the rock. She stands with a far-away look, that sad look he saw in her when she watched her reflection. She looks out over the valley with her hands folded before her.

    He can see her lips moving, but can't make out what she's whispering over the rain. Water falls over her; her hair sags, long and brilliant as a starry night. She glows and glitters.

    "Miss L."

    When he reaches over to touch one of her hands, they are ice.


    Pheromosa caught him on his way down.

    His vision was still blurred, but he pushed himself upright. After a second, he was able to stand free of her. He looked at her, but couldn't read anything close to sympathy or worry in her expression―just the same blank stare. "I'm okay," he panted, steadying himself. "I'm okay, I just... " Spots come into his vision, and he blinks them away. "I really gotta eat somethin'."

    -

    Beneath the cave's ceiling, he collapsed, pulled his backpack onto his lap, and tore it open to search for food. He pulled out an energy bar. The clerk at the store claimed they were good for hiking, that sort of thing. Guzma had tasted bricks with more flavor. At least they were cheap. He briefly dug around his bag, looking for more, but he had no luck. He gave the bar in his hand a bitter look. His last one.

    Golisopod appeared suddenly, snuffling around and drooling on his arm.

    "You―!" He elbowed it harshly. "Buzz off! I'm not sharing!"

    Golisopod evidently thought he was bluffing and pressed its mandibles into his wrist, chewing playfully.

    He socked it on the nose and moved the bar to his opposing hand to pull it away. "I mean it! I haven't had any real food in like three days, so I can't, all right?"

    Golisopod shuffled, tittered, and collapsed its head on his lap with a hefty pout.

    Guzma's stomach growled. He sighed, tore the package open, and broke the bar in half, giving himself the slighter larger half and slipping the other into Golisopod's mouth. As his pokemon chewed happily, he shut his eyes and imagined, as hard as he could, a steak, a fried fish fillet, a burger, a deep-fried sugar-encrusted malasada―and put the last bit of bar into his mouth.

    Nope, didn't work. It was dry and tasteless, and measly in his empty stomach.

    Still, after a few minutes, his dizziness passed, and he felt a little stronger, though he suspected a stiff breeze could still knock him over. He fell back, throwing himself onto the hard floor of the cave. He stuffed his backpack under his head as a makeshift pillow.

    Let's see… Cold, dark, hungry… In a cave… Didn't this feel delightfully familiar?

    Golisopod growled and shoved its head into his side, no doubt protesting that it was still hungry.

    "'Sokay, buddy," he wheezed, patting its head. His eyes drooped with exhaustion and he folded his hands over his chest. "When I, you know, starve to death, you can eat me."

    Golisopod didn't think this was very funny.

    "Yeah, yeah, I know. I'm thinking."

    He sealed his eyes shut, letting his consciousness swim for a while to the sound of rain. He didn't have any money left―that had dried up last week. Anyway, he could hardly risk the trip into town―too many people could recognize him and cause him trouble. There had to be tourists around… Campers or hikers he could rob…

    He thought, miserably, about Po Town. Its proximity drove him crazy some days, but he knew―one hundred percent―that he couldn't go there.

    And then he remembered one place.

    -

    When Kahuna Nanu opened the door to the Po Town police station, Guzma, face completely covered, shoved his foot in the doorway, pinned one hand to the door itself, and with his other hand, pushed in a knife inches from Nanu's face.

    As it was past midnight, Nanu had not come to the door dressed in his usual attire. His police uniform had evidently been put up, and the man had dressed down, ready to settle in for the night: striped t-shirt, black police hoodie, black sweatpants and, get this, slippers, like the kind geezers at nursing homes shuffle around in.

    At any other time, Guzma would've cracked up. Nanu in his PJ's! But he tried to keep himself focused, because things were already not going as planned; Nanu, rather than looking threatened and backing into the station, slightly leaned away his face from the knife, like it smelled repulsive. Guzma had counted on his size to intimidate the old man―Guzma had always towered over him in height―but the officer sneered and griped at him.

    "Whadda you want?" The officer snarled at him, like he was already tired of whatever was unfolding.

    "Let me in, old man!"

    Nanu studied him a quick second. "...So he makes an appearance. All the hubbub you've stirred up on my island―"

    "Shut up and let me in!"

    The knife still lingered in Nanu's face, but the kahuna had since stopped looking at it. "Why don't you go bother your Po Town buddies instead? Leave me outta your nonsense."

    "I―" He then realized Nanu knew who he was. He couldn't say he was too surprised, but Guzma did surprise himself, when he admitted, "I can't."

    "Uh-huh." Nanu didn't sound impressed. He glanced up and down Guzma's figure, noting especially the half-mask and broad motorcycle goggles. "Who exactly do you think you're foolin' with that get-up?"

    "I ain't―" Why was he explaining himself? He huffed and pulled his goggles up against his forehead and his mask against his throat, revealing his face. "I coulda been spotted on the way here."

    Nanu scoffed. "Good thing you weren't. You look like an idiot."

    Guzma pushed a little harder through the doorway in retaliation. "You lettin' me in or not?!?"

    As Nanu mulled it over, he scratched the back of his neck and made resentful sounds in the bottom of his throat. Finally, he made a decision. "Put the knife away, you dink." He backed away from the door, leaving it open, and grumbled irritably, "Coulda asked nicely. Got half a mind to..."

    -

    When Guzma entered the station, Nanu grunted. "Boots off."

    Guzma had never been one to lurk around Nanu's place. That was more Plumeria's gig―she liked to wander over here, hang out, and exchange barbs with the old man. Guzma guessed, though he wasn't certain, that she did it to fulfill some longing for adult company. Guzma preferred to stay clear of the place, and when Nanu had the stones to wander into his turf in Po Town, he always made his disapproval clear. He let the old man stick around―they needed the money―but he distrusted the man's motives. What kind of geezer is willing to live in an abandoned police station? What kind of guy lives around little kids like that, tries to talk to them and give them sweets? A weirdo, Guzma thinks. Maybe some kinda perv.

    (They battled, once. If ever asked about it, Guzma would only darkly mutter that the old man cheated.)

    Guzma looked around the mostly unfamiliar territory as he kicked off his muddy boots and peeled off his socks. It was neater than he expected, but littered with cat beds and beady-eyed Meowth. He stepped past what was once the waiting area for the station into what looked to be Nanu's living space, with a table, adjoining couch, computer, and a television set. Guzma searched and found the kitchenette tucked behind a series of dividers hung with clothing.

    He realized Nanu was staring at him. Guzma's bare feet rested on the linoleum floor, pooling with the rain-water dripping from his body.

    "You look a mess," Nanu observed dryly. "You here to turn yourself in?"

    "I'm here to rob you."

    "Oh, well, in that case." Nanu wandered over to his sofa, planted himself in front of the TV, and turned on the news. A Meowth promptly skittered over to him and settled in his lap.

    Guzma stood for a few moments, gauging Nanu's reaction, as if he didn't totally believe how easy this was. Eventually, though, he passed it off as Nanu-being-Nanu. He momentarily craned his neck to see the television screen. Was there anything about him? No―some hard-hitting journalism about a new malasada flavor. He was safe for now.

    Guzma trailed into the kitchen first and opened the fridge―found nothing but stacks of beer and one carton of milk. He grabbed the milk carton. His search of the cupboards wasn't much better―he found rows of instant ramen and cans of cat food. "Do you have any real food around here?"

    "Well, if I knew I was gonna be robbed today, maybe I woulda gone shopping." Nanu lifted a hand, waving for him. "Get me a beer while you're up."

    Guzma wasn't going to do it at first. But then a thought struck him, so he went back to the fridge, pulled a beer, and started to hand it to him.

    Nanu reached for it and tugged, but Guzma didn't let go.

    "Your rent's up, old man."

    Nanu didn't stray his eyes from the television. "That so? Huh." He took the now-freed beer bottle and pointed listlessly at the coat rack. "Wallet's in the right pocket. Bring it 'ere."

    Guzma was about to spout off on him for sending him around on errands.

    "Kid, what are you waiting for? I'm not getting any younger."

    Guzma snorted, stomped over to the coat rack, and when he retrieved the wallet, chucked it impatiently in Nanu's direction.

    The kahuna rolled his eyes and opened it. "How much is it this time?"

    "Twenty thousand."

    "Let's make it fifteen―and I won't tell Rainbow you stopped by."

    Guzma growled. He had forgotten Nanu's favorite negotiation tactic―answering every number Guzma gave him with a low-ball and undercutting him in the process. It was only reason Nanu's rent was so ridiculously cheap to begin with. "Tch! Look, geezer. I don't have time to play your games. This is sort of an emergency!"

    Nanu studied him for a long second, curled his lip, and said, "Y'know, I'm suddenly remembering you stuck a knife in my face. Fourteen."

    "E-MER-GEN-CY!" Guzma was this close to begging before his patience wore thin and he snatched the wallet from Nanu's hands. He ignored Nanu's shout and opened it. "Five-ten-fifteen-twenty thousand," Guzma counted, then threw the wallet back onto the couch. "You tell Plumeria I was here, I'll come back and stomp you and your stupid cats."

    Although Nanu gave him a nasty death-glare and made a few choice threats that should not be repeated in polite company, the kahuna did not choose to get up. Instead, he lifted his legs up onto the table in front of him, crossing them lazily, and picked up his beer.

    Guzma suddenly regretted lashing out, because now he was thinking about Plumeria. He waited a minute for Nanu to settle back into watching his television, and tried to slyly slip back into a conversation. "So, uh―how is she, anyway, is she―?"

    "You mind?" Nanu gestured to the TV to indicate he was trying to listen. "Cripes, this is the longest robbery I've ever put up with."

    Guzma glowered, briefly fantasized about knocking the old man to the floor, then snorted to himself. "Whatever."

    With no other options, Guzma resorted to pulling a series of instant noodle cups from the shelves and banging around the kitchen, trying to find utensils, water, and heat. Guzma went on to cook and consume three cups of ramen; he almost stopped at two, but he didn't know when his next hot meal would come. He also downed the remaining milk.

    Nanu said nothing as he did all this. In fact, he was eerily quiet. Guzma occasionally glanced over at him, just to check he hadn't died of heart failure or something old-people related.

    I could leave, Guzma realized then. But he was starting to feel the lack of urgency to go back outside to stumble through woods and sleep in his dank campgrounds. This place was no Ritz hotel, but it had heat, comfortable furniture, and electricity. So Guzma lingered around, trying to look busy as Nanu continued watching television.

    Suddenly, after a few minutes of this, Nanu burst into a loud, terrifying snarl of a laugh, eyes still on the screen. He actually slapped his thigh, startling the Meowth sleeping on his lap so bad that it hissed and dashed under the table. "Ha! Look at you!"

    Guzma whirled his head around, confused. Then his face fell.

    The blurry, pedestrian footage was fitted with scrolling headlines: "BEAST TAMER" SPOTTED ON ULA'ULA ― MASKED VIGILANTE SETS SIGHTS ON NEW ULTRA BEASTS? ― POLICE ON HIGH ALERT ― FANS SNAP PICTURES, SHARE SIGHTINGS ONLINE

    Nanu chortled darkly over his reading of the news ticker. "You ever watch these idiots chatter about you? It's hilarious. One genius has this theory that you're actually a girl. Almost had me convinced."

    Guzma grimaced.

    It was all a horrible mistake, really.

    Once he decided on what he had to do, he first had to pick a disguise. He couldn't run around as himself―police had already been looking for him, and if someone spotted him capturing the beasts, they would have even more reason to pursue him. So he picked out what he thought would be nondescript: a loose and dark hoodie, a cap, a mask to cover his nose and mouth, and some motorcycle goggles. Combined, they made him impossible to identify; he figured it was perfect.

    But his first mission turned disastrous.

    His first confirmed contact with a wild beast in the heart of the forests of Akala was meant to be short, quick, and painless. He used the beast he captured in Ultra Space to track it, deciding he might as well use fire to fight fire. The Buzzwole did well at first, seeming to obey his commands, finding the twist of wires and cables known as Xurkitree within hours. They cornered it―Guzma had his beast ball ready―and then, suddenly, both beasts decided to go insane and run. They battled each other hysterically through the forest, ignoring Guzma's epithets and screams for control, knocking over trees and charging down roadways. For a while, he even lost sight of them, but it proved easy enough to find them once he reached Heahea City and found fleeing crowds of tourists and residents. His beast smashing parked cars, tearing light poles from their mounts, and the wild one, stabbing its copper fingers into the electrical lines of the city and zapping everything in sight.

    One can imagine, then, what it must have looked like for the cowering public: two monsters battling each other in the square of the city, with no hope of anyone being able to stop it; a strange, tall and mysterious figure dressed rather conspicuously in dark and obscuring clothing; the figure wrestling their way toward the fight, taking command of one of the beasts and then, to their astonishment, capturing the other.

    Pictures snapping away. Videos being recorded from virtually every angle.

    And then the figure ducked away, disappearing without offering a name or explanation.

    The media simply exploded.

    The combination of public fear, the mystery, and the epic battle―collateral damage and all―had all combined into some sort of sprawling mythology―"vigilante," "masked figure," "crusader," even, most ridiculously, "hero." The fact that the figure continued to pop up at random times, appearing to own, command, and catch the impossible creatures―made the coverage even more breathless and awed.

    For Guzma, though, this had all become quite the headache. It meant he had to avoid cities more and more, forcing him to camp out in the wilderness for days at a time. He couldn't risk conducting his hunts near populated areas, lest some moron snap a picture, post it, and alert the police to his presence. And the idiotic theories! He was a government agent; he was an alien; he was an experimental lifeform grown in a lab; he was working for Team Rocket; he was a mad scientist plotting the destruction of the world. Or―he was a chick, apparently.

    ―And he hated the name "Beast Tamer" with a passion.

    Guzma huffed, turned from the TV, and announced, "Gramps, I'm taking a shower."

    "...What?" Nanu turned to him, furious. "Absolutely not."

    "I reek! And I'm freezing! So yeah, I am!" Guzma strode toward the back of the station, ducking behind the dividers.

    Nanu, though he didn't get up, still yelled, "Hey! I'm not running a shelter for homeless bums!"

    -

    It wasn't until he undressed and stood under the water that he realized how much pain he was in. It hurt to stand up―to walk―to breathe, even. He hobbled, trying and failing to rest his weight on muscles that weren't sore or flesh that wasn't bruised.

    When he stooped his head under the hot rush, his eyes trailed down his body. His left foot had a swollen toe that had ached since yesterday―pretty sure it was broken. Both feet had ballooned in size from the strain of walking so much. He spotted a bruise at his ankle that he didn't remember. Cuts from brambles worked their way up his legs, scabbing and bleeding. The most immediately source of agony was his right hip, where he had fallen earlier that evening; a wide circle of flesh there had turned blotchy black and blue, and sent waves of pain through him when he tried to rest on it.

    But Guzma had learned: he knew what it meant, to feel pain and power through it. He pinned his hands to the slick tile wall, focused on the soothing heat spilling down his shoulders, and steadied, slowed, deepened his breathing.

    The pain rises―he beats it back―crushes it between his thoughts, his dreams, his monomania. All that he envisions in the black of his suffering is brightness, pure and delicious, and oh-so-close that he can taste it. He couldn't tell whether it was caused by the torturous spasms, or by the throbbings of greed, but there, in the shower, he drooled.

    -

    ....

    "Kid."

    ...Guzma heard Nanu snapping his fingers.

    "Kid, hey. Wake up."



    "Sleeping beauty. Time to go."

    "Who you callin'―" Guzma jerked suddenly, his eyes falling open. He found himself sprawled out over the couch in the waiting area of the station, weighed down from the pressure of sleep―and a Meowth that had claimed one of his legs. "―What? Uhh." He slapped a hand over his face. The last thing he remembered was sitting down on this couch to put on his boots. The cushions had sank warmly―he leaned back for only a second, and his head had felt impossibly heavy…

    Nanu stood over him, looking mightily irritated. He had coffee in his hand and an unlit cigarette behind his ear. He was also dressed in his typical uniform again. "Don't you have places to be?"

    "...What time is it?"

    "It's morning. Early."

    Morning? Guzma's temper flared; he looked out the window and saw, indeed, it was a regular cloudy, murky Po Town sunrise. He struggled to sit up, kicking off the Meowth as he did. "Man, why didn't you wake me?"

    "Out." Nanu pointed to the door.

    "Ugh, what, did you watch me sleep, or something, you weirdo?"

    Nanu repeated himself with more emphasis. "Out."

    Fuming, but feeling remarkably well-rested, Guzma pulled himself up the rest of the way, pulled his backpack to his side, and grappled with his still-moist socks and boots.

    Nanu, slurping his coffee and casually studying Guzma fitting back into his shoes, decided to extend one polite gesture. "You want any coffee for the road?"

    "Nah," he said. He eyed the cigarette behind Nanu's ear. "I'd kill for a cigarette, though."

    "They're bad for you," Nanu told him half-heartedly, transparently trying to make an excuse for not bumming him one.

    "Whatta you, my dad?"

    Nanu fumed. "If I were your father―!" He choked down some words he might regret―Nanu knew enough about the kid to not go down that road―and grumbled something as he tapped out another cigarette from his pocket. "Outside," he said, moving for the door. "Acerola hates the smell."

    -

    The rain had started again, mostly in the form of misty droplets being tossed around in the morning breeze. Moisture dropped from the overhang out by Nanu's front step, so the kahuna leaned against the door to light his cigarette. He also lit and handed over a cigarette to Guzma, who seated himself on the steps.

    It was too early in the morning for anyone to come by―Team Skull, even the more responsible ones, wouldn't be rolling out of bed for a few more hours. So Guzma felt safe enough to spend a minute or two relieving his nic-fit, sucking in the blissfully warm smoke and watching it pour out from his lungs.

    They didn't talk for a while, but Nanu eventually did gesture to his backpack. "So… They're all in there, huh."

    Guzma avoided answering, but adjusted it with his elbow.

    "That's a lot of power for one person."

    Guzma huffed out some smoke and spat. "You think I can't handle it?"

    "I dunno. Maybe. Maybe not. Someone's liable to get hurt either way." Nanu stopped for a second, like he wanted to say something else. He weighed his options, and shook his head, dismissing one thought in exchange for another. "Y'know―" He scratched his chest. "I shouldn't be telling you this―Interpol's stopped by before. You really shouldn't hang around."

    "...What, you think they know…"

    "Kid, Interpol might be a buncha idiots, but they're not that thick. You want some advice?"

    "Advice?"

    "If it comes down to it―you should talk to Looker. He's one of the agents sniffing around―me and him, we go way back, got history―anyway, he's a big softie, he'd probably hear you out."

    Guzma scoffed and sneered, plucking the cigarette from his mouth. "What? I ain't talking to your crusty old boyfriend!"

    Nanu heaved a ragged sigh. He fought the impulse to smack him upside the head. "Boy, do you ever listen to the nonsense that comes outta your mouth?"

    Guzma puffed on his cigarette again, pleased to have riled and offended him.

    "Just saying, kid―in the end, if things go south, you might not have a choice."

    Guzma didn't know what to say at such a blatant show of concern. He shook it off. "Doesn't matter. I'm almost done, anyway."

    "And when you're done? What's the plan? World domination?"

    For a flash of a moment, Guzma, facing Nanu, looked like himself again; he grinned nastily from ear-to-ear. "Somethin' like that." He hoisted himself back onto his feet, puffed a few more times on his cigarette, then decided to continue nursing it by dangling it at his lip. "Better go. Thanks for the smoke."

    "Thank me when the lung cancer kicks in."

    "Tch." Guzma sucked his teeth at him, trying to sound annoyed, but suddenly smirked and let out a cackle. "You're O.G., gramps. I oughtta stop by more often."

    "I don't know what that means, and no, you shouldn't."

    Finally, Guzma went. Nanu watched for a little while as he finished his cigarette; he noted vaguely that the kid was limping but trying to hide it. Guzma wandered up a beaten path, cut through some brush, and disappeared.

    -

     
    Last edited: Mar 31, 2018
  14. TheAlpar

    TheAlpar Journey Enthusiast

    Man, the Beast fights feel so much violent and real than with any Pokemon. I like that you made their minds so... different; they're almost like animals, Kartana probably even less than that. They're a completely different life-form and you've portrayed that really well.

    As someone who's been outside in the rain and mud with nowhere to go and not much food... geez is this realistic. At least Guzma has his Pokemon and Pheromosa to keep him company, but anyone who's gone to most forests can tell you that there's not as much food in there as you probably imagine. And if there is there will probably be other creatures wanting to get at it.

    My favorite part of the chapter is the one with Nanu, as usual. He's such a funny and interesting character, you portray him so well.

    My only criticism is that sometimes the tense changes you make in prose are a bit startling. Other than that I loved this chapter.
     
  15. dietofwurms

    dietofwurms i see stars

    A/N: Now it's time for a brief interlude before more stuff hits the fan...

    Chapter 7: Eschatology
    It was the end of the world, Kahuna Nanu thought. The apocalypse. The final call. And he felt fine.

    Funnily enough, no one seemed to notice. As he arrived in Malie City, stretching his legs out on the street, pounding pavement under the glitz of city lights, he could find no sign of unease. Shops remained open and beaming with light. Pedestrians carried grocery bags and tugged their children along by the hand. Couples clustered near the malasada shop and workers passed out coupons to anyone willing to take them. The city had its regular, low-toned bustle that defined its weeknights.

    Most citizens of Ula'ula knew better than to harass him with or for attention, but he always allowed them the politeness of a nod should they nod at him first. Tonight, the greetings came freely from a variety of ages; some older folk, closer to his generation, felt free to verbalize their greetings. Tonight, Tai, the old man who ran the umbrella-shop, was resting on a stool and almost dozing off when he lifted his head and hand to say, "Evening, Kahuna."

    He stopped for a half-beat to raise a hand back. "Evening, Tai."

    "Nice night."

    "Could be worse."

    Tai dipped his head again and snored.

    Thank God. That was dangerously close to turning into a conversation.

    As he walked toward High Sushi Roller for his bi-, sometimes tri-weekly dinner, he walked past the fresh wounds of recent public trauma: where the rampaging beasts cut and slashed their way through, knocking a light-pole into the heart of the library. The workers still had the hole covered in heavy tarp; Acerola, poor thing, was devastated when she found out. Fortunately, the path of damage hadn't gotten very far before Tapu Bulu, roused in rare form, chased the creatures far into the mountains.

    But that had been weeks ago; things had been deathly quiet for a while. Nanu kept his ear to the ground, scrolling through newscasts, bouncing around sites and chat rooms. The media frenzy had evaporated virtually overnight―the beasts, the hunter, the police activity, all of it. Blips of rumors surfaced once in awhile, but each withered and died within hours, unable to sustain strength. Days passed. Nothing. Crickets. In the quiet and the peace, perhaps the people had deluded themselves into breathing easier, like the crisis had ended.

    But Nanu knew and understood its meaning. He had lived long enough to know the sound and smell of the calm before a storm. This, though, was not the wrath of an angered Tapu spirit like the one that had long ago smashed his island into remnants of itself. No, this was worse. It would be the wrath of a human being: a young and angry man with daddy issues up the wazoo, clinging to a bag full of nuclear power he couldn't begin to fathom.

    Ah, they were delightfully screwed.

    Nanu actually whistled to himself as he walked down the sidewalk, causing passers-by to turn and stare.

    -

    "Ah, welcome back, Master Nanu."

    Sensei, standing at the front of house, looked chipper as ever peering over the shoulder of an older customer. He appeared to be helping the old man make a selection from the menu.

    "Evening, Sensei. It'll be my usual."

    "Yes―just a moment."

    Nanu settled in patiently behind the customer ahead of him, letting himself space out. The restaurant was pretty quiet tonight. He spotted a couple feeding each other nigiri, and the usual cluster of old men who regularly nabbed the corner table to drink sake, eat hot pot, and natter on all night.

    The customer ahead of him was taking too long, and it started to bother him. He finally poked the man in the shoulder to get his attention. "Hey, pal."

    The man looked up at him.

    "You oughtta try the Kaiseki set. Good value."

    The man fixed his glasses and smiled politely. "Ah. Thank you." He didn't say he was taking Nanu's advice, however, and turned to ask Sensei another series of over-particular questions about the dishes.

    Nanu almost truly lost his patience, but as he listened and watched the customer, something…

    ...

    Nanu, bothered, approached again and nudged him in the shoulder. "Hey, grandpa―never seen you around before."

    "Oh―no―I came here today with a tour group."

    Nanu studied him for a long second, eyebrows heavily furrowed. Suddenly, he turned to speak to the waiter. "Sensei. We'll be dining together." He looked back at the old man. "C'mon, I'm buying."

    The old man struggled with his glasses, squinting through them. "Do I know you…?"

    "Best seat in the house is this way."

    Without anymore protest, the man followed him to the table Sensei reserved for the kahuna. Nanu order two Kaiseki sets and settled into his usual spot. It was only when the tourist sat down, too, that his guest started to ramble again. "I've heard Ula'ula was a hospitable place, but I didn't expect―"

    "You can drop it now," Nanu said. "Agent Looker."

    -

    Nanu would have liked to ask Looker why he wore a disguise on his way out to eat, but Nanu had given up years ago on asking Looker why he did things.

    Evidently, Looker had also given up on questioning Nanu's ability to see through his disguises so quickly. Just as well. If asked, Nanu wouldn't have much of an answer: it was an art, more than it was a science.

    Once Looker stood up and whipped his disguise off, peeling prosthetics with a flash of a gesture, and throwing off clothes to reveal his typical overcoat, the agent seated himself, beamed at him, and said, "Much better. Shall we feast then, Zero?"

    Always with the hokey flair. Always with the flowing overcoat, the windswept hair, the sharp and calculating face that never seemed to change through the years. He had a presence that could draw all attention to him; to be around Looker, no matter the context, was to be outshined by him.

    Nanu sighed deeply. "I suppose."

    When Looker was first assigned as his subordinate in the developing UB-extraction team, he genuinely thought this scruffy detective was playing some sort of practical joke on him with his antics. No one who worked for the International Police, he thought, could possibly be such a dopey, pure, bright-eyed ball of fluff. It had to be a schtick―some sort of gag. Or worse, a veneer meant to disguise some horrendous corruption. He couldn't trust the guy, not for months.

    However, despite Nanu's misgivings, Looker turned out to be "that way" through-and-through. Some days, Nanu wondered if he wouldn't have rather Looker be a two-faced snake; he was insufferably idealistic. Where Nanu's judgments fell on the cynical side, Looker took everything and everyone at face value, and most infuriatingly, sometimes―maybe a lot of the time―Looker was right. Nanu figured whoever decided on their assignment was a little too obsessed with the good-cop-bad-cop routine, because almost every mission ended with Nanu growling and bashing heads, and Looker handing out platitudes and promises.

    Nanu couldn't say he liked the guy. He saved himself from a lot of headaches by leaving Interpol, and Looker was no small part in said headaches.

    But Looker, he decided, deserved respect, even if it had be begrudged. Looker was a good man. Something Nanu knew he never had been, and suspected he never would be.

    Anyway. Enough sap.

    Food was being served, and he wasted no time picking up his chopsticks and going to town. He was hungry, after all.

    Looker, a proper man after all, followed his lead. They ate in silence for some minutes before Looker started their conversation, resting his utensils on his dish to signal his intention to talk.

    "It's good to see you again. Our last meeting was far too brief. How do things fare on your side of the island?"

    "Same as last week."

    Looker, evidently remembering the condition of Nanu's living space, shut his eyes with great contemplation. "I still wonder why you insist on residing among criminals."

    "It's complicated."

    Nanu meant that to mean butt out, but naturally, Looker couldn't help but ponder and rub his chin. He theorized aloud. "Unless… Ah, I understand now. How noble of you! You are doing good work, taking these idle youths under your watch, encouraging them to stay on the straight and narrow!"

    "Uh, yeah." Nanu resisted rolling his eyes. How had he forgotten about Looker's fetish for lecturing ruffians? Hardly a day could pass without Looker spotting some jobless slouch on a street corner, and delivering to them some impassioned speech about 'contributing to society' or some hoo-hah. Nanu lied to appease him. "That's… mostly what I do. So. Where's Anabel?"

    "She is currently in talks with Headquarters. She gave me permission to take leave for the evening."

    "Nice of her." It wasn't something Nanu would have ever done. If he had to suffer through some ungodly bigwig meeting, he would demand his misery be accompanied. "Didn't expect to still see you here. Woulda thought you moved on by now. Seeing as the case is closed."

    "Hardly, my friend. Though it seems the beasts have disappeared entirely, there are still many unanswered questions. Primarily about our…" Looker tapped the side of his nose. "Mutual friend."

    Nanu was baffled at first by the gesture before vaguely remembering seeing it in a Unovian detective thriller (was it a regional thing? Looker had probably spent some time there); then he was baffled by the phrase 'mutual friend.' "Who?"

    "This Guzma character. His trail has gone cold, and he has not been sighted for some time. I can only hope some terrible fate has not befallen him."

    Nanu thought on it but eventually shrugged. "Maybe they beamed him up to his home planet," he suggested dryly, stuffing a tuna roll into his mouth.

    "I have investigated those rumors, and to the contrary, Zero, I have not found any evidence that he is extra-terrestrial."

    "...Hmm." (Looker was nothing if not obsessively thorough.) "You know you can just call me Nanu."

    "Ah, yes. Kahuna Nanu."

    "Don't need stuffy honorifics, neither."

    Looker fidgeted with his hands like he wanted to argue, but reluctantly agreed to his terms. "Very well. Nanu. I would like to know what you think."

    "Think?" Nanu shook his head. "I'm retired. I'll leave the investigating to you."

    "Pretend if you must, but the blood of a hard-boiled detective still flows through your veins, does it not?"

    "...Oh, lord." Here comes the headache. "Spare me the poetics, huh? Look, he's probably dead in a ditch like you said."

    "Do you believe that?"

    "What's it matter, what I believe? Won't make him less dead. Or deader."

    Looker tightened his expression and looked out the window, eyes piercing into the glow of the moon. "I don't believe that he is dead," Looker proclaimed. He seemed certain. "I believe he has captured all of the beasts himself. Furthermore, I think the question of his location can be answered… And the answer lies at Aether Paradise."

    "Huh."

    Looker didn't choose to elaborate on his conspiracy theory. Instead, he folded his arms and marveled aloud. "It truly is stunning… That such a young trainer on his own could accomplish this feat, all while evading our capture. To think that such a criminal mastermind has been living on this island―"

    Nanu choked, coughed, slapped the table, and once he managed to swallow the lodged morsel, burst into harsh laughter. This reaction surprised not only Looker, but all the customers within range, causing the whole restaurant to turn and gawk. Nanu, either oblivious or unconcerned, did not bother getting a hold of himself; he wheezed, snorted, snickered, swore, and eventually had to wipe away tears. Upon seeing Looker's shocked expression, he nearly buckled over again.

    This all went on for a little too long.

    "All right, all right," Nanu finally gasped, grinning and still bouncing his shoulders with repressed cackling. He pounded his chest to recover his breath. "That tears it. I'm getting drunk. Sensei! Bring us a bottle of sake, won't you?"

    -

    Though Nanu shared the bottle of warm sake over the next hour and ensured Looker's cup was consistently filled, the bottle was really for himself. Looker never got drunk, anyway: too straight-laced for that. The best Nanu could ever hope to do was get him tipsy.

    But how could Nanu not drink―not drown his nihilism and his growing realization that life was a cosmic joke at his expense?

    He downed it. Looker slowly sipped at it, savoring its flavor. Rinse, repeat―until Nanu had drank most of the bottle, and Looker still nursed his first cup.

    After everything…

    After all that the beasts had cost him… Cost them… Cost her...

    When the sake finally reached his head, flushing him and warming him, Nanu released a small, self-deprecating chuckle. He smirked like he had an especially cruel thought occur to him. "Don't get me wrong, Looker," he finally said. "I admire the kid's moxie―he's maybe a little wilier than I woulda thought―but he's got tech that we didn't. He had the means handed to him on a silver platter." A frown crept over his expression, darkening and bittering his words. "Mastermind, my foot. That's plain, dumb luck."

    (Cripes. Thought he could keep a lid on that―thought he could keep that particular wound from flaring up. Shows what he knows.)

    Looker noticed the thread of suppressed pain in him but mercifully chose not to comment on it. He did, however, finish his cup of sake.

    -

    By the time he paid the bill and they left the eatery together, Nanu was beginning to realize that getting drunk hadn't helped. To be fair, it usually didn't, but he always fooled himself into thinking it would. He was that sort of man: the sort who repeated mistakes ad infinitum. A gambler telling himself: well, this time...

    He couldn't walk straight. He plumb forgot about the downward step right outside the main door, nearly leading him to trip face-first into concrete. Looker nabbed him in time but had a characteristic freak out over it.

    "Please!" The agent fretted as he dusted him off. "You must be more careful."

    Nanu growled, swatted his hands away, and told him where he could go.

    It had gotten late. Most of the foot traffic disappeared, and various shops already shut up for the night. For a time, the two did not fill the silence, instead standing some distance from each other, their shadows cast long into the street. Nanu was jonesing for a cigarette, so he pulled one out, fumbled with his lighter, and managed to light it (and not himself).

    After puffing for a few minutes, he glanced over at Looker. The agent hadn't lectured him about his habit, which was unusual―he normally gave at least a mini-sermon―so Nanu thought something must be up. Sure enough, Looker was distracted, hands deep in his pockets, eyes tracing the cold stare of stars.

    When you work with someone long enough and endure the right kinds of hurts together, language can become almost obsolete. You can learn to say things to one another without speaking; you can know exactly what the other is thinking, and know what they need to hear. It was a bond that Nanu took too long to understand; he had long mistaken it for awkwardness or emptiness, those long nights of sitting together, drinking and saying nothing.

    Tonight, though, Nanu understands it, because he sees Looker gazing at the night sky, and he knows exactly what's going through his head. He wanted to ignore it and part ways, but it tore him deep, because he was thinking about it, too. Eventually, he couldn't stand it any longer. "Looker."

    "Yes?"

    "I was the lead agent. It was my call. My responsibility. Period."

    And there it was: devoid of all context, specifics, names, anything―and Looker could parse the words like they were a shared secret code. Of the many ways Looker could have responded, he opted out of the obvious ones: the reassurance, the consolation, the gratitude, the apology, the extension of empathy. Some process, which Nanu often imagined as mechanical, ran through Looker's brain, leaving him with an empty stare for a long, impossibly difficult moment. Then, suddenly, he bowed to him, formal Kantonese style. "I understand," he said.

    Nanu felt gratitude swell up in him; it made him stupid. "You're… you're good people, Looker," he slurred, regretting it as soon as he said it. Looker straightened, about to respond, but Nanu cut him off. "Now, don't get all gushy on me. You know I'm drunk."

    But Looker smiled and folded his arms, striking his usual, over-earnest pose with a hand to his chin. "Anabel has put in a request for the both of us to receive paid leave upon the conclusion of this case. Perhaps I will take time to enjoy the cuisine of these fine islands. And in that case―I hope, dear friend, that we can dine together again."

    Nanu shrugged crookedly. "Whatever. You better pay next time, though."

    Nanu released his Persian, who released throaty, happy yowls and bumped hard into his uneasy legs and hip. He leaned against her, gripping the nape at her neck, and started walking.

    "Well, see ya."

    Looker watched, but was alarmed to see him still stumbling in a drunken stupor. "Should I accompany you on your way home?"

    "Nah," Nanu dismissed, "Princess here will get me where I need to be." He patted his Persian firmly on its shoulder and briefly dug his fingers into its forehead for a deep scratch. "She's used to it. Aren't you, girl?"

    "I see." Looker turned the other direction, struggling with closure, eventually finding his words enough to say, "Good night... Nanu."

    -

    As Nanu walked away, past the malasada shop and the crippled library, past the avenues, past the fields, and into the pathways that cut through the mountains, winding like a serpent's tail in the blue and blessed dark, he thought about his own brittleness and the tiny morsels of happiness that he used to grasp for.

    He knew, one day, he would have to pay for what he had done in the past. He didn't look forward to it. But even he had to laugh, marvel, and anticipate the day everything would be made right, when justice cracked down on their heads, bloodying them and opening their eyes.

    Served them right.

    Served them all right.

    -

     
    Last edited: Mar 31, 2018
  16. Chibi Pika

    Chibi Pika Stay positive

    Wow, I have to say, I am absolutely loving this. I was looking for something new to read a few days ago, saw that this was about Guzma and Lusamine and was intrigued, and then was immediately drawn in by just how damn spot-on your characterizations of them are. I really love the narration, and the way that it cleverly slips all these subtle details in when you're not looking, and how that's the main way you convey things like Guzma's insecurity or Lusamine's manipulation. I lost count of just how many times I had the biggest, dumbest grin from just how much fun it was to read that narration. And man, I love how grumpy your Nanu is and the way he looks out for others but damn if he won't complain the entire time. (His dynamic with Looker in the latest chapter was especially entertaining.)

    I wish I could leave more detailed feedback, (especially considering how detailed these characters are, I'm dying to analyze them all day) but this is all I have time for. Just know that I'm really glad you decided to post this here (welcome to the forums, by the way!) and I'm eagerly awaiting more.

    ~Chibi~
     
  17. TheAlpar

    TheAlpar Journey Enthusiast

    Normally with stories where the POV jumps a lot I end up missing certain characters or wishing they'd be back already, but not here. Every single POV is equally entertaining and interesting; you really have a knack for writing a lot of different characters and their perspectives. Kudos on that.

    I love unlikely friendships like this one; Looker seems like the exact opposite kinda guy Nanu would find himself talking to, but if there's one thing I noticed about Nanu is that he does a lot of things to annoy himself, all to keep being a good person.

    Great chapter as always, looking forward to more.
     
  18. dietofwurms

    dietofwurms i see stars

    A new reader! I'm glad that posting the story here gave you a chance to read it, and I hope you continue to enjoy it as it goes. I have some 32 chapters done (oof) so this thread will update regularly for a while.

    I'm also glad that you're noticing subtle details, because--not to give away anything too strongly--many of those details will add up to important revelations and plot points later on. There is (or, at least I intended there to be) a lot of reading-between-the-lines.

    Thanks! Switching POV's between chapters and scenes is always a risk for the reason you described (and other reasons). Hopefully it stays engaging and not too distracting.
     
  19. dietofwurms

    dietofwurms i see stars

    Chapter 8: Tributary
    At Aether Paradise, in the bowels of the security room, an employee twitched.

    He could be forgiven by even the upper-ups for napping on the job. At this point, the room filled with an array of screens and buttons was only occupied by rotating employees to make sure it didn't collect dust. As such, most would wander in, wipe down the crumbs and litter of the previous shift, and kick up their feet.

    After all, there wasn't much to watch. The employees had strict orders to never leave the artificial island. The doors had shut and locked down, refusing any visitors. The executives had holed up in their places, nervously diving into their respective studies. Rumors floated on the fate of Madame President, who, since the day the chopper arrived to deliver her, had not emerged from her bedroom. But with time, the sense of drama and upheaval left, leaving instead a sense of desperate boredom. Days went by, and nothing happened. Then weeks. Had it been months yet? Some days, it felt like it.

    With his feet resting on the security panel, it was a wonder he hadn't disrupted any of its features; he snored, tossed his head, and rolled a little. The wheels to the chair he sat in budged dangerously.

    A motion detector light went on, letting out a small blip of noise. Beep.

    He twitched again.

    Beep. Beep.

    With one more adjustment in his sleep, the chair rolled out, and the weight of his body, stretched between it and the panel, became too great. He began to slip.

    Beep.

    He fell, and the force of falling woke him up with a wild jerk. He yelled and hit the floor hard, crashing the chair over, leaving its wheels spinning mid-air. For the next minute or so, he remained so shocked and hurt by the fall that he continued to not hear the motion sensor's complaints. He groaned, rubbed his head, and slowly worked his way to his feet. "Augh." Huffing, he blinked the stars out of his eyes and plucked the chair from the floor. At least no one was here to witness his clumsiness.

    Beep. Beep.

    At last, the nagging noise caught his attention.

    "...What?"

    His training fled his brain for a moment, leaving him stumped as to what could be causing the alert, but as he shook the sleep off, he recognized it for what it was.

    "...Where...?"

    Sighing and irritated, he strained his eyes against the various screens. The sensor was informing him of movement on the docks. That didn't seem right. But he looked, and sure enough, there was a blurry spot parked on the water. He gave it a look and had to conclude it was a boat.

    The only boat that had any business docking was the supply boat, which arrived only on Monday. It wasn't Monday―he knew that, and even confirmed it by clicking away on his transceiver.

    "Crap." He picked up the security headset. "Had to happen on my shift." After quickly fiddling with it, he radioed it in. "Uh, hello? This is Pau, down in security―I'm seeing a sign of life at the docks. Anybody copy? Over."

    He waited. Radio silence. Everyone was probably on lunch break.

    "Hello?" He fell back into the chair and spun himself around in a slow circle, over-pronouncing and sighing. "Any-bo-dy at-all?"

    Just when he felt ready to give up and look himself, a light voice broke the quiet. "This is Kairi, I copy. What do you see? Over."

    He squinted at the screen a little more carefully, trying to ensure he didn't miss any crucial details. "A boat―looks small, maybe a fishing trawler? Over."

    "I'll check it out. I'm near there." He hears the tiredness in her voice and can sympathize. "Somebody probably just got turned around. Over."

    "Yeah, probably. Thanks. Over."

    Well, crisis averted! The employee yawned, removed the headset, stretched his legs, and folded his hands across his chest to settle in for a well-deserved snooze.

    -

    Kairi, after swiping her key card and riding the elevator down to the docking area, only vaguely thought about getting someone to tag along. Every other day, they received lectures about the unnamed danger that lurked outside Aether Paradise―some force that the executives refused to identify, but were quick to describe as imminent and deadly. By the time she reached the dock, though, the thought passed, and she saw the sad little trawler bobbing softly in the waters at the landing strip. It appeared well-used by someone, worn from age, incapable of doing anything other than dragging nets along the ocean floor, as it was designed.

    The whole docking area remained creepily quiet.

    "Hello?" She reached the boat, calling for its captain. "Do you need help? We're closed to visitors."

    No answer.

    Without thinking too much about it, she hopped aboard. There were ropes snaked along the floor, so she had to step carefully to reach the interior wheelhouse. Empty. Just when she decided the owner must have deboarded―to where? To wander about the warehouse?―she heard a small thump inside the closed door to the supply closet.

    ...Not nerve-wracking at all, no. She regretted, suddenly, not having a partner.

    "Um… Hello?"

    The thump went quiet and did not repeat itself. Was it a broom, falling over with the push of the last wave? That theory stuck to her, but her hand felt compelled anyway. She went over to it, ducked behind the door, and cracked it open.

    A heavy-booted foot fumbled out; she screamed and jumped in surprise.

    But the boot shuffled its way back, and she heard a sound inside matching her fear. Baffled, and overcoming her initial shock, she peeked inside to find an old man, a fisherman most likely, perhaps the owner of the boat. He crouched down in the closet, arms pinned over his head in a defensive posture.

    "Uh―" Alarmed, she pulled the door open even further. "Sir?"

    He yelped, looked at her in confusion―she could see his beard speckled with blood from a small cut at his cheek―and started shaking his head. He returned to fetal position.

    "Please!" The man cowered and held out his hands. "He said he wouldn't hurt me if stayed in here, I―"

    Dread swallowed her before he could finish stammering out his explanation. She whirled her head around, like a boogeyman had leaped from her psyche, scurrying and baring its teeth at her. As her heart raced, she had the cognizance to shakily reach for her radio―she stumbled out of the wheelhouse, ready to deboard and run for the elevator. How much time did she have? She twisted the channel selector and pressed down the call button, her other hand taking hold of the railing so that she might hop over it.

    Hysterically, she cried out. "This is Kairi! We've got a situation down here! Someone's―"

    Before she could finish, a body launched against her, knocking the wind out of her. She hurtled forward, landing her chest hard on onto the boat's railing; she still gripped the radio, but a hand, belonging to the heavy body crushing her, slapped it out of hers.

    She looked down… Watched her radio tumble into the water and sink into the abyss…

    An arm tightened around her neck until she could hardly breathe. She sensed, too, a knife pressing close to her throat.

    Words growled in her ear, abrasive and raw.

    "You move, you die."

    -

    Though she could not turn around to see, she felt the figure's heavy clothing, some kind of mask or face covering, and the hard rims of something over his eyes. She hadn't the faintest who it might be―but the person was tall, had the strength to snap her in two, and was breathing raggedly into her ear.

    Once he had her in a headlock, though, he seemed to hesitate, as if not sure what to do next. Eventually he yanked her back, dragging her kicking and gasping across the deck of the boat, and after contemplating his next move, yelled hoarsely. "Anybody else comin'?" When she heaved, struggling to get words out, he kicked at her leg to elicit some motivational pain. He yelled even louder. "I said, anybody else comin'?"

    "I don't know! Maybe!"

    Exasperated by the ambiguity of her answer, he twisted her around as he looked about the empty docking area. The knife danced in his left hand, exhibiting some nerves―she could see that the hand looked tender, vulnerable, perhaps even injured. Her thinking was interrupted by a firm shake. "Stop breathing so hard," the voice said, but this time it wasn't so threatening. It sounded young, male, and a little petulant, almost whiny.

    "I would," she gasped, "if you'd let up."

    He didn't fall for it. His grip stayed solid as before.

    "Who are you? What do you want?"

    "Shut up." He went silent, thinking again. "You gotta key card? Can it get you to the President?"

    "The President?" Her head reeled. What did he want with Madame Lusamine? "No―no, my card wouldn't."

    The man mulled this over, then shrewdly motioned for it. "Give it to me."

    "I'm not lying! Only the execs have that access!"

    The knife pressed just below her jawline, nicking her and causing her to squirm.

    "Okay! Okay!" Her hands shaking, she pulled it from her pocket and held it out. He snatched it, or tried to, because with her nerves and his overeagerness combined, it fell out of her hand and clacked onto the ground.

    "Augh!" Again, the voice broke away from its intimidating tone, sounding more frustrated than anything. "Just―hold still a second―"

    She felt him awkwardly kneeling down, the hilt of the knife in his left hand pressing against her chest, his other arm unwinding from her throat to grab the card from the floor. Though she initially obeyed his order, her eyes on the blade and all of the threat it implied, a rush of survival instinct caused her to jerk forward in an attempt to fully throw him off.

    He stumbled―cursed―the knife, wildly out of control, sliced down on her arm as she bolted forward. She let out a scream, clutching the wound as blood splashed over her uniform. In her flailing, she tripped over a rope on the deck and ended up on the floor.

    The man shook in panic. "Crap! I― I didn't mean―" He pounced, grabbed her by the leg, and shouted at her accusingly. "I told you to hold still!"

    "Let go of me!" She struggled, pulling on her captured limb. Oh god, there was blood everywhere―vibrant against her white clothes―pain radiated up through her shoulder and neck. Her voice strained with terror and desperation. "You have what you want!"

    He looked down… Saw the key card safely in his hand… Then shook his head with a swelling of determination. "Get up!" With that, he dug his fingers into the back of her uniform and wrenched her upright, over the sounds of her moaning. "You're comin' with me!"

    -

    Guzma didn't―exactly―have a plan.

    He had a goal in mind. A clear, one-word goal that had supplanted all other thoughts in him, overtaking his hunger, his fatigue, his broken wrist and cracked rib, his difficulty seeing straight:

    Lusamine.

    His memory of her now felt loose and suggestive, like a memory from childhood. The edges of her blurred. The substance of her morphed, exaggerated. She had become, in his isolation and madness, like a religion to him―an abstract that he could die for―or perhaps kill for.

    With these things stickied in the forefront of his mind, it became easy to disregard the agony and throes of the young, bleeding woman he shoved around. He didn't know who she was―doubted he'd ever found out―but her pleas for mercy buzzed mosquito-like in his ear, an annoyance, that was all. The first real flesh wound was an accident. But if she ran, he couldn't say for sure the next one would be.

    She was stalling on their way to the elevator. He let his impatience get the better of him; he kicked her ankle and gruffed. "Keep goin'!"

    The kick tripped her up, but he yanked on her to keep her balanced. The pull must have put pressure on her sliced arm, because she whimpered and clutched it.

    No sympathy warmed him. His voice cut, spat at her. "Move!"

    Once they reached the elevator, her pleading had stopped and gone strangely quiet. Maybe it was the blood loss, or resignation; either way he didn't care, he was just glad to be rid of her noise. He pinned her against the elevator railing for a moment as he dug through his pocket for the key card. He fumbled with his hands―trying to juggle his grip on her, his grip on the now-glistening knife, and the card he tried to swipe into the panel. Holding the knife and the card in his left hand proved too clumsy, so he jerked her forcefully, looped his right arm about her tiny waist, and made the keycard swap hands. She still breathed hard, air filling her stomach and making her sort of bob as she slumped limply over his forearm. Finally, he got frustrated enough to give her the card and demand, "Swipe it."

    Had she passed out? He almost thought so. But after a second, she managed to take the card, smearing blood on it―that's when he noticed how much there was, how much of it had slathered over his left hand and both of hers―and gave it a practiced, even swipe.

    The panel beeped affirmatively and he swung her back again. He puzzled over the buttons and made his final selection.

    Quiet. Quiet. Just her breathing. He half-expected to hear alarms by now, the sound of rushing feet. But there was nothing but the mechanical whir of the elevator shaft opening, and the rise of the platform.

    They were on their way to the next floor. The elevator darkened slightly as it swooped into the dim shaft.

    Both of them stood still.

    The next step in Guzma's plan spontaneously materialized. Almost apologetically, he twisted his arm back to around her throat, returning her to a headlock.

    She must have been waiting for some kind of direction or order, but he didn't give her one. It frightened her. For that few series of seconds that passed between one floor and another, she began shaking.

    "My name's Kairi," she said suddenly. Her voice tremored, and it sounded weak.

    Buzz-buzz-buzz.

    "Please don't kill me."

    He could have reassured her. But instead he hissed at her, pushing at her throat again. His voice popped with tension. "Shut up."

    -

    When he reached the main floor, before the reception desk and ahead of the entrance to the greenhouse and habitat area, he anticipated more activity than there was. He had a memory of the place when it still bustled and moved: there would be workers up front, secretaries running about, volunteers carrying supplies. But now the floor opened up to him, barren and silent. He spotted only a single employee, sitting in the reception area, browsing through a computer screen and paying little attention.

    This wouldn't do.

    He panted, looked around in confusion, then hoisted the woman forward, directing her to the desk. It wasn't until they staggered clumsily within a few yards of it that the worker noticed their approach. He saw the young man's face―it took some time before the man realized what he was seeing and was able to process it, so that by the time fear overtook his face, Guzma had already collided the bleeding woman with the desk. She gasped but lay still, her face pressed on the cool white countertop.

    The worker scrambled to his feet, gawked, and looked ready to run.

    "I want the President!" He pointed impatiently at the phone sitting at the man's right. "Call it in!"

    The worker was still white-faced, frozen in shock.

    Guzma slammed his fist into the countertop, rattling it with a bang. He screamed as hard and as persuasively as he could, waving the bloodied knife around and pressing his elbow into the woman's back, ignoring her renewed whimpering. "Call it in, now! Or I slice her to ribbons! Got it!?"

    At last, the worker animated, but not in the way he wanted; the young man panicked at the sight of her blood-soaked sleeve. "Kairi―oh god, oh god, are you okay? Are you―"

    "Hey! You deaf or somethin'!?" With his long body, Guzma was able to leverage himself over the counter and snag the worker's shirt, the knife dangerously poking into the folds of his uniform. "Call before I stick you, too!" He quickly let go, snorting to himself. "Geez, a little professionalism, huh!?"

    The call was made―shakily, hastily―and he rested his weight on the counter while he waited for the sounds of the building's panic to roll in. Thankfully, neither employee currently at his mercy tried to make conversation, even when time crawled, so each of them slumped in their own way, waiting with bated breath. Guzma, after a while, fidgeted with his feet and tried to wipe the gummed, sticky remnants of blood from his left hand.

    There was a sound of feet―fast, thumping, rhythmic, almost military. It rumbled far off at first, from the west wing of the building, but grew rapidly louder and closer.

    The automatic metal door clicked and slid open, allowing some white-coats to stream into the room.

    The small group flanked the west hallway entrance; some of them held weapons, to his surprise. They must have beefed up security since he had left. An older white-coat in the center of them stepped forward, barking orders. At his command, the guns raised, and he set his eyes on Guzma. "You! Hands in the air!"

    But Guzma pushed himself up from the counter, looked each of them over carefully, and yelled hotly when he realized they were all bottom-rung flunkies. "I ain't talkin' to none of you! I want one o' your bosses!"

    They didn't budge. The leader barked again. "Hands! In the air!"

    A weary, insane smile broke over his lips. Fine. Let's play, then.

    Pulling up and ducking behind his bleeding hostage, he hopped the counter, crashed into the floor―near the other scrambling employee―and dug into his bag, withdrawing several beast balls.

    "Don't shoot! Don't shoot!" The male employee flailed helplessly, trying to get out of the line of fire.

    With nothing else holding him back, Guzma flung all of the balls out into the room. All the anger spilled from his voice in a horrible rise of a grating roar. "Go! Tear this joint up! CRUSH ALL OF 'EM!"

    -

    He ran and was quickly lost in the deafening noise―the noise of screaming, monsters gleeful in their havoc, the facility being shredded in a whirlwind of glass, metal, and electrical components. One of his beasts―Buzzwole, he thinks―hurtled itself into some equipment, sending a shower of sparks in every direction; Xurkitree squealed in the excitement of so much energy, spewing bolts, blackening and scorching the walls. Fire immediately broke out, belching black and suffocating smoke into every corner of the room.

    Pheromosa… Lady… (His totem… His object of veneration, his idol, his icon, his divine promise). Haloed and alight, she appeared to him briefly, looked at him, then scurried back into the din.

    Within seconds, he stumbled―tried to figure out where he was in all the confusion, bumping into countertops, railings, and running gunmen―and it became impossible to see in the flashes of light and churning smoke, so he had to feel along the wall with his fingers, all while struggling to breathe.

    Once he reached a doorway to an adjoining hall, he heard an eruption of even more noise in the form of cracking gunfire, some of it dizzyingly close to his head. The beasts, the bullets' primary targets, only seemed to smash with more ferocity upon taking fire. The smoke finally set off the fire alarms, kicking in an ear-splitting screeching that made him cringe, trip over something large and cumbersome, and clutch his head.

    For a while―it felt like an eternity―Guzma stayed there, bracing his ears, feeling the shuddering and breaking of everything beat right into his chest like a frenzied drum.

    Guzma couldn't hear it, but Faba's voice pierced the air with a high-strung scream at the men. "Put your weapons down, you idiots! Do you want to get us all killed?" He followed up with an infuriated, "Would somebody turn off that racket?"

    -

    When the alarm buzzer stopped, replaced with the relaxed hiss of the awakened sprinkler system, it brought with it a strange silence. The beasts, momentarily startled by the quiet and the shower of water coming from the ceiling, stopped to shake themselves and dig around aimlessly in the rubble.

    "Mr. Guzma." He walked out into the misty, moist floor, hands up to signify his intentions. His voice rang out clearly, devoid of the terror that had gripped the room only moments before. "It is I, Faba―the Branch Chief. We've been expecting you for some time. I see you have decided to make a strong opening position. Very well. Come out, and we'll negotiate."

    Guzma unwrapped his arms from his head, looked about himself, and found that he had landed behind an overturned medical trolley in the eastern hallway. He had heard Faba's voice, yes, but it seemed to be far away, mixed with the dripping water. The smoke still made the room and the halls hazy, so he had to squint and strain his ringing ears to locate him.

    "Mr. Guzma!"

    ...And Guzma limped back for the doorway, eventually emerging under the diffused light to see the white-coated man, attended closely by two guards.

    Faba turned when he saw him. "Ah. There you are." He dropped his arms, preferring instead to fold them behind himself. He shot a glance over to the far end of the room, where beasts had already started digging into a wall, joyously shredding their electrical infrastructure. "Tsk-tsk. You've made quite a mess. Call them off so that we can talk." He noted the clothes Guzma wore. "And won't you remove that ridiculous costume? We know who you are."

    Guzma knew Faba enough to realize this was his schtick: acting like he was in charge, like he had real authority. Rather than argue about it, Guzma decided to―as Faba would say―open negotiations. He peeled his goggles from his face, letting them clatter to the floor; he sniffed and uncovered his hair and face, breathing easier. God, that felt better. He coughed up some soot, shot Faba a glare, and pressed his fingers to his lips to blast a sharp whistle for the beasts' attention. Slowly, curiously, the three monsters craned their heads, considered the noise, and weighed it against the ecstasy of tearing the room to shreds.

    They made their respective noises―screeches, hisses, shuffles, buzzes―and started pacing across the floor, obediently trailing toward their master.

    Faba and his guards were quick to move out of the way.

    "A'ight. We gotta bounce," Guzma told them as they drew closer. "I need y'all back right quick."

    (Had he lost his already tenuous grasp on English, out there in the wilderness? Faba had to wonder.)

    Guzma produced their balls and returned them, one-by-one.

    In the ensuing quiet, Faba spent some time watching Guzma with a critical gaze. He eventually sneered. "How ungrateful you are." He shrugged his shoulders in disbelief. "After all Madame President has given you..."

    "Tch! I don't owe you jack! I oughta sink this whole place!" Guzma frothed. "Would serve y'all right! You left me to die!"

    "...That may be true," Faba said, his voice having not budged from its low, steady octave. "And I don't doubt you have the power to do as you suggest. But Mr. Guzma, there are also many workers here who had nothing to do with that. Such as the poor young woman you dragged in…"

    "I don't wanna talk to you, anyway," Guzma spat. "I wanna talk to Miss L."

    Faba frowned. "I'm afraid that's not possible."

    "Why not?!"

    "She is not well."

    "Look, beanpole―you wanna talk about not being well?" Guzma tugged at his shirt collar to show off the scar tissue still present about his neck. "With all that stuff the beast poisoned me with―it took me three days to wake up, but here I am! So what's her excuse?"

    "Who's to say? I'm not her doctor. In any case. Whatever you have to say to her, surely you can say to me. I will relay whatever it is you please."

    Guzma stormed over to him―he might have crashed into him completely, had Faba's guards not jumped forward to keep him from coming any closer. The boy towered over him, eyes drained, mouth foaming, hatred creasing his brow. "I could spill your guts in two seconds," Guzma said. "Relay that."

    Faba, not impressed, grimaced at being so close to him. "Heavens. Living in the woods has not done you any favors. Let's walk and talk."

    -

    Faba did not exactly feel safe, even after negotiating the knife out of Guzma's possession and planting him in a chair across from his desk. The boy had calmed down considerably after sitting down, giving Faba time to take a handkerchief and dry himself off a little (the sprinklers were still doing their job by the time they left). Still, two guards stood ready at Faba's sides, and even more men stood right outside his office. Better safe than sorry.

    When an attendant walked in with a tray of tea and watercress and cucumber sandwiches, Faba could not even finish gesturing at it and saying, "I suppose you must be hungry," before Guzma leapt up and wrested the plate of sandwiches into his hands. He plopped down into his chair again and proceeded to cram every bit into his mouth, barely chewing before he swallowed.

    "Well, you must have…" Faba curled his lip as he watched Guzma wolf the food down. He waved for the attendant to pour some tea for them. "Interesting stories to tell."

    Guzma said nothing, having already consumed half of the sandwiches. He chewed and sucked loudly, driving Faba to keep talking to distract himself from the irritating noise.

    "It has been rather dull here, I'm afraid. We've tracked your movements for some time, but with the International Police sticking their nose into things, we decided not to risk extracting you." He stroked his beard. "Honestly, I think many of us assumed… The problem would resolve itself, so to speak."

    Guzma did not catch on to his morbid implication. He grunted, swallowed the last sandwich, and twisted the plate about.

    "We'll get you some more, if you like."

    But Guzma shook his head. "Can I talk to Miss L now?"

    "Ms. Wicke is assessing the situation. We'll have to wait on her word."

    Guzma frowned but accepted this reasoning. Once the tea was served, he slurped at it greedily, though he didn't appear to be enjoying the flavor very much.

    "Isn't there anything you could discuss with me?" Faba eyed the backpack that Guzma had set next to his chair.

    Guzma gave him an alien look and kicked the bag between his feet protectively. "I ain't got nothin' to say to you, four-eyes."

    Rude little brute. Faba started to hope he would get permission to throw the young man into an isolation chamber and shut off his air supply. It would save them all some headache.

    But the phone call came in a timely fashion, and after a quick chat with the staff upstairs and Ms. Wicke, Faba had an answer.

    "It appears…" He shook his head in disbelief. "The queen has granted you an audience."

    -

    Once inside Lusamine's home, and before they arrived to her room, Guzma―a bit awkwardly―asked for the restroom.

    Faba almost said something snide, but then he looked Guzma up and down―the blood smeared on his jacket and hands, the dirt on his face, the grunge… everywhere. "It wouldn't be a bad idea for you to clean up," he agreed. "The washroom is this way."

    It felt right―to have a small bit of baptism before going in: pink water swirling down the drain, dirt blackening the ivory surface of the sink. He scrubbed his face for a while, then the back of his neck, then moistened his hair to pull it back. He dug some of the grit from under his overgrown fingernails, and had to gently wash about his left wrist, which was misshapen and still radiated horrible pain.

    It then struck him how surreal it was, being here: all the weeks of waiting, of fighting, of dreaming for it… He had hardly slept a wink last night once he decided it was time. But now, it proved impossible to wrap his brain around the reality that he was at the end, and in a few short minutes, he would reach the crux.

    As he felt water drip from his face, he almost changed his mind.

    ...But where would he go, if not here?

    -

    Guzma wanted to go into the room alone, but was eventually pressured into bringing a nurse along. For Lusamine's safety and well-being, they said. The nurse was small, and looked breakable, so he didn't argue very hard.

    The door opened.

    ...Was this what death felt like? The aches and weights of your body rolling away, unveiling like trimmings falling and collecting at your feet; your eyes adjusting to the bright divinity beginning to bulge out before your vision, overtaking you; hearing soft music, smelling flowers? He almost tripped over himself on the way in, he was having such trouble collecting his wits.

    The nurse hurried around him to reach the bed. The door shut behind him, sealing him in light.

    There, Lusamine lay.

    He thought there must be some mistake. This… object before him, that lay propped up against the headboard with a massive silk pillow, on a bed with a size meant to host marital bliss, draped under sheets and covers of fine and pure linens―this thing was not Lusamine. It looked more like a life-size porcelain doll, with flawless, snowy flesh, and none of the warmth or flushing that should come with a heartbeat. She was perfectly still, her shoulders relaxed, her arms posed and limp on her lap. Her golden hair was undone, with none of the shape that he had come to recognize in her―it fell flatly over her head, fanning out in thick, limp cords about the bed, and parted simply at the middle of her forehead. And her dress―like a doll's dress, sleeveless but laced at the breast, trimmed with the faintest golden color against her creamy skin.

    Her eyes were closed and showed no signs of awareness.

    Lusamine's nurse, though, approached and whispered into her ear, gently touching her arm as she did. "Madame. You have a visitor."

    Slowly, like awakening from a deep sleep, she opened her glass-green eyes.

    He stopped breathing. His body shrank. He became acutely aware of his battered, unclean, gaunt frame: he felt like a used cigarette about to be stomped under-heel.

    Upon seeing him, her face hardened. She had only one name for him, which she uttered with the sharpness of a blade. "Thief."

    All the words he had rehearsed tumbled out of his head. He tried anyway to stammer out his piece. "Miss L. I want to―"

    "Be quiet." For such a weak voice, it sliced through him. When he trembled and obeyed, she looked to the nurse just as sharply. "You. Leave, now."

    "But Madame―"

    "I want us to be alone."

    The nurse did as she was told; after hearing the door opening and shut again, Guzma could also hear the beginnings of panicked whispers outside in the hall.

    "You."

    Guzma felt as though a hand was wrapping about his throat. The bed seemed miles away from where he stood, and ever looming in size.

    She struggled, her body quaking in her weakness; she managed to sit up only an inch before it appeared the last of her strength had been spent. Her words almost gurgled out of her, spewing like noxious venom over her crackling chokes for breath. "Was it not enough… For my children to betray me… And now you… Betray me… Steal from me…You've taken everything from me… I cannot say I am hurt… It is all I have known… To give my love freely, to see it squandered..." She swallowed hard to regain her breath. "So here I am… Weak and at your mercy… So what is it that you will do…?"

    Guzma fell.

    First, to his knees. It was almost unintentional at first; his legs folded in their exhaustion beneath him. But he had practiced, too―practiced precisely what he intended to do. He let his bag slide down from his shoulders, and he pushed it ahead of himself on the glossy tile. Then, before she ask what he was doing, he planted his hands down and pressed himself forward while still on his knees, until his forehead rested against the floor.

    His voice strangled with supplication. "Please forgive me, Madame President!"

    -

    Guzma waited.

    Lying prostrate on the floor was not the comfortable place for him. It put undue pressure on his sore knees, weight on his throbbing wrist, and tightened the already battered muscles of his back.

    He waited some more.

    What was taking her so long? She hadn't peeped. Hadn't even shuffled under her sheets. The silence got to him; he didn't want to break his kowtow yet, but being deprived a response felt unfair, cruel, even.

    After enduring the silence as long as he could, he at last nervously lifted his head to get a reading of her expression. He found that she hadn't moved. Her expression had neither hardened nor softened―no, it had turned blank, and she stared at him with an intensity he'd never received from her before.

    His stomach knotted. His mind spun. He thought he had screwed it up somehow. Perhaps the words hadn't come out right―they sounded right, at the time he said them, but how could he be sure? Did she not understand him? Did she think he was making fun of her? Every possibility raced through his brain at light-speed, causing him to break into a feverish sweat.

    Perhaps this all bore more explanation. He shakily pulled the bag towards him again, unzipping it and plucking some of the balls out with his hands, showing them to her. He felt like was explaining it to a child. "S-see? I have them here. Look. I caught them for you. So you can have them… You get it?"

    Still, she stared at him.

    "I just― I just wanted to make it right, ya know? I know it doesn't fix what I did, but maybe―"

    Just when he averted his eyes to the floor in a surge of renewed shame, a thump startled him.

    Lusamine was on the floor. Her nightgown, golden and draped about her slim form, trailed in a long, sweeping train behind her, tangling her bare legs as she began, very steadily, to crawl forward.

    Guzma gaped in shock. It wasn't that he thought she had been faking, exactly, but he hadn't anticipated how real her physical weakness was, and to see her crawling over the floor made the man in him leap to her defense. "Ma'am! Oh, god, I'm sorry, I should have been closer, I― Are you okay? Let me help―!"

    She ignored him. He couldn't get up quickly enough to attend to her, anyhow. She settled just feet from him, heaving heavy, determined breaths, and clawed the bag into her hands. In her wrenching, several balls fell clattering to the floor, but she didn't seem perturbed. Her eyes roamed over them, drinking them in like sweet wine. She reached in and brought them into her hands.

    "S-so―" He sat up on his knees, watching her for a moment. Upon seeing her this close, he could see the discoloration in her, some evidence of a disease that had fed on her, gnawed on her beauty. "They're all there," he said. "I checked. I double-checked. It's all of them―"

    She continued to pick each of them up, staring at them, shuffling through them.

    "I―I don't know if― if it's enough, but I just― if you would give me, a second chance, I―"

    With several balls cupped in her hands, she finally spoke. "My… Beasts…" She took them up against her. The way she breathed, pressed them against her breast… He felt heat rising from his throat to his face.

    With a look of wonder and desperate need, she at last turned his eyes to him. "Will you… show one to me?"

    He lunged forward excitedly. "Y-yeah!" He would have jumped to his feet, but she still lingered on the floor, so he crawled on his hands and knees, shuffling himself over to the bag as it remained in her lap. He leaned over and began to look for an appropriate beast. "Here… Let me…"

    Lusamine was so… Close to him, pawing at his shoulders, breathing down his neck as he fished through the bag. She was laughing a little, weakly, giggling like a child about to receive their long-awaited present. He tried to focus, but the hairs at the back of his neck stood on end.

    "...This one." He made his choice. "She's… I mean, I think you'll like her."

    Pheromosa, upon release, gave Guzma her normally impenetrable gaze, but he could feel the squeeze of Lusamine's hand at his arm, and the touch made him interpret wildly: Lady looks, he thinks, like she belongs here, has always belonged here, in this delicate room of glimmering and pure things. The two of them sat there on the floor, breathless, admiring her where she stood.

    Lusmine's breath quickened with anticipation; her hand squeezed him again. "May I touch her?"

    "...Sure."

    By then, there wasn't much strength left between the two of them, but Guzma summoned the last of his own to push them up, letting her lean on his shoulder. They took steps forward. The back of her hand slid against his palm; she was soft against the roughness of his calluses and scrapes. As he reached out with her, the sleeve of his jacket pulled back, revealing the shining gold watch at his bruised and swollen wrist.

    How many countless nights had he lain there…? Hungry and cold, scraping at the bottom of the last of his spirit…? Wondering when he would taste food again...? Thinking that if he slept, he may not have the strength wake up…?

    How long had he stared at it, and calculated how many meals it could have bought him…?

    Pheromosa hesitated, but he pleaded so anxiously, so persistently and cloyingly, that finally, his Lady assented, and their fingers, mixed together, made contact with the pearly, smooth carapace of the beast's face.

    He shut his eyes. Breath filled Lusamine's lungs in a sudden, shaken, climactic gasp.

    "...She's… so beautiful… She's perfect."

    Her lips just barely brushed his ear, and her whispers tickled him with hot, wet breath. He could not tell if this was on purpose, but it made him shiver and melt.

    "Perfect… In every way I have ever dreamed…"

    -

    Next - Chapter 9: The Smothered King
     
    Last edited: Apr 2, 2018
  20. TheAlpar

    TheAlpar Journey Enthusiast

    Well... holy **** is this messed up.

    Not dark, not edgy, not... well, gory or anything, but it's extremely ****ed up and oh man do I love it. You've got what it takes to show your audience something that'll unnerve them without even spilling a drop of blood (well, with the exception of that girl guard) and it's great when an author can do that. What happened to Lusamine, Guzma's entire reason for gathering the beasts, the way she still has a hold of him, even while so weakened... damn.

    I can't wait to see where this will go; I find this story to be super intriguing. Great job once more.
     

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