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Beasts and Beauties [Sun & Moon]

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

  1. Chibi Pika

    Chibi Pika Stay positive

    Oh man... chills. I legit feel like I have to catch my breath I was holding it so long, scrolling so slowly through that chapter. God, I love the way you establish tension. Guzma's desperation, the way he had absolutely no idea what he was doing, relying on stock "tough guy" lines and actions, all with that one, all-consuming goal. (Also, side note, but I really hope Kairi's okay.) The way you get inside his head, "the nurse looked breakable" ajhgjdfhgasfg. And then the way all of that melts away instantly when he actually reaches Lusamine, the way she just tears him down instantly, all his strength rendered meaningless. And then her obsession with the beasts comes through in full force, and Guzma leaps straight into being accommodating. Because for all his strength, he is still nothing without her. Even in her state, he can't lay a finger on her and she knows it.

    Just... chills.

    ~Chibi~
     
  2. dietofwurms

    dietofwurms i see stars

    Chapter 9: The Smothered King

    It was precisely nine forty-five in the morning when Lusamine called Guzma, startling him awake. Either he had completely slept through his alarm, or forgotten to set it; in either case, as he rolled stiffly about his oversized bed, colliding into something large, hard, and crustacean-like, he pondered, with his eyes shut, the consequence of ignoring the call.

    "Ugh." His elbows pinched against the hard object. That better not be what he suspects it is. "Goli, I'm gonna kill ya."

    The phone still rang. He groaned, blindly groped for it, and eventually pulled it to face. When he saw who it was, he cleared his throat, and tried to blink the grogginess out of himself. He answered. "Hello?"

    "It's Madame Lusamine."

    "Uh, yeah, I know." Sometimes, he forgot how old she was. "What's up?"

    "I'm calling to remind you of your morning appointment."

    Guzma shot up.

    "I know it's not until ten o' clock," she droned on, "but I did hope you'd aim to arrive early."

    "Uh." He checked the time and muffled a curse. He muffled another curse when he turned his head the other way and saw Golisopod had indeed once more snuck into bed, chewing and shredding his bedsheets. The fat slob still slept, and didn't respond when he gave its shoulder armor a good whack with his fist. His anger made him hesitate for a second, before lying, "Yeah, I know―I'm coming down right now."

    "...You sound like you're still in bed."

    "I'm not!" Technically. He had just leaped out and untangled himself from his sheets. He pawed along the floor for his clothes, which he had slung somewhere. "I'll―be there, just gimme like a minute!"

    Her voice turned cross. "'Like' a minute, or an actual minute?"

    Guzma slapped a hand over his face and swallowed down a frustrated scream. She always did that, always picked apart his careless measurements of time, always insisted on keeping schedules down to the millisecond. He calculated. "Ten minutes, maybe fifteen."

    "Ten minutes," she echoed, then hung up.

    Once Guzma found his jeans and pulled them out from under his bed, he stood up to release his frustration by yelling at the still-slumbering Golisopod. "God! How many ways I gotta say it, huh? You can't do this no more!"

    Golisopod wickered.

    "Goli! I'm dead serious!" He tried to pull on the sheet to wrest it from his pokemon, but as he did, he found the edges had been completely shredded and stained with drool. Again. He snarled. "The maid's gonna replace 'em―and they charge me for that!"

    Golisopod snored, snared the bed-sheet back into his claws, and began digging it against its body, nesting with it.

    "Ugh! You're lucky I don't have time to pound you!"

    -

    In truth, he didn't have time to do much of anything. He wasn't looking to get lectured about tardiness this morning, so he threw whatever clothing he could find lying on the floor, wetted his fingers and slid them through his hair to calm his massive case of bed head, and trotted out into the main area of his suite.

    Guzma's private suite, located at a generous three floors above the ocean in Aether Paradise, sometimes felt too large. It was a funny thing, thinking that―Guzma would have laughed the idea off weeks ago. Since when could having room be a bad thing? After living all of his life in cramped, shared spaces, it first felt freeing to live here, like he finally could breathe.

    But on mornings like these, the place felt not only expansive, but empty.

    It had all the amenities that qualified it as a high-class suite; it boasted a sleek, modern look of white tile and walls, a living space with furniture and a mounted widescreen television, a bedroom fitted with a king-sized bed and walk-in closet, a bathroom sporting the single largest jacuzzi tub he had ever seen, a serviceable kitchenette, and a wide balcony that overlooked the distant Alolan islands.

    So, yes, it was big… But mostly empty floor-space, and features he hadn't gotten around to using yet. It also lacked personality―Guzma wasn't much of an interior decorator, even when left with a space of his own.

    It didn't matter too much, he decided. It wasn't like he spent a lot of time here, anyway.

    So he stuffed his feet into his white, oversized sneakers, and hurried out the door.

    -

    The routine in the labs had been running for a while, enough that Guzma knew what to expect. This particular area was a testing lab; he could see Faba's back behind the dark-panelled glass that separated the room from the monitoring equipment inside, and could also see that the Branch Chief was plucking away at a computer and modelling some sort of calculation. Beyond the door, there would be also a larger, open space, where Guzma would assist in various tests of the beasts' anatomy, strength, and other attributes.

    Normally, Faba would have preferred working on the beasts with only himself and a small team of scientists. However, after trying to work with the creatures only once, he had to relent and make Guzma a permanent element of the testing sessions. As a product of their training, which must have happened in complete isolation from other humans, the beasts acted extremely aggressive and hostile to the presence of anyone other than their owner. Not to say Guzma's control of the beasts was perfect; much like Guzma himself, the beasts were prone to violent and inexplicable outbursts. But eighty, maybe ninety-percent of the time, Guzma was able to maneuver them to the correct place, goad them into doing what Faba wanted, and come away relatively unscathed.

    Neither Faba nor Lusamine could really describe Guzma's training tactics―they were rather undisciplined and uneven, yanking back and forth between stuffing the beasts with treats and pleading for cooperation, and completely losing his temper.

    In any case, this morning, Guzma was maybe, maybe, thirty seconds late arriving to the lab, and Lusamine already looked annoyed with him. She stood tall for her stature, her arms folded before her, her snowy dress fanning out. She looked ethereal and bright, making him feel more overshadowed than usual.

    "Good morning," she said. She had the grace to not express her irritation in her greeting.

    "...Morning."

    "I missed you at breakfast."

    "Wasn't hungry," he said, avoiding her eyes. His current strategy was to hurry by her, hopefully enough to to throw her off. "We gettin' started, or what?"

    "Guzma." Lusamine called after him, catching him before he disappeared through the door.

    He slowed to a halt, huffed, and asked, "What?"

    "Come here, please."

    He sighed and plodded back. He wore an incredible scowl.

    "You're in quite a mood this morning," she easily observed. She took on a sweet, consoling tone. "Is there anything I can do?"

    "No." His answer came out flat, hard, like a curse.

    "Hmm." She started to look him over, to his complete dismay. "When did you get up?"

    "I dunno," he said. Then he clumsily upped his lie. "A while ago."

    "I see. And this 'while ago'―you spent it doing what, exactly?"

    He slouched and started to lean in the direction of the door. He eyed it desperately as a path of blissful escape. "―Can we go?"

    "Guzma. Look at me."

    He did, and tightened his face. He knew it. He knew today would be like this.

    "I don't want you rolling out of bed and trundling into work. It's unprofessional and it's unhygienic."

    "Miss―"

    "Now, I've let you get away with it too many times, and you clearly think I think I'm oblivious or unserious on the matter, so this is what you're going to do. I'm going to give you―" She glanced at her watch. "One hour. Go upstairs…"

    "What?"

    "Take a shower. Brush your hair and your teeth. And for goodness' sake, put on something you haven't worn for three days in a row."

    This was the last straw. He exploded. "Why you geekin', Miss L?! It's not like I'm goin' on TV! Look―I'm just gonna do tests, right? I could do that in my PJ's!"

    Lusamine thought of about a dozen things she could say at that precise moment, but kept each of them quiet. Instead, she kept silent, gave him a look, glanced at her watch again, and then waited.

    He whined and he kicked the floor and he went on and on about the unfairness of it all. To be treated! As if! He was a little kid! He raged and frothed, sputtering with all the energy brought on by his indignation.

    Finally, though, he started to run out of ways to complain, and he saw she was still ignoring him, keeping her eyes on her watch.

    He blustered. "Miss!"

    "Oh," she said dryly, looking up. "Are you finished?"

    He stiffened like a board, his muscles taut and ready to fight. She was making fun of him; she was mocking him. His broken wrist, tightened inside its splint, throbbed with the strain of his anger.

    "Because now you have fifty-nine minutes."

    Guzma kicked the wall with his foot and stifled a scream―he had hit his sprained toe on the way. Bleary with pain and rage, he grabbed a glass flask from the table and chucked it into the wall. It shattered, matching his shouting. "I don't wanna do this no more! Screw it! I quit! I didn't sign up for none of this! Nobody tells me what to do! Nobody!"

    And with that squawking finished, he stormed off into the hallway, cursing and limping the whole way to the elevator.

    -

    Lusamine didn't worry; this happened virtually every day. Sometimes, it happened twice a day.

    The poor dear―still adjusting.

    She had at least fifty-five minutes before Guzma would slink back into the lab adequately ashamed of himself and pretending nothing had happened. She carefully planned the day around explosions like these, even building in flexible blocks of what she affectionately called "cool-down periods" and Faba snidely referred to as "time-outs."

    Speaking of. She turned to the glass panel, pressing the microphone button to speak into the computer lab on its opposite side. "Faba, dear," she said―she saw him turn from his computer screen, pausing his work to look at her. "We're taking an early break today. Join me for tea?"

    Not near enough to a microphone to speak back, he gestured with an affirmative wave.

    "In your office, please. I'll see you there in five minutes."

    Faba made a face, as if he wanted to say something urgently, but she turned away.

    -

    "I apologize for the mess, Madame," Faba said upon seeing her enter. Five minutes of warning had proved not enough for him to make his office space at all conducive to morning tea; he had cleared the guest chair, at least, of papers, and had cleared a little space on his desk, but the whole room was in an embarrassing disarray.

    She didn't show any offense, instead marveling, "There's truly a renaissance of activity down here. I hope it hasn't been overwhelming."

    Faba gave up on making the place pristine, and they both took a seat, on opposite sides of his desk. He looked at her. What a far cry she was, he thought, from not so long ago. She looked so vibrant now, so strong and alive―so very… much like herself again. As the attendant brought in their tray of tea, setting their cups and filling them, he made his observation known to her. "You have experienced a remarkable turnaround yourself."

    She smiled, adjusted her cup, and nodded to the attendant as she explained, "Purpose, dear, is the most potent medicine."

    They waited for the attendant to leave before they continued speaking. A sudden weight fell over his office, and he didn't like it.

    "Faba, I would like to speak with you in confidence," Lusamine suddenly said. "You see, with recent developments, I think it is time we cleared the air, so to speak." She stirred her tea and tilted her head. "For once and for all―we must make clear the issue of loyalty."

    "Loyalty?" Faba dropped his cup back into its saucer. "I'm not sure what you mean; my loyalty has always been to you, Madame."

    "Oh, let's not muddle things. You were loyal to Mohn."

    Faba opened his mouth, almost ready to speak, but realized suddenly he had no way to answer that.

    She explained herself. "After Mohn… Well, when it was determined he would not be returning, you went to the Board of Directors." When she saw how his face changed, she sipped at her tea for a moment. Her eyes skimmed over him for signs of contrition. "I know this because I went through their files and found the transcription of the meeting."

    Sweat beaded on his brow. He started to shake.

    "You begged them to give you the Presidency. You told them that I was an unqualified fashion floozy―a vapid debutante―an embarrassment to their cause―"

    "M-Madame!" He scrambled to his feet, hands pressed together. "Please! Since then, I-I've come to realize―"

    "Faba." Her face, eyes, and voice softened, cushioning him with sympathy. "Do you think I don't understand?"

    His pleading stopped; he looked confused.

    "I was an outsider. And you were hurt. We were all hurt, then…" She set down her tea cup and looked outward, a bleakness covering her in memories of darker times. She eventually settled her eyes on a picture Faba had hanging on his office wall, below his doctorates and a prestige plaque he had received years ago. She stood, walked over to the picture, and gave it a long, heavy-hearted look, her hand resting on her chin. "...Sometimes, I wonder if you weren't hurt the most of all."

    Faba sank back into his chair slowly, feeling his legs turn to jelly. He winced. "Madame, you were married to him," he reminded her.

    "All the same―we share a fate, don't we? Grasping like children, trying to hold onto him." She calmly lifted the picture from the wall and pressed it to her chest. "That's why. Why, though I know you are not loyal to me, you will always have a place here, Faba. You are, in so many ways, the last piece of him that I have. And that is also why I can trust that your loyalty to him will sustain newly in me."

    As he mulled over this promise, she drifted back to her seat, pulled the picture out before herself, and pressed her fingers to it. A gentle smile came over her lips.

    "This has always been my favorite picture of him. He looks so relaxed. So―in his element."

    Faba knew the picture well enough not to need another look. It was the day Aether had been formally made a Foundation; all of the chairs, co-chairs, founders, and head scientists were all standing before their now-former headquarters, eyes bright, smiles proud. A more formal version of the photograph existed somewhere, with more professional faces and stances, but he had kept this version: in it, a young Mohn, in his lab coat and tie, hand upright and waving to the camera, had spontaneously swung his other arm about Faba's shoulders.

    Lusamine was not in the picture.

    She saw his melancholy expression and gasped. "I'm sorry! I didn't mean to depress you."

    No, he thought bitterly, just to play me like a violin. The worst part was that it had worked. He sighed and swallowed hard. "No, it's qu-quite all right." He got up, gently released the picture from her hand, and placed it back on the wall, taking time to carefully straighten it.

    "Well! Seeing as we're here, I have another matter I wish to discuss." She neatened her skirt for a moment, giving him time to find his seat once again. "How is Guzma doing?"

    Faba couldn't roll his eyes to the ceiling fast enough. He honestly didn't know where to begin. The boy, since showing up with the beasts slung over his shoulder, only terrified him more than ever. The quest he had undertaken in capturing the monsters had turned him scrawnier and more savage; he punched and he threatened and he bullied with starved ferocity. Faba decided to keep his answer politely withdrawn. "We have our work cut out for us."

    "I think we've made tremendous progress."

    "So you would. You're the only one who can get away with scolding him."

    "He is energetic," she said, still smiling. "But he's responsive to correction." She noticed him looking unimpressed. "I am aware of your difficulties with him, Faba. Perhaps if you approached him differently―"

    "The boy is an ogre," he said flatly, leaving no room for discussion. "I've made monsters more trainable than that thing. Ought to be locked up, with the key thrown away. If I had known sooner that this pet project of yours was going to take over my life, I would have hanged myself."

    "Dramatic, as always!" She fluttered her eyes at him, somewhat admonishingly, but also with a sense of pity, as if she understood. "He wasn't raised by wolves, Faba. He lived with his parents until not so long ago."

    He scowled a little, sipping at his tea. He growled into it, hoping to muffle his words. "...Makes one wonder."

    "The poor dear needs some mothering."

    "...And that is your prerogative, Madame. Not mine. "

    "Ah, but there are things boys cannot get from their mothers." With that, she put a meaningful hand atop his, and pressed her eyebrows together in concern. "I had so hoped you two would get along better. That he would look up to you, perhaps confide in you―that you would be a father to him."

    Faba choked in utter disbelief. "Are―are you joking, Madame!?"

    "Why would I be joking?"

    "'Look up' to me! He could probably break me with his bare hands―!"

    "But you're older, more experienced, more accomplished in your field..."

    "Don't butter me up! He is a predator! The way he eyeballs me―!"

    "Only because you're so quick to criticize him!" she implored. From across the table, she reached to take his hands, folding them into her own. "My dear, he requires a certain… Gentle touch. If only you took the time to encourage him, to praise him, to show him the slightest bit of care―" She took his two hands, then placed them together, guiding his fingers to weave into one another and clasp tightly. "I promise you, he will become putty in your hands."

    "If I were…" He uncertainly sent his eyes up and down her figure, so that he didn't have to say it directly. He grit his teeth. "...Of your persuasion, I might believe you."

    "I give you my word. You will be shocked by how quickly you get results."

    "I make no promises," he said. But his eyes jutted over to the picture on the wall, and he withered slightly. "But… for you, Madame, I will put some thought into it."

    "Wonderful!" She flashed him a sunny smile.

    In the end, they chatted on more frivolous matters for some time, finished their tea, and returned to the lab, where Guzma already waited, adequately freshened up for the day. Lusamine cooed at him, lavishing him with praise: so much better, so much more handsome this way, and though Guzma still pouted a little, he could not suppress the coloration in his face that showed proof of his pleasure.

    -

    The moment the strange woman walked into his suite, Guzma took a severe disliking to her. Her heavily-accented voice boomed out, almost shattering his eardrum with an excited screech. "Lucie! Dah-ling!"

    Lusamine, who had opened for her to enter, greeted her with as much emphasis, though not as much volume. "My dear friend!"

    The two women poured out a cascade of words he didn't understand―eventually he realized it was French―and joined arms, laughing and cooing and purring at each other. They kissed cheeks and gushed for what felt, to him, like forever.

    Guzma, who stood awkwardly in the middle of his living room, stuffed his hands into his jacket and waited it out. He had known that some "fashionista" that Lusamine knew personally was coming here―the appointment had been long-standing―but he didn't expect to witness this much affection between the two. It confused and embarrassed him.

    He also didn't know Lusamine spoke fluent French, though considering it now, it made some sense. Guzma had learned occasional tidbits about the Foundation through these weeks, and he had heard, somewhere, that the branch had primarily originated out of Kalos.

    Finally, Lusamine and the woman separated their embrace and he got to get an actual look at her.

    She had short, cropped hair, flashy diamonds at her ears and throat, and a puffy, over-the-top dress lined with fur. She carried a sizable business case, too bulky to hold only papers, but carried it with one hand effortlessly. She clacked around hurriedly in tall, narrow heels; her body was rail-thin, willowy, and tall, easily matching his height. Her energy took immediate command of the room, as if the very molecules of the room lined up to her liking. Her head moved quickly, swerving and sweeping, identifying and analyzing every little flaw in her view.

    ―And kept looking at him, eyes crawling.

    Lusamine took her arm and looked to Guzma for his attention. "This is Mademoiselle Heloise, an old friend―and simply the best designer out of Kalos."

    "Merci! You flatter me too much." Heloise broke away and rushed up to him, before he had a chance to flinch. "Ah! This is the young man, oui? Bonjour, mon amie!" She reached and clasped his face. "What a handsome boy you've given me to work on, Lucie!"

    (He uncomfortably wriggled away).

    "I hope you're not too intimidated by such a tall order," Lusamine said to her.

    "Oh, not at all! It is not every day I have the chance to design a gym leader!"

    Guzma looked confused. "I ain't a gym leader."

    "You―ah, I see." Heloise snapped her fingers, trying to stir her memory. "You call it... what is it... ka-hoo-NA." She over-pronounced it, putting emphasis on all the wrong sounds. She grinned. "So exotic! Now what is your name, my pet?"

    He barely had a chance to open his mouth before she cut him off with more rapid-fire speech.

    She practically yelled in his face. "Come now! Out with it! No need to be shy!"

    "Guzma," he blurted, praying she'd shut up, or at least slow down. He felt dizzy, just listening to her.

    "Guzma . Lovely. Merveilleux. Now, let me―" For a whirlwind of a second, she looked him up and down, her head cocking and swaying rapidly, her expression turning contemplative, strange, and unreadable. "Ah," she said, as if discovering something. She waved a finger in the air. "Ah, yes. Lucie?"

    "Hmm?"

    "He has had his measurements, yes?"

    "We're getting him fitted tomorrow."

    "Ah, très bon. And a stylist? You have a stylist lined up already?" She laughed suddenly, hitting her forehead with her palm. "Oh, what am I saying! Who am I speaking to!"

    ...Guzma, by now, seriously wondered how long this was going to take. He scratched on his forearm, especially where his splint got sweaty and uncomfortable.

    Heloise, without another word, hoisted the large case in her hand across the living area, making her way into his bedroom. That she moved about so freely startled him, but he followed her at Lusamine's urging. The woman set the case on his table and had already opened it―there were papers, and cloth samples, and color palettes. Lusamine disappeared out into the main room; she appeared busy writing something as she went. In any case, he was now alone with this twitchy, overbearing woman.

    "My plan is simple today," the woman said, now finally directing her speech at him. "We are going to―get a few sketches ready, throw some color on you, see what pops; this is really a, oh, how would one say this―a time for me to capture―whatever it is that you are."

    "...Sure. Whatever."

    "I'll have designs ready on paper in, oh, three days―and we'll move from there." She caught his eyes, boring her intense gaze into him. "Do you have questions, perhaps?"

    "Not really." He tugged on his sleeve. "But I think―"

    She swiftly cut him off with a bubbly laugh. "Oh, dear, no! You needn't think at all. I am to do all of that for you, understand?"

    He gave her a baffled look, lip curling with incredulity. "...Yeah."

    "Well! Let us get started right away, oui? Strip, please."

    Guzma thought he misheard. He lifted an eyebrow. "Uh, what?"

    "Really!" Heloise started gesturing emphatically with her hands and snapped her fingers rudely. "Down to your undergarments, quickly. It all must go, right away! All of it!" When he didn't immediately obey, she went over to him, starting to grab the jacket at the shoulders. "Here, my darling, let me help you."

    "What are you―!" Guzma lurched and knocked her hands away. "Woah! Hey! Hands off! My clothes are staying on, lady!"

    "What is an artist without blank canvas?" she scolded. "Come now, there's no need to be shy."

    She tried again, and again he knocked her hands away. "Quit touchin' me!"

    Lusamine must have heard their shouting from outside, because she swooped in, her heels clacking hard against the floor to show her displeasure. She gave them both a stern look and placed a hand at her hip. "What on earth is going on in here?"

    Guzma shrank up against the wall, flush with anger. He spat out his answer. "Nothing, other than this lady trying to sexually assault me!"

    Heloise screamed. "Oh, oh!" She spun around, clutching her chest like he had planted a dagger there, and for a second they both thought she was going to faint. "Mon Dieu!"

    In retrospect, if he knew the woman better, he might have chosen a gentler way to phrase his disagreement. She not only swooned, but after being caught by Lusamine, she fell to pieces, bawling and crying out expressions of disbelief.

    "Never! In my life!"

    "My dear, please, calm down."

    Guzma, gawking at the spectacle, eventually said, "What's wrong with her?"

    Lusamine shot him a glare. "Guzma, that's enough!"

    In all the explosion of dramatics, Heloise finally found her footing, enough to sniff and say, "I must go." She started clawing for her case.

    "Oh, really, dear, that won't be necessary."

    "I love you, and you are gorgeous, but I cannot do it! I cannot!"

    "My dear friend!" Lusamine clutched her hands and purred her sympathies. "Please, I beg you. He is a thoughtless brute, I know, but look at him―" She pointed at him pityingly. "The poor dear is frightened. A trembling lamb, a sparrow―"

    Guzma tried to interrupt. "Hey!"

    "To be left by himself with such a strong and beautiful woman―it must have momentarily overwhelmed him."

    Guzma knew now she was ignoring him, so he rolled his eyes and leaned against the wall. "Tch."

    Heloise, though, seemed both touched and comforted by her words. She wiped the tears from her eyes. "Ah, oui, I see it now, mon meilleure amie. You are right. You are always right!" She kissed Lusamine on the cheek, joined their arms together, and let loose a long, overwrought gushing of French exclamations. "How could have I doubted you for an instant?"

    Under his breath, he muttered, "Geez, get a room."

    "Guzma!"

    He stiffened, thinking she heard him. "What, I didn't―"

    "I can hardly find words, other than to say I am severely disappointed in your behavior."

    "I―"

    "This poor woman is a friend and colleague, here only to help you. I'm shocked that you would treat her with blatant disrespect!"

    He could feel anger and humiliation knotting in his throat. After all this, she was going to ream him out in front a stranger, like he was a disobedient two-year-old?

    Her voice sliced into him. "Guzma! Apologize this instant!"

    "Is she gonna apologize to me for―"

    A single, cracking stomp of her heel on the floor cut him off. "Now!"

    Guzma let out an enraged, sharp exhale through his nostrils, swept his leg to the side to give his dresser a hard kick, and sank his head miserably between his shoulders. He picked out a spot on the floor to stare daggers into and resorted to pouting for a minute, but that got to be more embarrassing than being scolded in the first place. Through clenched teeth, he strained out a muffled, "...M'sorry."

    Lusamine growled. "I don't. Think. She could hear you."

    "Oh my g―" He lifted his head, spewing loudly, and not without sarcasm, "I said, 'I'm sorry'!"

    "I could do without the attitude."

    Thankfully, before she could try to bully out another apology attempt, Heloise chimed in. "Lucie! Please. Think of it no more. It is forgotten." The woman broke from Lusamine's side and swooped in, taking his hands. "Mon petit loup! We have gotten off on the wrong foot. I can be a headstrong creature, a real terror. Now, please. If you would forgive me, we can put this all behind us."

    Her magnanimous plea, paired with Lusamine's urging look, pressed him to say, "Okay."

    Heloise appeared disproportionately thrilled at his answer―but Lusamine cleared her throat.

    "My love, I know we have wasted some of your time already, but can I ask for only a minute more? I would like to speak to him."

    Guzma's expression darkened, and Heloise did not dawdle, politely sidling her way out the door. A moment passed. His breath flared. He figured he was about to get lectured some more, so he paced around in the small square of the room that he saved for himself, stomping invisible bugs and swiping at invisible enemies with his fists. It was like every part of his body wanted nothing more than to fling outward and knock the room apart.

    Lusamine watched him for a while, then sighed heavily. "What has gotten into you today? I know we had a rough start, but Faba told me you did very well this morning, and I thought that would continue."

    Guzma roughly pushed his hands his pockets and scowled.

    Her voice dropped a bit, turning to ice. "...You promised me you'd do better."

    "I―!" He cringed and forced his eyes shut. He kicked at his bed, landing a hard crack at its frame. "I am! I mean, I will! I'm trying!"

    "Guzma. Tomorrow, I'm introducing you to the Board of Directors."

    "I know."

    "What can I expect to happen? Are you going to embarrass me?"

    "Nah! Nah, I'm not gonna―" That accusation set him alight, and made him flail and tug at his hair. He sounded chastised and hurt. "I'm sorry. I promise. I'll― I'll do better. I'll be ready! You can count on me!"

    She folded her arms, weighed his penitence, and finally decided it would do. "Very well. Now, what started all this silliness?"

    He clammed up.

    "She asked you to remove your clothes, is that right? It's perfectly standard―whatever's the matter?" She looked at him―studied him, as if trying to figure out the source of this resistance. "Do you not like your body?"

    "What? Nah! It's not―" He rubbed the back of his neck, embarrassed. "I don't care about that."

    "Then what is it?"

    "I dunno―I just don't want to."

    Lusamine didn't look particularly moved by this logic, so he blurted out some more, tugging at the ends of his hair as he struggled to express his thinking.

    "It's just weird. Like―it's not normal, to―you know―"

    Lusamine almost laughed, but caught herself in time. "Oh, dear, dear, dear." She pressed her fingers to her temples, like she was overcome with a headache. "Wherever did you get such a silly notion? Guzma, let me―" She walked over to him and touched his shoulder. "I want to help you. Will you let me help you?"

    He shifted his eyes uncertainly. "…I guess?"

    "Then let me explain something to you." She motioned for him to sit down, and he did so. She stood with prim, precise poise, placing a demonstrative hand to her chest. "I am from the Kalos region originally. That's how I came to know Mademoiselle―we have worked together for many years, beginning when I was a young lady starting my career in modeling."

    Guzma couldn't say he was surprised by any of this information, but he didn't know where this was going.

    "In such an industry, it was not unusual to undress. Why, I had my first nude photo-shoot when I turned eighteen. It was nothing vulgar," she said, seeing his face start to contort. "It was all purely artistic, you know―for fashion magazines, L'Enchanteur, Maybellé, the like. Kalos, in some ways, is more libertine on such matters―Guzma, you are turning a very strange color."

    That would be because Guzma had stopped breathing. He sputtered and finally sucked in some air. "I―uh―"

    She didn't wait for him to stammer out an excuse. "This is all to say―what we do with our bodies depends so much upon context. If it is the proper context, such a thing is not wrong or strange. Besides, young man, you're not posing in front of a camera, and you certainly won't be nude―she only wants to see your figure for a moment, to help her make decisions. Do you understand what I'm telling you?"

    Guzma nodded, but the truth was his brain had completely shut down after the words "nude photo-shoot" and had since run off into the proverbial wilds to frolic and play.

    "I'm so glad." She trotted back to the doorway. "Heloise, dear! We're ready for you now."

    "―We are?" Guzma blinked hard, stirring awake from his daze. "W-well, you don't think―I mean, we could, like, re-schedule, or―?"

    "What are you talking about? Guzma, she's come a long way, and we've wasted enough time already."

    Heloise wandered back in, vacant and excited, like nothing had happened. He waited for Lusamine to leave. She didn't. He gave her an exasperated look. "Uh, you aren't―"

    "What are you waiting for?"

    Apparently nothing. Guzma snorted and grumbled, starting to take off his jacket, hoping she'd get the hint by the time he started fumbling with his zipper.

    Finally―finally―she had the decency to turn her back to him as she chattered endlessly with her lady friend, their French skittering over their lips. He decided to hurry and get this over with.

    Heloise peered up at him. "Ah, yes, that's fine. Now stand naturally for a moment. This should be quick." Heloise took up her pencil and began to sweep the shapes of him onto paper. Her eyes traced him, then the paper, and then slipped over to Lusamine, who had politely settled her eyes on the opposite well. Heloise growled. <Lucie, you are truly a dog of a woman. How do you do it? To have this pretty little wolf, to smack it so―I am dying of jealousy.>

    Lusamine didn't respond, but smiled to herself sweetly.

    Heloise paused the movements of her pencil and spoke to Guzma, who had crossed his arms over his chest. "Mon amie, put your arms down; I cannot see."

    -

    The entirety of the next day, Faba avoided both Lusamine and Guzma like the plague. He did not need any more reminders of future indignity―of having to show his face to the directors, plaster on a fake smile, and pretend to like the snakes for an entire evening. He'd much rather do something productive with his nights, like stabbing himself in the eye, or jumping off a bridge.

    So he distracted himself by sealing himself up in his office for a majority of the day, working on mind-numbing number-crunching, and then telling his staff that he was going to remain in his suite―absolutely no interruptions.

    This was why he was so startled when, after successfully cajoling himself into getting dressed and ready for the ever-approaching dinner, and managing to get caught up in a horrendously frustrating argument with that idiot chemical supplier over the phone, he heard his buzzer, and was even more startled to open his door and find Guzma on the other side.

    For a moment, neither man recognized the other. Guzma, hair tied back, in a fitted suit that still managed to look ill-fitting on his gangling form―and Faba, in his white dress shirt, suspenders, and necktie, lacking the large green glasses that usually sat on his face.

    Guzma didn't know immediately what to say. "Um."

    Faba gave him an unwelcoming, impatient look. He had a phone to his head.

    "Miss L sent me."

    "Oh, for the love of―" He clapped his hand over the receiver, heaved a sigh to the heavens, and motioned him inside. "I'm on the phone. Come in―sit down, don't... break anything. I'll be with you in a minute."

    Faba's suite was unlike any of the other rooms Guzma had entered at Aether Paradise. Where other rooms communicated Lusamine's aesthetic of lightness, modernity, and simplicity, Faba's had a decidedly more ornate and baroque style. Dark wood in the facades of the walls, detailed carvings in the door-frames and shelves, deep reds on the carpets and paneled floors, brassy leather furniture. His lab coat could be seen hanging on a hook near the door, and its white color clashed with the ruddy copper and mahogany of the surrounding space.

    Guzma heard Faba off in the other room in the midst of a loud, heated argument about chemical shipments―yes, all the vials, contaminated, two million dollars worth! Guzma had no interest, then, in eavesdropping, so he milled about, poking his face into various belongings. Most things were beyond him: books on fields he couldn't pronounce, large-scale models of molecular structures, complex diagrams of equipment. Though a living room, Faba's work had successfully infiltrated it; stacks of papers and reports that had been dragged in from his office piled on his coffee tables and chairs. One shelf had a glass panel protecting a large array of awards and plaques, each carefully cleaned. The whole room represented Faba's mind well: focused on fifty things at once, operating on an organization scheme only he perfectly understood, and meticulously guarded against cobwebs and dust.

    In the end, the only thing Guzma recognized in function was a chess board placed carefully on a table next to the fireplace.

    The ebony pieces, to Guzma's untrained eye, looked scattered randomly about the game board, so he didn't sense it would be a problem to pluck up the small carved chessmen and give them a look. In his boredom, he shuffled them around, started to make a pattern out of them.

    Faba, finished with his call, returned through the doorway. "―All right, now what is that you―" When he saw what was Guzma was up to, he just about shrieked. "What―on earth are you doing!?"

    "I'm―"

    "Get away from that, this instant!" He dove for the board, snatching the pawn from Guzma's hand. "I told you, I told you not to―!"

    Guzma huffed. "I didn't break nothin'!"

    As Faba pushed him aside and scrambled to set the pieces back in their original placements, he heard Guzma whining.

    "I was bein' real careful!"

    "The game is in mid-play," Faba said. As he collected his wits, he realized how hysterical he'd been. He lowered his voice. "I―I'm sorry, but the pieces need to stay where they are."

    For another few moments, Faba frantically mumbled letters and numbers to himself as he reset them, trying to recall each of their placements, but he gradually lost track and gave up. He shook his head, saw Guzma's dejection, and decided the damage was done.

    "It's―" Faba pinched his forehead and relented. He summoned his most gentle, reaffirming voice. "Never mind it, it's all right. I have the notations written down somewhere." He moved away from the board.

    Despite Faba's attempt at rectifying things, Guzma still looked a bit put off. He didn't touch the board immediately, like he expected it to be a trap of some kind. He did, though, glance it over, and notice a piece of paper wedged beneath the board. Without asking, Guzma pulled out the paper and started reading aloud. "One, E-four, E-five, two, NF-three―" He frowned at it. It looked a bit… Mathematical, for his taste. He absentmindedly read the notation in the corner. "Faba versus Mohn." Some gears clacked away in his head, making a deduction. "Oh, it's an old game, huh?"

    Faba froze.

    "Why don't you start a new one?" Guzma started clacking the pieces around with his hand. "I'll play you."

    The boy, bless his heart, was a little dim. Faba winced at having his memories poked at, but calmed slightly once he found Guzma didn't understand their importance. "O-oh, you play chess?"

    "Nah, but I got, like, mad checkers skills." To demonstrate, he hopped the black knight randomly about the board, eventually landing safely in white's territory. He grinned toothily. "King me!"

    "…Yes. Very amusing." Faba just then realized how side-tracked he'd been. He folded his hands behind his back. "Now, why are you here?"

    "Oh. Well―Miss L sent me."

    "As you said. Whatever for?"

    "Uh, Miss L―I mean, she said that―" Guzma started fidgeting with something at his shirt collar.

    Faba, growing impatient, tried to read his body language. Obviously, the boy was too embarrassed to spit it out. "What is it? Is something the matter?"

    "No." Guzma, flustered and visibly frustrated, muttered a series of words under his breath. It was then that Faba noticed the necktie, strung loose and undone around Guzma's neck―the boy started twisting it around, pulling on both ends of it, as if to bully it into cooperating.

    "Ah. I see." Was that all he came for? Faba felt a headache coming on. He motioned for Guzma to face him. "...Yes, let me help."

    But when he stepped forward, reaching for it, Guzma immediately had an adverse reaction; he backed away, gave him a nasty look.

    Faba jumped back, like he expected to be bitten. "Or―! Er, here, hand it to me. I'll show you."

    Guzma seemed to find this more tolerable. He eased, pulled the tie from his neck and gave it to him.

    As Faba swung it over his own neck, he felt the presence of the boy looming over him, and he found it hard to concentrate. He tried to calm his nerves by talking. "No one's ever taught you?"

    "Nah." Guzma shrugged self-consciously. "Never had to wear nothin' stuffy like this."

    "No matter; it's very simple. Here, watch. Now, first you fold it like this, and―"

    And before he knew it, there he stood, with the boy inches from him and more attentive than he had ever seen him, and he demonstrated how to fasten a necktie.

    "―And finally you put it through here, and tighten―there, you see?"

    Guzma studied him for a second. Faba could tell by his blank look that no, he didn't.

    "Hmm. Well―" Beginning to suspect this was going to take longer than he thought, he took a shortcut. He loosened the tie enough to pull it over his head. "For now, put this on and adjust it. You can practice on your own later."

    Guzma, without saying anything, took it. As Faba suggested, he pulled it over his head and at least attempted to adjust it; Faba got briefly distracted by fastening his own cuff-links, and once he turned back, Guzma had it… Mostly figured out.

    "Erm…" Faba calculated the risk. The knot was misshapen, but only slightly. Enough to bother the perfectionist in him, but was it enough to justify poking the tiger? He awkwardly gestured at it. "Perhaps―can I…?" When he leaned in this time, Guzma didn't flinch―only stiffened, letting him fiddle with it for a second. Faba breathed with relief when he finished and was able to let go. "Ah, there. Better."

    Guzma pawed at it, suddenly feeling the pressure of it around his neck and not pleased with it.

    "They're torture devices," Faba said. He said it flippantly, not really thinking, but it actually elicited a goofy half-smile and snort from Guzma. Faba continued, "At least it's not our everyday wear."

    "Heh. Yeah."

    ...After a moment, Faba came to realize that Guzma was still standing there, a tad too close for comfort, and was looking at him, eyes wide and intent. His face was pensive. Nervous. Expectant. A little… Beholden.

    "Did… Did you need something else?"

    "Uh, nah." Guzma finally averted his eyes, but to Faba's surprise, rather than leave, he thumped down, seating himself heavily onto the sofa.

    Faba decided to ignore him for a moment, ducking into his room to fetch his jacket.

    But when he returned, Guzma still sat and wiggled his tie with discomfort. He had started to exhibit a clammy, pallid complexion. His knee bounced persistently, and one finger had looped around a knot of hair, tugging on it. His other hand had gotten to be so fidgety that he actually grabbed a throw pillow and started kneading it, digging his fingers into it, crushing it. His breaths were low, but they rattled and popped, loud enough that Faba could be irritated by it from across the room.

    In a thready, uncertain tone, Guzma started to speak. "So these are… Important people, huh."

    "One could say that."

    "She really, uh, wants me to make a good impression, or whatever."

    "Yes, I imagine she does."

    "C―" He stuffed the pillow against his stomach and started to tug on the ring on his index finger. "Can they vote me out, or somethin'?"

    Faba couldn't contain a scoff of disgust. "Oh, I wouldn't worry. She has them wrapped around her little finger, have no doubt about that."

    "But what if I screw up? What if they don't like me?"

    The question―and the emphatic way it was asked―caught Faba completely off guard.

    Then, all of a sudden, Faba recognized the look on Guzma's face―he had seen it a number of times, on the faces of grad students flop-sweating before defending their theses. The sense of dread. The overpowering terror of having one's fate placed in some nameless committee's hands.

    Guzma was afraid.

    Now that Faba thought about it, it made sense. The boy likely coped with fear by lashing out, using violence to topple his emotions. No wonder he had been pitching hissy-fits every day for the past week.

    It couldn't be said that Faba felt sorry for him. But seeing the "ogre" like that―well, it humanized him, a bit. Guzma, for all his bluster, felt the reality of the pressures being put on his head.

    A stab of resentment drove Faba to sigh and reassure him. "Boy. Er―Guzma." Guzma looked up at him and Faba somehow found the courage to continue. "You'll do fine. These people―don't let them intimidate you. They're really quite shallow and self-absorbed. Flatter them. Smile and nod. Make them feel important. That's all there is to it."

    "Oh… Okay." Guzma's fidgeting slowed, as did his breathing.

    ...Was that all it took? The boy was more pliable than he thought.

    There was a long, pregnant silence. Guzma, in processing what Faba told him, had evidently come to some drastic conclusions, leading him to start speaking again.

    "...Mr. Faba?" The name sounded awkward and stilted coming from his lips―he had never actually addressed him by name before. "You're… You're supposed to be smart, right?" Guzma had phrased the question clumsily; the caveat supposed to at first struck Faba as an insult, so it took a second for him to realize Guzma was actually asking in earnest. Guzma noticed his reaction and tried to correct his mistake. "I mean―you know a lotta… Stuff."

    "I have a double doctorate, if that's what you're referring to."

    "See―!" Guzma punched down on the throw pillow and sucked his teeth. He started grousing again, rambling mostly. "I don't know what that is―! It's like, all the time, there's stuff I don't know― And she uses these words, and I'm not sure what they mean, but if I ask, I'll just look stupid― And I think she already thinks I'm stupid―"

    "Well…" Faba started to say.

    Guzma talked right through him. "But I don't want to be stupid," he said. His fists shook with a sudden, frantic birth of some new desire. "I wanna be smart." Then came an unspoken, but heavily implied, like you.

    And that's when Faba stopped, looked at him, and saw something he didn't recognize.

    A strained, childlike devotion haloed Guzma's determined expression―a vow, a covenant, as if in one desperate snatch, he had swept Faba up into his collection of cobbled idols―as if to say, I will do anything for you, anything you say, at any cost, if you would take and mold me.

    Faba felt something drop in him―like a stone plummeting into his stomach. A thought hit him, and he had no clue how to process it:

    This boy. This boy. Faba was no developmental psychologist, but everything about him smacked of arrested development, like something had caught Guzma by the throat when he was ten years old and hadn't let go since. Faba suddenly remembered that this was ostensibly a man, in his early twenties, the age at which Faba himself had graduated from university and had been already accepted into a prestigious doctoral program in Kalos. The scientist had his immaturities at that age, to be sure, but he wasn't throwing temper tantrums or slinking about begging for scraps of approval from his elders.

    Guzma―taller than most around him, with a body of heft and muscle, angry at the world and most of its inhabitants―he could traipse the world and capture deadly beasts, clobbering himself in the process. Yet the moment he's challenged, given something he cannot beat into submission with his fists, he absolutely crumbles, regressing into infantile whining, shrieking, kicking, and biting. He squirms. He pouts. He stomps. It all only feels threatening because of his size―but ascribe the same actions to a two-year-old, and they begin to hold some context.

    Child, what trauma did this to you?


    Lusamine must have understood this from the beginning. After all, she was right: one tiny physical interaction, one half-hearted piece of advice, and the boy's defenses collapsed, making him clingy and needy, like a stray animal that had just received a tasty morsel from a stranger. In that moment, he could have told the boy to do cartwheels about the suite, and he might have done it, just to be praised.

    It made… Faba more uncomfortable than anything. One thought floated in particular, unnerving him: a predator's dream. A person of fewer scruples than he would have a field day taking advantage of this trapped adolescent who thumped his tail sadly and whimpered for validation.

    Faba grimaced and cringed. "Young man―" He shook his head and sighed. "You know―" But what could he say? He certainly wasn't going to air those suspicions or misgivings; it wouldn't do any good. "Madame is likely waiting for you. Why don't you go attend to her?"

    Guzma didn't at first know how to answer this dismissal. He must have thought his desire would be reciprocated―that Faba would jump for the chance to form him. He gradually shrugged off his disappointment, and pretended to be relieved. "...A'ight."

    Finally, Guzma slid out of the room and back out the door, leaving him in peace.

    -

    Faba returned to the chessboard, drew up a chair, and sat before it. He knew he would need to collect himself soon―the dinner would be starting within the hour―but he took the time to carefully replace every piece until it was restored.

    As he did some nights―certainly not every night, but especially during ones in which he felt particularly alone on this ghoulish island―he went ahead and completed the game. There was only one move left―Mohn's finishing play. So he performed it in his stead. Over, and over, and over.

    He picked up the black knight. "Knight… To D-three. Checkmate." He shook his head bitterly, sinking his chin into his hand. "The Smothered King." He flicked over the white king with his fingers, letting it topple onto the floor. He sighed. "Mohn. You always got me in the end, didn't you...?"

    -

     
    Last edited: Apr 4, 2018
  3. TheAlpar

    TheAlpar Journey Enthusiast

    God, this makes me so uncomfortable!! Especially the line at the end, the fact that Faba realizes what game Lusamine's playing at and that it actually unsettles him. That tells you a lot about both of them, and makes you wonder which one is the worst. At least Faba's usually honest when it comes to his dislike for others.

    Right form the start we see it with Lusamine controlling the way Guzma comes to the tests, she's slowly turning him into her doll and it's terrifying. The worst part was his "modeling" for Lusamine's friend, whom I hated the moment she appeared. Exotic... ugh, that's so awful.

    I hope he can find a way to get out of that place, because Jesus
     
  4. Chibi Pika

    Chibi Pika Stay positive

    Hooo boy, I really like the way you write Faba. He's perfectly slimy and egotistical, and nearly as calculating as Lusamine, and yet he doesn't take anywhere near the pleasure that she does in playing everyone else like a fiddle. That moment when he realized what was really at the core of Guzma's outbursts, and how easy it would be to take advantage of how he responds to the slightest bit of positive reinforcement. "A predator's dream." Hot damn, now there's a line.

    ~Chibi~
     
  5. dietofwurms

    dietofwurms i see stars

    Chapter 10: The Queen's Pawn
    Guzma had never entered the private garden adjoining the mansion; he never had a reason or a real desire to do so. He had seen pieces of it, hints of its flora over fences from an overlook that gave him view of its crafted hedges, cobblestone paths, and trees. It was of conservative size―not nearly as sprawling as the conservation area. Lusamine spent considerable time there, but never with him. She sometimes walked the paths alone in her thoughts, holding a parasol in the bright of mid-day, or draping a shawl about her in the cool of the evening. Other times she would sit on a bench by the reflecting pool, shaded beneath a young elm, and read by herself. Guzma had always perceived the garden―and the times she said, "I'm going to be in the garden"―as a sign that the place was an untouchable, intimate space. He felt uncomfortable even peeking out windows and watching her, shining and white out in the garden's greenery.

    So it came as a surprise, hearing her tell him that the Board of Directors awaited them there.

    In the last light of the evening, the garden shone with a rosy, golden color and was striped with long cast shadows. The sea breeze rolled over it gently, rustling the trees in the softest fashion. Lusamine let him walk beside her, to her left, and did not speak any reassurances as they walked between the first line of hedges. Guzma decided not to disrupt the silence, but he still occasionally darted his eyes over to her. She wore a light seafoam dress and gold bangles at her wrist. He especially paid attention to the bracelets, how they clicked, glistened, and rang together as they brushed up against her hip.

    Lusamine had already drilled him with their faces and names, but their identities had mostly tumbled out of his memory. Regardless, the board members were scattered throughout the center of the garden, most attended by a personally-owned pokemon. Docteur Morel, a hard-looking woman in sharp attire, sat and waited alone on the garden bench, her Pyroar posing beside her, and occasionally she reached out to stroke its brilliant crimson mane. Monsieurs Pierre and LeRoux stood off together in the midst of some deep discussion while their respective Furfrou and Herdier barked and tugged on one another's ears along the stone paths. The two men were tall, thin, and so bland-looking that Guzma would confuse them the rest of the evening. The only board member to bring their spouse was Monsieur Dupont, a large, beefy man who smoked and drank whiskey brazenly and made loud, dry laughing sounds that seemed to grate everyone around him, including his slim, weary-looking wife, Madame Dupont. She had a Phantump hovering right above her shoulder, adding to her gloominess. Lastly, Madame Blanchard, the youngest of the board members, bubbled about the garden, carrying on successive conversations with every member with casual ease; she dragged a reluctant Delcatty on a diamond-studded leash and giggled incessantly. Mercifully, though, she picked up the mewling pokemon when it was accosted by a curious but overly-excited Herdier.

    As they approached, he heard someone, perhaps a female voice, though he couldn't be certain, say, "There they are."

    He felt all their faces turn towards him. He slowed, almost stopped. But Lusamine put a hand at his lower back and gently pushed him onward.

    "Good evening, everyone!" Lusamine called out, her voice airy and bright. "I'm sorry for the wait."

    "Madame," Docteur Morel said as she stood, her voice taut and serious, "there is no need to apologize. Your hospitality is always appreciated; especially in such―" Her words seized with meaning. "Trying times."

    The way they looked to one another nodding showed they all agreed.

    And as if some code had been uttered, they all returned their pokemon to their balls and began moving towards them; Lusamine walked to Morel first, as if in gratitude at her kind words, and began to greet them one by one.

    Trailing a little behind her, he watched as she poured out her welcome, kissing each of them on the cheek. Almost immediately, they gravitated towards him in turn. The men shook his hand and the women kissed him, as was the custom in Kalos. Lusamine had forewarned him about the latter, to avoid inevitable misunderstanding. None of them wore particularly friendly faces, but they murmured their greetings warmly enough― ah, bonjour, Monsieur Guzma. We've heard so much. How nice to meet you in person.

    After the greetings were done, the mood lifted a little. Lusamine began a conversation with them, leaving Guzma standing alone just behind her. This started to drag on a little too long. But thankfully, Dupont looked about suddenly and spoke up, a little too loudly for polite company. He had dropped his cigarette onto the ground, so he had one hand clasped around his whiskey glass and another hand at his wife's hip. "Where's Professeur?"

    Lusamine answered him. "Professeur Faba is already waiting for us in the dining hall."

    "That so?" Dupont chuckled throatily. "I think the man has the right idea. I'm famished. Let's not waste any more time."

    His wife looked irritated but didn't say anything. The rest of them paused, forgave his brashness, and looked to Lusamine.

    She smiled with amusement. "I see Dupont, as usual, is saying what we're all thinking. Let us continue our conversation over dinner."

    -

    At the dinner, Guzma was seated to her left, and Faba to her right. She naturally sat at the head of the table. Between the three of them, though, most of the talking was done by her; Faba avoided all attempts to start conversation with him, and Guzma successfully kept his mouth clamped shut unless spoken to. The board members pestered the boy with comments and questions for several minutes at the beginning, and he managed to give stilted, but well-meaning responses that satisfied them enough. Then, as Faba had alluded to during their talk, they mostly shunned him the rest of the hour, gabbing with Lusamine and among themselves, falling back into their habitual self-absorption. Laughing, drinking, telling stories, debating Kalosian politics, gossiping about old friends―Faba sipped his wine and expertly pretended to be interested, but Guzma's eyes quickly glazed over, and he resorted to pushing around his foie gras and trying to look occupied.

    Their lack of interest in Guzma was reasonable. After all―and Lusamine had been careful not to tell Guzma this―the decision had already been made weeks ago. This was all a formality. Perhaps, too, a bit of a test of his fortitude. He didn't hide his boredom very well, and squirmed a little too much in his seat for her taste, but he hadn't hurtled anything or threatened anyone's life. A passing grade, she decided.

    "Guzma." She leaned over subtly, placing a hand on his knee.

    He jerked a little, surprised at the touch, and snapped to attention.

    She spoke quietly to him. "Stop bouncing your leg. And sit up; you're starting to slouch."

    "O-oh." He must have not noticed. He stilled his leg and pushed himself up a little. "Yes'm."

    -

    Faba, trying to work his way over to Lusamine during after-dinner cocktails, had been caught. Right when he entered the sitting room, drink in hand, eyes on her where she sat at the fireplace hearth, Dupont spotted him and began teetering over to him. He was clearly drunk. "Professeur Faba!"

    Faba bit the inside of his cheek and summoned some fake enthusiasm. "Ah, Monsieur Dupont."

    "It has been too long!" Dupont swayed and leaned in a little too close to him, spewing whiskey-scented breath right into his face. Dupont grinned cheerfully. "Have you met my wife yet? Oh, of course not, we only just got married a few months ago." He glanced about the room and pointed out the sultry-looking woman wearing a revealing black dress. She looked horribly bored. "There she is! My Floria. Isn't she a charmer?"

    "Ah, yes, she looks―" Even younger and more beautiful than your last one. "Delightful."

    "Haven't you married yet?"

    Faba forced a smile and a laugh. "Ha, ha, no; still married to my work, I'm afraid."

    "Ah, well, don't fret, Professeur." He slapped him on the shoulder too hard and slurred, "There are still plenty of fish in the sea."

    Yes, Faba thought but daren't say, you seem to have gobbled up your share of them. "Ha, ha. Of course. Shall we join the others?"

    For a moment, he wondered if Dupont saw through his attempt at ending their conversation. But the man sipped at his glass, scratched his head, and burbled, "Certainly. Don't let me get in your way."

    They made their way. Faba could hear Madame Blanchard telling Lusamine about her husband's latest expedition. It was really only the two of them, seated at the unlit fireplace―the others had found places to linger toward the walls and corners of the room. Both Faba and Dupont were greeted politely and absorbed into their little talk, which quickly diverged in topic.

    "I hope you're pleased with him," Lusamine had said suddenly, looking to Dupont and Blanchard.

    Madame Blanchard sighed sweetly. "Oh, well, he's very endearing." (By which she meant, he fumbled and made small blunders that made him entertaining to run circles around). "And the story's sensational, isn't it? A gang leader―reformed by Aether―the delicious headlines that will come of it! This will be a media boon for the Foundation."

    Dupont gruffed. "I'm not so sure I like him."

    "Oh?"

    "Yes, yes, he is much too good-looking. How am I to trust him around my wife?"

    Lusamine smiled petitely. "Which one?"

    A second of silence―and then the three of them (not Faba) burst out into uproarious laughter. Dupont eventually had to wheeze and thump his chest to recover.

    "Do you really think, though," Blanchard went on earnestly, "that he'll be able to train those beasts by the time you go public? They sound quite vicious."

    "That they are," Lusamine said. "But the young Monsieur has a special relationship with the creatures. His control of them gets better by the day. Don't you agree, Faba?"

    Faba had not been paying close attention to their conversation. Upon hearing his name, he twitched and answered automatically. "Yes, quite." He took to looking pensively at her, working up to courage to extract her.

    "In any case, we of course trust your judgment," Blanchard cooed. "I know we'll see wonderful things come of it." She cast a look over her shoulder. "Where did he go, anyhow…? Ah, there he is." She pointed her face in the direction of the corner against a bookshelf, where LeRoux had basically cornered Guzma, making him captive to some emphatic message on LeRoux's part.

    "Well, you'd better rescue him," Dupont garbled at her. His drink tipped and dripped a bit as he gestured with his hands. "LeRoux's probably on one of his ungodly stories."

    Speaking of rescuing. Faba finally reached out to touch Lusamine on the shoulder. "Madame, I hope you don't mind, but might I draw you aside for a private word?"

    "Certainly." She reached up, briefly touching his hand. She gave them all an entreating glance. "Please excuse us."

    -

    As Blanchard wound her arm about Guzma's and dragged him along ("we have such questions for you, darling―"), Lusamine and Faba walked out directly from the sitting room and retreated to the hallway just outside. For a time, they both examined the portrait painting hanging on the wall. Faba had always found the composition and execution of the particular piece abysmal, but it was serviceable as an object to stare at as he contemplated what to say.

    Finally, he cleared his throat and mused aloud. "Mohn was always rubbish with his ties. You know I had to tie them for him all through graduate school?"

    "Hmm."

    "Come to think of it, you took over that duty when you met him. Which brings me to an interesting question―"

    "I told you," she purred. She stretched and admired her manicured hand. "He needs a gentle touch." She waited a beat to ask, "Did it work?"

    Faba grumbled. "...Practically threw himself at me."

    "Hmm. Isn't he delightfully complex?"

    "I have…" He shook his head; he couldn't believe he was saying this. "Reservations."

    "Whatever do you mean?"

    "What do you really plan for that boy?"

    She burst into a delighted laugh. "Faba! I'm surprised. I anticipated that he would warm up to you, but that you would grow soft on him so quickly―!" She teased him by tracing his neck with her finger. "Should I be worried?"

    He ignored it, seething. "Don't mistake me. I speak purely to the interests of the Foundation. That a new branch of your empire would be pinned on that―emotionally stunted child."

    "Now, now. You let me worry about that."

    For a time, they stood shoulder-to-shoulder, watching and contemplating their shared domain through the open doorway: Pierre, LeRoux, and even Morel had finally joined the cluster before the fireplace, where Dupont was still drunk and loud, and Blanchard still tugged on Guzma's arm. The boy occasionally looked up at the two, especially at Lusamine, pining for guidance, but she averted her eyes.

    "...You're going to eat him alive, aren't you," Faba finally said, mixing revelation, curiosity, and resignation.

    "You always put everything in such crass terms," she complained gently, not responding to his accusation. In the end, she tilted her head back, listening to a particular strain of music, and smoothed her fingers through a long sweep of her hair.

    Faba waited, but hadn't really expected her to ever directly answer him. He accepted her silence as proof of it; he shook his head wearily. "Madame. He's your toy. As for myself… I have no desire to involve myself in your silly dalliances."

    "I take issue with the term 'dalliance,' Faba, but your concern is noted."

    That was Lusamine's way of saying: I'm not willing to discuss this anymore.

    "Anyhow. I think tonight went splendidly, don't you?"

    "Ah, yes, bravo―" He lifted his glass in the form of a toast, smirking snidely. "I didn't think you could do it, but tonight, he had the personality of a wooden post―just the way they like it."

    Lusamine correctly interpreted this as more of a stab at the board members than her, or even Guzma. Faba could be so delightfully petty. She had never squelched that part of him―it proved too entertaining.

    "Though it would have been more bearable with some additional company," he went on, griping in an unusually transparent fashion. It was not the first time he had this thought; he originally thought Ms. Wicke would be in attendance tonight, but she was nowhere to be seen. She was not perhaps at the same intellectual level as himself, but she wasn't deathly boring to talk to, and he typically leaned heavily on her presence at functions such as these. "Come to think of it―" His thoughts strayed a bit. "I haven't seen Ms. Wicke at all today. Did she take a sabbatical for once?"

    "Oh, dear!" Lusamine turned to him, her expression crushed. She lifted her delicate hand to her mouth to cover her gasp. "In all the excitement today, I forgot to tell you―"

    His heart suddenly lurched.

    "I had to let her go."

    Had to let her go?

    Had to let her go…?

    "What…" He stopped, in a momentary daze. "What are you talking about?"

    She mewled pathetically. "It was most unfortunate. It seems she was selling company secrets. There was no other way to handle it."

    "Her? That's―" He sputtered frantically, tripping over his words. "That's unfathomable, that's insane―!"

    "I know! It came as a shock to me, as well."

    ...Wicke? The Assistant Branch Chief? The woman who had been here from the beginning of the Foundation, who had served at Lusamine's side for years, who had practically raised both of her children? Gone with the flick of a wrist? Faba clawed at his shirt collar and gasped for air. "The directors―! Should they find out―!"

    "Oh, Faba, of course they know. I consulted them this morning about it."

    He might have screamed, if he hadn't caught himself. They knew? They knew before he did!? And a lot of good that had done! Dry eyes all around! Not a whiff of sadness among them, not so much as a passing oh, what a shame about … "But this is―!" His entire body shook; he almost yelled. "This is a disaster! Beyond the pale! A travesty!"

    "Faba, it's taken care of."

    "What good could come of this? We're ruined! To have such a high-standing and respected member of the Foundation, cast out in such disgrace―!"

    Lusamine lost her patience. She latched onto his forearm and pressed down hard, all while motioning with her face for him to bring his voice down. "It is all," she said, "taken care of."

    He saw red―then centered himself. She felt his easing and let up on his arm; he stroked his beard to continue working his eruption of nerves. He looked out over the room. The Board of Directors had changed a lot over the years, especially since Lusamine assumed control as President of the Board. Old members had finished their terms and moved their careers elsewhere. The only board member Faba knew from before the power shift was Dupont―the drunken idiot, too distracted by his revolving-door marriages to care about these troubling circumstances. And the rest had been oh-so-carefully hand-picked by Lusamine.

    Mohn. Wicke. Faba thought on himself a moment: dear lord, I'm nearly the last one left. 'Last line of defense' indeed!

    And he suddenly felt like a gazelle surrounded by cackling hyenas.

    She noticed the strangulation in his expression and put a hand on his shoulder, giving it a squeeze. "I don't want you to worry," she whispered. "I've made my intentions clear to you, haven't I? A man of your ambition... Do you think I don't intend to reward you?" The words out of her mouth had the sigh and gush of freshly-opened champagne.

    He soured. With his hysteria restrained, his nerves snapped into bitter words instead. "Madame, do not take this the wrong way: but I would sooner drink cyanide than marry you."

    She feigned hurt. "You're a wicked creature, Faba. To take advantage of a mourning widow so; one night of passion, and you shut me out―"

    ('Night of passion'―what passion is she dreaming up? He remembers, vaguely―for he has repressed much of it―the blackness of their entangled grief, her drunkenness when she pounded his chest with her fists and screamed at him, I cannot stand to be alone, I cannot bear it, the crippling weight of his own anguish, and his unwillingness―or was it inability?―to fight her off. The two of them―grasping at ghosts.)

    "...I'm only teasing, dear. You needn't look so pale. Besides, I know you've never been interested in the…" She rolled the next phrase off her tongue. "...Explicit benefits of such an arrangement. I have much better things in mind for you."

    He eyed her with sudden suspicion. She had dangled that idea before him for years, always with a clear understanding that it would be a political move, not a romantic one―now, at last, was she backing off? He wetted his lips with thought. "Such as?"

    "Oh, you'd ruin the surprise!" She fluttered her eyelashes at him. "Unless there is some prize you already had in mind."

    "I loathe surprises," he said simply, not even addressing whatever she was trying to insinuate with that last part. He grimly took a hold of her champagne glass. "Madame, let me freshen your drink for you."

    Lusamine relinquished the glass to him and said nothing else; once he left her side, she glided back over to the directors, meeting them with pleasantries.

    Guzma had been pushed mostly out of the circle by now, left to play with the ice cubes in his drink and fidget with boredom as he stood alone in a corner; the directors had wrung the entertainment value and novelty out of him, and moved on to their true purpose. They closed in on Lusamine, gabbing, clucking like chickens, tittering, making their offerings.

    All lined up. All I love you, and my dear, and whatever you say.

    Flick, flick, flick, Faba thinks. All the queen's pawns―toppling over, one-by-one.
     
  6. Chibi Pika

    Chibi Pika Stay positive

    It's definitely fascinating to read the conversations between Faba and Lusamine. While he can't quite play the same games she can (nor does he even want to) he's certainly astute enough to spot all her moves as she's making them. Or at least, most of the time. His snide comments about the other board members were a lot of fun (especially regarding Dupont.) And of course, I'm curious as to what reward Lusamine has in store for him. Figures that she'd joke about it in a sexual way even though he's obviously not into her (or women in general, if I've read him correctly).

    But the biggest bombshell has gotta be Wicke being let go. Holy crap I was just as shocked as Faba. And of course suspicious of whether or not she really was selling company secrets (but then, it could just be payback for her helping Gladion/Lillie/Sun/Moon during the game plot.) And how easily she discards her when she's no longer of use. How easily she uses and then discards everyone...

    ~Chibi~
     
  7. dietofwurms

    dietofwurms i see stars

    Chapter 11: Sellout

    On a day about seven years ago, a pack of Skulls had clustered and taken over the one, large cafeteria table in the food court at the Mele'mele shopping mall. This particular pack had made the spot a traditional haunt every Thursday afternoon, because one of the vendors there had a special weekly deal on popcorn―buy two, get one free―plus free refills on soda―and the security at the mall was too incompetent to drive them out, no matter how loud or unruly they got. They brought in beer and cussed and laughed and made a huge mess. They sprawled out over the table as much as possible, despite there potentially being plenty of room for other customers, sitting atop it and smearing their boot grit on the seats. All to say: back off.

    In those days, they weren't called "Team Skull"―they weren't much of a team, anyway. They lacked the uniforms and the logo, they lacked Po Town or any other headquarters, and they lacked the rigorous hierarchy that allowed for leadership. The kids were just called "Skulls," a derogatory term meant to refer to any teen or pre-teen aimlessly roaming the islands, composed mostly of runaways and petty criminals. The term was so new that even the "Skulls" didn't use it to refer to themselves. They gathered on street corners, lived in abandoned warehouses and trailer parks, lingered in shopping malls, and sold cigarettes and swore at cops at the docks. Their clothing style ranged, as did their hairstyles and personal tastes, but they united in their outrageousness, their flipping off of traditional customs and sense of decency.

    They always moved in packs―and the packs didn't always get along with each other.

    It didn't used to be that way. The kids were remnants of political upheaval on Ula'ula; a kahuna used to lead them as a more unified force, gathering all the misfits and problem kids under one name and challenging them to claim their stake. But the kahuna― their kahuna, whom they worshipped as a savior―had done something terrible, and for that sin, which they never knew or understood, he was struck down by the tapu.

    After that, the tapu left and wouldn't be seen again, not for years. The young Molayne remained captain, but he holed himself up in the observatory, rarely emerging. So in one fell swoop, Ula'ula became nothing. No tapu, no kahuna, no hope.

    "Yo, Plume!" One of the Skulls, snickering, elbowed the scrawny girl sitting next to him. "Check it out. I found your new boyfriend."

    "Huh?" She set her beer down between her leather boots and turned her head, swaying her pink braids in the direction he pointed.

    They looked and saw a boy.

    The kid was clearly a teenager, about their age; he stood at a gawky height and lurked over to the malasada stand. His face appeared to be in a permanent scowl, he wore a well-worn black hoodie and dusty jeans, and he had a ridiculously untamed head of black hair. The kicker, though, was the object spotted on his head.

    "Oh my god," one of them hissed. "What's that? Is that a bug?"

    That it was. A Masquerain had settled, nestling in his hair. It fluttered its wings occasionally when he moved, but mostly folded them and rested calmly.

    Scabs, the Skull who had pointed him out, couldn't stop snorting. "Wow. That's so 'cool.' Plume, go tell your new boyfriend how cool that is."

    Plumeria punched Scabs hard in the knee, eliciting a yelp of pain. "Shut up."

    Another posed their hand in their own hair, fluttering their fingers mockingly. "You think it lives in there?"

    "Oh, snap, y'all, look, he's coming this way."

    To their shock, the kid indeed moved their way. He had purchased his malasada and held a drink in his other hand. He had looked out at the table, saw them seated there and occupying much of it, but was not deterred. He walked to the end of the table, plopped down his food onto it, and sat.

    They tried to get his attention with a yell or two, but they realized he had earbuds in, blasting what sounded like thrash metal directly into his eardrums. He started eating his malasada, not regarding them with his eyes.

    Finally, one hopped down and went over to him, pushing on his shoulder. "Hey, kid."

    The kid didn't say anything, but upon seeing the Skull, removed an earbud.

    "This is our table, yo. You gotta sit somewhere else."

    The gawky, mop-head kid looked at him. Sized him up. Then said, voice low and tight, "I don't see your name on it."

    "You got a death wish, or somethin', kid?!"

    The kid didn't answer. He slipped in his earbud again and continued eating his food.

    The food court erupted into noise. The Skulls screeched and howled. They pounded their feet on the benches, making a huge racket; they barked insults and cuss words at him; at least one took to throwing kernels of popcorn at his head.

    "Get outta here!"

    "Buzz off!"

    "Cut your hair, freak!"

    He showed a brief moment of irritation at the rattling of the table, as it riled his Masquerain, but he sat up and chewed pensively, eyes still glued to the other side of the mall. He even reached about, plucking up the kernels that had landed near him, and started pushing them into his Masquerain's face, who squealed and crushed them hurriedly into its mandibles.

    Several emotions boiled up in them as they hounded him to no effect: first, they were irritated that their tactics hadn't intimidated him; second, they became bored; third, they became enveloped in a sense of unease and dread, like they realized his inaction was not purely acquiescence, but a gesture of magnanimous mercy.

    The Skulls drifted into disquiet. They stopped what they were doing, shuffled around, then began making excuses for their fear and retreat.

    "Man, look at 'im. He's probably a serial killer or somethin'."

    "Yo, let's bounce."

    "This joint's dead anyway."

    "Let's hit the arcade, y'all."

    They all leaped off the table, clomping and knocking over bottles and garbage. By the time they streamed out of the food court, it looked like a tornado had torn through. Then there was silence.




    Guzma scarfed down the rest of his malasada, but had no intention of moving. He stretched out his legs under the table, slumped, and tried to enjoy the peace of zoning out and absorbing his music.

    But after a minute of allowing himself some zen, a girl appeared into his vision across the table. He recognized her as one of the Skulls―she was a tiny thing, thirteen years old, in a leather jacket and boasting a pierced nose. Her pink braids hung loose, framing her round, hazelnut face, and she wore a curious, inquisitive look.

    He initially tried to ignore her, but the girl flumped down into the seat across from him. "Hi."

    Genuinely startled, Guzma jerked up, gave her a sour look, and pulled out an earbud. "Huh?"

    "I said, hi."

    He watched her face a little too long, like he was trying to figure her out and analyze her intentions. He didn't look pleased with his conclusion, but he answered her back in a flat, uninterested tone. "...Hi." He moved, about to put his earbud back in.

    "I like your Masquerain. It's cute."

    "Uh." He narrowed his eyes. "Thanks, I guess."

    "What's your name?"

    He glanced about the food court, like he suspected a trap. "Do you want something?" he asked her irritably.

    "I wanna say hi," she said. She crossed her arms. "Geez, what's your problem?"

    "Look, your…" He sighed and shook his head. "Friends are probably waiting for you."

    "I don't care," she told him. "They're jerks."

    "...Then why are they your friends?"

    "They're cool when you get to know 'em." She brought up her legs against the edge of the table, the worn denim in her jeans splitting to show the scuffing on her knees. "I'm Plumeria."

    Guzma still frowned, but got the feeling she wasn't going to leave him alone. He sipped on his soda, grunted, removed both earbuds this time, and obliged, "Guzma."

    "Well, hi, Guzma, nice to meet you." She bounced the words out overly-formally, to embarrass him. "I've never seen you before. You live around here?"

    "Yeah, I live―" He hesitated. "Around."

    "Cool. You must be a trainer, huh?"

    He briefly wondered when the questions would stop. "Sure."

    "You any good?"

    He shrugged. "Made top rank at some championships when I was a kid."

    "Aren't you still a kid?" she teased.

    There was a tiny moment when his steely, grumpy facade crumbled, and he flushed a little. "I― Yeah, I mean, when I was like twelve."

    He couldn't be more than fifteen. That he didn't just say 'three years ago' made her think that this kid was jonesing hard to grow up. "Look, if you think you're any good, you should stop by Ula'ula sometime. That's where we're from; we hang at the docks at night. They talk a lot of smack, but I bet you could show 'em a thing or two."

    He didn't know what to make of her offer. He swivelled his eyes. "Yeah, maybe."

    "So, I'll see you?" She was pushing for an answer.

    "I guess."

    Plumeria took this answer as affirmative enough; she smirked at him. "Okay. I'm gonna be expecting you. Guzma."

    -

    Plumeria didn't honestly expect that conversation to change everything. But it did.

    Because Guzma showed. And he demolished them.

    Because Guzma experienced a series of private failures that burned him in such a way that he gravitated toward and clawed his way into her gang.

    Because Guzma, in what felt like only weeks, took over her gang and ultimately her life.

    What Guzma lacked in intelligence or even charisma, he made up for in brutality, strength, and vision. He could beat anyone down, and in his sprawling ambition, he could dream up glorious futures for them―no more in-fighting he said, no more playing craps on the dock, no more wondering what to do. He was going to be Boss, he said, and they were going to be a Team, with rules and goals and everything.

    And the Skulls remembered, all of a sudden, what it was like to have someone at the top: a person who believed in them, who tapped into their desire for direction and hope. He crushed his competition and gave voice to their anger. Unlike their kahuna, Guzma was just like them, a kid crawling out from under the weight of mediocrity, and this inspired an even greater sense of vicarious victory every time he succeeded. Big, Bad, Boss Guzma. Not afraid of nothin' or nobody. Their symbol, their rage incarnate, their infallible god.

    If there was anything Guzma was a master at, it was this: being what you wanted, what you needed him to be. Give him a role, and he will consume it, become it so completely that eventually, he fools himself.

    -
    -

    Faba's lab was quiet.

    Mercifully quiet.

    His staff, who normally would accompany him in the mornings, had been snatched up for some press release or something ―Faba didn't press for details, but only told Lusamine that he had work to do. Being Branch Chief had its benefits, one of which was he could usually come up with an excuse to skip out on public appearance nonsense. The whole island was abuzz with activity, primarily related to the exteriors of things, the flash and pomp of media and presentability. He had better things to do than attend Lusamine as she drove her army of assistants about.

    So, in relative silence, aside from the constant hum of electronic equipment and computer terminals, he sat and cleaned up old file trees and re-compiled data stacks―brainless work, the sort he did in his free time to allow his head to flow about and explore other places.

    Then, after taking a quick break to brew some coffee and seating himself back at the terminal, the sliding door opened to reveal a stalking, unhappy Guzma.

    The boy―though Faba hardly had time to look him over―was all gussied up in his new uniform, which clashed so hard with Guzma's usual get-up, that it took the scientist a second to recognize who he was. He flapped about in his purple coat, steaming and storming, and tugging on the glistening, white Z-Ring he had been gifted a few days prior.

    When he saw Faba, he gestured at the ring hotly.

    "This thing you gave me―" (Guzma emphasized his words to imply exactly where he believed the blame should lie.) "―ain't working." And in his fit of anger, he wrested the bracelet off and smashed it onto the counter-top.

    For a second, Faba could swear his heart had launched into his throat, gagging him. "Would you please―!" Faba choked down a mortified scream as he pulled himself to his feet. "Not! Slam the expensive device on the counter!"

    Some things, in their months of working together, had not changed; Guzma still raged and Faba still snapped. But when Guzma now withdrew his hand from the ring, face still hard with pent-up frustration, there was a flicker of acknowledgement in him. He adjusted―mumbled. "Sorry."

    Faba hurried over, pushing past him and scooping the Z-Ring in his hands up like he was rescuing it. He didn't reply to the apology; he didn't follow Lusamine's philosophy of heaping affirmations on him for things he ought to be doing. He gave the bracelet a quick look-over, and seeing no damage, breathed a little easier. "What seems to be the problem?"

    "How am I s'pposed to know?"

    "It doesn't look broken."

    "Well, it doesn't work! I've tried it like a million times!"

    "And you're sure you're using it correctly?"

    "I'm a billion times sure!"

    Faba decided he'd better reason him down before he resorted to trillions or, God help them, quadrillions. He carefully lifted the Z-Ring and pointed to it. "Guzma. There are really only three elements at play here, correct? The first is the bracelet itself. It's a carved mineral. Normally made crudely by hand in a shack somewhere. This particular one was finely and precisely cut in a laboratory to maximize conductivity. I cannot fathom what could be wrong with it. Second, we have the crystal. It's from your own collection, and we've run it under a spectrometer to verify its purity. It's safely in the ninety-ninth percentile. Lastly, there's you , and whatever flailing around you're doing to try and trigger the conduction. Where do you suggest the problem lies?"

    "I dunno!" Guzma yelped instinctively, but Faba could tell, as his explanation went on, that the boy increasingly felt the blame being directed back at him. Guzma had stiffened, giving the Z-Ring a betrayed and sheepish look, and after crossing his arms protectively against his chest, squirmed his feet. All of Lusamine's training hadn't zapped him free of that telling habit.

    Faba watched Guzma frantically thinking to himself, and started a mental countdown. Three… Two… One…

    Finally, all the tension snapped in Guzma's body, leading him to burst with repressed guilt. "Crap! I'm sorry! I shoulda said something before, but I kept thinking―!"

    ...And there it is. As usual, Faba had to try and collect Guzma's floundering. "Whatever are you going on about?"

    "There's something wrong with me," Guzma said, pulling on his hair miserably. He then confessed, agonizing like he expected to be soundly thrashed for it, "I can't use a Z-Ring."

    Baffled, Faba rubbed his forehead and sighed tiredly. "I'm afraid you have made things even less clear to me. Are you saying―"

    "I'm tellin' you! I knew I couldn't― at least, I thought I couldn't― but then you said I was gonna get one, so I didn't say anything, and I thought I'd try it―"

    "Would you quit rambling and start over from the beginning?"

    Guzma did manage to calm himself some, and he grabbed at the edge of the counter, his knuckles going white. "It's just… When I did my challenge, when I was a kid, Hala never gave me one."

    "Yes, I understand that," Faba said impatiently. "That's why we're going through this trouble in the first place. What's your point?"

    "Hala…" He hesitated and thought hard. Now, he felt a little silly saying it. "He wouldn't give me one. He said I wouldn't be able to use it."

    Faba was surprised; he had never heard any of this. "And what reasoning did he give?"

    "I guess… I dunno, he talked a lot about having to be centered, or something, like your spiritual energy has to be balanced―"

    Faba cut him off. "What superstitious claptrap. The device is a conductive rock. That's all there is to it. It has nothing to do with 'spiritual energy' or whatever drivel he fed you."

    Guzma did not look so sure.

    "I'm sure he meant well," Faba assured him. "But I don't see how this prevents you from using the device. No doubt you've gotten yourself all worked up and frustrated over it; I'd more readily blame that for your troubles." He watched Guzma languish against the counter-top and sighed, pulling out the Z-Ring's equipment case. Perhaps, Faba thought, staying away from it for a few days would settle Guzma's excitability. "...I'll have them look at it again. But I'm not making any promises."

    "I wanted it ready by now," Guzma whined.

    Faba suppressed his annoyance at not receiving even a hint of gratitude. "Yes, I'm sure you did, but does it really matter so much?"

    "'Course it―" The careless remark threw the boy into a tizzy all over again. He snarled. "All the kahunas got one! How am I s'pposed to try 'n' say I'm a kahuna if I ain't got one?"

    Faba marveled privately at how firm of a hold a culture of superstition and tradition could have, even on a child who had essentially been chewed up by it. He went over to his desk, shaking his head, and placed the case there. "All I'm suggesting is―you didn't need it before; perhaps you'll do just as well without it."

    This reasoning, though Faba had articulated it rather thoughtlessly, sort of pleased Guzma. He calmed and took on a subtle swagger in his voice. "Y-yeah! Maybe I don't need it." He still, though, eyed the case with a hint of yearning.

    Faba decided that he'd waste no more time, so he went back to his computer terminal and took a seat. He did prod a little―mostly to assess how much longer he should bunker down and wait out the worst of it. "And how are things coming along?"

    "Huh?"

    "All the hubbub upstairs."

    Guzma gave him a horrible, pained look, as if buckling from a sock to the gut. "It's… All right," he said, bearing quite possibly the worst poker face Faba had ever seen.

    "Mm-hmm."

    As if to bolster his obvious fib, Guzma pointed out his outfit and bragged on it. "Got my new threads today." He puffed up the broad collar of his eggplant coat lined with a subtle gold trim. He also fumbled with the dark green silk scarf, pushing it back over his shoulders. It seemed to be getting in his way, more than anything.

    "Yes, I see," Faba said. "Oh, a trench coat―how very… groundbreaking."

    Guzma completely missed his sarcasm. He tugged a little on various spots where it still felt new to him: his shoulder, his wrist, his lower back. "I'm trying to wear it in, you know?"

    "So you're happy with it?"

    "It's fine." The answer didn't gush with enthusiasm exactly, but he looked content.

    "I suppose that's what matters. At least Mademoiselle stayed on the conventional side this time; that woman's designs can often come up… A bit inscrutable."

    Guzma had no idea what he was talking about, but nodded anyway. "Uh-huh." Guzma sensed the conversation reaching a lull, possibly even an end, so in transparent desperation, he craned his neck at Faba's monitor. "Whatcha doin'?"

    "Nothing much. Cleaning up old files―things get muddled after a few years of compiling data―" He finished rambling and glanced up from his screen to see Guzma leaning over the counter. "Can I help you?"

    "You ain't got nothing I can do?" Guzma sounded strangely hopeful.

    Since when did the boy go out of his way to find work? Faba eyed him suspiciously. "I'm afraid not; why?"

    "You can't, you know, make something up for me?"

    That's when Faba figured it out. He stopped typing and clicked his tongue. "...Trying to hide from someone, are we?"

    "Uh, no."

    "How clever of you. If she calls looking for you, I'm not lying on your behalf, you know."

    "Tch." Guzma glared at him, face tense with betrayal. "Hey, I'd lie for you."

    "Oh, Guzma, I'd never ask you to do that; you're a terrible liar. Now, off with you." With that, Faba dismissively waved him to the door.

    "But―"

    "Go on. Scram. Shoo!"

    Guzma heaved an irritated sigh and trampled his way out, braying, "God, just shoot me."

    -

    Lusamine, inevitably, did find him.

    "Guzma! Honestly!" Like a ghost, she materialized from the ether, swooping in on him after he had strategically tucked himself between two bakery tray trolleys, trying not to be seen. He had taken off his coat and scarf, partially because it was sweltering in the dining hall, but also because their color was so distinct from everything in the building, that he stuck out badly. His grey undershirt was muted enough to mostly blend him in, but it didn't matter now. She had him by the arm and yanked him in a dizzying fashion. "I've been looking everywhere for you! I'm ready to consider a tracking collar! Now, there's far too much to do to be standing around looking useless―"

    "Miss!"

    "My wayward boys," she sighed. "You and Faba do share a knack for shirking responsibility."

    Guzma, at being reminded, griped vindictively. "You know he's not doing anything."

    Lusamine lightly slapped his shoulder in reprimand and kept tugging him along. Several employees flanked behind them hurriedly. "Guzma," she said, "no one likes a tattle-tale."

    For a small woman in high heels, she could move around at incredible speed when motivated; he found himself tripping and skipping his steps to keep up with her. She jumped her words about, addressing different employees on every breath, millions of questions and commands buzzing the air. It was fast, over-stimulating, and incredibly annoying.

    Eventually, though, they reached the large conference hall, with its pearly walls, rows and rows of empty seats, and sizeable podium platform. As she pulled him towards it, she finally started addressing him. "Have you put any thought into your staging?"

    "My what?"

    She almost repeated herself, but then brought him up the shallow steps, up onto the stage. She said something to an attendant, then looked back at him, seeing him standing awkwardly at its center, staring out at the sea of empty seats. She thought she read nerves. "Do you know what you're going to do?"

    He shrugged and didn't look at her. "I thought I just had to stand there."

    "It's always helpful to plan out your steps―where to place your hands, your gestures, how you go about things―if you rehearse even that much, you won't be so nervous."

    "I'm not nervous," he said, like he meant it. There remained some reservation to his voice, though.

    Lusamine caught it, and had sensed it before, but did not know its source. She observed him as he began to trace his feet on the floor, scuffing the toes of his new shoes. It looked, briefly, like he was trying to sketch out something, some shape stuck in his brain and fighting to come out.

    Lusamine knew this unhappiness had been brewing for awhile, and she had her theories. It was only natural, she decided―he had been ripped from his normal conditions, placed in a new and demanding environment to which he no doubt felt completely foreign. And the boyish fantasies he had nurtured by himself―the ones that drove him here in the first place―could not sustain him for long; his worship of her faded a little, by the harsh light of day.

    He had also failed to integrate adequately. This, she definitely noticed. She had hoped by confiscating all outward-going communication devices, limiting him to Aether's internal server and phone network so that he had no way of reaching the outside world, he would eventually be forced to bond properly with the place. Instead, his isolation agitated him; he roamed the island as a free floating particle, neither affecting nor being affected. His relationship with Faba showed initial promise, but ultimately stayed superficial, and he had not successfully opened himself up to anyone else.

    He was leaning―hard―on his leash, waiting for a chance to snap free and run back into the fields of the wild.

    "Guzma."

    He didn't turn to her, but grunted to signal that he heard.

    "Guzma, I have a suggestion. Would you hear it?"

    "For what?"

    "I think it would be powerful for our guests to see you with the beasts. Do you think you could offer them a demonstration?"

    "A―what?" That she had upped the ante so late unnerved him. "Like, on stage? On camera?"

    "Not all of them, of course. You could choose two or three that you think would do well."

    He looked at her, reading her expression, then thought on it hard. By the way his face changed, he appeared to be imagining the worst. "They don't―uh, really like other people."

    "Could you make them stand still?"

    "I mean―maybe for a little while." He glanced out at the seating area, other problems materializing in his crawling thoughts. He thought about the snapping of camera shutters and excited shouts in a crowded room. "The lights―and the noise―I dunno."

    "We can forbid flash photography. Require the audience to stay silent. Would that help?"

    "Yeah," he agreed, "probably. How long you need 'em like that?"

    "Guzma, you're their handler. I would have to trust your judgment."

    Guzma had always struggled with problem-solving. When it came to matters like these, he preferred to be told. But with the decision kicked back to him, he pressed his palm to his temple and pressed hard. He looked to her… Then the stage… Then the seating area. He licked his lips, and pondered. Finally, he dragged out his thought. "A minute?"

    "One minute should be plenty of time," she said. "How about you bring the beasts now? The event director here can recreate the lighting conditions for you―and it might reduce their stress, to expose them to the stage beforehand."

    He thoughtfully swirled his tongue about his teeth, chomping and making distasteful noises. "Yeah," he said, swallowing. "I guess."

    "Well, I'll leave you to it. I'll be coming back in an hour to see how things have progressed."

    "Okay."

    -

    Guzma didn't watch her as she went. His thoughts had turned to other things, each rolling hard between the rusty, unsteady gears clacking in his head. He did not calculate as Lusamine did; he did not analyze or reach finely-tuned conclusions. He only read what he knew, in its raw form: that his sense of satisfaction had fled him, and that he felt, in the pit of his stomach, a loneliness grinding him up.

    But he could power through it. He knew that, too.

    Because soon, within days really, the world would be rushing back in, like a tidal wave against the shore, flooding into him and everything he had worked for. In some impossible way, Guzma simultaneously pined for it―and dreaded it.

    -

    Chops, Bully, Nene, Hornet, JJ, Slip, and Zazi stood atop Shady House and wasted their evening chucking empty bottles over the edge of the roof.

    The group of Team Skull grunts had the privilege of sitting there on the broken roof tiles, right outside the entrance to Guzma's room. They were the big kids―big enough, anyway, to bully the rest of the grunts in lieu of Guzma's presence. Their cobbled-together clique hadn't entirely coalesced yet, but their older age and former intimacy with Boss had sealed them together into a wall against the crumbling order around them. After all, they bragged, they were tight with Big G, real tight, or they had been, before everything fell apart; they were the toughest and the nastiest.

    Except Slip, who was twelve and still kind of a baby. He cried easy, and looked up to Guzma with the earnestness of a little kid, even though Guzma found him annoying and frequently thumped him good. He was allowed in the group only because Chops was there, and Chops was his big brother.

    Tonight, they had less to do and less supervision than usual. Plumeria had gone out―out to Uncle Nanu's. She did that a lot more nowadays, and they puzzled over her. She had not done well transitioning into power. She was tough, they all agreed, but she lacked Guzma's brutality, and that lack led to some of the underlings thinking she wasn't tough enough.

    "She likes hanging with Uncle more than us," Chops complained.

    Bully had the courage to snicker and joke, "Yo, maybe they're doing it."

    At that, the whole group erupted into disgusted, excited giggling, screeching and howling, Ew! Yuck! Gross! Nasty-y-y! The harsh popping of beer bottles shattering on the adjoining rooftop below broke into the night, the brown shards pooling into the gutters already overfilled with glass.

    Once they had tired of throwing bottles, their boredom turned their eyes to Guzma's unattended room. With Plumeria out, there would be no one to ward them away. They roamed toward it, over Slip's noise of complaint.

    "We shouldn't," Slip whimpered.

    "Shut up," Chops said, pushing him.

    Guzma's room was dark and out-of-sorts. It wasn't the first time grunts had dug through the place, stealing what they could. After the first two weeks of his disappearance, when the mysticism of breathless waiting lifted, they turned to squawking vultures, fighting over his garments, liquor, and personal belongings. The chest full of Buginium-Z had initially fallen by the wayside―none of the grunts had Z-Rings, and they had no interest in the stuff―but eventually, too, that was dragged off by someone. Not all the kids who took stuff were Team Skull, either; the security had gotten lax, and kids from all over the place wandered into Po Town, gawking at the kingdom without a king. It didn't matter. Nobody cared anymore.

    The group started to sprawl about the room, opening drawers for slim pickings, lifting garbage, kicking empty bottles.

    "When he comes back," Slip said, "he's gonna be mad."

    "You gonna snitch?"

    Slip still whimpered and rubbed his hands together. "When he comes back―"

    Chops whacked him upside the head, eliciting a pained little sob. "Big G ain't comin ' back, dummy!"

    A strange, uncomfortable quiet came over them. It took a second for them to continue pulling open drawers and digging around.

    "But why not?" Slip whined, clearly holding back tears.

    "'Cause he dead, that's why," Chops scolded him. "Everybody knows that."

    "He ain't dead," Nene disagreed. "Coppers took him away. He's in prison somewhere."

    "Tch. That would be on the news."

    "Nuh-uh! There's a secret prison! Where they put all the baddest guys around! I saw it on TV!"

    "Dummy, prisons like that are for people who kill people. Guzma ain't never killed nobody."

    "Yuh-huh!"

    "You stupid!"

    "He told me he iced a guy when he was fifteen and got away with it."

    "Boy, nobody's been murdered in Alola in like, a billion years."

    "That you know of!"

    "Well," Zazi started, "I think―"

    They groaned at her, already knowing where she was going.

    "C'mon!" Zazi gestured wildly, pointing at her temple. "Think about it for a sec! He disappeared―then the Beast Tamer appeared!"

    Bully, master of wit, piped up, "Yeah, and then yo mama got pregnant again―was that him, too?"

    Another wave of shrieking, hysterical laughter arose, drowning out Zazi's stammering protests. Finally, she blushed and shrank back against the wall.

    "I 'on't care if he comes back or not," Bully went on to brag. He pushed into the center of the room with overplayed confidence. "I'mma be the new Boss, anyway."

    "Boy, please."

    "You dumb."

    "Why you?"

    He shot a glare at his opponents. "'Cuz I'm the oldest, butt-munch."

    "You lyin'."

    "Shut up!"

    "You shut up!"

    As quick as a flash, Bully and Nene landed on the floor, wrestling and punching and kicking at each other. It was hard for the others to tell how serious it was, because Bully persistently giggled, even as he was socked in the gut and pulled into a headlock. They thumped into the dresser, nearly knocking it over.

    Then, the room's door opened; a young grunt pushed it open and peered inward, yelling something so quickly and loudly that they didn't understand.

    "Yo!"

    "Shut up!"

    It was Zazi, finally, who saw the grunt and actually tried to hear what he was saying. Over the noise of the fight, she asked, "What is it?"

    "It's―" The kid gasped for breath, waved frantically for their attention. "It's Boss!"

    Everything stuttered to a halt.

    "Yo, it's Boss! He's on TV!"

    -

    The police station was dark, aside from the glow of television. Nanu and Plumeria had kept the solemn silence, as if in a temple; she felt the squeeze of her held breath on her lungs, and he had gotten up once to retrieve a beer from the fridge. Otherwise, though, they had been perfectly still.

    They kept the volume off.

    She felt the vibration of her phone and looked at it. "Gladion's calling." As Plumeria said it, she realized how breathless she was, how impossible the words felt coming out. Implied somewhere in her saying it, she was asking Nanu's advice.

    But Nanu, seated on his couch, eyes glued to the television, just grunted.

    "Gladion's calling," she found herself repeating, more strenuously this time. But her hesitation had kicked the call to voicemail already, and she shut up her lungs, feeling her head spinning. She tried to remember how Gladion even got her number―but then she remembered―when he first disappeared, how the kid reached out to her, her meeting with Gladion and Lillie, everything they told her―

    A text message sprang up on her phone, a silent scream. >CALL ME .

    "...This is real," she gasped, clinging to her ponytail and pulling on it, just to convince herself. She sat herself down, cross-legged, a few feet from where Nanu sat. She kept gaping at the screen. "This is really happening."

    Nanu shrugged. "Maybe Aether's really got its hologram tech down, who knows?"

    >CALL ME. IT'S URGENT.


    "...I mean, his face does look a little funny―no wait, that's just his face. Criminy, don't people look different on TV."

    >PLEASE CALL ME.


    "...Whazzat saying, about the camera adding ten pounds? He's lookin' a little puffy."

    >DISREGARD MY PREVIOUS MESSAGES.


    >I'M ON MY WAY.

    >I WILL BE THERE IN FIFTEEN MINUTES.

    >LILLIE IS NOT RESPONDING.

    >I WILL GIVE YOU UPDATES ON MY PROGRESS.


    She groaned and threw the phone face-down on her lap. "Oh my god."

    Nanu finally turned to her, lifting an eyebrow. "He blowin' up your phone for any good reason?"

    "He's coming here."

    "...'Course he is. Great." Nanu descended into deep bitterness. "We'll make a night of it. Have a frickin' slumber party. Make popcorn. Braid each other's hair."

    They got quiet for a while. The creatures, one by one, filled the screen―in all their horror, beauty, surreality. It was these images, and not Guzma, that seemed to disturb Nanu.

    "Shoot…" He sipped his beer, his face blank and untelling, but his mutters told it all. "Shoot… I'm gonna probably have to go to meetings about this, aren't I?"

    Plumeria's phone vibrated again but she ignored it. "This is crazy. This is… What is he doing ?"

    "...World domination," Nanu said, dreamily repeating something from far back in his memory. He snorted and shook his head. "Or something like that."

    They fell quiet again. After waiting for some time, they heard pounding on the door, and almost took it to be Gladion, but the noise was frantic, numbered, representing a crowd of tiny fists pleading for entry.

    Nanu cursed. "That better not be―"

    But it was: the door suddenly opened, once the grunts' patience ran out, and a pack of wet, swearing, jumping kids wrestled their way in through the doorway. They shouted Plumeria's name, and, to a lesser degree, Uncle Nanu's.

    "Plumeria! Plumeria!"

    Nanu snarled at them from where he sat. "Hey! What are you doin', bargin' in here like that! Y'all better get your keisters back out the door 'fore I get to 'em first!"

    Slip whined. "Uncle! It's an emergency!"

    "I don't care if it's the apocalypse; you ain't treading all that mud in here!"

    Unwilling to take off their shoes, but not daring enter any further, they clustered in the waiting area by the door, cramming in shoulder-to-shoulder. They beckoned Plumeria over, and she sighed, got up, and walked over to them, arms crossed before her.

    "We saw him!"

    "On TV!"

    "He was all―"

    "And he was wearing―"

    "―That red one, that was flexin'―"

    "Boom! Like that―"

    Plumeria waited for their chatter to die down. "I know," she finally said. "I saw it too."

    "We should do something!"

    "You stupid little kids." Her words weighed with antipathy. "There's nothing to do."

    "But we gotta rescue him!"

    Nanu overhead this comment and guffawed. "Rescue him from what ? He's gettin' three square meals a day―and then some, apparently―boatloads o' money, probably a nice flat―if I had all that, I'd ditch you all in a heartbeat, too."

    "He didn't ditch!" another yelped. "Tell 'im, Plume!"

    "Don't be stupid," Plumeria said―that was all she said.

    The grunts proceeded to break out into an argument, bickering over what it all meant. Some cried foul, some cried brainwashing and mind control, some cried betrayal. The longer they bickered, the less sense any of their theories made, but one idea stuck to them and was repeated over and over.

    "We should go see him!"

    "Yeah!"

    "We'll sneak through or somethin'―we could visit―make him come back."

    It was the dumbest thing Plumeria had ever heard.

    Fortunately, before she had to ream them out over it, the door rattled again, and it opened to reveal Gladion.

    The kid wore his usual intense face, draped with the black shape of his hoodie and moist with the wind-tossed rain. The grunts all saw and stiffened at his presence; their opinion of him had not gotten better with time, especially since some claimed he had stabbed Guzma in the back. Some even suspected he had something to do with his disappearance.

    "Whatta you doin' here?" Nene sneered at him with their collective disdain.

    Gladion didn't move to take off his hood. His eyes were sharp green pinpoints in the dark, cutting through a sweep of platinum blonde hair. He gazed at their gawping faces coldly, but said nothing.

    Nanu took initiative. He stood up and waved at the grunts. "All right, kids. Get outta here. The adults are gonna talk now."

    Bully spat. "Huh? Gladion ain't no adult! I'm older than he is!"

    "Out."

    The grunts, huffing and growling, tried to put on their toughest faces as they stared down Uncle. But ultimately, they knew better than to pick a fight. Gradually, the grunts turned for the door, pushing past Gladion, pulling up their hoods and slinking back out into the rain, mumbling and complaining to one another as they went. At last, the three of them were left alone in the dimly-lit station.

    Nanu, holding his beer, looked back and forth at Plumeria and Gladion. The two regarded each other, and not Nanu, with some private intensity until he shrugged. "I'm gonna watch TV," he announced. "Ain't like I got much to contribute. You want anything, kid?"

    "I'm fine, thank you," Gladion replied politely. He turned to Plumeria. "Have you thought of a plan?"

    "...Hi to you, too."

    He blinked, relaxed the tight muscles at his face, and realized his mistake. "Sorry. Good evening."

    "...And there's no plan. I'm not even sure what you want to talk about."

    He looked surprised. "I thought it would be obvious." He narrowed his eyes at her―read her rancor―then at Nanu―and saw ambivalence, at best. Gladion had obviously been on the search for signs of panic, and upon finding none, he had to recalculate his approach. "The situation. It isn't good."

    "Seems to be working out fine for him," Nanu said. He had already settled back on the couch after shoving aside a Meowth that had stolen his seat.

    "I know my mother," Gladion said. "This won't end well. She can be… Very charming. But she has ulterior motives."

    Nanu and Plumeria glanced to each other, eyebrows raised―and Plumeria verbalized what they were both thinking. "Well, duh."

    Gladion thought then that had explained himself poorly. He put his hand to his face and frowned. "I thought… I thought you might want to reach out to him. Maybe talk some sense into him."

    Neither the kahuna nor the Team Skull Admin looked particularly moved by this idea.

    "Don't look at me," Nanu said, pushing his eyes the other way. "I've got no skin in this."

    Plumeria stayed silent and seemed to agree.

    Gladion wasn't shocked at Nanu's indifference, but Plumeria's caught him off-guard. He marvelled, looking directly at her. "I thought you were his friend."

    The statement hit her harder than expected; she raged. "What do you care!?" Plumeria charged up to him, ready to shove him in her frustration. "He played you, didn't he?"

    "...I see." As if he had taken in her anger, picked it apart, and found its intimate subtleties, Gladion shifted his eyes and nodded to himself.

    "What?"

    "You don't know my mother. If you did…"

    The silence he left was intended to be dramatic, insinuating some dark truth. Nanu put up with it for only a second before rolling his eyes.

    At last, the young boy sighed and pushed back his bangs. "Aether Paradise is open to the public again as of tomorrow morning. It'll probably be a mess all day. Security will be overwhelmed with visitors."

    "And?"

    Gladion gave her a withered look, having tired of her rebuffs. "I'm just thinking aloud." He lifted his eyes, and pulled his hoodie back over his head. "I'm sorry I wasted your time. I'd better go. I'm thinking of heading to Mele'mele―to visit Lillie. Do you have any message you want to relay to her?"

    Plumeria almost snarled something nasty, but didn't. Lillie, of anyone, was the least deserving of cruelty. She could remember the girl's innocent nattering, the way she spoke so purely and kindly of Guzma and his intentions. You should have seen him, she said. How he saved Mother― Plumeria still felt a stab of pity for the girl. "Just… You can tell her 'hi' from me."

    "I'm sure I'll be seeing you both soon. Good night, Kahuna Nanu."

    After Gladion left, Nanu, eyes still on the television, grumbled to himself. "He's a funny little kid, ain't he."

    "Yeah." Plumeria put a hand on her hip and glared daggers into the wall. The rain and wind roared outside, swallowing her thoughts. "Funny."
     
  8. TheAlpar

    TheAlpar Journey Enthusiast

    Sorry for not getting to the last chapter!! Been real busy lately.

    Anyways, Guzma. That sure is a troubled kid. In the wise words of the great Hank Hill: "That boy ain't right."

    Still, I feel really bad for him. Being manipulated to that degree is awful and it's worse because he doesn't realize what's happening. I'm really liking the... not friendship, but camaraderie between him and Faba, they both know how dangerous Lusamine can be. Jeez.

    The flashbacks to the beginning of Team Skull were great; Plumeria is a really interesting character and I wanna know more about her. Also every scene with Nanu is a treasure, I hope he goes to Aether Paradise with them.

    Really cool couple of chapters!!
     
  9. dietofwurms

    dietofwurms i see stars

    Chapter 12: My Best Self

    Plumeria could not believe they had talked her into this. She hated crowds. She hated being herded around and being bombarded with inescapable noise. And she hated this kind of spectacle.

    But here she was.

    After enduring the boat shuttle trip, squished between her grunts and the busy cluster of tourists, scribbling journalists, and bouncing schoolboys, she watched the familiar, looming form of Aether Paradise grow from the waves and swallow them.

    She had tried to limit the number of grunts coming with her―she knew better than to bring a whole crowd of them and expect to get away with it―but the buzz got to be so great, that even she couldn't fight them off when more than a dozen showed up. At least they had listened to her when she told them to leave the Team Skull gear at home, but they were truly a shabby group, a bizarre gaggle of tweens and teens with dyed hair, chewing gum and spewing curses at each other to the discomfort of the older tourists. The elementary-age schoolboys, evidently making the trip directly from the end of classes for the day, seemed to find their antics hilarious and tried to show off as well. The poor boat attendant tried to deliver her scripted spiel over the boat's speakers―but laughter interrupted her harshly every few minutes. Plumeria slicked back her hair, tucking it under her hat, and prayed that security wouldn't be greeting them once they docked.

    The kids lost focus almost immediately. The shuttle docked, the passengers spilled out, and she watched more than half of her group scatter in different directions. She didn't even have time to scream for them to come back; there were too many shiny things in view. Promotional booths scattered the grounds; newscasters tried to negotiate the best angles for their cameras; there were employees everywhere, and people crowded, fighting for space. All the times she had visited, the place was virtually deserted, granted only the occasional visit from a dignitary or special guest. But today, the atmosphere was more like a public festival. Lusamine knew how to draw crowds, it seemed.

    "Yo, Plume," Bully said, "what's the plan, huh?"

    Bully wasn't very bright, but at least he was focused. She gave him a look out of the corner of her eye. "Find G. Talk to him."

    "Tch." He tugged on his blotchy, sweat-stained hoodie, realizing too late he had overdressed for the warm weather. "You try'na make this joint sound easy."

    "First part should be. This whole stupid event is supposed to be about him, right?"

    "And them monsters," Bully reminded her. His eyes had fallen on an information banner right past the front doors―WHAT ARE THE ULTRA BEASTS? There were large screens displaying video footage accompanied with educational narration; at least one life-size model of Buzzwole had kids climbing on it and taking selfies.

    "This is crazy," Plumeria said to herself, so that no one heard her. She craned her neck over the crowds, trying to find any sign of where Guzma could be. She looked back to assess how many grunts still remained with her, and hissed to them, "Stick by me. And keep it low key, you hear? No messin' around―no rappin'―no hasslin' normies."

    "Bored already," one yawned and whined, and the cluster of them giggled.

    -

    They didn't have to look much longer, because speakers overhead began to make announcements, and the crowd began to file forward in a singular direction. As they listened and followed, they found themselves moving through the main floor, down a hallway in the east wing of the building, and into a fresh, new room that Plumeria had never seen before.

    A battle stadium.

    It had all the pomposity and virtue of a true gym, far beyond the worn wooden podiums used by the other kahunas: high, arched ceiling strung with floodlights; an arena pit, in the classic style she had seen in pictures but never seen herself: a large square of packed sand; the bleachers carefully enclosed the arena below with tall, glass shielding. Out on the arena grounds, Plumeria saw several employees already out, combing the dirt and retracing the white field markers to fix the impact of whatever battles had happened that morning.

    The bleachers were conservative in number, not built to maintain consistently large crowds―Team Skull had to push through to find a spot to sit, blocking other guests in the process, until the arena became standing-room only. The schoolboys she had seen in the shuttle ride over pressed themselves against the glass shielding, fogging it with their eager breath and squabbling over space.

    Jay-Jay, ever the wandering type, had spotted some exclusive-looking chairs high above the bleachers and settled into one. Security was pretty quick to hurry over and kick him out; when he trundled back down to them, he reported the seats were reserved.

    "Said I couldn't sit there," he complained. "Said they're for the kahunas."

    Plumeria glanced up at them. Four seats, gilded, cushioned. She was not surprised in the least that Lusamine would extend the gesture, or that the kahunas had snubbed the gesture by leaving them empty. To be a kahuna was a sacred duty; it meant being chosen by one of the sacred guardians. She imagined they felt this whole business was crude sacrilege.

    Poor Nanu was probably currently trapped in an emergency meeting on the matter. He would be griping about that to her soon enough.

    Her thoughts distracted her so badly that it was Bully who elbowed her. "Plume!"

    Out from the tunnel connected to the arena pit, she saw Aether Kahuna Guzma emerge.

    -

    Guzma wore the same get-up from the conference the night before, and though he was quite far away from them, she could read a certain relaxation and confidence in his stride. On television, he hadn't quite mastered his deer-in-headlights look at having cameras shoved in his face, but it appeared the morning battles had sharpened him. He glanced briefly over the crowd. Plumeria wondered if they'd be spotted―but the overpowering flood lights over him obscured the rest of the arena in shadow, preventing him from making out any faces.

    The speakers made some announcement that none of them could hear over the babble of the watching crowd. Another trainer, from the tunnel opposite Guzma, walked out onto the grounds. The babble got louder, then quieter as people strained to listen. When the two trainers crossed the dirt floor to exchange a brief, sportsmanlike word, one grunt suddenly stood to his feet, shrieking. "KICK HIS BUTT, BIG G!"

    Plumeria whirled around, found the source of the voice, and struck the kid's head hard, knocking him back into his seat. "You― shh! You idiot! You're gonna get us caught!"

    Fortunately, the grunt's shouting had swirled and mixed in with the excited shouts from other directions. By the time the trainers took their places, and the battle was ready to start, the jeering had built up into a steady roar of whispers, cries, thudding feet against the metal bleachers. Plumeria felt around her the height of their ecstasy, their screeching for novelty, their lust―she kept her seat for the entire duration of that fight, but the boys and girls next to her could not restrain their bodies or voices. They lept, they screamed, they hit and pulled on one another.

    "Crazy," she repeated to herself.

    Guzma and his beasts―as she focused her eyes on their movements, she noticed how little he spoke to or commanded them, how in-sync they were. In all the years she knew him, she thought he knew his battle-style: belligerent threats and demands, lots of wild gestures and shouts. But here and now, there was a strange quietness to him. Like he had developed some secret language that only he and his beasts could decipher. He would nod, tilt his head, adjust his arm or hand―and they shuddered at his behest, squealed at the glee of being allowed to rampage with his permission. And as if in exchange for this gift, they sprang out, crashed, and destroyed his opponent within mere minutes.

    Team Skull shrieked, like they had forgotten―as if they didn't remember what this all meant. Plumeria, though, kept deathly silent, her arms tight against her stomach where she sat. Because she knew. She remembered.

    -

    Most of the crowd cycled out after several battles, tiring of the spectacle and itching to move their feet, but new, more interesting visitors filled in their seats. Plumeria could tell most of them were not from the area, and a lot of them were obviously trainers, eyeballing their surroundings like panting, hungry dogs. Some took notes. Others watched the battles with fierce intensity, no doubt planning their own strategies. Trainers from Kanto, Hoenn, Sinnoh― Champions and top challengers. Whenever Guzma battled with his familiars―the pokemon he had used to his entire life―the crowd got restless and chattered among themselves, but the moment a beast emerged, it was as if the air sucked out of the room, and everyone's eyes glued to the battleground. These beasts moved so strangely, gloriously, and brutally. They crushed his opponents one-by-one.

    Kahuna Guzma is the winner!

    ―And Kahuna Guzma is the winner!

    ―And once again―!


    This isn't a challenge, Plumeria started to think. This is a slaughterhouse.

    "How many fights he gonna do?" a grunt started to complain, their head sinking into their hand.

    "Seriously? You're bored already?" She shook her head. "You know this is history in the making, right?"

    "I flunked history."

    Laughter erupted among the grunts, as did some rapid foot-stomping along the bleachers.

    "F'real though, Big Sis, when we gonna be able to go talk to him?"

    "When he's done, I guess." Though each battle had a brief break between them for healing and personal refreshment, she doubted Guzma was going to be able to battle all night. Was there a schedule somewhere? She suddenly wished she had nabbed some of those pamphlets she saw floating around. She had initially ignored them because it somehow creeped her out to see his picture on them.

    A few of her kids, whining of hunger, wandered back through the crowds after spotting some people with food in their hands from some sort of concession booth. Plumeria had given up on trying to corral them anymore. She had too many thoughts weighing on her, and she started to feel the helplessness of not having a substantial plan.

    Finally, though, after a few more matches, Kahuna Guzma dusted off and turned for the tunnel, passing shoulders with a glowing, smiling Lusamine.

    Plumeria felt her heart race, but at same time felt a chill run through her.

    The woman―that woman―took her place in the middle of the arena, speaking with sweet command into the microphone.

    "Good evening, everyone! I am Madame President Lusamine to this branch of the Aether Foundation, coordinator of Aether Paradise. I am so very pleased at the response we've received from the surrounding community and nearby regions. This is the last of our current roster of battles for the evening― "

    Some of the crowd already started to move and push their way for the main exit. Lusamine was undeterred and kept speaking over the rumble of feet and chatter.

    " ―For coming out this evening for this special event; if you are interested in registering for the full experience, our assistants out in the lobby would be glad to― "

    Plumeria eyed the back exit door that was clearly marked 'employees only.' Her feet shuffled, and she gauged the level of attentiveness of the security personnel. They had wandered a little, in light of Lusamine's remarks and the movements of the crowd to the front exit doors.

    " ―Thirty minutes, there will be a demonstration by our science team, allowing you a more intimate look into how these creatures― "

    "Guys." She elbowed Bully and kicked the toes of her sneakers into the backs of those sitting in front of her. "Hey."

    They stirred a little, but not enough. She hissed at them hard.

    "Guys!"

    Finally, she got most of their attention, and pointed subtly for the exit.

    "Follow me."

    Plumeria had no way of knowing the door wouldn't be locked, so she fell on her usual strategy. Walk casually, bump into it, looking like a lost tourist who wasn't watching signs. The door gave way.

    She heard, a little far off, above the heads of the following grunts, a security officer calling out to her.

    "Hey."

    (She pretended not to hear, slipping her body through and letting the grunts file in after her).

    "Hey, you can't―!"

    They saw the guard starting to run for them. Plumeria gave the signal. They bolted.

    -

    The security wasn't very good. Suddenly, Plumeria wondered if this wasn't how both Gladion and Lillie managed to make off with high-priority pokemon―especially Lillie, who she supposed didn't have a criminal bone in her body. She led her grunts running down the hallway, soon coming across a stairwell and plummeting down a floor. Far behind them, anxious footsteps hammered, and a radio buzzed for back-up.

    The grunts, gleeful and excited, panted loudly around her, thumping and throwing their limbs about; as a group, they moved sloppily but with force, like a heavy liquid slamming and flowing through obstacles.

    They hit the lower floor, pushed through a few guards―one grunt was snatched and left behind to try and wiggle out of the guard's grip―and after turning several corners, hurrying past unrelated employees, and tearing around, they miraculously found him.

    He was talking to someone in a lab coat, handing them his pokeballs. He also started shrugging off his coat and undoing his scarf. He only turned when the pounding of feet got close enough behind him, and one of the grunts cried out upon seeing him.

    "Big G!"

    Startled, he turned around. There it was again―the deer-in-headlights look.

    "Boss!"

    They trampled forward and suddenly skidded to a halt into a busy clamor of bodies in front of him. Some hands reached out from the group, attempting to pull on him. Security plowed into them from behind, starting to yank them by their arms and collars. Everything erupted into shouting.

    "Leggo me!"

    "Where you been?"

    "Why ain't you call, G?"

    "Stop!"

    "Help us, Big G!"

    A scuffle broke out when one security officer tried to grab Plumeria by the shoulder, but as Guzma processed this flood of activity, he interrupted before it could explode into a full-on riot. He roared. "Hey! Cut it out!"

    Gradually, the movement slowed to a still; grunts froze and the security officers clung to their shirts.

    Looking mightily peeved, Guzma gave them all a brief glance and shook his head. "What are y'all―?" He huffed and motioned the security team. "Let 'em go."

    "Mr. Guzma, sir―"

    "Did I stutter? I'll take care of it!"

    To the grunts' surprise, Guzma's command was followed; the officers backed off, dropping their hold on them, and with another bark, they (and the lab coat) were sent away. The grunts marveled for a moment, basking in their boss's newfound ability to command authority figures.

    "Yeah, that's right!"

    "You show 'em!"

    "Shut up," Guzma said. He didn't look amused or very happy to see them. He kept darting his eyes around, like he expected a trap. He finally noticed Plumeria's presence, and gave her a vulnerable, almost ashamed look. "God―what are you doing here?"

    About twenty contradictory answers popped out of the various kids' mouths―here to save you, to see you, to bring you back, to help you, to party, to see them monsters, to―

    "Okay!" He lifted a hand to still their endless stream of chatter, and growled. "Geez, you guys nuts!? You're gonna get me―" He cut himself off and sucked his teeth. His eyes rolled up with intense thought, then he swiveled his head about, looking for any sign of Lusamine. Seeing none of her, he sighed and motioned for them to move with him. "Just, c'mon, already. We'll go to my suite. Don't do nothin' stupid, all right?"

    -

    To Guzma's very evident dismay, the grunts scattered through his suite immediately upon entering, touching, manhandling, and upturning his belongings. He instinctively barked after them―"Don't break nothin'!"―and looked embarrassed at being so quick to scold them.

    Plumeria didn't run, but didn't acknowledge him either. She followed in after them, stuffing her hands into her pockets, and while they scurried about, she planted herself on the chair at the small dining table.

    Even the ones who had preached loudest against his selling out found it easy to enjoy the fruits of his betrayal: they collapsed onto his furniture, pawed at his boxes of brand-new clothing, pulled bottles of beer from his fridge, and leaped for his entertainment and sound system. A large, brilliantly-colored congratulatory bouquet sent by the Board of Directors sat on the counter in the kitchen; Guzma had never in his life received a bouquet, so he didn't know what to do with it. Some female grunts found it and, in short order, tore apart the arrangement in their attempt to admire it.

    And although Guzma had to spend the next few minutes stalking around, forbidding them various things―get out of my bed, that ain't a toy, no I'm not turning on the jacuzzi, get outta there―it struck him that for once, his suite looked lived in. They settled into seats, or sat on pillows on the floor, and babbled loud and hard. While a few of the kids arranged themselves at the TV for a tournament, someone else had figured out the sound system, and before he could interrupt, they momentarily blasted the pure, heavenly melancholy of a piano nocturne.

    "Yo, what is this?"

    "It's―" Guzma stormed across the living room, grappling the remote from the grunt and snarling. "Gimme that."

    "Play something that's good."

    "Put some real music on," another complained.

    Guzma barely, just barely, kept himself from starting an argument over it. This was all wrong. Too intimate. The notes, the ivory plucking over the brawny hum of piano strings―it was like letting them listen in on a fantasy. (Lusamine played piano; he discovered this one day after visiting her mansion and coming across the music room, and found her seated before the grand instrument, her hands dancing over the vast swathe of keys. He was so captivated that he stood there, watching, not daring to interrupt. He memorized the piece she played, down to every note, until he could figure out its name and find a recording.)

    "Big G."

    He still held the remote, still strained to hear a few more notes. It hurt, like severing a finger, to think of cutting it off just before that note, the one that hit high, clear, orgastically―

    The whining started to mix with the sound of the video game system, which the others promptly started playing. "Yo, G, the music―"

    Without saying anything more, Guzma switched it off, shuffled through his playlist, and selected an appropriately rhythmic, bass-thudding song. The choice appeased them, and they spoke no more on it, though his head still tickled ivories a little at the back of his brain.

    The younger grunts occupied themselves fairly easily with the entertainment system, leaving the several oldest to sit in a small circle about him, sipping beer and trying to get his story out of him. Plumeria remained in her seat outside of it, and hadn't made any attempt at involving herself in the conversation, but none of them paid it any mind.

    Chops and Bully talked the most. They were the definition of drinking buddies; that is, they were only his buddies when they were drinking. They had always deluded themselves into thinking them closest to Guzma, though even as older grunts, they were several years below his age. They were usually funny and irreverent enough to put up with. As they blathered, Guzma found time to think about things, primarily about how this all felt. He figured at least some of Team Skull would show up at some point―maybe not so soon. Now that they were here, he felt himself falling easily back into old patterns, sitting with his legs relaxed and splayed out, slouching, slurring his answers, laughing at bad jokes. That it happened so quickly and easily unnerved him. All this time of refinement―of living with people of success and grandeur―swept away in an instant.

    This thought made him frown and flick his eyes over the room. As comfortable as he was becoming, he also felt that unreachable itch again. A sense of separation. Like he didn't fully recognize them, nor they, him.

    Bully asked him point-blank, "How'd you do it?"

    "Do what?"

    "Them beasts," Bully said, inarticulately.

    "I tracked 'em. Caught 'em." Guzma withheld some details to make the bragging that much more convincing.

    "So you captured 'em all yourself?"

    "Yeah."

    Bully nodded gravely to him, then to Chops, and declared, "You shoulda asked us for help. We woulda backed you, fam."

    Guzma shrugged. "Nah. Cops everywhere. Was better off alone."

    They considered his reasoning, and seemed to find it satisfactory.

    Zazi, thinking on it, asked, "You gonna be arrested?"

    "What? Nah. I got lawyers now. Cops can't come near me."

    "You got lawyers!?" Bully, finding this hilarious, slapped his knee and screeched with laughter. "Dang, G, you gone corporate!"

    Guzma took it as a well-meaning joke, but another part of him was irked by it. He swallowed down his irritation.

    "So…" Bully licked his lips nervously. "You ain't comin' back, are you."

    Guzma passed his beer between his hands, contemplating his response.

    Chops, though, reasoned it out. "Man, if I had a pad like this here, I wouldn't be lookin' back to Po Town neither."

    "So, G, who you think oughtta be the new boss? 'Cause I'm thinkin'―"

    Guzma, surprised, looked over at Plumeria, who occupied herself with her phone and ignored them. "Ain't Plume running things now?"

    "She's a girl," Chops whined.

    "Whatta you, in kindergarten? She ain't no girl," Guzma contradicted. "She's Plumeria. Plus, she's older than all o' you."

    Bully, unhappy that he had not received Guzma's blessing to take over the gang, slouched even further back in his seat. "Shoot. Just 'cause y'all were an item."

    The sly comment, this time, was not taken as a joke. The circle quieted as they saw Guzma's posture change, stiffening and readying for a fight. "Little boy," Guzma said, his eyes settling on him icily, "you better step off. You give Plume trouble, I'll come to Po Town myself to whup your―"

    ―The door buzzed.

    "I'll get it!" Zazi yelped helpfully, jumping up and running for it.

    By the time Guzma realized what she was doing, it was too late. She opened the door―and Lusamine stood on the other side.

    -

    For a horrible, unfathomable moment, Guzma froze in his seat. He could see her from where he was, and thoughts flew through his brain at light speed, smashing into each other, making his expression twitch and change. When he powered past his shock and stood to his feet, he rushed over to the door, grabbed Zazi by the arm, and shoved her back into the room, ignoring her complaining.

    "Miss L―"

    Lusamine greeted him kindly. "Kahuna Guzma."

    Frantically, he tried to read her expression. It was too late to lie or obscure her view of things, so he started to say, "They were just gonna―"

    But Lusamine, smiling sweetly, touched his arm and brushed past him at his shoulder. "I heard you had visitors." She walked through the entryway, leaving him frozen in place and staring at the door once he closed it. She stood before the living area, gazing out on the gaggle of children. She beamed at them. "My! What an interesting group you've chosen to host."

    Team Skull, in all their snot-nosed, vulgar glory, sat completely still in their seats, mute and stiffly attentive. The room suddenly felt much like a classroom with the principal walking through; no one breathed so much as an errant syllable.

    "Well, good evening, boys and girls," she said to them in an appropriate teacherly tone. She smiled down on them with a vibrant glow. "I hope you're enjoying your visit so far."

    Not a word. One grunt fidgeted uncomfortably, and a few others exchanged tense glances.

    "And Plumeria! What a surprise! It has been ages since I've seen you."

    Plumeria said nothing, keeping stone-faced. Though Lusamine read the resentment in her, the woman gave no attention to it.

    "Are you doing well?"

    "...Doing okay." The Team Skull Admin folded her arms and shifted her eyes in Guzma's direction, but Guzma remained turned toward the door, refusing to face them.

    "How wonderful. I only wish you could have told us you were coming―we might have arranged something!"

    Plumeria privately thought, Yeah, like extra security.

    "Perhaps you'd like something to eat."

    Plumeria tried to quickly rebuff the offer, because she knew her kids thought with their stomachs and would jump at any offer for food, but to her surprise, Slip, the smallest kid, lept to his feet. He shook with excitement, and in some combination of fear, eagerness, and stupidity, he blurted out, "M-ma'am! Thanks an' all! But we don't need nothin', see! We just wanna bring Big G back to be Boss again, see!"

    They nearly died. Plumeria shot him a look of pure murder, the grunts clapped hands over their faces to suppress their laughter, and Guzma shot around, his face twisted with―something. Not quite rage. Though he did look ready to sock the kid.

    Lusamine, pretending not to notice their variety of reactions, gazed down at the child, taking in his form with her piercing green eyes, noting his ratty hair, his ill-fitted clothing, his unmatched socks, his oversized shoes. She stepped toward him. They held their breath, like they expected her to shout and scold him for his ridiculous comment.

    Instead, she laughed lightly and reached out, petting Slip in affectionate, doting strokes through his tousled brown hair. "My, you are a darling little boy," she cooed, tittering even more as she saw the boy's face flush with embarrassment. "How old are you, dear? You look about my son's age."

    The kids all choked on their snickers as Slip clammed up and turned a bright red.

    Lusamine started to vaguely smooth his face with her fingers and pinch his crimson cheeks as she looked up at them again. "You'll let me know if there's anything I can do to make you more comfortable, won't you?"

    "Yes'm," another grunt piped up, unable to contain himself.

    "Now―I hope you don't mind―may I borrow Guzma a moment? I must speak with him about something."

    They understood she wasn't asking permission, so they didn't respond. She floated back around and led Guzma out the door, leaving them alone.

    As soon as the two reached the hall, the children inside roared. Their nerves broke out into cackling, cursing, and crowing; they hurled mocking jeers in Slip's direction: Mommy-y-y! Slip's got a new―!

    Guzma cringed and shut the door hurriedly. He followed her a little ways down the hall, and was so certain he was in trouble, that an apology burst out of him before she could even begin. "I'm sorry, Miss L, they're stupid, but they're not doing nothing―anything―bad, I promise, we're just―"

    Lusamine lifted a hand to silence him. "'Aether Kahuna Guzma.'"

    He stopped and looked at her in confusion.

    "I need you to reflect on what those words mean to you."

    He tried to read her expression. He didn't see any anger, and somehow, that bothered him even more.

    "You are a representative of the Aether Foundation now. You are being paid―generously―to uphold certain values. Do you not agree?"

    "'Values'? I'm not..."

    "Your friends are members of a criminal organization: the antithesis of our Foundation's mission. Besides, doesn't it seem―" She paused for a moment, and pressed a hand to her chest. "I don't mean to be unkind, but it seems to me, at least, that they are rather beneath you."

    Beneath me. Was that what it was? That feeling he had, as he sat with them, wanting to belong but unable to? Was that the wall he sensed between himself and them, that made them look so much smaller?

    "The people we surround ourselves with either build us up into the best version of ourselves, or drag us down. So think carefully, Guzma. Who do you want to be?"

    He did think. Carefully. He gnawed the inside of his cheek, looked sheepishly at her, then turned his head a little, hearing their belting laughter and thumping around, and he weighed between them: her promise and perfection, and their juvenile delinquency. He hadn't thought it would be so hard to actually verbalize what he wanted, but he struggled all the same. "I want―" His voice hitched. His fists clenched at his side, and his face scrunched like he anticipated the sting of ripping a bandage from skin. "The best version of myself."

    His answer pleased her. She placed a sympathetic hand on his shoulder. "Enjoy your time with your friends."

    -

    Upon re-entering his suite, he found they had finished mocking Slip and returned to their mucking about. They barely greeted him. He felt a million miles from them―

    He made his way back over to Chops and Bully, in time for Bully to ask, "So, G, that lady―she's your boss?"

    A grunt, overhearing, protested, "Boss ain't got no boss!"

    "She―" Guzma shrugged, ignoring the latter, ignorant comment. "Yeah, kinda. I mean, she pays me an' all―"

    Zazi cut him off. She had been poking around on his mostly-bare shelves, but got bored of that and thought to interrogate him instead. "What's she like?"

    Before Guzma could answer, Chops cut in rudely, pulling on his eyelids to demonstrate, "She's got them creep eyes."

    Guzma, shocked at the disrespect, shot back hotly. "No, she doesn't."

    But his words seemed to immediately become lost in the grunts' chatter.

    "She's like, my mom's age? And she looks like that?"

    "Is she a vampire?"

    "She probably had surgery―like, she even looks plastic."

    "I heard her husband disappeared, yo."

    "Maybe she ate him."

    The group erupted into giggles and snorts.

    Guzma had been enormously patient. He tried, really tried, to bottle his frustration and let them have their fun. But after a minute of swigging his beer and digging his nails into his palm, listening to the slander spiral, he couldn't contain it. His expression darkened and purpled, and he snarled threateningly, "Shut up!"

    He realized too late it was the worst thing he could have possibly said. They all froze to look at him, their mouths puckering with realization.

    "O-o-oh, snap," Chops gasped, covering his mouth. "Ya'll jonin' on Big G's girl."

    Guzma snorted and averted his eyes. Denying it would only get them more excited, so he stayed silent.

    "G, you crushing on some grandma? That's sick, yo! Ha, ha!" Bully whistled. "No lie, though, can she adopt me, too? I wouldn't mind sitting in that lap either, ha, ha!"

    -

    Plumeria, on instinct, jumped up from her seat. She knew the look on Guzma's face, and knew Bully had really done it.

    In quick succession, it all fell apart: Guzma shot out a right hook, knocking Bully down; beer bottles clashed onto the floor, splashing booze everywhere; Guzma cussed and spat on him, tried to fall on top of him so that he could pin him for another series of blows. Every nearby grunt rushed forward, grappling Guzma's limbs, dragging him back and begging him to calm down.

    "Chill out, G! Chill!"

    With his arms mostly pulled behind him, he sent out his left foot to stomp Bully's ribs. Zazi dove to drag the squealing Bully across the floor and out of his reach. Plumeria then appeared and stood between the froth-mouthed Guzma and Bully. She watched for a moment as Guzma writhed under the weight of several kids and snarled like a rabid animal. She didn't looked impressed, but said to him, "G, he's an idiot. Let it go."

    At least it seemed her words calmed him, because he stopped pulling forward or trying to wrestle off their hold. His expression remained twisted and cold; he slumped, relaxing his muscles until they felt comfortable letting him go. The music still thudded away, and the video game still whirled its colors on the television screen, but everything else was dead silent and still.

    Guzma at last spoke. "Party's over," he growled. "Everybody out."

    They all stared at him, as if they didn't believe him.

    "Whatta you gawkin' at! Huh? I said party's over!" He stooped down, grabbed a bottle, and hurled it, smashing it against the television. A sputtering spark jumped from the cracked screen, snapping loudly and causing everyone to jerk and start slinking for the door. Bully limped with Zazi― Slip audibly sniffled―

    He didn't wait to escort them out; his point made, he stormed to the sliding door out to the balcony, opened it, stepped through, and slammed it shut behind him.

    -

    Plumeria followed him out to the balcony, and for the first time that night, they stood to face one another.

    Plumeria studied him. Nanu was right: he had gained weight. Not excessively, or anything, just noticeablely enough to fill out his normally gaunt, bony form. The bit of fat in his cheeks made his face softer and more mature-looking. His hair looked almost silky and had a salt-and-pepper color to it, because his black roots had grown in, largely overtaking the white. That hair of his, which she was so used to seeing stuck out in a prickly mass of tangles, now rested gently over his face and head, feathered and combed. Behind him, the sea opened out, the shadows of the islands visible on the horizon.

    "So, you ready to talk?" she asked him.

    Guzma looked blankly at her, almost through her.

    "I thought you were dead, you know. I thought―"

    Suddenly, Guzma's expression fell. "You shouldn't have come here," he said, interrupting her.

    She put her hands to her hips. "Why? Because 'she' doesn't want us here?"

    "It's not her." He shook his head, avoiding her eyes. "I know what you're doing," he went on. His voice sounded raw, strained with the tension he had kept hidden the entire night. "I know what you're tryin' to do. Coming here. But Team Skull's dead, Plume. It's been dead. If you wanna keep playin' cops and robbers with a bunch o' kids, feel free. But I've moved on, all right? I got things to do. I got people counting on me, and I have to think about what's best for my image. I have to―"

    Plumeria exploded. "Oh my god! Who is even talking right now!"

    The accusation lit him with sudden rage. "This is me!" Knotted, winding cords of thought caught up with him, looping around, tangling. "Look... I was... I was exactly how you wanted me to be. Right?" As the words fumbled out, each more disconnected than the last, he felt his frustration build. He tugged on his ring, anger leaping into his throat. "And it was fun, while it lasted, all right? But you don't know me, Plume. None of you do. Don't you get it? I was just pretending. I was just― "

    He lost track again, and went quiet for a moment.

    "This is who I really am. Who I'm meant to be."

    "So." Plumeria narrowed her eyes at him. "You're 'meant' to be a tool? A trophy for some lady who sees you as a big charity case?"

    He looked hurt, but not surprised. He snorted and spewed, as hatefully as he could, "She was right about you."

    She sees Guzma at fifteen and mumbling, getting the courage to touch one of her braids and confess that he liked her hair. She pushes him and calls him a dork, but she's flattered, really―
    "You're in my way, Plume."

    She sees the rooftop of Shady House, where they lay and looked at the stars as they glinted above them, on long nights when there was nothing to do. They breathe, and talk about things they never told anybody before―

    "You've always been in my way."

    She sees him stagger, face bruised and bloody, knuckles torn, after fighting with one of her crew; he smiles proudly through the pain, showing her that he'd won.
    ...How had she missed it?

    ...How had she… not noticed… The eyes Lusamine gave her, the way that woman leaned into his ears, told him things…

    ...How after Plumeria stopped visiting Aether Paradise along with him, he returned from the visits a little colder, a little more withdrawn...

    "When I told you I was gonna try to be captain―do you remember what you said?"

    Plumeria cringed.

    "You―you said it was stupid, it was lame... And when I went for it anyway, and I got creamed, you kept saying, 'don't worry about it, who would want such a lame gig, anyway?'" He balled his hands into fists. "At the time, you know, I thought you didn't believe in me. That you knew I was gonna get creamed, so you were trying to let me down easy... It really messed me up." He shook, surprised at how much the memory still wounded him.

    "Guz…"

    She was going to spout excuses. He snapped at her, peaked with rage. "But now I know! It wasn't that you thought I'd lose―you were afraid I'd make it! Because you've always hated it, whenever I tried to be somebody!"

    -

    Plumeria wanted to tell the truth.

    When they first met, both distressingly young and immature, and mistook the initial smash of hormones for true love, she encountered but did not know how to handle his flaws. They would sit in dark places, draped over each other, spilling secrets about stupid things as teenagers do: bad poetry, bad parents, bands they liked, dreams they held onto. He was the worst of it. A clumsy kisser, a clumsier poet, and the clumsiest dream-chaser she ever knew. And he measured his self-worth strictly by his successes and failures, as he chose to label them.

    At first she thought his habit of private self-detriment was cute. Augh, stupid, I'm an idiot, what's wrong with me

    But the longer they stayed together, the more frightening it became. She found herself pulling him down from ledges, chasing him down before he destroyed himself.

    Thirteen―god, she was a baby then, didn't know the first thing about psychology. The only consolation she could dream up in her adolescent head was an attitude she had built for herself, to ward off her own demons. Who cares, Guzma? It doesn't matter. Nothing matters.

    Plumeria, now, wished she could say: I'm sorry. I was a stupid kid, trying to tell you something I didn't know how to say.

    But she was no saint. The wounds had lanced into her, leaving her bleeding in the open. She snarled, holding back tears. "If that's how you feel, Guzma, then..." She snorted. "I guess I better leave."

    "Yeah," he said. He turned back to the sea and traced his vision over the blinking, vibrant islands. "I guess you better."

    -

    Plumeria left, but he didn't watch her go.

    He felt numb and mutilated, but for that he blamed her, blamed her for not being what he desperately wanted, or thought he needed. He looked back on those years they spent together, wondering what he ought to feel for them―Nostalgia? Joy? Belonging? And instead, it was nothing, and nothing, and nothing. Her fault. The mantra drilled in his brain, ground between his teeth: Her fault.

    Guzma was so busy swearing against her, trampling on every happy memory of her, that he hardly noticed when her opposite entered his suite and stood a little ways off.

    "Are your friends gone already?"

    Startled, he jumped up, clasped a hand to his face, and realized, to his humiliation, that there was moisture there. He hatefully smudged it away, praying Lusamine wouldn't notice. A bit of phlegm sucked down his throat as he swallowed and tried to say, "Yeah, they couldn't stay."

    Though he didn't look at her, she continued their conversation, approaching and standing at his side. "It was quite an opening day. Twenty-two battles, and no losses. You really ought to let someone win occasionally," she said, half-joking. "No one will want to pay for an impossible fight."

    "It was easy," he said, his voice flat and unhappy. He flung his arms over the railing.

    She read his restlessness, but pretended to mis-attribute it. "There will come greater challengers―even stronger trainers. It won't stay boring for long."

    "Whatever."

    A moment of silence passed, and in time, she reached out and placed a hand on his shoulder. "...I know this is hard," Lusamine said, her voice rolling into tender consolation. "Success… has a way of revealing to us the people who were holding us back."

    He wanted to think it's true. He did feel a lightness now, like a weight had been cut away, but he couldn't sense if the lightness felt right.

    "Guzma." She reached out and smoothed her hand over his forehead. "I'm so very proud of you."

    He wasn't ready to be praised―wasn't in the right mindset for it―but the touch swept away the blackness of his mood. He lifted his body a little, standing up and turning toward her, and her hand stayed there a moment, cool against the perspiration beading on his brow. Then her delicate, manicured nails dragged gently down his face, triggering happy, sizzling little pops of nerve endings as they tickled the surface of his skin. He sucked in a quick breath between his teeth.

    In his nocturnal tossings and turnings, when he still imagined her, no matter how vulgar or loutish his fantasies became, he could not wrest free of the gentleness of his imagined first kiss: seraphic, as if it could escape the trappings of corporeal form, pure, ethereal somehow, a thing without taste or touch, just light and warmth finding him. And at the same time, he fantasized of a passionate undercurrent to it, rumbling deep below, so that it shook his feet. Guzma was acutely aware of the idiocy of these contradictions―that he desired both touch and non-touch, evanescent air and substantial ground.

    But while his psyche dithered and circled uselessly, Lusamine took action. She had to negotiate their height difference by pulling him down and lifting herself onto her toes, and pressed her lips to his. It was not long, and it was not particularly passionate; it had taste and touch, the chalkiness of her lipstick, the warm, silken skin of her mouth. But his heart still felt like it might fight its way from his ribcage, battering and punishing the interior of his chest. He, for a lack of a manlier word, started to swoon.

    And where a man would have taken hold of her hips, or slid his hands up along her back, drawing her up into him, the boy in him won out, causing him to flounder and stuff his hands inside his jacket pockets. He felt too dumb to bring them out again, and anyway, the kiss ended, as did most of his humiliation at the flub.

    She pulled away and marveled at his stupefied expression. A quick smile teased him. "What's the matter?"

    He had to choke to manage to say, "Nothing."

    "Guzma, you look surprised," she whispered, laughing a little. "Did you think me… unattainable?"

    Astronomically, Guzma thought, or would have thought, if he had access to the word. In his fevers, she was a pillar of fire, meant to be admired and worshiped from a polite distance, on which he could wax poetic but not dare ever touch. As much as he felt thrill, he felt a powerful sensation of having done something terribly wretched.

    "You always give yourself such little credit," she sighed. She pushed a lock of his hair behind his ear with her finger. "So from now on, I want you to dream, Guzma. Dream tremendous dreams―impossible dreams―because as long as you are here, nothing is out of your reach."

    He absorbed the promise like gospel, wondered if it meant another kiss, or another touch, or something even more tremendous. But she dropped her hands from him and bid him good night.

    Once she was gone, his head still buzzed, hummed, and vibrated. If I take a single step, he thought, I'm going to land head-first into the floor. So he turned back to the railing and leaned on it to keep himself steady.

    Guzma looked out and identified Mele'mele from the several blotches of black floating on the surface of the sea, and saw its form sinking into twilight. It looked so tiny. So far, far away.

    When at last his strength returned to him, he entered his suite, shut off the lights, selected his music, and collapsed his long body over the couch. He shut his eyes, letting the now-familiar nocturne float through his emptying mind and swirl with saccharine tones that had once been as alien to him as another language. His fingers twitched and rippled in dim imitation of the movement he had seen in her, and tried but did not quite manage to follow its rhythm. He listened and listened, as if to unlock its secrets. And over time, he let the music paint a vision of his sweet, torrid, ever-nearing fate, and the satisfaction that would come when he could hit that highest, pearly note.

    He thought of hands and fingers, and their capable plucking of keys. Though exhausted, he could not sleep a wink.
     
  10. TheAlpar

    TheAlpar Journey Enthusiast

    This might be the chapter that hit me the hardest out of all of them. The worst part is that I can see all of it; I can see why Plumeria and Guzma and Lusamine all think they're right about what they're doing. If there's one thing you're amazing at, that's creating realistic characters and motivations. Of course Guzma always dreamt of greatness but thought himself too much of a screw-up to achieve it. He thinks Lusamine will become the wind under his wings, when instead she's just putting him on a leash. It's tragic and awful and great writing.

    I enjoyed Plumeria's POVs a lot, as well as the skull grunts being exactly like I imagined them to. Great chapter.
     
  11. Chibi Pika

    Chibi Pika Stay positive

    It was really neat getting to see a younger Guzma and Plumeria when they first met, as well as getting the story of how the Skulls first started, how they declined, and then how Guzma took them to new levels. It's very organic and believable, and it perfectly illustrates how Guzma will be exactly what you need him to be. I remember back before I'd played Sun, reading a post pointing out the significance of Guzma blaming himself for losing to the player, which contrasts with every other villain boss. Of course, at the end of the day, he really just sees himself as a screw up. Unable to use Z moves. Unable to finish the island challenge. Unable to become a captain.

    I think Plumeria might be my favorite character in all this, and it's heartbreaking to see her not-all-that thought out reassurances fly back in her face. Of course it's not that she doesn't want him to succeed, but meeting failure with apathy is just easy, and it hurts less, and it's her own defense mechanism, so it was easy to use it for him as well. And she knows that this kind of success isn't right, isn't genuine, but at the same time, what they had before on Team Skull wasn't anything meaningful either, so she has no real counterargument. How can anyone denounce Guzma's current path without a better alternative?

    Which, of course, is what Lusanime is playing at, and why she has nothing to fear from him slipping back into old habits with his friends. There's nothing to be gained from getting angry or scolding him. The disconnect is already there. All she has to do is feed it.

    ~Chibi~
     
  12. dietofwurms

    dietofwurms i see stars

    Hi, guys. I feel silly for not having much else to say except for repeating "thanks for reading," but I do appreciate it. Here's another chapter for you.

    -
    -


    Chapter 13: C'est La Vie

    Every relationship with a girl Guzma ever had could be summed up similarly: nasty, brutish, and short.

    Perhaps it was because he tended to live in abstractions. From a young age, he was prone to fits of intense fantasy and obsession, and life experience proved that Guzma often liked the idea of things, more than the things themselves. This held especially true for his romantic entanglements. Guzma liked the idea of being in love. He liked the idea of having a girlfriend, of dating, of being together. But it seemed every time he sank his teeth into the tangible reality of it, he could not help but self-implode. It would start, spark, sputter, then crash, often all in one week. Among Team Skull grunts, it simply became known: don't bother going down that road. Even Plumeria, who it could be said had the best relationship with him, would, if asked, flatly recommend staying away.

    Perhaps it was, too, the malicious strain of misogyny that ran through him; it did not surface in everyday encounters, and certainly didn't disrupt his ability to casually interact with women in most contexts. No, this ran deeper than at the skin--a set of deep-seated beliefs about women shaped every disaster of a relationship he ever had. Women, he truly thought, were weak. Pushovers. Stupid. Inferior in all the ways he believed he ought to be superior to them.

    Plumeria was spared some of these judgments. Maybe it was because they were friends first and afterwards. Sometimes he rationalized it by telling himself she "wasn't like other girls," and maybe it was true. When he dated her, and he began talking smack at her, she didn't put up with it. She wasn't weak. That's what he liked―what he thought he liked. Though if he were honest, it was about that time he lost romantic interest in her, and his attention swayed towards those who had sufficient weakness for him to resent and overpower.

    Once, a long time after they broke up, he even made the mistake of telling her that he thought of her as a guy. She didn't let him get away with that, either.

    Like, when we were making out, too?


    He'd pull his hair and turn colors. Augh, no, geez, Plume, I don't mean it like that, okay!

    If he thought about it--and he really didn't--he wouldn't be able to explain Lusamine.

    Certainly, he thought of her as a woman. Materially, she was perhaps the most feminine thing he had ever laid eyes on--her eyes, her lips, her hips, the slope of her breasts and legs, and... he could go on, and often did, while lying awake at night, drenched in anticipatory sweat.

    She was―what?―an iconoclast, a symbol of dramatic change. She smashed his images, made a fool of him.

    So yes―she had command of him for now. She could smile and send him into a tizzy; she could tell him what to do, and he obeyed like a loyal pet. She had intellect, beauty, and access to wisdom that he desperately needed, so he put up with it and tried to enjoy its collateral benefits.

    (But secretly… Secretly… In those same nights of lying awake… Thoughts pawed under the closed door of his psyche, thoughts about how small she was, how physically she was no match for him, how much he'd like to make a fool of her for once…)

    (So he watched her in those following weeks of courtship, sitting in shadows of hallways with tense haunches, eyes beady, salivating, face dripping with ruddy lust. Sometimes, she looked so very small, huntable, and crunchable, like a mouse.)

    -

    At eight o' clock sharp, Guzma arrived in time for breakfast in the tea room.

    This was a new habit; for nearly all his life, breakfast was a non-word―at best a meal he could sleep through without consequence. And though he had started to report to breakfast every morning, dragging himself out of bed at what for him qualified as an ungodly hour, he still didn't eat much of anything.

    He attended for different reasons.

    Lusamine was already seated in her chair by the time he arrived that morning, having arrived minutes earlier and not willing to wait around for him. She had selected her pastry from an array of baked goods on a platter in the middle of the table, poured her coffee with sweet cream, and placed a folded newspaper in her hand, browsing its contents. She glanced up at him only briefly before returning her eyes to the headlines.

    "Good morning."

    "Morning."

    He found his seat, but didn't move to take anything. His drink waited for him.

    Guzma proceeded in his morning devotional, seated at this altar of delicate, clinking china and silver spoons. Through the room flowed the incense of berry jam and sweet fruit, and the perfume of freshly-baked bread. He spent those minutes watching her eat, and trying to not look as if he was watching her. Her hands moved smoothly over her cup, over her knife as she spread jam, over the flaky bread that she slipped in small pieces into her mouth.

    Finally, she spoke up.

    "The press certainly has a one-track mind as of late."

    Guzma, caught off guard by her comment, glanced over at the paper she had just placed flat on the table. He saw pictures. Of them. In one photograph, they walked together, Lusamine's arm around his, and her other hand pressing against his chest, balancing against him. They appeared to be in a hurry; they looked downward, and not at each other.

    The other picture, though taken from his back, clearly depicted a kiss.

    Guzma bounced his eyes away. He hated it―hated having those moments printed on ink and paper, as if they were mere specimens, biology to be recorded and flattened.

    "War and sex."

    Guzma jumped. "H-huh?"

    "It's what the industry runs on," she said, dryly. "And there hasn't been enough war to sell papers."

    "Uh, yeah, I guess." He fiddled with his coffee, as she insisted on serving him. It had a swirl of milk poured into it, giving it a subtle sweetness that made it more tolerable. He choked down a sip.

    Lusamine studied him a second, then glanced down at his empty plate. "Aren't you going to eat anything?"

    "I'm not hungry." His eyes could not stop from flitting to the paper, over and over. Finally, he muttered, "They shouldn't…" He trailed off.

    "Yes? They shouldn't what?"

    "They shouldn't―!" He gave her an emphatic, loyal look. "The stuff they say―about you―it isn't true, so they oughta shut their mouths!"

    "If it upsets you," she said, calmly folding her hands into her lap, "you should avoid reading it. There isn't anything you or I can do about it."

    "But…" He shuffled his feet under the table, restless with repressed rage. "They still oughta shut up, I think."

    "I can't blame them too much," Lusamine went on, shrugging slightly. She sipped at her coffee. "We have given them quite the material for mastication."

    Guzma gave her a look of complete shock and disgust. "W-what? God, gross―"

    She was baffled at first, then put a hand to her temple as she sighed. "Masticate. It means 'to chew.'"

    "Oh-h! Oh." He sputtered, his disgust immediately turning into embarrassment, and looked down at the floor. He scratched behind his ear. "Could've just… said that …"

    "What I mean to say is, I am old enough to be your mother."

    "Y-yeah, but―but you aren't."

    She smiled at his earnest reasoning. "My darling. In some ways, you are so very innocent."

    He didn't know what she meant by that, and frowned at hearing it.

    "Anyhow. Public life requires a certain thickness of skin, Guzma. When I was a model, I faced scathing criticism every day. One must learn to distinguish between that which is genuine--and that which is rooted in jealousy. Use the former; ignore the latter. It's really that simple."

    At that, Lusamine finished her breakfast, tidied herself, and motioned that she wished to stand. When he brought out her chair and followed her to the doorway, he stole a touch, taking her arm with his hand, making a desperate hint that he wanted affirmation of some kind. A reward―a reassurance.

    She didn't push him away--not exactly. But she maneuvered her arm in such a way that it slipped from his grip.

    "I'm going to the garden," she said, with all the meaning that remained behind it―its persisting forbidding, its shutting of a door.

    She floated out of reach.

    -

    Morning glistened its light upon the garden, making it sparkling and new. On the bench under the elm, which sat just before the long stretch of the reflecting pool, Lusamine had already settled herself, her skirt falling low over her legs, and her silken shawl draping about her shoulders. The mornings were not as warm as they once were, hence the shawl, but the sun cast a gentle heat on the trees and grass, making it comfortable to walk without wearing heavy clothing. The skies were open and an intoxicating cerulean, pouring their color over the surface of the pool.

    She held open a book on her lap. She looked up from it in surprise upon hearing his footsteps, but she also looked a little pleased at his boldness in following her.

    "Guzma," she greeted. "Did you need something?"

    "No."

    She waited for him to say something, but when he didn't, she patted the space next to her. "Would you like to sit with me?"

    He didn't answer, but crossed the grass and the cobblestone pathway and sat inelegantly onto the bench, mere inches from her. No conversation started upon his seating, so instead of talking, Lusamine continued to read, and Guzma sank into his thoughts. He was still not very good at sitting serenely; he shifted, sniffed and snorted his breaths like a buffalo, crossed and uncrossed his feet, and squirmed his unoccupied hands about his pockets and clothing. At last, whatever tormented him came out. "I'm sorry, Miss L," he blurted.

    "Hmm?"

    "Whatever―I did." He kicked at the cobblestone and wouldn't meet her eyes. "To make you mad at me―"

    Lusamine gave him a soft, concerned look. "Darling, I haven't the faintest idea what you're talking about."

    This wasn't strictly true. Lusamine had, as time gone by, experimentally withdrawn herself, little by little. It was time, she decided, to find his layers. To discover what psychological mettle he had after all.

    Guzma looked at her in that moment, pining painfully but unable to articulate this new, prescribed distance. With no other way to explain himself, he chose to go silent and accept her terms.

    Lusamine paused her reading to look out over the pool and opposite side of the garden--its trees, its finely-cut hedges. For a long moment, she stayed quiet just like that, gazing out, eyes peering deeply into something Guzma could not see. A Swanna drifted its snowy form over the water, looping its neck in a relaxed pose; he felt the shade overhead steepen in color somehow, as an errant cloud touched the edge of the sun.

    "Gladion was such a clever little boy," she suddenly said, voice frail, and eyes not moving.

    The comment shocked Guzma; he had never, ever heard her talk about her son, not since he came to live at Aether Paradise.

    Lusamine went on, "He taught himself to read by the time he was three. He could pick up any book in our library and read it aloud, with such confidence and emotion. After Lillie was born, I would bring her out in the garden, for the fresh air―we would sit right here―and he would read to us." She placed her hand atop the open page and shut her eyes, like she could envision it; as she described it, Guzma thought he could picture it, too. "This was our favorite book of poems--do you like poetry, Guzma?"

    "I, uh, I dunno." Guzma must have had some contact with poems in school, but his memories of that had turned murky at best. Though he knew a few nursery rhymes and limericks merely by osmosis, he suspected that's not what she meant.

    "Here." She slowly turned a few pages, her memory so strong that she found what she was looking for almost immediately. She smoothed out her choice. "This one. Le Lac . I can read it to you. ' Ainsi, toujours poussés vers de nouveaux rivages…'"

    Guzma became flustered. "Miss? I don't―"

    "It's all right," she said, her eyes drifting. "You don't have to understand; just listen."

    So for the longest time, they sat there as she read the words, her voice thready and slick, the slush of unfamiliar syllables hissing like inaudible whispers. She read, and she read, and just when he could swear it had been half an hour and he thought he was going to lose his patience with it, his hearing of her changed. It became beautiful and strange, mingling with the quiet of the garden and its emergent hum of water, insects, and leaves. The flesh of her arm, which he was allowed to touch as she read, was warm against the back of his fingers; in the length of time that dragged in the shade, he became attuned to it, even feeling the light, fine hairs that made it velveteen and soft.

    When she stopped, he grieved the words' ending. In the ensuing silence, he decided to ask, "What's it mean?"

    "Oh, it's about love―and loss―"

    "Nah, I mean… is there a translation or something?"

    "It's rather long," she said, apologizing in advance.

    "It's―it's okay, I wanna hear it."

    She clearly hadn't expected this request, but looked pleased to have received it. She smiled, turned the page, and went on to read:

    As you roared beneath these deep rocks,
    Smashed your waters against their torn sides,
    So the wind threw the foams of your billows
    Onto her feet beloved.

    One night, remember? As we cruised along silently,
    One heard from afar on the waves under these skies,
    Only the noises of rowers who struck in rhythm
    Your harmonious waters.

    Suddenly of the tones unknown to the earth
    Of the charmed shore struck your echoes;
    The waves grew attentive, and the voice to me dear
    Thus spoke these very words:

    "O time, suspend your flight! and you, blessed hours,
    Delay your course!
    Let us savor the fleeting delights
    Of the happiest days of ours.

    "Enough unhappy souls in this world implore you:
    Flow on, and for them flow on;
    Remove the days with the cares which consume them
    And spare the happy ones.

    "But in vain I ask for a few moments more,
    Time evades me, and takes flight.
    I say to this night, "Tarry." But the dawn
    Will dissipate the night.

    "So let us love, let us love; and the transient hour
    Let's enjoy in a hurry;
    Man has no harbor, time no shores;
    It flows, we fade after!"

    Jealous time, can it be that these drunken moments
    When love fills us with bliss to overflow
    Fly from us at the same speed
    As do our days of woe?

    Let the wind that groans and the reeds that sigh
    The gentle perfume of your balmy air,
    Let all that is heard or seen or breathed
    All say: "In love they were."
    ( ** )​

    "It's pretty," Guzma said. It was the highest praise he could offer, in lieu of actually understanding any of it, aside from the occasional clasping for images or words. Immediately after speaking, he felt like a dweeb. 'Pretty?' Really?

    "You think so, too? I'm glad." She placed her hands atop her lap. "Did you understand its meaning?"

    He didn't expect to be called out. He scratched at a spot behind his ear. "Uh."

    But before he could stammer out his excuse, she spoke. "Time," she said, intoning it as if it were a living, breathing being, "can be cruel to us, can't it?"

    Guzma blinked at her, crumpling his brow.

    "If time were kinder―it would preserve our happiness a little longer. It would extend our joys, and retract our woes. But instead, it outpaces us. So what can we do? We love, and we enjoy in a hurry."

    He―thought―he understood. "Like…" He scrawled through his memories. "Like, living in the moment."

    "Yes, precisely. It's important, at times, to live in the moment. To not use the future―or the past―as an excuse to eschew the present." She looked down at the script needling between her slender fingers. These thoughts seemed to swim before her, painting on wide, new tapestry; she closed the book and watched the sunlight glimmer across the pool. Then, after silence sat with them for some time, she spoke softly. "I haven't been fair to you."

    "Whadda you mean?"

    "Darling, I'm sure you know what I mean. Here we are, playing a couple, and we hardly spend time together."

    "We're―" Guzma echoed a familiar adult excuse. "We're busy."

    For a second, she seemed amused by his comment, but her face turned serious. "I have to tell you something. I think it's important for you to know--so that you understand how things are."

    "What is it?"

    "I'm still married, Guzma. On paper." After saying this, Lusamine swept her hand beneath her hair, letting the blonde strands fray and fall back into place.

    "Oh." He puzzled and distorted his face with thought. "So. Are you…In trouble?"

    "'In trouble'?"

    "'Cause you're married―and, with me―"

    "Oh, no, dear, of course not. Everyone understands―it's really only a technicality. It's certainly no more of a scandal than our age difference." She coyly put a hand to her lips and smiled at him, gently teasing. "Besides, we aren't exactly embroiled in some torrid affair, are we?"

    "Uh." He at least knew what the word 'affair' meant, and that was enough to make him turn another color. "Yeah--no―" He ran out of breath and stopped there.

    "I hope it hasn't been a burden to you."

    He blinked dimly at her, tilting his head. "Huh?"

    "After all these years alone and busy running the Foundation―I suppose I've simply fallen into a life of self-denial. I haven't driven you into the arms of a more accommodating woman, have I?"

    It took several seconds of very strained thinking for him to process and find words to respond to her. He lurched, buried his free hand in his hair, and deepened in color. "Wh-what!? Nah, I ain't―! Miss, I wouldn't―!"

    (He wasn't lying, entirely, but Lusamine knew. His attention had wandered. Several female employees had complained about him: his lurking, his leering. She didn't believe he'd made any attempt behind her back, and neither did she worry too much--her workers were too savvy for that foolishness, and besides, they found him creepy and off-putting.)

    Lusamine put a hand on his knee. "I'm only joking."

    He calmed, but didn't look completely guiltless, either. He adjusted himself, breaking her touch, and dug his heel into the grass.

    "Guzma. Things are going to change soon. I've made a new hire--I've called a special guest here tonight― You see, I've made a decision. One that will ultimately impact us both."

    "...Okay."

    He didn't understand. She hadn't expected him to. She saw his eyes dart over to her, an eagerness in his face that he continued to hide. "Guzma."

    "―Yeah?"

    Her eyes softened with amusement. "You're not a little boy. If you wish to kiss me―" She leaned close with a coquettish arch to her lips. "Then kiss me."

    Clearly reeling from the whiplash between hot and cold, Guzma momentarily lost focus, but at her urging, sensual breath, he turned his seated body toward her, dipped his head, and kissed. He negotiated his arms poorly about; one attempted to wrap around her tiny shoulders, but never quite made it, and his other hand, in a shocking display of boldness, pressed atop her thigh. She purposefully limped, released the tension in her knees, and let her lips rest a touch open.

    But his hand didn't move, and his posture didn't change.

    Finally, she tired of it and put a hand to his chest, immediately unraveling their moment of passion. And, as usual, he wilted at the slightest sign of resistance.

    Whatever frustration he felt in that moment, she glossed over with a reassuring smile. "There. Was that so hard?"

    Not sure whether the question was rhetorical, he scratched his neck and mumbled. "Um… No."

    "You know, it wouldn't hurt to be a little more assertive."

    "Sorry."

    Lusamine leaned forward to work herself to her feet, book in hand. "And stop apologizing. It gets tiresome."

    "I'm s―" He fumbled and blinked hard. "Okay."

    One last time, she looked out over the garden, over the song and heat of the morning. In her face, he thought he saw a hint of hope. "What a lovely day it is. Yes... A lovely, lovely day."

    -

    The computer lab, where Faba hunched over a keyboard in furious concentration, was almost entirely dark, aside from the eye-punishing glow of the monitor before him. The motion-sensor lights had long ago ceased to detect life, clicking off, and he hadn't bothered shuffling about the room to get them going again. He was on--what?--his fifth cup of coffee? Sixth? However much it had been, it had powered him through several hours of simulations, and he had yet to be satisfied with them.

    Lusamine walked in, the light blinked on in her presence, and she loudly clicked her tongue in disapproval.

    "My goodness, it's gloomy down here! Have you been in here all day?"

    Faba cringed at the sudden light hitting his eyes, wheeled around in his chair, and huffed at her. "Madame―please."

    "You know, it's a lovely day outside. The temperature's about perfect."

    "So I've heard from the weather report," he said, dryly.

    "When's the last time you've been outside? Taken a stroll? You're looking awfully pallid these days."

    "I'll do as I please, thank you. I have plenty to do, even without wasting my time on such frivolities."

    "Sunlight gives us crucial vitamins," she reminded him.

    "You know that comes in pill form now."

    "And the fresh air! To invigorate the senses!"

    "―The air down here is finely filtered. It's probably cleaner, liter for liter." He shot her a tired look and rubbed his forehead. "Are there other elements of my lifestyle you'd like to critique now, or can I get back to work?"

    Lusamine tittered lightly. "You've always been so resistant to my advice. Ah, but it's no matter. You see, Faba―we have a special guest coming to the labs in a few minutes, and I wanted to offer you fair warning."

    "A special guest," he echoed, weighing its connotation, and suspecting she wouldn't explain it if he asked. He shook his head. "I shudder to think."

    "You don't want to tidy up? I'd hate for you to be unprepared to make your first impression."

    "I think I will do just fine," he said. Faba swung around and faced his work, hoping that the conversation would end there.

    "Hmm. Well. While we wait…" She thoughtfully stroked her necklace. "Does Guzma still visit you? Do you still talk?"

    The volume and tone to Faba's voice steeply descended. He admitted, gravely and unwillingly, "On occasion."

    "Does he ever talk to you about women?"

    Faba narrowly missed choking on his coffee. "Oh―god!" He seethed, adjusting his glasses and rolling his eyes up into his head. "Thank the high heavens, no, he does not."

    "But does he strike you as…" She searched for the correct word. "Disordered?"

    He already didn't like where this was going. He had an answer, but decided to withhold it. He retorted glibly, "You tell me, Madame. You're the one sucking face with him. Besides, I told you I don't want any involvement in your―"

    "Yes, I remember. Very well. I do find it helpful to think aloud, though. Feel free to ignore me." She swayed a little, admiring the instruments of the laboratory. "It has kept my mind busy," she said whimsically, "trying to keep my analysis fresh. Every day I learn new things about him. New evidence, to tie together different strands of different theories―"

    Faba snorted and was unable to contain his gibes. "...How many theories are you up to now?"

    "Oh, it's hard to say. I did have one theory that I've now cast aside."

    "Is that so?"

    "Early on, I made note of what I thought might be signs of repressed homosexual tendencies. But as I said. That theory died on the vine."

    "Oh, how…" Faba grimaced and rolled his eyes. "Wonderful for you."

    "It's why he likes you, you know."

    Faba swivelled around in his chair to face her, certain that he misheard. "I beg your pardon?"

    "He's not attracted to men, Faba, but he still has an enormous complex concerning them. He sees them as threats. But you―you're not a threat, you see."

    "Ugh." He turned back for the computer and began typing furiously. "I suppose… I suppose I'm meant to feel flattered?"

    "You don't have much of a mind for psychology, do you?"

    "I've gleaned some over the years," he admitted, "but it isn't my field of expertise."

    "Well, I've come to enjoy it very much. One area of psychology I've particularly come to enjoy is that of the criminal mind. I've been perusing its literature for the past few months," she said. "Such fascinating material. Did you know that there are several types of serial rapist?"

    Faba stopped typing.

    "I've yet to pin his profile down." By now, she was talking mostly to herself. "There are two types in particular with which he shares certain qualities… Insecurity, feelings of inadequacy, anger, resentment… No doubt his penchant for violence has infiltrated his romantic fantasies..."

    "Dear lord." Faba fumbled with his glasses, resulting in them dropping into his lap. He did not look at her, but he lurched with disgust. "What are you―!"

    "Don't get excited. I'm not suggesting he's raped anyone," she went on, ignoring his discomfort. She rolled her bracelet on her wrist, allowing its glimmer to guide her thinking aloud. "To the contrary―I think he has yet to live out his urges. It's strange. One would surmise that in all those years unsupervised with other adolescents, he'd find the means and opportunity. Yet he's so passive. Perhaps he's afraid of his impulses; it would probably take―well, if he were angry enough, I suppose―"

    "I can't say I'm following you at all!" Faba snapped at her. He visibly shook as he pushed his glasses back over his face. "I'd appreciate if you left me out of such unappealing, morbid talk!"

    Lusamine watched him as he slumped back over his computer. She coolly put a finger to her lips. "I've upset you. I'm sorry. I thought a man of science such as yourself would be able to handle such direct conversation."

    Faba didn't reply. He shoved his focus back on the screen, but in the back of his mind, he remained aghast. That woman… That she could have such a sweet, pure exterior, looking as blameless as a saint--and utter such depraved things with ease and calm.

    "Oh, my, I think he's arrived," she said, breaking Faba's thought process. "How exciting!"

    When Faba caught sight of the individual entering the lab attended by an Aether employee, he was actually surprised. Faba had caught wind of a different guest due today, and so expected to see a stuffy, legal sort from Kalos. Instead, in walked a young man―probably mid-thirties, if he had to guess―dressed in casual attire, black suit jacket over a brand-name printed t-shirt, dark jeans, and van sneakers. The man's face was gentle, smiling, and open, with not a hint of the cynicism that should rightly come with surviving one's youth, and he had a nestling of lush, brown, casually groomed hair. In his hands, he carried a bundle of papers and folders, each collated and sorted by carefully-placed sticky notes. Upon seeing Faba, the man's eyes bulged and brightened, and his grip on his papers tightened; from far away, the scientist read an uncomfortable amount of kinetic energy that looked ready to burst out at any moment.

    Faba thought, for a moment, that this was all a tremendous joke on him, or that Lusamine had suffered some kind of stroke. Who was this? Why was she bringing in some shabbily-dressed, trying-too-hard-to-look-twenty grad student? Was he from the press? Some of those reporters wear the stupidest get-ups, all in the name of passing for trendy in the cutthroat world of journalism.

    Lusamine greeted the man kindly, brought him to where Faba now stood, and introduced them.

    "Faba, I'd like you to meet Professor Aster."

    Professor!?

    "And of course," she added, speaking to this supposed professor, "this is Branch Chief Faba."

    She directed them, and they shook hands. Faba noted that they were just about eye-level in height.

    Then, she dropped yet another bombshell. "I've hired Professor Aster to be an Assistant Branch Laboratory Coordinator."

    ...Quite suddenly, Faba noticed that the man was actually a half-inch taller than him, and immediately resented it. He sputtered in disbelief. "He―what?"

    "It's!" Aster belted the word out before he could even let go of Faba's hand. He had a heartfelt, lilting voice that wobbled with excitement. "It's an honor! To finally meet you!"

    "Yes, er, thank you..." Faba pulled his hand away, like he had just touched something distasteful. "But… I'm not sure I follow, Madame."

    "Why, it's so simple! He's going to be running the labs with you from now on."

    "Really." By now, Faba's voice had fallen even further, into the depths of harsh grievance. With the reality of what she said now dawning on him, he seethed silently a moment, though trying not to make a show of it in front of a stranger. He gave Lusamine a disgruntled look. "And where did you―" Faba gave the man a critical look-over, and rudely finished, "scrape this one up?"

    She didn't admonish him for his insensitivity, but she patted Aster on the shoulder, as if to hearten him. "Of course there were a number of candidates, found through regular channels. But I found Professor Aster through Colress. He gave quite a glowing recommendation."

    That name did not give Faba any confidence. He cocked an eyebrow at her. "I wasn't aware we were taking references from him." He sneered suddenly. "How is your dear brother doing? Joined any good religious cults lately? Or hasn't he, since the last one?"

    "Excuse the Branch Chief," Lusamine said aside to Aster, smiling cheekily. "He suffers from the notion that he holds a professional rivalry with the man―despite only ever meeting him once." After such blatant mockery, she put a hand to her face and told Faba matter-of-factly, "You might as well get it all out now, dear. Colress will be here next week for a visit. I'm letting him have free reign of the labs for two days as a favor."

    "Since when―!" Faba, by now completely ignoring the presence of the fresh new recruit, lost his temper. "What nonsense! To hand that crackpot―aren't you two supposed to be estranged? When did you start cozying up again?"

    Lusamine sighed harshly. "It's true we don't get along, but we can still manage a little quid pro quo. You're an only child, Faba; I know it's hard for you to grasp."

    Faba actually shouted. "I won't stand for it!"

    ...Professor Aster suddenly cleared his throat uncomfortably and spoke up. "Perhaps, I ought to―" He motioned at the door. "I'll step outside a moment."

    Though Lusamine looked mildly irritated that the conversation had merited it, she obliged, "Yes―give us a moment, won't you?"

    They waited, listened to his steps, and heard the door slide shut.

    -

    Faba spoke first, and coldly. "We don't need another coordinator."

    "Faba, it's time. It's been time."

    He scowled. "I've done perfectly well―"

    "I've put it off to spare your feelings, Faba, but I've noticed. Your work has gotten sloppier."

    As she expected him to, he exploded with indignation. "Well, of course it's gotten―! What did you expect would happen, heaping all these new responsibilities on me at once, two new projects on top of it all―for the resources and time you've given me, I daresay I have been a miracle worker!"

    She magnanimously reached out and touched his forearm to calm him. "I'm not questioning your abilities. Certainly not your work ethic―you've been filling two roles for six years now, and you've done remarkably well, considering. But you've been alone too long."

    "I have my team. I'm hardly alone."

    "Your assistants are all qualified, yes, but they are nowhere near your caliber. You need someone closer to your level. Someone who can catch your mistakes. Someone who can challenge you." She pondered whether to state the obvious out loud, and took the risk. "You need a Mohn."

    "That― That is outrageous, and isn't― That man out there isn't―!" Faba, before he could say something ridiculous and emotional, caught his own petulance and swallowed it down. He pulled off his glasses and began to clean them huffily.

    "Of course, dear. I understand. But Professor Aster will be a wonderful addition; you will find he is exceptionally qualified for the work we do here. And ―I've thoroughly looked into his personal background. I think you'll be very happy with him."

    The way she said this with a drip of meaning, with oversaturated sweetness, made him want to ask, what are you getting at?, but he was no fool. For her to throw this at him―he tensed, rife with indignation, and replaced his glasses. "...Your motives... Crudely transparent as usual..." He crawled his eyes at her, a scowl on his face. "Madame, you might have saved yourself some money and hired a secretary, if all you really want is―"

    "Oh, you aren't the type to chase secretaries around. I know you better than that."

    He laughed through his scowl. "Don't think I'm unaware of what you're doing. I see how it all fits together―you've called Judge Evrard in. Don't think I―"

    "Faba, you're a brilliant man, and I expect you understand everything perfectly well. He'll be here by this evening; we'll be meeting in my office. Will you be there? I think it's important for you to be present."

    "It's macabre. It's―repugnant, I can't endorse it, I'd rather― " He cut himself off to say, "I work with evidence, Madame. Not assumptions. Not legal mumbo-jumbo."

    "And I have always appreciated that about you. But there comes a time―Il coule, et nous passons."

    "Quote poetry all you like! It won't change my mind!"

    Her patience had worn thin, and her voice tightened, turning unexpectedly stern. "Faba. It's happening. With or without you. Whether you choose to be there is immaterial to that fact."

    With her final verdict, she folded her hands before herself and watched his reluctance melt into bitter acquiescence.

    "Now. Play nicely, won't you? I want you to show the new coordinator around the facilities so that he can get settled as soon as possible."

    -

    After Lusamine retrieved Aster from the hallway, planting him in the lab and leaving them alone, the two scientists stood awkwardly for a time, facing one another. It was the new coordinator who finally broke the silence.

    "Here―!" The man yanked a folder from his hands and thrust it in Faba's direction. His face had knotted up with strain. "These are all of my qualifications and references. I hope―! I hope they suit you!"

    "Um." Faba thought to reject the gesture, as it didn't matter much now, and Lusamine had done that investigating already, but the zeal of the man persuaded him. He sighed and took it. And while being carefully watched―the man must have held his breath the entire time―Faba flipped through the inserts, glancing through his history. Yes, yes. All very high-tier, advanced, top-of-all-his-classes, the best schools and programs, the most prestigious research labs--all very milquetoast and boring. Faba couldn't criticize it, except to say that in his circles, he saw the resumes for prodigies and geniuses every day, and this looked much the same as all the others. "Hmm."

    The unimpressed sound seemed to aggravate the young professor, so Faba made a verbal comment instead, pulling on a particular sheet of paper.

    "So, Colress…"

    "To be honest," Aster stammered, obviously remembering Faba's earlier comments, "I was shocked. We haven't spoken in years. We attended university together―ages ago―in Black City, where he was studying abroad." He shrugged. "I guess we were partners..."

    "...I see. Hmm. I hadn't…" Faba mumbled a little under his breath. "Caught onto that."

    "He was a very solitary fellow, though―when we were assigned together, he did everything on his own. He hardly let me touch any of our assignments. But I must have made some sort of impression, since here I am, all the same."

    "Ah, because―" Faba amended, "You were lab partners. Right… Now see here, young man, I think we ought to―"

    "I'm here to relieve you," Aster interrupted.

    "...I'm sorry?"

    "Anything I can do! I'm not above tedious work―if you have paperwork, or need a model compiled, or need someone to run data sheets, you can count on me! My purpose is to make your life easier―so please, I am at your disposal! Anything at all! Use me as you will!"

    "Your eagerness is, erm―" Faba grimaced and groused. "―Noted. But you're a bit overqualified to be wasted on secretarial work."

    "It's no trouble at all! You must understand―my Master's thesis was an expansion on Mohn's work―what a tremendous mind he was!―but for my dissertation, I must have read every scrap of your research―the way you tied together his theories on energy transfer and your study on gravitational compression!―It was like poetry, if you don't mind me saying."

    Faba frowned and pulled on his beard.

    "That I have a chance to work with you―in any capacity! You must see that I'm shaking with excitement."

    He could see―the man was practically vibrating. Faba scratched his forehead, his face now dim with irritation. "Hmm. And your name again?"

    "Aster. And please―just Aster."

    "Very well. Aster. Come with me; I'll show you around. And a word of advice?"

    "Yes?"

    "Watch the drool."

    -

    Guzma didn't spend a lot of time in or around Lusamine's Aether office. She spent many of her after-dinner evenings there, writing letters, making phone calls, meeting behind locked doors with employees or guests, and making a variety of executive decisions. It wasn't particularly private, but it was a long space, with an enormous desk placed ahead of a glass panel looking out over the green of the conservatory. This office had a sterner feel than the personal office she had in her home, which he had seen only once. The home office, he came to realize, had been more-or-less abandoned, along with all its personal touches: the family pictures that she hadn't put away, Mohn's doctorate, all the paraphernalia of the past that she now kept behind that locked door.

    That evening, the Aether Office hosted only a few people. Guzma entered directly behind Lusamine, and spotted a few nameless employees flanking the walls, as well as Faba, who stood towards the back corner, arms folded and an expression like he was about to be taken out and shot. The floors, slick and white, led them to the broad work desk, its surface devoid of decoration, aside from the standard name-plaque - "Madame President Lusamine" - and a neat stack of papers aside a flat business case. And behind the desk, the stewards of these papers, stood two individuals: one, in a neatly-cut suit, Guzma recognized as one of Lusamine's lawyers; the other was a tall, unfamiliar man in flowing black and red robes, and sporting a long, white cravat at his throat.

    All Lusamine had told Guzma of the meeting was that it was a "legal matter" and that it wouldn't take very long, so seeing a lawyer and what appeared to be a stuffy judge didn't surprise him.

    The judge glanced at Guzma, but didn't otherwise acknowledge him; he instead settled his gaze on Lusamine as she approached. Two chairs had been brought before the desk, and so she directed Guzma to sit while she shook the judge's hand and exchanged a warm greeting. Guzma noted that the greeting was in French--and pretty soon after Lusamine sat and the judge started proceedings, he found that everything was in French, and he had no recourse to ask for a translation.

    Guzma tried to catch onto words, watch their body language―the judge began leafing through his papers, droning on; the lawyer looked unaffected; and Lusamine listened intently but stared straight ahead, her face firm and emotionless.

    After a minute or two, the judge looked up at her and asked a direct question.

    "Comprenez-vous les conséquences de la déclaration de décès?"

    She answered, "Oui."

    They all heard the door to the office open and slam. Guzma, startled, turned his head, and found that Faba had stormed out.

    "What…?"

    But Lusamine shook her head and waved for him to not worry about it.

    The conversation continued.

    "Et vous comprenez que cela annulera votre mariage?"

    In that moment, without warning, Lusamine reached over and grabbed Guzma's hand. She squeezed almost too hard, and he gawked at her hand and then her. He tried to whisper at her, but her eyes remained cold and forward, her face stone-like.

    She said quietly, painfully, "Oui―je comprends."

    There was a pregnant pause; the first sign of emotion came from the judge, who pulled a melancholy expression as he reached the last page, drew out a pen, and produced his signature.

    "Mohn est décédé légalement."

    And Guzma understood perfectly that it―whatever it was―was now done.

    -

    Lusamine bid adieu to the judge, to her lawyer, to the employees, and after escorting them out of the office, she finally had time to address Guzma, who had pent up his frustration for the last half hour.

    "I didn't catch any of that," he complained.

    She didn't appear to have the emotional energy to scold him for his tone, and so instead drifted tiredly toward her desk. "No, I imagine you didn't."

    "So? Uh, what happened? Was it important?"

    "It was a long time coming," she sighed. She reached one of the two chairs and leaned into it, as if to hold her in the midst of retreating strength. "Mohn has been missing for six years. Of course we have no body… No proof of death… But the circumstances of his disappearance… You see, it is time for us to move on." When she looked at him and still saw signs of confusion in his face, she spelled it out. "He's been declared legally deceased."

    "Oh." He thought on this, and struggled a bit with it. He walked up to her, almost ready to console her, but didn't know how to even begin, so he stood awkwardly in her space. "...You gonna have a funeral?"

    She shook her head. "No―I shouldn't think so. It might be legal now, but we went through that grief years ago. To drag it out again..."

    "...Mr. Faba," he said, as he meant to say something about him, but lost courage. He craned his head for the door, through which Faba had abruptly left.

    "Hmm? Oh, yes, well… It's still rather raw for him. You know, don't you? He and Mohn worked together―it was their project, after all―he was in the lab when it happened, all very traumatic―"

    To her surprise, Guzma stiffened and actually processed her words with all their emotional impact. He turned in the opposite direction, fidgeting with his fingers inside his coat pockets. "Shouldn't―" He frowned hesitantly. "Shouldn't somebody talk to him?"

    This explosive show of sympathy baffled Lusamine at first. She hadn't really thought Guzma was intellectually or emotionally capable of such an extension of compassion; he was always so in his own head, so wrapped up in his own desires. She reached out and touched his forearm. "Oh, no, mon minou ― Faba doesn't talk about things. He and I are alike in that way; we bury our sorrows in our work."

    Guzma, who himself only ever experienced drowning sorrows in liquor and violence, couldn't entirely relate. But he took her at her word.

    "In all―" She breathed some relief. "It's a bittersweet thing."

    She waited for him to catch her use of the word "bittersweet" and interrogate her for it, but he dimly agreed, "Uh-huh."

    She tried again: "Legally, my marriage is now annulled."

    Guzma nodded automatically. "...Yeah."

    ...The poor dear. Lusamine stepped up close to him. "Don't you understand what this means for us?" She lifted her hand, cradling his cheek in her palm. "It means we can move forward."

    "Move―" He echoed her words stupidly. "Forward―"

    "Darling, we're not lovesick teenagers. We're adults with careers to consider, and so naturally, we should take the next step."

    Suddenly, Guzma thought, the 'next step' sounded unlike what he first thought it would be. He felt his lungs flap and seize in his chest. "W-wait, so you wanna―"

    "Marry, of course. We couldn't do it with my old marriage still on paper…"

    -

    Guzma heard a loud buzzing noise go off in his head, that seemed to punctuate each time she said the word, obscuring it in a painful, distorted sound.

    "But we―" He felt dizzy and had to steady himself. "We, we barely―! I mean, shouldn't we slow down a second and―"

    "There's no time to lose. Especially if we intend to start a family."

    When the buzzing hit that time, he found the strength to strangle some louder words out. "Wait―wait, what? Are you― Are you serious?"

    "Don't be silly. Of course I'm serious. Modern medical science has been a blessing to women my age, Guzma. Why, I know of women older than myself who've successfully had children."

    "But―" He tried in vain to think of a response, of some way to express his deep and suffocating sense of doubt. All at once, every emotion that he had impacted downward swirled up inside, all his reservations about fathers, and mothers, and children―how they seemed, to him, doomed to forever crash into one another. But he lacked the vocabulary to say this eloquently, so he resorted to a boyish plea. "Miss L, I don't think―I'm ready."

    Rather than sympathize, she played his comment off like a joke and patted his shoulder. "Oh, Guzma. No one's ever ready for marriage or children. I certainly wasn't. But you'll grow into it."

    Grow into it. The idiomatic phrase felt strange to him as he stood towering over her. He sank into silent, knotted trepidation.

    "What an expression you have on your face!" She laughed at his unease and began to press downward on his shoulders, eventually getting him seated in a chair. She cupped his face, pressing her mouth to his forehead and purring. "Guzma, dear, darling, my sweet, beautiful boy. Listen to me." He squirmed a second, then cast his eyes into hers in an attempt to find strength. "I understand that you may feel overwhelmed. So many good things are happening all at once. But I have learned that life does not wait. We must be greedy with it―grab as much of it as we can, as soon as we can."

    He realized then that she was waiting for him to say something. He obliged weakly, "Okay."

    As reward for his compliance, she smoothed her hands about the slope of his throat and pressed her lips to his. For a moment, it engulfed him in promise and he forgot his fear. But the salve proved temporary; in their separation, as he sat and she stood over him, he found himself under her shadow.

    "Now. I don't want you to worry," she told him. She slid her arms about his neck, pressing his face into a maddeningly intimate embrace at her chest. He could hear the drumming of her heart. "I'll arrange everything. We'll keep this to ourselves for the time-being, but in a week or two, we'll break our wonderful news to everyone."

    In his queasiness, in his inability to form words, his arms reached around her, until his fingers pressed and clung to the soft fabric at her back.

    -

    Guzma went out into the garden by himself this time. In the late evening, the place looked remarkably different. The very mood of the trees and landscaping took on a harsher, sharper shape: the shadows under the lamp-posts positioned along the paths were complete in their obscurity, and the leaves of the garden's trees blurred into black, mossy forms, like clouds against the night sky. Birds that normally visited the garden had fled on or nestled away. Resident crickets replaced their music with their rattling chirps, and an occasional breeze moved through to clap leaves together or tickle the surface of the reflecting pool.

    He found the bench where they had sat earlier that day. His memory of their conversation there felt so distant, he could have sworn it happened weeks ago. He pondered it a second, but did not sit, instead turning for the pool outstretched before it. Childishly, he trotted toward it, bent down, and dipped his hand into the water, watching the slick ripples move outward in steady fashion. The water was cold, black, and captured the gentlest starlight from above.

    His head buzzed. Alone, and with no one around to scold him, he took off his shoes and socks, and stood for a moment barefoot on the velvet grass. He dipped his toes in the water―shivered―then pulled up the legs of his trousers, rolling them into tight folds at his knees. He collapsed, sitting himself on the grass and plunging his calves into the chilly pool. He sat like that for quite a while―his legs bobbing in the water, weightless, churning, shadowed under the murkiness. He could feel stones down at the bottom of the pool; they were smooth, flat, oblong. In his brain, these facts accumulated and translated into his next impulsive act: he stood up, wading through the pool―the water reached up to about his knees, and still wetted his trousers a little―and began to pluck the stones from the bottom. He gathered them in his hands one-by-one at first, tossing them casually back into the water for a satisfying splunk.

    Bored, and suddenly feeling alone, he dug around his belt and released Pheromosa. Moments after doing it, he couldn't say why he had done it, but there his Lady remained, standing at the edge of the pool, pale and ghostly under the lamplight.

    "Hey," he called out to her.

    She blinked slowly at him.

    "I'm gonna get married," he told her, because he wanted to know what the words felt like in his mouth.

    Either not understanding, or not caring, she blinked again, then peered down into the water.

    To pass the time, Guzma took to positioning himself at one end of the rectangular pool and chucking stones as far as he could. They made surprisingly little noise as they hit the water, and he managed to strike close to the far end, if he put his full strength into it.

    Lady's legs were so thin and light, that they made no sound when she stepped down into the pool and walked over to him. She studied his stance at close range, and he continued to pull out rocks and throw them. Her curiosity eventually drove her to bend and draw out her own stone. To complete her imitation, she threw it, and the stone flew far, far beyond the pool, out into the distant side of the garden.

    "Guess you win," he said.

    Having won, or perhaps having found no enjoyment in the activity after all, she quietly waded back to the edge of the pool and exited the water.

    Lusamine suffered for being tangible, he decided―for coming out of his abstract brain. A part of him thrilled at the flesh and bone of her, that he could touch her, and do more, too―but another part, the child in him that he never successfully suppressed, began to loathe it: its heat, its sweat, its corruption, its biology. Bodies are for breaking, for being broken; for hurting, and being hurt. And nowhere in his life, outside of restless dreams or passing fantasies, had that ever been different for him.

    He knew marriage is, in its ultimate way, a carnal and corporeal thing, but it had religion to it, too. Talk of spirit and sacrament. Promises. Promises, which he knew from experience always come with secrets, and secrets―

    And he wondered―does it make you happy? Does it transcend you, make you something more than blood and guts? He remembered the sound and lull of poetry, how it sang, as if the soul could be wrung out of you. Is that what it's like? To really love somebody?

    "I'll be a husband―then a father―then I guess―" He looked up. "I guess I'll be done. Like, I'll be…" He wrestled with his words, trying to untangle their meaning. "It's what you're s'pposed to do."

    His words ran out, and so he occupied himself by picking up more stones and balancing them in his arms. As he did this, Lady began to walk the perimeter of the pool, until she reached the furthest point at its end.

    Where Lady stood, her outer glow softened her, making her dreamlike in the dark. Her luminescence carved a beam of pure light over the black surface of the water, cutting across his feet, which had since gone numb from cold. He felt the stickiness of pond muck gathering at his ankles, but he didn't care. He looked out over the reflecting pool, down the shining glaze, and the many numbers of stones that he piled in his arms began to slip from his hold, splashing and striking the light at his feet. Lady's reflection stirred, distorting momentarily into broken, white ribbons, crackling about like fireworks, like a flock of birds taking flight.

    Lady looked back at him for a moment, large, bulbous, purple eyes penetrating him. He thought he pitied her―

    She turned back to the sky. The stars blackened. The fresh wind died. All went quiet―and he watched the dance of broken light.
     
  13. TheAlpar

    TheAlpar Journey Enthusiast

    I think I realized why I like this story so much; it's a character study. In terms of events not that much has happened, but you choose to focus on the characters themselves and what makes them tick and how they play off each other and develop, and I love that. It's been a long time since I've read a fic as good as this one when it comes to that.

    I can see how Lusamine is assaulting Guzma with everything at once, making him so overwhelmed that he doesn't have time to think. Not only that but she belittles him as well, all so she can have him wrapped around her finger. Her talk with Faba and accusations of what he might be like... ugh. I despise her so much, but she's written so realistically as well. Freaking kudos.

    ... How did I never put together that Colress is Lusamine's brother? They're practically identical!! Jesus. Also, even though I don't know French I picked up on pretty much everything during the trial. Go me.

    I absolutely loved the end of the chapter, that last part with Guzma reminiscing. This might be my favorite so far.
     
  14. Chibi Pika

    Chibi Pika Stay positive

    Yeah, that... description of Guzma's relationships was pretty damn spot-on. Which is weird to say for a headcanon but like... all that anger, all that resentment, all that fixation on strength and destruction and weakness--you look at people like that in the real world and then you look at Guzma and you go "nah, I can see it." God, the description of him viewing others through that predatory gaze was perfectly creepy, well done.

    ...Which is why it is so weird that his relationship with Lusamine sets off all the red flags for an imbalanced, predatory relationship, and that balance most certainly is not tipped his way. I feel like I'm watching a child blunder into a grooming situation. Even though Guzma is an adult and there's nothing ~technically~ illegitimate about it. But we all know how laughable to say that once someone comes of age, they can't be taken advantage of that way. And seriously... marriage and children?? Good lord, nothing about this situation is right for him.

    I like the inclusion of Colress as Lusamine's brother! And... *snort* was she trying to play matchmaker with Faba and Aster there? Oh Faba, she's just not going to let you have an easy time of things, now is she?

    ~Chibi~
     
  15. dietofwurms

    dietofwurms i see stars

    Yeah it's nowhere near canonical but fun nonetheless. I will be playing with this idea more later on.

    This story is in many ways a treatise against the fluffy treatment I saw of him in other stories; he is a character of duality, which is always interesting to explore. On the one hand, he's immature and emotionally undeveloped enough to come across as childish, which can make him seem innocent, inasmuch he's not EVIL. He's not incapable of expressing remorse or compassion, he just tends to shut off those emotions or rationalize them away--plus he has a hard time connecting those emotions to strangers. Meanwhile, on the other hand, there's this undeniable dark thread to him that makes him a hardened bully. He terrorizes other people to compensate for his shortcomings. He's so hopeless emotionally and he knows it; he's aware of how vulnerable he is, so he desperately wants to exert control over others... to keep himself safe. But then again, the violent/control-freak part of him is not his most natural state, because it was a LEARNED defense mechanism from things in his past.

    And to that...

    This is an interesting observation. Gonna just leave that there...

    Guzma isn't the only one Lusamine likes to puppet ;) But will it work!?
     
  16. dietofwurms

    dietofwurms i see stars

    Chapter 14: The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

    Wedding planning, Guzma decided, was yet another form of solitude. He had held out hope, but not really expected, that the idea of marriage on the horizon would inspire some kind of emotional or physical intimacy in Lusamine. He thought it would make more opportunities for being with one another, engaged in conjunctive activities or conversation. Maybe they would confide at last. Maybe they would spend time in some sacred, silent place to really discover what they meant together.

    But to Lusamine, it proved to be just another affair to arrange with impassive distance. She made calls. She talked to designers and bakers and planners. She signed lots of papers and looked over lots of pictures with a critical eye. All-in-all, it seemed to Guzma that he saw even less of her now, and when he did see her, she mentally wasn't there with him. Guzma, as she had promised him, had very little to do with all this, to the point where he had to actually beg, beg, to know the basics of what she intended for them to do.

    It hadn't helped his feeling of isolation that Guzma had, in recent days, started to avoid the labs. He used to take frequent trips there to pester Faba about whatever was on his mind―he sensed in the scientist such depth of field, such a reach, like he held secrets to things that Guzma could find, if only he knew how to ask for them. He also liked the soft layer of contempt that Faba kept between them; it made him feel safe and free from ulterior motives.

    So it wasn't Faba's fault.

    The lab had changed in dynamic with the addition of new staff. Faba was less busy, but more flustered―every time Guzma ended up wandering in, there was lots of shouting going on, mostly by Faba and directed at Professor Aster.

    The strangest part was Lusamine would say things like, "Oh, it's so nice to see them getting along."

    To which Guzma glanced up from his phone, frowning. "What are you talking about? They're always yelling."

    (She wouldn't answer his contradiction, instead smiling and patting his hand.)

    ...Anyway.

    Guzma didn't like Aster.

    It wasn't that he was… A bad person, or anything. No, Aster was nice, kind, and patient with everyone, including him. He took Faba's verbal abuse with a whimsical smile, and he always wanted to know if there was anything, anything at all, that he could do to help. But that alone set Guzma on edge. Aster was too nice and spoke too sweetly. Whenever they interacted, Aster would hum with interest and affection, asking him questions, saying things that Guzma didn't understand until the man laughed and teased him. (Aster called him a "bumpkin" once, and though Guzma didn't know what it meant at the time, his face burned at the humiliation of it). Plus, he was a lot more touchy-feely; he would grab Guzma by the shoulder or arm, and be quick to take his hands to guide him on something, or clap him on the back. It was all very… Disconcerting.

    He had asked Faba about it―or rather, tried to ask, but couldn't come up with the words.

    "Is Mr. Aster―"

    There was a silence into which Faba irritably prodded, "Is he what?"

    And with a huff, a flush, and a mumble, he retreated. "...Never mind."

    -

    Tonight, though, Guzma could take it no more.

    Guzma hadn't initially meant to go to the lab this late at night. He tried Faba's suite first, but no one answered; he eventually found himself wandering the science wing and stopping by Faba's office, but he wasn't in there, either.

    Just as the buzzing in his head started again, urging him to press onward and quiet his mental noise, he passed one of the labs and noticed a dim but clearly visible light through the glass. He squinted. It looked like the lab itself was dark, but the storage room at the back remained lit. That wasn't totally unusual; the storage area was immense, lined with shelves of expensive equipment, and filled with prep space, meaning lab workers could end up in there for hours, if they lost track of time.

    Guzma slunk his way in. The motion sensor lights clicked on as he entered. There was a shuffling noise.

    "Uh, hello?"

    As he thought, the panels of glass near the ceiling that looked into the equipment room glowed with fluorescent lighting. He heard two urgent voices erupt into hushed bickering.

    "...Mr. Faba?"

    He heard an aggrieved sigh, proving his guess correct. A button was pressed, opening the sliding door to the storage room, and Faba emerged.

    He didn't look like himself: his normally prim demeanor was replaced with something more frantic and disheveled; he looked, to Guzma, like he had been pushing boxes around, maybe reorganizing. He did that on occasion when he felt especially distraught at the condition of the supply room. His green glasses were up on his forehead, and his coat was unbuttoned and hanging loosely, revealing the bright lime color of his turtleneck.

    The Branch Chief took one look at him and growled. "What?! What is it? Has someone died?" Faba twisted his glasses back onto his face, looking mightily flustered. He added bitterly and under his breath, "Please tell me someone's dead."

    "Uh, nah. I was just thinking, and…"

    "Oh, you're thinking?" Faba's voice raced and became more irritated as he went on. "I can see why you've run down here in the middle of the night to tell me this!"

    "Geez! You don't gotta yell at me! I just wanna talk!" Guzma craned his neck to look behind him and towards the equipment room. "Who's back there?"

    "No one."

    "...But I thought… Weren't you talking to somebody?"

    "Oh, I was just―" Faba started to gesture at the storage door, then caught himself in the midst of his mistake. He snorted and touched his forehead. "Where's my head? It's only Aster―he's looking for some equipment for me―"

    "I guess you're working late, huh."

    "Yes! Work! Work never ends. Now―what is it you wanted?"

    Guzma had never seen Faba this frazzled and eager to push him right back out the door. He frowned. "Well… I have something I wanna…"

    To their mutual surprise, the door to the equipment room slid open again, and Aster walked out, looking comically nonchalant and unoccupied, hands deep in his lab coat pockets. The professor turned, saw them there, and pretended to be surprised. His eyes brightened at seeing Guzma. "Ah! Mr. Guzma! How good to see you this evening!"

    Faba rolled his eyes. "Aster―"

    "Is everything well with you? It seems you've been so busy we hardly see you anymore!"

    "Aster―! For God's sake, the centrifuge!"

    For a second, Professor Aster stared at him, completely uncomprehending. Then, like a lightbulb went off, he jumped. "Ah, of course, the centrifuge, give me a second―" He disappeared back into the equipment room and the door sealed shut.

    Faba pinched the bridge of his nose and sucked in a breath between his teeth. "...Idiot."

    Guzma, alone with him now, blurted out his news. "We're gonna get married."

    Faba dropped his hand from his face. "I beg your pardon?" He sounded genuinely confused.

    Initially thinking his statement was going to be self-explanatory, Guzma huffed and fumbled over his explanation. "We're― Miss L and me, we decided― We're gonna get married. We're gonna announce it in a few days, so..."

    "Oh! Oh, I see, that's―" Faba lifted his hands, waving at the air limply. "Oh, that's―yes, wonderful news, congratulations and all that―" Faba was so distracted that his face remained contorted with pain as he said it. "Now why are you telling me this?"

    Guzma had expected more of a reaction than that. He expected some shock, or indignation, or even some push-back. That Faba uncharacteristically rolled over into a bland 'congratulations' made him worry that he'd said something the wrong way. "Well―I dunno, I don't really have anybody else to tell."

    "That's―" Faba paused, struck by his reasoning. "I see, yes, that's probably true. Look―perhaps tomorrow―"

    "Yeah, got it, you're busy or whatever."

    By then, Aster had returned, carrying a fairly hefty machine and searching for a good place to set it down.

    "Put it down anywhere." Faba turned quickly back to Guzma. "Then I'll see you later."

    The centrifuge thumped onto the counter, and Guzma shrugged in defeat. "Okay. See ya."

    The door shut… And Aster snorted, snickered, and bubbled up into hysterical laughter.

    Faba snapped. "Oh, shut up, will you! I don't see what's so funny."

    Between cackles, Aster gasped 'centrifuge' and slapped the counter. "I'm sorry. You're right." He sucked in a few breaths to collect himself. "Ah-h. What did he want, anyway?"

    "He―" Faba remembered who he was talking to and shut him down. "None of your business." In his frustration, he plucked at the hairs of his beard and stared at the exit door where Guzma had left. "That boy desperately needs friends. I can't get anything done around here with him toddling in every time he has a personal crisis."

    "I think it's sweet," Aster ridiculously sighed, traipsing up to him. He leaned his head to the side, eventually resting it on Faba's shoulder.

    Faba let out what could possibly be the most overwrought, sputtering heave of disgust ever uttered by a human being; he scowled, rolled his eyes up to the ceiling, crossed his arms, and blustered, "Oh, for―what are you standing around for! Would you put that thing away!" He waved first at Aster's head to knock it off and then pointed at the centrifuge. "I'm about to have a conniption, and you're not helping!"

    Aster just chuckled and lifted his head, and went back over to the equipment. "I think we're a little past 'about to'―but whatever you say."

    Faba sneered, eyes narrowing after him. "I'm still not convinced," he hissed vilely, "that she didn't put you up to all of this."

    "You keep saying that, and I don't know what you're talking about." Aster hoisted up the machine again. "Has working here really made you so paranoid? Should I be worried?"

    "That woman is the devil," Faba answered curtly. "The sooner you accept that, the longer you'll survive here."

    Aster seemed to think on this as he carried the centrifuge back to the shelves in the other room and trailed back to stand in the doorway. He looked to Faba carefully. "If you think I'm her toadie, you're wrong," he said. "All I know is she interviewed me. She did warn me about you, though."

    "...Warn you? Oh, heavens. What about?"

    "Well… To be honest, I think I must have misunderstood her."

    Faba crossed his arms at him, cocking an eyebrow. "Oh?"

    "You see, she said that you're a terrible flirt." Aster scratched his head thoughtfully, ignoring Faba's sputtering. "I thought she meant 'incorrigible'? But I'm starting to think she really meant 'unskilled '..."

    "You―!"

    Aster let out a ringing laugh, dodging back into the storage room while Faba screamed.

    "You are the most hackneyed, infuriating, impossible man I've ever had the misfortune of working with! You hear me!"

    -
    -

    Naturally, as the weeks waned on after the debut of the new kahuna and the stunning beasts, the flow of visitors had slowed. The intensity of the battles varied, as some trainers came more curious than ready, and other trainers arrived with advanced planning. It so happened, though, that the day before the marriage announcement, a particular trainer boarded one of Aether's shuttles at the docks of Ula'Ula Island, scuffing his sandals before ducking inside.

    It was sunset―he was cutting his time close. But he had a feeling he wouldn't be turned away.

    The boat attendant ended up waiting for a few minutes, to be certain that no one else was coming, but as he expected, he was alone tonight. He settled in, pushed himself back in his seat, and folded his legs, ignoring the attendant's expression as she began to realize who he was and no doubt intended to radio ahead.

    Whatever. He wasn't trying to be a secret.

    The boat finally tugged forward, and he watched the sun bathe the sea in lukewarm light as it sank, and the clouds pull apart in the late breeze like pink and purple candy floss. As the wind hissed past the shuttle, and the ocean bobbed its rhythm beneath the boat's sleek hull, the kahuna contemplated what he thought he would find in Aether Paradise. He had always thought the man-made island was an eyesore on their watery landscape, a hulking mass of metal and motors, groaning and feeding off the energy of the waves. Nowadays, from the shore of the natural islands, one could see, off in the distance, shuttles and private boats zipping about its base, like busy, hungry ants.

    Time passed. The ride would be over soon. He unfolded his legs and watched as the last drop of sunlight slipped under the water like a golden fish, leaving shadow in its wake.

    -

    Lusamine, as he expected, stood at the dock in a finely-trimmed white dress, flanked by guards and ready to receive him.

    "Kahuna Nanu!" she greeted, still managing to sound surprised, even after being given advance notice.

    After he stepped out of the shuttle, he approached her without enthusiasm. She offered her hand, which triggered words out of him. "Madame President," he said politely in return, nodding his head. He took her hand for a delicate shake. "Lemme just say―TV screen don't do you justice."

    She smiled guardedly at the compliment. "It is truly a pleasure to finally meet you. After all these years of inviting you over with no response, I had thought you were sworn against it."

    "Me?" Nanu shrugged and picked at the inside of his ear. "Nah. I'm a bit of a homebody. Nothin' personal."

    "You should have told me you were coming. I might have arranged a more appropriate reception. Would you like anything? Anything at all?"

    "Oh, no. That'll be fine. I don't need nothin' fancy."

    "No," she replied, eyeballing the rest of him. "I suppose not. May I ask what has brought you here this evening?"

    "I'm here for the kid. To battle, and all."

    "Oh!" Lusamine looked briefly lost, like she had missed something important. "I wouldn't have anticipated―well, certainly, he's still available, if you wish to challenge him. There isn't anything else you came for?"

    "Well, o' course, to see you, too, Madame; after all, I'm a real fan of your work."

    She sensed a caveat, but prodded anyway. "Really?"

    "Yeah. Worked in the Kalos region back in the day―was there when you took off―you made quite the centerfold―with the feather boa―those hoop earrings―" He whistled. "Still remember it like it was yesterday. You shoulda seen the love letters I wrote and never sent―" He leered. "Criminal stuff."

    She smiled and offered a gentle laugh, placing a hand at her chest. She knew better than to reward his cheekiness by being offended. "I'm glad to hear that my work inspired such zeal in your youth."

    He matched her laugh with a smirk and looked her over again. "You haven't changed much. You oughtta sell whatever black magic you're into."

    "I believe getting older is no excuse for not taking care of oneself," she explained, and through her smile and curtsy, it was clear she wasn't talking about herself.

    Nanu stared at her for a moment and subtly tilted his head, like he had finished sizing her up and formed a definite opinion. His smirk hadn't left his face, and it tightened with his eyes and brow; the interaction seemed to have… pleased him, somehow.

    This feeling was not reciprocated. Lusamine's smile vanished, and she turned, summoning him to follow her inside.

    -

    The strange visitor entered wearing a hefty-looking coat, which he was quick to discard in the even climate of the laboratory, revealing a much slimmer black uniform underneath. He looked like he meant, but couldn't quite bring himself, to remove the gloves on his hands, which sported obnoxiously large typing interfaces; in his excitement, brought on by the lab and the promise of testing new life forms, he scrambled to take notes and nearly forgot to greet anyone.

    Over those two days, Guzma would see that Colress had certain qualities that echoed Lusamine: his piercing gaze, delicate facial features, and blonde hair; his uptight business manner, which cut to the point; his attention to detail; his urge to analyze all available information; his marriage of aesthetic and utility, an obsession with both appearance and function. However, there were differences, too: Colress didn't flatter or charm quite as well, even when he offered compliments, and his demeanor, while intense at times, was nowhere near as overpowering as hers.

    Guzma never quite figured out the nature of the relationship Colress had with Lusamine or Faba. Lusamine greeted the man coldly, but politely; Faba tried and failed to start fights with him, launching petty snipes, to which Colress would respond plainly or ignore completely. Something must have happened between the three of them, and the way they held grudges over it but were still able to work around it implied it must have happened a very long time ago.

    When Colress finally greeted Guzma, though, it was free of any baggage― he grabbed the boy's hand, squeezed it, and stared right into his eyes with a strength of will and mission.

    "Mr. Guzma," he said, "My sister has told me all about your problem. I'm here to help."


    -

    "You're here to what?"

    Kahuna Nanu, resting his thumb behind his belt buckle, traced his eyes to the beaming woman beside him, then back to the kid, who wore an expression like he'd been slapped in the face. They had found Guzma exiting the arena and moving toward the elevator, likely thinking his roster had ended for the day, and when he saw Nanu approaching, he looked ready to faint. "Battle. You." When Nanu still saw the shock in Guzma's eyes, he drawled, raising an eyebrow, "Pretty sure I'm speakin' English."

    "Isn't this exciting!" Lusamine interrupted, trying to lift Guzma's apparent misgivings. "Your first battle with another kahuna! Don't you think this sets a wonderful precedent?"

    "Don't get your hopes up," Nanu told her glibly. "Not coming here with the others' blessing; this ain't official kahuna business."

    Lusamine interpreted this comment and tilted her head at Guzma, who only just began to recover from his surprise. "Does that make this personal?" She clasped her hands. "Guzma, you never mentioned you were friends."

    "He lives in Po Town," Guzma said, keeping his voice gruff and aloof to imply that 'friends' would be the incorrect way to put it. "'Course I know him."

    "I see; you were neighbors."

    Nanu snorted and smirked. "Kid took my money and stayed outta my business. Best landlord I ever had... occasional armed robbery aside."

    "Well." Lusamine sighed, clearly weary of Nanu's schtick, and floated past him until she reached Guzma. Gently, she placed a hand on his arm. "I'll let you two catch up before you start; I'm sure this will be a thrilling match." With that, she squeezed on his bicep, sending a rush through him. "Good luck, darling."

    This moment of sensuality was not missed by the elder kahuna; Nanu kept his eyes on Lusamine until she disappeared around the corner. Then, with rash boldness, he chuckled. "...So. You're tappin' that, huh. Can't say you lack nerve."

    All the poise Guzma had supposedly learned flew out the window; his eyelid twitched and he frothed, puffing his chest. "Tch! Shut up and let's fight already!"

    "Well, aren't you eager." Amused, Nanu shrugged his bouncing shoulders and started to turn for the arena entrance. "Good to see some things haven't changed. You're right, though―let's cut the sweet-talk."

    The two entered the arena in relative silence, Guzma crossing to the far side and retrieving his fighters from an attendant; Nanu peacefully settled on the near end, standing slumped over the chalky dirt. He read nerves on the kid, but couldn't decide if it was from the battle or from being visited by someone he knew.

    Guzma, to throw off such readings, finally turned to him and blustered. "This won't be like last time, old man."

    "Wouldn't have come here if I thought any different," Nanu assured him, surprised that Guzma would bring up a loss. He inspected Guzma's wrist, which was obscured by its placement in a jacket pocket. "Rumor is, you have somethin' up your sleeve."

    The young kahuna blinked, hardened his face, reached and twisted his fingers over his Z-Ring… then let it go again. "Let's go," he barked, clasping his first beast ball.

    -

    Colress confessed that he had never used a Z-Ring before, but only ever saw it in action secondhand.

    Which made it all the more humiliating when he took Guzma's Z-Ring, learned the appropriate movements, tested it in a battle simulation with his own pokemon, and successfully used it in about two minutes.

    He practically bounded back into the observation area, singing. "How exhilarating! Phenomenal! What an incomparable experience!"


    -

    Nanu had gone easy on him before.

    Their first fight had been fast, brutal, and humiliating. Guzma could still remember the over-the-top confidence he had dragged into the ring, as he sensed Nanu's laid-back nature and wrongly attributed it to weakness. He figured the crusty geezer didn't have the energy to put up a real fight, and the kahuna let him believe it, just before demolishing his team in a few turns.

    Now, Guzma had several years more of experience, and a team roster that included savage beasts from another dimension.

    But within a minute or two, he found himself scrambling; what should have been a more even match, maybe an easy one, sputtered into an immediate disaster. He opened with Pheromosa, her stealth and responsiveness normally lending an advantage for the first few rounds. Nanu, though, sent out his Absol―and before Guzma had a chance to signal for her, the smaller creature darted outward, slicing into her with a current of silvery wind, nearly knocking her out in one hit.

    Guzma flailed and shouted; Nanu stood cold, his expression unchanging.

    -

    "Let us discuss. What could possibly be different between my attempt and yours?"

    Guzma, who had thought Colress intended to explain the answer, frowned. After a second, he volunteered uneasily, "Maybe… Maybe you're just better."


    -

    The next few rounds were no better. It was like Nanu's pokemon acted out of instinct, free of command, but still managed to anticipate Guzma's strategies. Several of his team had gone down in a flurry of dust, and still, Nanu hadn't said a peep―aside from a sudden smirk and taunt.

    "Need a moment to catch up?"

    Guzma had to chomp down on his tongue to keep down the scream, and yanked another ball from his belt. "Shut up! Ariados―!"

    -

    "'Better'? That's much too vague to be useful in our analysis," Colress chided him. "Better in what way?"

    "I dunno, maybe― maybe you're a stronger trainer, or somethin'."

    "That's entirely possible," Colress agreed. "But at this point we have no data to confirm that. Let's place that theory aside for now. What other ideas do you have?"

    "Hey, I thought you were s'pposed to―"

    "Come now! What elements could we be missing?"

    Guzma snorted impatiently. "Nothin'! I― musta done it wrong, that's all."

    "By which you must mean the stimulation gestures. Again, this is possible, but I would say statistically unlikely. You taught me the gestures yourself; whatever errors you made, I should have mirrored them."

    Guzma felt, in that moment, toyed with and mocked; he felt like the man was doing this on purpose: goading theories out of him just to knock them down and make him look like an idiot. He lost his patience. "Why don't you just tell me the right answer?"

    Colress looked shocked, so much so that he stopped typing. He spoke emphatically. "'The right answer'? We are not in a schoolhouse, Mr. Guzma. This is not the time for rote memorization or multiple choice; this is life! Life is inquiry! Develop a theory, weigh its probability, test it, analyze the result, and if necessary, repeat! These are the essentials of what it means to be a scientist."

    "Yeah, but I'm not, okay! I'm not―" Guzma hopped up onto the counter, seating himself. He grumbled. "Look, you got this figured out already, so just spill it, huh?"

    "You may think I'm holding out on you, but I believe you are doing the same to me." He turned toward the screen, but looked at Guzma out the corner of his eye. He said, with a shrewd and confident smirk, "I can see it in your eyes. There's an idea itching at you―one you are not willing to volunteer."

    Guzma blinked. Being able to see right through you―was it a family trait, or something? Still, he hesitated, tapping the heel of his shoe against the counter. "It's… It's stupid."

    Colress waved a dismissive hand. "An idea cannot bite. So please, do your worst."

    -

    Ariados got a few licks in against Nanu's Sableye, but the glinting, giggling goblin scurried about it, eventually striking it down with a decisive blow.

    Nanu had the guts to pull a yawn as Guzma contemplated his next selection.

    -

    "I… had a teacher. Master Hala."

    "Ah, yes. The kahuna. I'm aware of him."

    "Well, he said that the ring―" Guzma looked embarrassed at having to explain it. "It's like, it needs a balance in your spiritual energy… or something like that."

    "What precisely did he say about this energy? How did he describe this 'balance'?"

    Guzma, shocked that he wasn't being shot down, flailed a little. "I dunno. I don't―I don't believe that stuff, anyway."

    Colress considered his comment, and must have sensed Guzma's previous attempt to explain the idea. He shook his head. "As a scientist, I cannot comment on the reality of 'spiritual energy.' But I do deal in intangibles at times, Mr. Guzma. Your friend, Dr. Faba, will suggest to you that I am debasing my profession for speaking about such things―but do we not all know what is true?"

    When Colress saw that Guzma wasn't following him at all, he continued:

    "Take, for example, the love between a mother and child. Such a thing cannot be measured, yet I have never met a scientist who would deny it exists." He grinned warmly and adjusted his glasses. "What hypocrites we men of science are!"


    -

    Finally, Guzma felt he had brought the battle to an equilibrium of sorts; he had scraped and scrabbled, but managed to find an upper hand with his Kartana, knocking out the Persian, driving Nanu to release the last member of his party: the flapping, cawing Honchkrow, which brazenly splayed out its wings, putting its ample plumage on display.

    The Honchkrow made quick work of his Kartana, plowing into it with its razored talons and beak.

    -

    "This all brings me to my point: the immeasurable variable at play. I'm certain my dear sister has her own theory about what brings out the greatest potential of a life-form, but I didn't come here to feed you her perspective." (This was the first and last hint of sibling rivalry that Colress gave). "My research has led me to one, resounding conclusion. And so: Mr. Guzma. Do you trust these beasts?"

    "Um." Guzma shifted his eyes, like expecting this to be a trick question. "'Trust'…"

    "How would you describe your relationship with them? Would you characterize it as close?"

    "...I mean, it ain't bad, I guess."

    Colress, latching onto his uncertainty, spoke vehemently. "If you hope to harness their potential, you must focus on the bond you share with your pokemon―and indeed, your beasts. You must trust their loyalty to you; and they, in turn, must trust in yours."

    -

    Had Guzma missed it before?

    In their previous battle, the fight had been so short, maybe he didn't have time to notice: the synchronicity, the total match of will between Nanu and his fighters. It had been so easy to note Nanu's outward apathy and taken it as proof of disconnection. But the effortlessness in Nanu's fighting style was not due to unconcern, but to ease; a flow of, for lack of another word, spirit.

    In the back of his head, he remembered Hala―

    Guzma, for a spinning moment, watched the Honchkrow clap its wings together in eagerness for the next round, and wondered: were all the kahunas like this?

    -

    "That don't make sense!" Guzma retorted. "You think I don't got loyalty? I got tons of it! We fight and win together! When Goli's with me, we can crush anybody! He knows it, and I know it! So I ain't missing loyalty!"

    "Confidence is a superb quality to have, but loyalty―and trust―is more than brute strength, isn't it? Trust is a form of weakness― an opening of oneself to vulnerability, to the possibility of failure. I don't know you well enough to say for certain, but I have met and battled many strong trainers who have hit similar― 'ruts,' shall we say? And the problem is always the same: fear of defeat. Fear, leading to discordance, which leads to distrust."

    Of all the words spoken, Guzma lashed against one. "I ain't afraid."

    -

    "Then make your choice, already, kid."

    Guzma twisted his brow and frowned.

    Victory was close. He knew what selection he could make to seal the battle's fate and guarantee his win. He knew. He had the beast ball in his hand… The Xurkitree, ready to fly out and wipe away the opposing Honchkrow like it was nothing. It would probably be an easy one-hit K.O.

    (And yet, his thoughts invaded again, mucking up his strategy. The Z-Ring itched).

    He squeezed his fingers on the ball and found himself unable to throw it.

    Nanu loudly sighed, tucking his hands into his pants pockets. "Didn't know this all came with an intermission. Should I go grab a bite to eat an' come back?"

    "Tch!" Guzma's trademark sound of annoyance, however, came with a sudden grin. He pressed his beast ball back into his belt and drew out a different ball. A surge of crazed confidence came through him. "All right! Ready, old man?" He slowly passed his tongue over his teeth, to cover for his inward trembling. "If you want a show―I'll give you a show!"

    When Golisopod emerged and landed on the battlefield, it roared with eagerness and thudded the ground with its feet. In a quick movement, Guzma released his left hand from his jacket pocket, twisted his fingers back onto the crystal on his Z-Ring, and screamed.

    "Goli! We're doin' this now!"

    He didn't look at Nanu, but the kahuna wore a nonchalant look over his wave of wonder and anticipation. Nanu took a single step back and allowed, at the last second, a small, satisfied smirk. Finally.

    Guzma gripped his ring―huffed with determination―watched as Golisopod steadied itself and awaited his orders.

    Just like he practiced. Focus.

    The pathways in his brain swelled, crackling out in a snarled spiderweb of energy.

    -

    Wimpod squealed in pain.

    The Skull's Sneasel had landed another slashing attack against its back, and the strike had at last triggered his Wimpod's intrinsic cowardice, causing it to dash from the battlefield, duck under Guzma's legs, and hide behind his ankles.

    Guzma's first battle at Ula'Ula's docks had gone evenly so far, but the Skull teen he picked his fight with clearly thought he was off his rocker. (Throwing out a Wimpod? Was this kid for real?) The small crowd of observers, an audience of Skulls that included, somewhere, the young Plumeria, babbled as they watched and seemed to agree that the choice had been a serious miscalculation.

    When the Wimpod did as it usually did, giving up in its moment of distress, it expected to be promptly returned to its ball, and nudged his feet with its head to impress this notion on him. But suddenly, in his mad, crushed weariness, Guzma clenched his fists and smiled. "You got 'em on the run, now," he growled.

    Though he didn't look at his Wimpod, he could sense that its trembling had quelled, and it nibbled at his shoe to express its confusion and worry.

    "Look at 'em. They're shakin'." (He said this, even though he was shaking himself, shaking from the strain of his world falling apart around him: the humiliation of defeat, the final flight from home, the depraved betrayal from a friend that still lingered, the vomit still burning his throat―).

    The opposing trainer, getting impatient, called out to him, telling him to send out another pokemon already.

    Guzma screwed his eyes shut and thrust his voice outward, nearly yelling. "See? He don't wanna hafta face you. 'Cuz he knows he'd be in for it!"

    The other trainer heard some of it, and not understanding, asked if he was nuts or something. But his Wimpod growled affirmatively, letting out a triumphant, albeit unintimidating squeal.

    "So? Whatta you waiting for, huh?" His heart, and all the blood pounding from him, crashed through his bones, clattering loudly. He finally screamed and threw his fist downward. "Show 'em who's boss!"

    His nerve endings frayed like jaggedly-cut rope; his head felt close to imploding; his voice dragged like sandpaper; his stomach knotted with nausea. Then, with the pain of a new limb breaking out of him, his Wimpod scuttled forward with as much swagger as a small, limbless creature could possibly muster. It planted itself before the opposing Sneasel, and―

    Its excited squeal distorted, its body stiffened, and a light broke out, blinding everyone within its vicinity. The opposing trainer and pokemon flinched, covering their eyes; the scattered audience to their battle began to jump to their feet, calling out in their surprise.

    It took a minute, but Guzma opened his eyes to keep watch, squinting against the painfully-sharp glow. He could see something branching out of the harsh, luminous form, and hear the snapping of exoskeleton, the rumble of something enormous being birthed. The Skulls, realizing now for certain what was happening, screamed in thrill at the spectacle.

    And the light unwound, cooled, softened into the fresh, newborn form of a monster none of them had seen before. Its giant body stood towering over most of them, its back plated with armor, its shoulders hulked and ferocious, its feelers twinging in the seabreeze with a vicious, bloodthirsty glee. To celebrate its own arrival, it stomped the dock, sending a shockwave through it that nearly knocked a few people off their feet, and let out a howling, horrible scream, spewing spittle and grinding together its armored plates.

    Rather than attack immediately, though, it stood upright, joints cracking in their newness, and shuffled its enormous weight around to face its master.

    For a time, it was understood by all that the battle had taken a pause; Guzma didn't hesitate to pull himself forward. He approached until he stood close enough to feel its overwhelming breath huffing in his face, knocking his bangs back.

    "Golisopod," he said.

    It rumbled an acknowledgment deep into its gut. Its black eyes burrowed into his, and an elation unlike anything he'd ever felt flowed through him―a breathlessness, a growing pain that had finally broken.

    "All right." He reached out, and felt the shell of its head, still warm and a little rubbery from its transformation, though in those seconds under his palm, its surface rapidly hardened and cooled. He turned his head and saw the expression of dread on their opponents' faces, causing his mouth to split into a menacing grin. "Let's make a good first impression, huh?"

    -

    For a few moments, the entire arena filled with noise, vibration, and dust. A wild, uncontrollable heat emanated from the cloud of uproar; there was the screaming of monsters, screeching, and pounding of earth. Neither Guzma nor Nanu could tell, in those seconds, precisely what went on, but shadows through the mist portrayed the struggle as vicious and all-out.

    They waited.

    The dust settled; silence had overcome the center of the ring at first, before the peace was broken by Golisopod's earth-shattering roar. It stomped about, bragging and whistling, and for good reason: Nanu's Honchkrow lay with its wings fanned out, clearly knocked out cold.

    He had won.

    Guzma waited for the dramatic win to send a wave of ecstasy over him, but the shock of it must have been too much, because he mostly stared, dumbfounded.

    In any case, Nanu shrugged and drew back his partner. He grunted. "Huh. Don't that beat all. You've gotten stronger."

    If Guzma thought he was shocked before, he was certainly shocked now.

    But before Guzma had a chance to reply to this gushing compliment, Nanu sniffed dryly, scratched his chin, and turned for the door. "Welp, that sure was a thing. See you 'round."

    Then he left.

    Guzma returned his Golisopod, and still stood in place in the empty arena, like he couldn't decide what to tell his feet to do. He thought hard, nearly turned around to retreat, then turned back, and shook with determination and impulse. A thought lodged in his brain and would not be freed.


    "Hey, old man!"

    Nanu looked up from the counter. The attendant on the other side had already started the complimentary post-battle healing, giving Guzma time to catch up to him. Once he had Nanu's attention, though, he found himself hesitating. Nanu was staring at him like he had lost it.

    "...You want something?" Nanu waited for an answer, received none, and snipped irritably as he tapped a finger on the counter, "Kid, if you wanna say something, spit it out―ain't got all day."

    "Do you wanna…" His voice tightened. "Have a beer with me?"

    Nanu paused, weighed the offer as he shuffled his body toward him, and droned, his voice not budging an octave. "Well, I had such thrilling plans for the evening," he said, implying that they involved his usual habit of falling asleep in front of the TV, "but I guess I could swing it."

    -

    Guzma decided they'd do their drinking out on the balcony from his suite, where patio furniture offered chairs and a table to work with; Nanu had reserved all of his words on the trip to and through his suite, only speaking once they reached the balcony.

    "Nice view," he said. The comment caused them both to stand fairly close and shoulder-to-shoulder, taking a moment to admire said view, and then Nanu abruptly interrupted their contemplation by reaching over and snagging Guzma's forearm.

    The younger kahuna jerked wildly and almost socked him for the surprise, until he realized what the man was doing. Nanu pulled Guzma's left wrist up to his face, squinting at its accessory.

    "'The first commercially-made Z-Ring,'" Nanu said, like he had read the phrase in a headline. He twisted Guzma's wrist a little more to see another angle. "I guess as a kahuna, I really oughtta condemn this, or somethin'." He let go of Guzma's arm. "Seems to work all right, though."

    "It―" Guzma decided not to go into how much arduous hair-pulling went into the process. He rubbed the back of his head. "...Yeah."

    "You said something about beer," Nanu said, evidently wanting to push this along.

    "Uh, right. Hold on."

    Guzma trekked back inside, and returned with a case of beer bottles, which he set on top of the table between them. He didn't think it bore any explanation, but he did offer one comment as he gestured for them.

    "It's s'pposed to be good."

    Nanu picked up a bottle, examined it by rolling it from front to back in his hand, and said nothing. After they twisted off their respective caps and took their first swig, they sat quietly in their chairs until Nanu opened his shirt pocket and forced out a package of cigarettes. He drew one out, then eyed Guzma.

    "You want one?"

    "I'm―" Guzma gave it a longing look. "Trying to quit." It's unhygienic and unhealthy, said the ever-present Lusamine-voice in his head.

    "Braver man than I," Nanu said, grunting. He put the unlit cigarette to his lips then slipped the package back. He had to dig into his back pants pocket to find his lighter, which he had to cup against the wind in order to get working.

    The first few minutes, they didn't talk much. Guzma had a feeling a lot of Nanu's conversations were like that; mumbled, punctuated with long periods of silence. Eventually, Nanu heaved a large sigh, and Guzma thought that signalled the start of the conversation, but it proved a false start, and they remained silent for another minute or two.

    Then Nanu spoke.

    "I was disappointed, you know."

    Guzma, surprised, turned to him with a defeated expression. "Huh?"

    "When I heard you caught the beasts," Nanu said, "I thought for sure you were going to tear these islands a new one. Instead, you traded 'em in for money and fame. I guess I can't blame you. But I still think my idea was more interesting."

    Guzma found this thought amusing, but had no way to respond to it. He shrugged and gave his normal non-reply: "Yeah, I guess." Guzma decided to guide the conversation to more personal matters. "Are you still, uh, living at the station?"

    "'Course."

    "...How is everybody?"

    "Same buncha hooligans." He scratched his shoulder as he thought on it. "Scruffy's been around more."

    It took Guzma a second to remember the target of the nickname. "Gladion?"

    "Yeah. I guess with you gone, he's trying to make a move. I dunno. I don't pay close enough attention to that nonsense."

    Oh, god, Gladion. He hadn't thought about that. All the wedding plans and Lusamine rambling about children, and he hadn't thought to contact, you know, her current children. He doubted that Lusamine had done so; she essentially refused to discuss them.

    "So? What's new with you?"

    Guzma hesitated, then decided he might as well confess, seeing as the whole world would know tomorrow. "We're getting married."

    Nanu swallowed hard, trying not to choke. "Who?"

    "Me."

    "And?"

    "Miss Lusamine!"

    "...Huh." He shook his head and swigged. "You sure you don't want that cigarette?"

    "D―" Guzma rubbed his thumb along the rim of the bottle. "Do you think it's a good idea? Getting married, I mean."

    "Shoot." Nanu shrugged. "I don't know anything about marriage. I just barely dodged that bullet way back when dinosaurs roamed the earth."

    "You were engaged?"

    "Ah, yeah. To this redhead. The prettiest thing on the island. Was crazy about me, too."

    "...What happened?"

    "Well, turned out, there was also this blonde at my job―prettiest thing―also crazy about me―"

    Guzma guffawed. He suddenly admired him a little more―Nanu, the lady-killer! "What? Dude. You didn't."

    "Don't 'dude' me, kid! I was young and stupid. Of course the fiancee found out, and that was the end of it."

    "What about the blonde? What happened there?"

    Nanu had one word, and one word only. He grunted it with no emotion whatsoever. "Dead."

    Guzma opened his mouth the say something, then wisely shut it.

    "Yup. Funny how things turn out." He looked at Guzma's expression and smirked. "This would be a good time to change the subject."

    "Uh, right." Guzma rubbed the back of his head. "So… I haven't seen any of the other kahunas."

    "Yup."

    "...Why?"

    Nanu grinned at him. "Why do you think? The kahunas hate your guts."

    Guzma tried to push away his hurt when he followed up, "Why are you here, then?"

    Nanu shrugged. "Curiosity got me. 'Sides, to my mind, those farts deserve to have their cages rattled once in awhile."

    The comment caught Guzma off guard. He figured the kahunas all worked together and agreed on things. It was the first time he caught whiff of possible dissension in the group.

    "They can be real sticklers about who gets to be called what. Shoulda seen Old Man Hala's face the day I showed up with this―" Nanu touched the Darkinium crystal threaded about his neck. He snickered at the memory. "Thought the gods had gone crazy. Not that I blame him; I thought that a bit myself."

    "I know I'm not a real kahuna," Guzma said suddenly. "I mean―I wasn't chosen by nobody. Not a tapu, anyway."

    Nanu let go of his crystal, searched Guzma's expression, then shrugged. "What's a kahuna, anyway? Alola's got this obsession with titles. Me, I couldn't care less if you call me Kahuna, Mister, Officer, Uncle―shoot, call me Queen of Alola if that's what gets you through the day. Titles mean squat."

    Guzma didn't know what to make of this, but Nanu's initial question triggered an automatic response. "Being a kahuna―" Guzma spoke carefully. "Means protecting people."

    "Hmm. You think so?"

    "It's what Hala told me."

    Nanu cocked an eyebrow at him, and seemed to suddenly realize the weight of what he had carelessly said. The older kahuna shifted back in his seat, and with a mild, apologetic tone, explained, "You shouldn't listen to me. Hala… doesn't hate your guts. He's… Twisted up over it. That's all."

    Guzma frowned, his thoughts still stuck on his own train of thought. "I don't protect anybody."

    "Join the club," Nanu snorted.

    The sea out below them glistened and rolled, lapping up against the ironcast form of Aether Paradise. Some water sucked beneath, its pressure roaring through the hydraulics that ran the place, churning wildly but unseen. The water before them, though, remained still and glassy, starred with sources of refracted light. It had gotten cold up here, the wind flapping against their clothes, but neither of them moved to retreat indoors.

    "I don't believe in an awful lot," Nanu continued, after taking a steep and final drink, "but I do believe that grown folk have responsibilities towards the young folk. Protect them. Give them a future." He looked at Guzma, meeting him in the eyes. "We screwed you over royally, didn't we?"

    Guzma, embarrassed, turned back for the sea.

    Nanu stole a glance at his watch. "Ah, crap, it's late. I gotta head back and feed the monsters."

    As Nanu stood up, a throb of oncoming loneliness hit Guzma's throat. "Maybe you can, uh, stop by again sometime?"

    "...I don't see why I would."

    Guzma almost got frustrated, but thought suddenly that he should have known better. He let it go, and tried another tactic. "You wanna come to the wedding? It's gonna be on a cruise ship―it's gonna go for a week, but the ship makes stops along the way, so you can deboard whenever―"

    "There an open bar?"

    "Obviously."

    Nanu quickly gave a backhanded wave. "Pencil me in." At that, he gave one last look at the columns of metal and machinery that made up this island. "Gotta wonder how they feel."

    "Huh?"

    "The beasts. Trapped here. In a strange world, against their will―made to perform tricks―"

    "...You feel sorry for them?"

    Nanu glanced back at him, chuckled a little, and shook his head. "I know a guy who made that mistake. They're just animals, kid. But still―you gotta wonder." He turned for the door. "Thanks for the beer. You were right―it wasn't bad."

    In time, the last shuttle of the night shot out from Aether Paradise and into the oily waves, its carapace blinking and bright. It traced a white thread along the distant water until it disappeared into a pinpoint on the black-and-blue horizon. With it, Guzma felt a strange sense of impossible regret, dragged like the scratch of a nail against skin. He held onto it for only a second longer before letting it go.

    -




































    "Hey, bud."

    Guzma lifted his head.

    The beach was brightly colored, the waves flowing beneath the dock a brilliant blue; a sweet breeze tossed gentle waves along the sandy cove, where there came the sounds of splashing water and thrilled screams. Guzma sat on the dock, as he often did, legs dangling over the water, his arms slung over the railing; the sun hit his eyes painfully, so he covered himself with a hood from his jacket. He was dressed poorly for the sticky summer weather.

    The cop that came up on the dock surprised him with this greeting. Mele'Mele cops weren't known for being friendly, especially not with kids. But when Guzma saw him, he realized that he had never seen this one before. The cop looked younger than the others on the island, maybe in his early thirties, with a gentle face, trim blonde hair under his cap, and relaxed posture.

    Before Guzma could say anything, the officer ambled close, standing at the edge of the dock with him. He turned toward the shore.

    "You aren't playing with your friends?"

    Guzma looked out over the beach, seeing a group of boys splashing each other in the waves. He shook his head. "They aren't my friends."

    "Oh." The officer took a second to glance around. "So are your friends around here somewhere?"

    Guzma hesitated and didn't verbally answer, instead shrugging.

    The officer, getting the hint, approached and leaned on the railing beside him, leaving a comfortable space between them. He was sipping on a soda, and between swallows, a hard menthol candy swished around his mouth, clicking against his teeth. He cleared his throat, evidently fighting a cough, and allowed a moment of silence before asking another question. "What's your name?"

    Guzma replied slowly, unsure of himself. "Guzma."

    "Guzma," the officer repeated back. "I see. And how old are you?"

    He rubbed his nose shyly and avoided eye contact. "...Almost ten."

    "Is that right? Well, my name's Daturo. Nice to meet you." The officer might have offered a handshake, but Guzma didn't accept it. The man didn't seem deterred by this. "Say, Guzma. Could you help me?"

    Guzma looked up uncertainly.

    "See, I'm new here. I just got transferred from Sinnoh―so I don't know the island very well yet. You live here, right? You think you could show me around?"

    Guzma, perplexed, shrugged his shoulders again. "I dunno."

    "Not right now," Daturo backed down. "If you're busy. Some other time, if you want. Huh―what do kids eat around here...? What are those donut things, that I've seen―?"

    "Malasadas."

    "Yeah, those. Tell ya what. Sometime, you can show me around, and there'll be a malasada in it for you. How's that sound, Guzma?"

    Guzma could hardly make out the man's face in the angle of the sharp sunlight that cast him in deep shadow. He squinted. "Okay."

    "All right. Well. It's not a big island, is it? I'm sure I'll be seeing you around." As an afterthought, he pressed the cool droplets of condensation from his soda can to his forehead. "Yeesh. This weather takes getting used to, huh? See ya, bud."

    The officer walked away, leaving Guzma alone with the sucking sounds of water nudging against the dock. The boy watched the others play for only a little while longer, then pushed himself to his feet and fished through his pocket. Upon releasing his Wimpod, the creature buzzed and chirped excitedly, scuttling about the dock and scratching the ground for food particles.

    He looked as if he wanted to say something to it, to call its attention, but he hesitated and let it continue scraping. The sky just beyond him was blue, bluer than he'd ever seen it, with mountainous, creamy clouds, and dotted with the flutter of far-away gulls. The sun beat down, punishing him, so began to retreat back to shore to find shade. "C'mon," he called. His Wimpod squeaked and scurried to his bare heels. He looked deep into the island―its life, its buildings, its people―and felt the steady blows of the sea at his back.

    Far away, far down on the sandy shore, Kukui, having knocked over another boy into the water and turned himself around, spotted Guzma walking back to the street, and belted out his name.

    But by then, Guzma didn't hear it. He probably wouldn't have stopped, even if he had. There were oppressive thoughts buzzing like angry hornets about his head―thoughts that didn't come from youth or play, but dragged him out in a riptide, pulling him farther and farther out, out to an alien place barren of life. It wasn't as if he meant to find happiness―he wasn't happy here, and he didn't expect any happiness where he was going. But if it meant… hope, or kindness, or the slightest taste of something good in life... For that… Wouldn't he give anything?
     
  17. TheAlpar

    TheAlpar Journey Enthusiast

    This was a very tightly written chapter, and also one with almost no Lusamine which is a nice breather. Lady's an amazing character but sometimes she's so overwhelmingly awful that I feel like I need to take a break.

    You manage to put so many things into honestly not that big of a chapter, so I always forget to talk about one or two things, but just know that everything you write seems to have a purpose and I like that. Guzma's entire battle and post-battle beer with Nanu was really heartwarming and gives us more insight into both their personalities and what they... well, do. I also like how Guzma feels even more ignored now that he's about to get married, it fits with Lusamine's character.

    I like Aster, though I wonder if he has ulterior motives of some sort. Super sweet and nice people usually strike me as off if they do it all the time.
     
  18. dietofwurms

    dietofwurms i see stars

    Chapter 15: Ronin

    "Hmm."

    Lusamine had a new habit as of late: sitting in the tea room during breakfast, placing a pile of letters on the table, and leafing through them with thoughtful composure. Since their engagement went public, the letters had come in a steady stream from all over the world, from allegedly important people whom Guzma knew nothing about. So, she would often flip through the assorted mail, noting their address, humming or sighing at their source; she rarely spoke on them to let Guzma know her thoughts, preferring instead to keep her musings private.

    That's why he wasn't surprised at her noise―though today, it put him on edge. He slumped over his plate, having taken food despite his lack of hunger to keep his mind busy.

    The real surprise came when Lusamine, still fresh-faced and glowing from waking up, tilted her head and said, "It's the strangest thing."

    Guzma looked up, saw her puzzled expression, and waited for her to elaborate. She didn't. "Uh…" He pondered whether to take the bait. "What is?"

    "Did you know that every day since we announced our engagement, Gladion has sent me a letter?"

    "...Yeah? Uh, every day, huh?"

    She looked at him steely; he returned his eyes to his food, picking at it. "Yes. Every day. Of course I've been destroying them―"

    "Uh-huh."

    "And today―how peculiar―there's no letter from him."

    "Huh." Guzma shoveled a bite of scone into his mouth, chewed for a while, then realized she was giving him this look, as if she expected him to have an explanation ready. He choked his food down. "Maybe he... gave up."

    "Gave up? Gladion?" She put a hand on her hip and looked over the mail again, shaking her head. "I suppose there's a first time for everything."

    ...He waited. And just when he thought she was about to say something else, she gave a defeated shrug, flipped past the other letters, and changed the subject.



    Slowly, in a way that he hoped she didn't notice, he started breathing again.

    -

    After breakfast, Guzma made up an excuse to duck back upstairs to his suite. He had forgotten… something, he said, his lie coming out unevenly but convincingly enough to ward off real suspicion.

    He couldn't explain his over-caution―in some weird way, Guzma felt that Lusamine had eyes everywhere, even in the empty hallways. He couldn't get comfortable until he reached his suite, locked the door behind him, entered his bathroom, and locked that door.

    Alone, and behind two locked doors, he felt confident enough to pat the inside of his coat pocket and withdraw a small, white envelope.

    On it, in neatly hand-written letters, it was addressed:

    To Mother

    From Your Son


    Okay. So, he was doing this now.

    If Lusamine found out, she might literally murder him.

    He tucked his thumb under the seal and shredded it open.

    The paper inside was quality stationery, folded delicately, and had careful ink writing evenly spaced down the length of it. It looked longer than he expected, so he ended up sitting on the toilet and straining his eyes at its contents.

    Dearest Mother, it began:

    I am writing this letter with ever-growing uncertainty that any of my letters will reach you. Still, I feel I am compelled to write again to express the following:

    It was to my shock and great concern that I learned of your engagement to Mr. Guzma. I must question both your judgment and your intentions in this matter. I wish to explicitly state that I do not endorse such a marriage. I have known Mr. Guzma on a personal and business basis, so I speak from my experience of both his antics as well as yours; I have suspicions that this arrangement is some elaborate fraud.

    If you will not end this engagement, then I request you send your justifications for this matter post-haste. I cannot demand anything of you. I ask only that you assuage my conscience, as I do not feel I can stand by silently as you continue to debase yourself.

    I will write again tomorrow.


    With all my love,

    Gladion


    -

    "Holy crap, kid," Guzma muttered.

    He recognized the prim handwriting and tight, emphatic prose―it was eerily similar to Lusamine's, in the times he had read her letters.

    He had to read it twice to really get the gist, though: Gladion was kind of pissed, he thinks this whole thing's a joke, and he wants an explanation. Given the circumstances and the relationships involved, Guzma thought the letter came across as fairly reasonable. As Guzma tried to wrap his head around it, he committed an empathetic mental exercise: if some guy was trying to marry his mother, he thought, he would likely not be so calm.

    He noted the return address. A post office box at the Ula'ula motel. Guzma could write back, but as he glanced over Gladion's writing style, that thought got to be rather intimidating. Guzma was still self-conscious about his own prose, and his own handwriting still translated on paper into clumsy, childlike scrawlings, no matter how much he worked at it. Besides, Guzma had no way of sending letters out from Aether Paradise without Lusamine knowing about it. No. He'd rather talk in person.

    And Guzma did want to talk. He didn't have many people to talk to as it was, and in recent days, he had become consumed with this idea that he had to talk to Gladion in particular. Lusamine's son, and Guzma's former… Well, however you would label it. The point being, Guzma knew Gladion enough to feel the compulsion to explain himself to him. The kid had always struck him as the sort who would listen, if you needed to tell him something. Anyway, it just seemed like an adult sort of thing to do: before you get married, you go and talk to your future step-children--try to make them understand, so that there's no confusion.

    Guzma's relationship with Gladion, though, had always been tainted with complications. If nothing else, it could be called unique. He didn't exactly have other words to describe it; it wasn't friendship, he didn't think, though sometimes he called it that. Nor was it a rivalry. Theirs was a working relationship, a master and minion, boss and employee―though for a subordinate, Gladion had advantages over him that he kept a keen eye on, lest they be used against him. Gladion wasn't as strong of a trainer, and physically, he was a joke compared to the Team Skull boss, but intellectually? Guzma caught on fairly quickly that the kid had smarts he didn't. He had natural poise and a collected manner. Despite being only a little more than half Guzma's age, he was infinitely more adult.

    Still, Gladion, in the end, hit the sweet spot for him: useful enough to get his gang places, damaged enough for Guzma to see himself in him, and non-threatening enough for Guzma to freely interact with him without worrying about vying for power.

    When the kid first found him, after smashing through the grunts in Po Town and arriving in his domain, Guzma could see something burning in him― something awful, familiar, and enchanting. The kid didn't waste time: he looked straight into his eyes and asked for work, for a chance to lend his strength. Tell me what to do, and I'll do it. It struck Guzma as an old-fashioned loyalty, bound up in old-world honor, almost samurai-like. Guzma was used to receiving admiration, fear, or even dumb, childish devotion, but loyalty? The kind that didn't ask questions or talk back, but listened carefully, and acted? How could someone pass that up?

    Of course, he treated Gladion differently than the other grunts, because he wasn't a grunt, after all. Guzma used the word "enforcer," a word he'd heard in a mafia movie, to justify this unequal treatment. The kid was a contractor―not really a member of Team Skull, but an extension of Guzma and his will. So, yeah. He can wear that cheesy goth get-up if he wanted, he better get paid enough to cover his motel rates and living expenses, and Guzma definitely never laid a hand on him―not so much as a scuff on the head or a yank on his shirt. Why should he? Gladion wasn't like the other kids― the whiners, the dummies who only learned from their mistakes if you smacked them around. Gladion could fail―but he failed well, and he owned up to his failures with an honesty and grace that Guzma admired.

    Guzma expected the discrepancies to cause grief, and they did. He dealt with it by terrorizing the naysayers and chasing down those who spread dissension. This didn't really solve the morale problem, of course, but it kept him safe from hearing much about it, aside from the stray comment that Bully snitched on.

    The very last time Guzma heard any discontent on the issue, it came from a young, male newbie he had just thumped; Gladion, the head of the operation in question, had received no more than a growl and a demand for rectification, so the newbie, sore and upset, muttered to another nearby that Guzma must "like" Gladion.

    The newbie didn't think he'd hear. Didn't think he'd catch on to the insinuation.

    Before anyone understood what had happened, Guzma roared for everyone to leave the room, except the one. Upon being left alone, he immediately grabbed the kid by the throat.

    "You tryin' to say I like little boys?"

    The newbie squirmed and stammered, at first pretending he hadn't said it, then pretending he hadn't meant it.

    "Huh? 'Cause that's what I heard you say. So do you think that I'm some kinda freak? Huh? Do you think I like you ?"

    He snagged the kid by the hair, tugging his head back hard. He pulled out his switchblade, and the blade snapped out, making the kid squeal. He pushed the sharp edge close to the kid's jaw, just below his earlobe.

    "If I liked you―you think I'd do this, huh?"

    And he pierced the blade upward, slicing against the cartilage and soft tissue connecting the earlobe to the boy's head. The knife didn't go far, but it cut into a vast system of veins, spewing blood everywhere down the kid's face and neck. The boy screamed in pain and horror, and clasped to press down on the oozing wound.

    Guzma bellowed over the noise. "Try sayin' it again―and I'll cut your ear off! I'll cut it off and feed it to you!"

    ...That was the last time anyone said anything, ever, about Gladion to him.

    Guzma and Gladion's last encounter had, in some ways, epitomized their relationship. For once, Gladion had the guts to take him on directly, but the battle, while unconventional, was not a challenge for Guzma. Through his post-battle crowing, Guzma tried to convince Gladion that this crushing wasn't personal―that he had respect for the kid, and all, but he had goals that necessitated all this. I kinda like you, but you're in my way.

    But despite his attempt at assuaging the issue, he saw in Gladion a deeply-cut sense of rage and betrayal―and though Guzma tried to rationalize it away, he could never quite shake the sight of it. He had almost thought the kid would get it―the idea of casting others off in an attempt at getting stronger. Hadn't they been kindred spirits―? Distorted reflections of one another; two people who kind of got each other?

    (Guzma had never been good at this―good at making, or thinking about, or managing friends. How often he misread their emotions, assigning value or meaning to useless gestures. And how often, brutally, and carelessly he trampled them. Being Guzma's enemy could be hell, but woe to those he arbitrarily called his 'friends.')

    -

    Guzma could almost not believe his plan had worked.

    Sneaking off of Aether Paradise was one of his more ambitious plots; so much of his day was scheduled and monitored, and so many of the staff had reason to stop him.

    But the scheduling turned out to be an easy fix―he had a good excuse to not accept challenges that afternoon and evening. He fought one trainer, then made a real show backstage of suffering from one of his now-infamous migraine headaches. He dry-heaved for several minutes in the bathroom and cursed out his attendants, which finally resulted in Lusamine arriving, wanting to know what was going on.

    Her powerful maternal instincts kicked in when she saw his frazzled condition―a good sign. He knew then he could bluff.

    "I think I can still fight," he said. He teetered weakly and squinted against the lights to really sell it.

    And, as she was wont to do, she put a hand to his forehead and chided him. "Darling, no, that won't do at all. It's straight to bed with you. We'll reschedule the roster for tomorrow."

    From there, all it took was covering himself up a bit in a nondescript jacket and new accessories, and finding his way to an Ula'ula shuttle to blend with several visitors. He waited for someone to say something―to point him out and make a fuss―but no one did. It seemed in the bustle of things, they could overlook a person covered in a hood and cap and looking down at the ground.

    It had been a long time since he visited any the islands. It had been even longer since he visited any without being accompanied by chaperones, attendants, and media personnel. To sit on that shuttle and end up docking on Ula'ula, while people around him milled casually―it felt unreal, freeing, and terrifying all at once. As evening fell over the city, he was emboldened to retrace old walks in Malie, avoiding clusters of people, spotting places from which he had once terrorized the public. He had enough time to kill to visit the gardens, which now felt entirely different to him: his view of it had gentled, or perhaps weakened, and he spent considerable time sitting and admiring it. I missed out on so much, he thought. All the times he had cut through the garden, had he ever bothered looking at it? Lights emerged in the growing dusk, reflecting in the pools, and couples under parasols lingered on the bridges and beneath the shrine gates.

    He checked his watch.

    He had to go.

    -

    Even during his tenure as the Team Skull boss, he used to frequent the cafe with consistent regularity; one of the realities of being an infamous criminal in a small community was being recognized and tolerated in a variety of public places. He would stride into the Pokemon Center, everyone would cast their eyes to the floor and shuffled aside, and he would make his way to the adjoining wing of the building, where several tables were usually attended by trainers and their partners, and the sweet-and-sour aroma of coffee and tea filled the room.

    Now, the smell was the same; the cafe's reception of him, of course, had completely changed. He was ignored―mostly―rather than avoided. As an unrecognized figure, at least in his current mode of dress, he earned a number of confused looks, so he hurried over to an empty table in the corner and sat down. For a while, he considered getting up and ordering a drink to blend in, but he erred on the side of caution by trying not to draw attention to himself. He began tapping his foot on the floor in wait; he checked his watch obsessively. The message he left with the motel front desk should have gotten to Gladion by now. He had been precise about the time of the requested meeting, and he was so used to Lusamine's ten-minute-early rule, that at five minutes to the hour, Guzma started to think he was going to be blown off. All that work for nothing. You'd think, he bitterly thought, a guy would want to meet his future…

    Almost down to the millisecond at 7 o' clock, Gladion entered at the front entrance of the cafe.

    Guzma stared in strange disbelief. It was like he had blinked and was still seeing Lusamine's after-image; the suddenly unwanted memory of her soft kisses washed over him, and all at once, he felt the strong desire to crawl under a table and hide. The reality of his entangling in Gladion's genetics made this all extremely uncomfortable. Gladion, he vexed internally, really ought to change his look. Shape his hair different―color it maybe―get a tan―do something to get away from the haunting echo of his sin.

    It was too late to back out now. Gladion saw him. The kid locked eyes with him and walked over, not even trying to gauge the room or look unintentional about his movements. Guzma diverted his eyes, but it didn't matter, because within seconds, Gladion was standing on the other side of the table, next to an open seat.

    "Mr. Guzma," Gladion greeted, his voice tight and blunt.

    "Ssh! Geez!" Guzma sat forward, eyeballing the other customers, and thrust his finger at his face. "This not clue you in? I'm tryin' to be inconspicuous, a'right?"

    Gladion glanced over him, noticing the cap, the upturned hood, the sunglasses. He took his seat quietly. "You know you actually attract moreattention like that. Are you alone?"

    "Nah, man, I brought my secretary, my hairdresser―" Guzma snorted ferociously. "'Course I'm alone. What do you take me for?"

    In an exasperated gesture that Guzma now recognized as being inherited from Lusamine, Gladion lifted his hand and planted it on his forehead, lightly brushing his fingers through his bangs and trying to ward off a headache. "Did you not think to meet somewhere less public?"

    The cluttered wording threw Guzma off. "I― Wanted to make it easy, y'know, to find each other―"

    Gladion made an impromptu decision. "Never mind it. We'll go back to the motel."

    "W-what?" Guzma glanced over his shoulder anxiously. "Uh, what's wrong with here?"

    "We'll need the privacy."

    "You don't think that's a little, uh―"

    But Gladion ignored his floundering and got up, starting for the cafe door. When he sensed Guzma's hesitation, he turned around and prodded, "What's the matter?" He saw Guzma still glancing about worriedly. "Did someone follow you?"

    "Nah! Just―" At last, Guzma pushed up from his chair and trotted behind him, trying to stay close and tugging his hood. He hissed nervously, "People are lookin' at us funny."

    Gladion narrowed his green eyes at him a second, both baffled and vaguely irritated. "People are looking at you, because you're dressed like a criminal."

    Guzma puffed, growled, thought about saying something nasty, then tightened his hoodie strings, shrinking it over his face.

    -

    He followed Gladion down the street and eventual dusty pathway to the motel. He stayed a few yards back, and was easily able to swing his long legs in a slow fashion to match Gladion's pace. With no pressure to small-talk, he spent those minutes letting his mind spin out. The sheer amount of nature around him dazzled him. Living on a mechanical island made him used to the relative silence of motors humming, doors sliding open, and elevators swishing through shafts. The most natural life he experienced was in Lusamine's garden, but even that was artificial, crafted and carefully planted with vegetation and pokemon. Here, in the evening on Ula'ula, down toward Route 13, everything seemed loud and overwhelmingly sensory, from the buzzing whir of insects to the cries of wild creatures tumbling through the grass. It took Guzma a while to readjust himself and not jerk wildly at every noise.

    Gladion, walking ahead of him, gave no indication of knowing or caring about his nerves.

    They reached the motel. Guzma briefly glanced further down the path, knowing that the trailer park lay not too far ahead. For him, the park held heavy significance: his first home away from home (Plumeria convinced her neighbor to let him crash on their couch); his first source of friends after running away from home; the site of his very first kiss (Plumeria, standing on the steps to her trailer, matched his height in that moment, under the creamy moonlight).

    His nostalgia was rudely interrupted.

    "Mr. Guzma," Gladion said, pushing the door to his room open, "you can come in."

    The motel room was immaculate and everything had its place. It looked nothing like a living space the teenage Guzma would have created: no clothes on the floor, no leftover food, no magazine stacks sliding about. Whatever Gladion did in his spare time was not readily apparent.

    Guzma wasn't surprised. The kid lived the warrior lifestyle―spartan, military, disciplined.

    As he entered, he saw a coffee table between two sets of sofa chairs, and figured that's where their conference would be taking place. He strode for it, without paying much attention to the back of the room. This gave him quite the start when a slumbering Silvally jerked awake, stood up to full height on Gladion's bed, and squawked angrily at him.

    Guzma jumped, swore, and threw his arms out in front of him.

    Gladion, containing his amusement, gestured for his partner to settle down. Silvally shivered, flapping its crest, and collapsed back down on the bed with a thud. Though its steely eyes never parted from Guzma, it bent its head down, resting it on its crossed paws.

    "Geez, kid! You coulda warned me!" (How had he forgotten how huge that freaky chimera thing had gotten? He had faced it off in battle only once, but it still left a big impression).

    "Reading another person's mail is a felony," Gladion said, ignoring his complaint.

    When Guzma turned to face him, he saw the boy had folded his arms sternly and taken to studying him with keen, harsh eyes. "...Huh?"

    "Your message," Gladion went on, "clearly indicated you'd read my letter. It was not addressed to you."

    Guzma snorted. "Yeah, well, sorry to violate your privacy or whatever, but she was gonna dump it, anyway."

    Gladion's eyes twitched.

    Guzma suddenly thought he saw a hint of hurt in his face, and regretted not coming up with a lie instead. He rubbed the back of his neck. "I mean, uh― Just, sorry."

    "No, it's all right." Gladion sighed and shut his eyes in concentration. "I suspected as much."

    After that awkward exchange, they found their seats across from one another, leaving the table between them. The stiltedness of their talking didn't end there, especially when Guzma opened his mouth and tried to open with standard pleasantries.

    He crossed his legs and fidgeted with his coat pockets. "Wow. So, uh... How you doin'?"

    Gladion, knowing that such pleasantries did not fit the situation, raised an eyebrow at him. "I'm fine."

    "Cool." Guzma dug his heel into the frayed carpet. His curiosity momentarily brightened him. "How's your sister?"

    "Lillie is safe," Gladion said. Somewhere in his words, there was an implication: Safe from you. "Mr. Guzma, what do you really want to talk about?"

    "Look, I didn't come with no script, okay? I just wanna talk."

    "I assume Mother doesn't know you're here." Gladion looked him over. "Going behind her back… You must have some sort of spine."

    Guzma started to feel incensed. Here he was, reaching out in a charitable gesture, and Gladion had taken to snipping at him. He already started feeling outmatched, which, in a conversation with a child basically half his age and a fraction of his size, made Guzma also feel frustrated beyond measure. He tried to stay positive. "Yeah, and I ain't got a lotta time, so… I get it, a'ight. It's weird. But since I'm marrying her an' all, I thought we'd… Y'know, discourse, or whatever."

    "I see." Gladion went quiet for a second. "I saw the proposal on the news. Her acting has gotten lazy; I could tell it was rehearsed."

    That was another needless swipe. Guzma nearly objected, but the kid kept going.

    "She's moving faster than I thought," Gladion confessed in a morbid tone. "I thought she'd wait at least a little longer, before pushing this idea on you―"

    Guzma lifted an eyebrow, not liking his phrasing at all. "Woah! Wait a sec! There's no 'pushing' here, okay! It ain't like that."

    "I would have thought it was her idea."

    "We―" Guzma tried to sound convincing. "We decided, all right?"

    "...Why?"

    Guzma, baffled, repeated the word back at him.

    Gladion's look darkened as he spelled out his question. "Why do you want to marry her?"

    "Well―! Hey, I don't wanna... embarrass you, or nothin'."

    "Try me."

    The phrase caused Guzma to slump back in his chair, overcome with laughter. He finally admitted, "She is pretty bangin'."

    "You find her attractive," Gladion rephrased.

    "Uh, yeah."

    A beat of silence followed. Guzma recovered from his laughing and fiddled with his ring, so Gladion gave him a chance to offer something more substantive, but the young boy wasn't terribly surprised that Guzma offered no other reason. Gladion went on, "I wonder, then, why she wants to marry you. What do you offer her…?"

    "Hey, man, she's got needs," Guzma said, grinning toothily, shrugging his shoulders broadly and throwing his arms behind his head.

    The swagger didn't sway Gladion at all; he narrowed his eyes at him and tilted his head in firm calculation. "...She wants children. Is that it?"

    Guzma stiffened. For a little kid, Gladion sure went for the jugular. "Kids? Uh, well, she―"

    Gladion cut him off, seeing his waffling as proof. "I should have guessed. I wonder what traits she intends to breed out of you? Your compliance? Your eagerness to please?"

    "You―!" Guzma crashed his fist onto the table and roared. "Shut your mouth! You little punk! I oughtta―" His mouth crooked into a furious, wicked smile. "Give it a few weeks, brat―! Soon I'll have the legal right to whack you good!"

    Gladion didn't wince, flinch, or look particularly impressed by this explosive threat. He folded his arms, and his eyes turned cold. "Mother taught us to feel sorry for people like you," he said. "Violent, stupid―products of their environment, she called you. She used to theorize that if your sort were uprooted―put into loving homes―they would domesticate. So―Mr. Guzma―is that what you are? Breeding stock and psychological experiment―wrapped up in one?" Gladion, when he saw the rage twisting Guzma's face, had the nerve to smirk. "She must see you as quite the prize."

    Suddenly, Guzma decided he'd rather not wait. He lunged, stepping right over over the table, and socked Gladion in the jaw.

    The punch landed heavier than he expected, because Gladion, really, was a toothpick of a kid. The jaw popped from impact; Gladion's eyes whirled from almost being knocked out cold. His body slumped and nearly slid down to the floor from the chair, but Guzma had him now by the shirt and dangled him mid-air.

    In that quick second, Gladion looked up at him, big green eyes filled with shock and pain.

    Still bleary with anger, Guzma lifted his fist, ready to bring it down―aiming right for the bridge of Gladion's nose―but felt his fist freeze mid-air and crunch with a wet and savage pain. He tugged on it, and when it didn't free itself he turned his head. Silvally's face was there, its eyes locked onto his. Its mouth had enveloped his hand, and it growled, twisting its jaw into his knuckles. Guzma felt and watched blood wind down his arm.

    They all stood frozen for a while.

    Finally, Gladion let out a pained groan and spoke. "It's all right, Silvally," he said. "Mr. Guzma's going to let go now."

    Guzma could have argued. Could have pointed out how ridiculous it was, in this moment, to tell him what he ought to be doing. But in truth, he had little choice but to retreat. He loosened his fingers, the cloth to Gladion's hoodie slipping through them, and eventually let go. Gladion landed back on his feet, and Silvally, in exchange, cocked its jaw and allowed Guzma's fist to fall back to his side.

    As they shuffled apart, the pokemon snorted and worked its size between them, squawking for Guzma to give more distance. He obeyed, almost tripping over himself in his hurry to get away. The condemning look Gladion gave him in that moment made him shake and sputter. "I barely hit you, anyway!" He puffed his chest in an attempt to hide a sudden wave of shame. "Y―you gotta man up a little! You know!"

    The younger boy, still reeling a little from the strike, put a hand to Silvally's side to steady himself. He tilted his head, touched the sore side of his face, and commented dryly, "I hope you don't intend to make this your parenting style."

    That… That hurt, and Guzma hated that it hurt. He tightened his fists and snarled. "Tch! Shut up!"

    For a tense second, Guzma considered storming out, but Gladion must have sensed his itching to leave, because he said, "Wait." He sighed and admitted, "My approach was wrong. I shouldn't have let out my frustration on you. You aren't the villain here, Mr. Guzma."

    Guzma realized that at this point, he really ought to apologize, too, but his feelings were too hurt to manage such a gesture. He continued scowling.

    "If you read my letter… Then you know how I feel about this marriage." He narrowed his eyes at him. "Mr. Guzma. I don't know what you think you see in my mother… But her love… It's conditional. She has no place for people who aren't useful to her. If you're going to do this, against my wishes… You should tread carefully."

    For Guzma, the warning was the last straw. He had been condescended, mocked, provoked, and insulted, and now, the kid had the nerve to think he needed warning, like he some idiot who didn't know what he was getting into. Who did Gladion think he was? So it was that, and not any of the more rude commentary, that brought Guzma to the point of screaming, "...You really are full of it!"

    Naturally, Gladion and Silvally stared in silence.

    "Huh? Look at you." Guzma sneered and waved at him, like his weakness and worthlessness were readily apparent. "Turned your back on your own mother―for what? Wouldn't let you get a tattoo, or somethin'? Wouldn't buy you that video game you wanted? Aww, cry me a river!" He spat and stomped. "You know what I see in her? I see a lonely lady who was ditched by her two spoiled brats! All she ever did was love you―so don't come at me just 'cause I've got what you snots threw away!"

    There was a long silence this time. Gladion at first looked surprised―but with time, his face changed to an expression of grim cognizance. "...I see now. I thought…" Gladion shook his head. "I thought I could reason with you. I feel sorry for you, Mr. Guzma. I really do."

    And because Guzma loathed not having the last word, he growled, "Screw you, kid," and started for the door. He threw it open and slammed it behind himself.

    He beat the road with his feet, as if to punish it, cursing leaping from his tightly-wound throat. The night was dark and tinted red in his vision, and for a few long minutes of walking, he wanted to reach out and kill something, anything.

    But down the dusty path, Guzma slowed, then stopped. He felt the paper in his pocket and his face burned with realization.

    Stupid! Stupid!


    In an angry huff, he swung back around, stalked up the steps to the motel room, and banged on the door. Gladion opened it and gave him an appropriately confused look. Guzma now noticed the bruise swelling the boy's cheek, and consequently felt like human garbage. His fast, enraged breathing stuttered and his shoulders hunched.

    "I―" Guzma swallowed hard, looking thoroughly embarrassed. "I forgot somethin'."

    He reached into his pocket and brought out a small, folded piece of paper. He smudged a little blood on it with his thumb, but otherwise it looked pristine; he held it out to Gladion, hand noticeably trembling as he did.

    "I―was s'pposta give it to you earlier," he lamely explained.

    Gladion looked down at it, uncomprehending, and took it. When he unfolded the check, he didn't betray any emotion.

    "Don't―!" Guzma scratched his head. "Don't twist this, okay!? It's just, it ain't like I can mail money around, you know? And I have too much―I don't really know what to do with it, but I figure― you can split it or somethin'. With your sister, or maybe Plume needs some, I dunno…"

    He waited agonizingly for Gladion to say something―perhaps even reject the gesture. But Gladion just stared at the offering as it rested between his fingers, then looked up at him.

    Guzma felt anger rise out of his throat again; he diverted his eyes and barked at him. "I can't promise any more, okay! So don't you dare waste it!!"

    Aether's kahuna cast his eyes hard in the direction of the trailer park, waiting to hear Gladion tear the check to shreds or call him out for being a gigantic tool. To his surprise, he instead heard the boy sigh and pocket it.

    Guzma didn't expect a thank you, and didn't get one. Figuring he had humiliated himself enough for one night, he tromped his way down the motel steps again.

    "Mr. Guzma."

    He cringed. He had really hoped to slink off without another word. He stopped in his tracks and decided to listen.

    "There's a door," Gladion said. His Silvally had crept up behind him, butting its head under his arm; he stroked its head as he spoke. "It's always locked―next to Faba's office. Have you seen it?"

    The older boy contemplated this, and then wondered whether he ought to answer. He eventually said, "I guess so."

    "The door leads to another set of laboratories, with more advanced facilities. Branch Chief Faba and his team do their most classified work down there. When the light above it is green―usually late in the evening, after working hours―that means trials are underway. Anyone on the lab staff can access the area with their key card."

    Guzma lost his patience, even turning around to challenge him. "So what?"

    But Gladion gave him an icy, meaningful look. "You've given them some remarkable test subjects. I'm suggesting Mother isn't going to let that go to waste."

    Apparently, that was all Gladion had to say; he promptly shut the door, leaving Guzma in the dark.
     
  19. TheAlpar

    TheAlpar Journey Enthusiast

    Well... that's not what I expected out of Gladion at all, but it makes a lot of sense when I stop to think about it. As edgy and goth-looking as he is, he was still raised by Lusamine and knows how to conduct himself with grace. Also, ever since the end of the game and all those events, I'm sure he's had time to come to grips with himself. I love the way you've written him, it feels so mature.

    And of course Guzma is the exact opposite. It's amazing just how insecure he is, about every single part of himself. I don't think he's done a single thing over the course of this fic without second guessing himself or being ordered to. Gladion is right; he is quite sad. Hopefully he'll manage to break free of that sometime soon, because I feel like the situation won't wait for him.

    Great chapter, as always.
     
  20. dietofwurms

    dietofwurms i see stars

    Chapter 16: Faces in the Earth and Sky

    "Good evening, Mr. Guzma."

    When the attendant reached Guzma's suite door with the rolling trolley―he had requested his dinner upstairs, what with his headache excuse, not that he felt like eating with company anyway―he didn't have to pretend to be weary. He cracked open the door and looked at her morosely. "Uh, sure, evening."

    "Are you feeling any better?"

    He rubbed his temple. "Yeah. Peachy."

    She pointed out the silver pot on the tray. "I brought you some coffee with your dinner as well. I've read caffeine can be helpful for migraines and thought you might like to give it a try."

    He blinked at her slowly. He never knew how to respond to the fake, professional concern of the staff Lusamine sent to attend him. He muttered, as he always did, "Thanks," and grabbed at the cart.

    "Oh, no, I can do that―" She noticed the gauze wrapped clumsily about his fist. "What happened to your hand?"

    "It's fine," he grunted, pushing her away and wheeling the cart inside his room with his free hand. He shut the door before she could voice any more objections, worries, or helpful advice.

    -

    Leaving the island had been a mistake. By the time he snuck back onto Aether Paradise, he hadn't managed to calm down at all; spending even a brief few hours on Ula'ula had thrown his senses off, making his perception of his home twisted and strange. This place… Everything was wrong with this place. The people weren't right, the walls felt oppressive and tall, the living spaces droned with peculiar life.

    He crept back to his suite, hoping that the feeling would pass, but it didn't. Though starving, looking at the food on the trolley, he could barely stomach the thought of eating. Everything in his head fired off at lightspeed; he couldn't stop racing, and thinking, and regretting, and wanting to smash things into tiny pieces.

    He took up an apple, bit into it, and then gave up, tossing it back onto the tray miserably.

    What did you think would happen?

    Are you really that stupid?


    In retrospect, of course Gladion would want nothing to do with him. Wasn't that what Lusamine always said? That Gladion had 'abandoned' her, that he was a 'sullen' and 'antisocial' child, 'unforgiving,' overly-critical,' 'conniving'...? (She talked about Gladion in rare moments, and most of what she said had a bitter tone to it, like the insult he had dealt her was deeper than simply leaving home).

    What kind of idiot was he…? To think he could swoop in between these two people, mother and child, and pretend like he could even attempt to bridge them, or salvage something of them. Just another stupid fantasy― just another stupid thought that lodged in his brain.

    He thought about the lab again.

    When did Gladion figure out his weakness…? That once he is given a thought, he cannot let go of it, no matter its absurdity. In one easy slip of the tongue, the boy planted the idea in him, the image of a Door, the imaginings of experiments being done behind his back. Ridiculous, he thought. Mr. Faba… Mr. Faba always had him present, when they worked with the beasts. For safety. For assurances.

    They wouldn't…

    But the basement pained him like an object lodged deep in his gut, nagging him, taunting him, no matter how hard he tried to suppress it.

    -

    Of course, he told himself his excursion downstairs was to prove Gladion wrong and clear up the ragged buzzing of his head. The stiff drink he stole before leaving his suite further reassured him: there wouldn't be anything, and it would just show that Gladion was messing with him.

    The elevator down to the labs moved slower than usual, or at least it seemed to. He passed by the primary labs, wound his way around the corner and found himself creeping about outside Faba's locked office. This late at night, he didn't immediately see anyone around, nor did he see any lingering lights in the labs that indicated late workers; just to satisfy his curiosity, he knocked on Faba's office door, and heard no response.

    So he turned his attention to the unknown.

    Of course, Guzma had before noticed the door Gladion accused of hosting such deep secrets. But he had always assumed it held nothing interesting. The door looked nondescript, like any other door in the lab: metal, on a sliding frame, no windows. It could be a closet, for all he knew. A card key slot rested beside it, with a small red light signifying its locked state. He looked up and saw something new, causing his stomach to sink a little: the green light over the door. In all the times he had passed by, the panel had been unlit. Its emerald shine struck him as innocuous, hardly foreboding, a fresh color, a happy color. It meant life, it meant progress.

    But it could also mean...

    The voice that coached him, sounding very much like Lusamine, whispered to him: You're letting him get to you.

    But it didn't matter. Guzma, though often an assistant, was not a lab worker, and hadn't been given a card key so that he could access the labs by himself.

    He forced himself to turn away.

    As fate would have it, though, just as he started to leave the labs, he noticed a computer screen on in one of the rooms with an Aether employee seated before it. Curious, as he had missed the sight on his first pass, Guzma wandered over. The employee had a large headset on, was tapping furiously on their keyboard, and sounded like he was in the midst of an argument, or at least a debate. He kept typing, and loudly talking, and typing again―

    Was he doing work? Guzma couldn't tell, not from the contents of the screen. In any case, the man seemed adequately distracted and absorbed in his activity.

    So, on impulse, Guzma decided to take a shot. He tapped the employee's shoulder. "Hey."

    "Huh? What?"

    "Mr. Faba… Uh, he needed me to get something out of storage, but he didn't give me his card key, and―?"

    "Huh?" The employee wrested off their headphones momentarily, but their eyes remained glued on the screen. "Ah, look…" He grunted, annoyed, and stuffed his hand down his pocket to draw out his key. "Just― just get it back to me right away, okay? If I lose it, it'll be my head."

    With that, Guzma took the card key, watched the employee put their headphones in again, and really pondered the security system at Aether, that even he could conquer it.

    -

    The labs down below did not have a particularly sinister look―it wasn't some composite of horror stories or cartoon depictions of evil basements with bubbling tubes and torture equipment. No, in most ways, it appeared much like the upstairs labs, only containing expensive and advanced fare that they used more sparingly. It hosted the trickier experiments, the sort that required precise monitoring and measurement.

    Slightly earlier that evening, it was also the site of a heated quarrel.

    "I'm only saying," Aster said, "a little vacation wouldn't kill you."

    "I do not need a vacation," Faba countered.

    The two were alone for now in the observation wing, from which they could see the few lab assistants setting up. Aster, done with his responsibilities, had taken to pacing the room with his nightly iced latte, sipping at it through a straw and making annoying noises as a result. Faba stood at a computer module, trying to get it running properly.

    So Aster continued. "You're on edge. You've been on edge. You're beyond 'edge' and hurtling off a cliff!"

    "...Hmph. Take care where you're flinging those metaphors."

    "We'll take a few days off! Go somewhere! What do you even like to do? We could visit some museums, admire some art, see a concert―eat some real food." Aster collapsed in a rolling chair and spun himself around, sipping his latte and looking aghast. "Get drunk, let loose for once."

    "If you want to go engage in silly revelry, be my guest," Faba dismissed. "I have work to do."

    Professor Aster had only been at Aether Paradise for several weeks, but he had already figured out Faba's most obvious tactic: working like a maniac when he was trying not to talk about something―or rather, not think about something. The timing had been even more conspicuous as of late; the more the wedding came to be the primary topic among the employees, the more Faba buried himself in imagined assigned tasks and snapped at his underlings. Aster tried to reason with him. "I'm not trying to pull anything over on you. I just think you need a break from this place."

    "Hmm. Yes." Faba's voice darkened with cynicism. "How very selfless of you."

    Aster read his accusation and chuckled. "All right. Maybe not totally selfless; you're right. But c'mon. When's the last time you've been on a d―"

    Faba growled a warning. "Aster."

    "My apologies! That dreaded word!" Aster lifted his hands in mock surrender and shame, then kicked back in his chair to laugh. "Poor Dr. Faba! The secrets you live with! God forbid people find out that you're―"

    Faba glared, and Aster smirked.

    "An actual human being! How awful that would be for you! Maybe you should draft a suicide note, just in case your 'dark secret' comes out!"

    Faba watched as Aster gave himself another fast spin around in the chair, looking very satisfied with himself, and sighed wearily and furiously. "Have they finishing mounting the implant yet?" he asked, impatient to get started.

    Aster craned his head to the glass panel. "Hmm. They're almost done."

    "...Will this night never end?" Faba, facing the computer, paused his typing, cursed, and slapped the desk in frustration. "This is only the twentieth time they've done it; you'd think they'd be experts by now!"

    Now that he thought on it, Aster realized that he hadn't seen Faba anywhere near a meal all day. No wonder his nerves were frayed and about to go to pieces. Aster stood up, walked up behind him at the computer terminal, and watched over him for a second. He at last put a hand on Faba's shoulder. "When's the last time you ate something?"

    Faba slapped his hand away. "Do you mind!? This module isn't booting properly, and I've half a mind to―!"

    Aster stuck his head in, glanced over the screen, and said, "You haven't desynced the alpha-beta channels."

    "What?"

    The professor planted the straw to his iced latte back behind his teeth and sipped his drink wordlessly, then pointed at the offending interface on the screen. Faba saw it, acknowledged it, and gave Aster a nasty look.

    "It's an easy miss," Aster reassured him.

    "I would have―" He muttered darkly and clacked away at the keyboard. "If you hadn't been distracting me―"

    Aster sucked his teeth, removing the straw from his mouth. "Bean, it's a minor error; there's no need to be defensive."

    Faba stiffened and ranted hotly. "I have told you not once, but many times that I do not take such asinine forms of address."

    "All right! I'm still working on finding the right one. Sue me." He twisted his brow and scratched his chin thoughtfully. "Um… Bean? Beans… Beanie. Fabs. Fab, the Fabulous―"

    "...People like you," Faba seethed, interrupting him, "are the leading cause of workplace violence."

    Aster flipped his hand, unaffected by the implied threat. "Oh, you're so sensitive."

    A female lab worker opened the door to the chamber and entered the observation area, where Aster greeted her with a sardonic wag of his finger.

    "My dear, take it from me: don't ever get involved in an office romance. It can be such a headache."

    Evidently not knowing what he was going on about, she politely assented, "Yes, Professor Aster." She turned to Faba. "Branch Chief, everything's ready for you."

    "Finally."

    "We should run the ballet cycle I programmed," Aster babbled.

    "Absolutely not. This isn't a toy, Aster. We're fine-tuning the walk cycle tonight. Cameras running?"

    "Yes, Branch Chief."

    "...Neurological readings are stable."

    Faba worked the keyboard. "...Running through basic functions. Testing responsiveness. Let's try region alpha-two first―close and open―"

    Aster, observing, stated, "...Close and open. Looks good."

    "Beta-two―"

    The scientists were so busy with their machinery and clipboards that they didn't hear the door upstairs, nor the footsteps descending the staircase.

    "Alpha-beta-one, conjoined response… Ready for walk cycle, and… Start."

    Aster heaved an agonized sigh. "...Augh, I'm starving. I'd kill for some takeout about now. An eggroll… Maybe some fried rice..."

    "Do you always think with your stomach?" Faba carelessly swept his vision to his right, and automatically uttered, "Oh, Guzma. Do you need someth―?"

    Aster dropped his latte onto the floor.

    -

    For a moment that seemed to stretch for an eternity, the three of them―plus the lab worker―stood in silence. Guzma had his eyes latched onto the test subject through the glass panel, and the others gawked at him, awaiting and dreading his reaction.

    Aster, after a second, began leaning toward the emergency phone at the wall.

    "...Guzma," Faba started to speak at last, voice slow and creeping. "How did you…?"

    Guzma, who did not intend to explain himself, craned his neck to get a better look at what was happening in the testing cell, and by the suppressed twisting of his face, they could tell what opinion he formed about it.

    "Perhaps you'd better sit down, and we can―"

    Without another word, Guzma bolted for the door. Faba instinctively raced after him, barking orders.

    "Stop!" He turned only for a second, still stumbling forward as he hollered. "Aster, call security!"

    "I―!"

    Guzma hit the door, opened it, and slipped through.

    "Aster, kill the cycle!"

    "Wait, call security, or kill the―!?"

    "Both! Both! Guzma! Guzma, listen to me, you mustn't―!"

    In the testing room, two lab assistants appeared in front of Guzma to try to hold him back. He threw his arms at them, toppling them both effortlessly to the floor and into the near wall with violent thuds. He didn't stop to see if he had hurt them―didn't care―just barreled forward, until he stood a few feet from where Pheromosa walked along the sterile floor.

    She didn't turn to him. Didn't respond when he tried calling her. His eyes fell on the most obvious source of her inattention: the large, mechanical apparatus sticking out of her forehead.

    Guzma did not have the background necessary to understand it fully, but from what he could see, the apparatus was composed of metal plates roughly the diameter of her head, exposed memory chips blinking with data input, tangles of wires, and most frighteningly, long metal screws that had mounted the apparatus directly into the carapace of her skull. It was not merely sitting atop her head, like a helmet or an extension, but in some way, it had been merged into her, become intimate with her biology.

    Out from the top of this apparatus, a thick electric cable had been tightly fastened in, connecting her loosely to a metal track on the ceiling, which ran from one end of the room to the other. The luminescent cord tugged slowly along its path and appeared to run on its power; a loud buzz of electric charge emanated from the entire apparatus, making his ears ring. The cord itself was thick, heavy, and blinked with what appeared to be small lights, pulsating in a steady rhythm.

    The purpose of the rhythm became apparent, because he watched her moving under the weight of the metal, and her steps matched the pace of the lights.

    She wasn't moving herself.

    The mechanism―the nightmarish apparatus of plates, wires, and screws sticking out of her skull―it was controlling her.

    A sensation of dread, like ice water filling his chest, took over.

    The tentacles, their teeth, their burrowing jaws and the venom flying through his veins like fire.

    He remembers still how his hands moved before him, like they belonged to someone else, and his feet walked in dizzying patterns, and his voice blistered, all beyond his control, all like someone had grabbed him and twisted him into pretzel-shaped muscle and bone.

    Sometimes, he dreams about it… Wakes up screaming, with his head feeling like it's about to explode...


    The way Pheromosa moved was unnatural and wrong; he knew her gait, so he could tell… Her normally floating, elegant steps were being dimly imitated, as if a child had seized her limbs and puppeteered her. She jerked, stepped, jerked, stepped, head bobbing uselessly, eyes glassy and drooped. The wrongness of it clenched his heart in a vise.

    He threw himself in front of her, but she still didn't respond to his presence, instead continuing her steps until her arms and legs tangled into him and she toppled over, still shifting her limbs in an even motion, like a wind-up doll. Guzma grabbed at her, and though he was unable to get her still, his hands found their way to the glowing cable that was wedged into the metal apparatus. Its pulsing glow, its rhythm―it still matched the sway of her thrashing, so on instinct, he grabbed for it, meaning to wrench it out and free her from her torment.

    "Aster!" Faba grabbed Guzma forcefully by the back of his coat. "Stop it, you don't understand―! Aster, kill the cycle! Right now!"

    The word kill floated up into Guzma's brain, above all else. When a loud whir and clunk came out of the ceiling, and the cord's light turned off, just as suddenly, Pheromosa's moving stopped. She stiffened, arched as if in pain, and went entirely limp and lifeless. Kill the cycle, Guzma had heard, and not understanding it, he screamed blindly and toppled over her. "Oh god―!" He began pulling at her limbs, and began desperately trying to pry the entire apparatus off. "You killed her―! You killed―"

    Faba flung himself forward, shouting at the top of his lungs. "No! No, you idiot―!"

    The scientist, seeing his pulling on the metal device, looked ready to faint. He lunged for Guzma's hand, and earned an elbow to his jaw for the effort. Though stunned, Faba adjusted his glasses, fumbling a second to regain his footing, and found his mind again. So in a tragic-comical spectacle, Faba launched himself yet again on top of the hysterical Guzma, pulling fruitlessly on his jacket and arms. "Stop! For God's sake―! She isn't dead; she's sedated!"

    This comment made Guzma hesitate, if only for a moment.

    "Listen to me!" Faba pleaded despairingly. He sensed Guzma's hesitation and latched hard onto his wrist. "Do you want her to be a vegetable!? Because she will be if you don't stop yanking on that!"

    Guzma had never heard that tone in Faba: a voice sick with anxiety, imploring, entirely distraught. It confused him and threw him mentally off-balance. But somehow, it also told him that Faba was telling the truth, and that his attempts at extricating her might actually hurt her. So Guzma reluctantly let go off the metal piece, but shoved Faba away, knocking him to the floor. He roared hysterically. "Get away from her!" Guzma looked to him, seeing Faba roll stiffly onto his back and groan. He gave the scientist a disgusted, betrayed glare as he pulled her unconscious form into his arms in a protective clutch. "What is this stuff? What are you doing to her!?"

    "Boy―please!" Faba hadn't gotten up yet, but gestured at him wildly from the floor. He was gasping for breath after having the wind knocked out of him. "Just put her down!"

    Out of the corner of his eyes, Guzma could see Aster appearing in the doorway, looking distressed. His expression hardened. "I ain't doin' nothing' you say! I oughta kill you!"

    "I promise―!" Faba, sweating profusely, and unpracticed in the art of hostage negotiation, struggled to phrase himself correctly. He clumsily worked himself onto his knees and reached out for her, hands shaking. "Young man, I swear to whatever you understand as holy, I will explain everything to you in short order but I need you to let go and back away before this all goes terribly wrong, please."

    ―What was that look in Faba's face? He didn't recognize it. Was it fear? Concern? Guilt? Whatever it was, it twisted Guzma up and made it hard to think straight. He held her porcelain body, feeling its warmth and frailty in his arms, and in very small vibrations, he could feel her breathing. All Guzma wanted, in that second, was to relieve her, so he negotiated. "You'll get her out of it," Guzma demanded, voice still shaking with rage. "You'll get this―stuff off o' her!"

    "Yes, of course, now please." Faba lowered his hands in pantomime. "Lower her down… On her back; we'll take care of it."

    Guzma intended to let go. For a few seconds, he almost didn't. On impulse, driven by a sudden wave of nausea and fear, he gripped his large hand to her face, and tried to press his forehead to her cheek, though he had to tangle his hair and face against the sharp metal that yet consumed her face. She felt alive under there. Alive, and tired, and in pain. Tears that he meant to keep private smudged against her carapace, and he mumbled, just so she could hear him, "'M sorry. 'M sorry."

    "Guzma," Faba said. He actually reached out to touch Guzma's shoulder, though whether it was to get his attention, or to console him, neither of them really knew.

    Guzma flinched, shook him off, and slowly worked his way to his feet, laying her flat on the floor and releasing her.

    In that moment, Faba sighed in bitter, exhausted relief. "Oh thank the heavens," he panted. He practically crawled for her, wheezing from exertion, and scooped his gloved hands under her head to straighten her neck. Guzma stared at the scientist, and eventually backed up against the wall, pressing his shoulders to its cold, metallic surface, face drained, body frozen with anger and shock. He didn't move, but watched the movements of Faba and the others carefully.

    Faba avoided looking at the boy and in one fast motion, unscrewed the cable, unlatching it. "Where the devil is security!?" he complained. "Don't we pay them enough?"

    Lab workers stood about him, looking dazed. Aster had also since approached, and wore a frantic expression to match his strained words. "Dr. Faba, are you all right!?"

    "What? Yes― I'm fine." Faba glanced upward and snapped at them. "What are you all waiting for? Demount the implant!"

    -

    It took three Aether security officers to pull the froth-mouthed kahuna into Lusamine's office, all while dodging his long-legged kicks and fighting to keep hold of his constantly tossing body. His face was so red it had nearly turned purple in color; he huffed, dragged, and struggled against the cuffs they had managed to place about his wrists.

    Lusamine groaned upon seeing him. "Oh, for heaven's sake. Set him down here." She pointed at the chair across from her desk. "Are the restraints really necessary?"

    "He started taking swings at security," Faba explained. "For full disclosure's sake, you should know they tased him a few times, as well." (He recalled vividly, but didn't report, how he himself had screamed at security for their idiocy; "What on earth―he was calm before you started grabbing at him, you unprofessional hacks!")

    "Goodness!" She gasped and approached him after he was plopped into the chair and held there by the officers. She didn't look afraid of his violent gesticulating, and instead spoke to him directly. "You've had a busy evening, haven't you, darling?"

    He did not seem to have evolved back into human speech yet, as he was still grunting harshly and throwing his shoulders.

    "Now, Guzma, would you stop thrashing about? You're acting like a child." In a daring act of bravery, she reached out and touched his head. He trembled, but quelled much of his wrestling. "I want you to close your eyes and count to thirty―darling, are you listening to me? Thirty, and do it slowly. When you're done, perhaps you'll be ready to have a proper conversation."

    He twitched, momentarily looking ready to attack her, then began swaying himself stiffly in his seat, eyes dead with anger. He could be heard mumbling numbers under his breath.

    As he counted, she directed them to undo his bindings and unhand him; they all held their breaths, waiting for him to snap and explode upon being released, but he sagged and sank his head into his lap, still mumbling and rocking himself.

    "Thank you," she told them. "Was anyone seriously hurt?"

    "Ah, no, Ma'am," one answered.

    "Good. I'm sure if he were capable of it now, he'd apologize for his brutish behavior. You may go. Faba, Aster, stay with us a moment."

    With security gone, and only the four of them left, things became awkwardly quiet. Guzma, finished counting, pulled himself upward, muscles still taut and shaking, face still a hateful red, and murder still in his eyes, though the murder didn't seem imminent anymore.

    "Now!" Lusamine broadly gestured her hands to the three of them. "Deep breaths, everyone. I know there are volatile emotions at play, but let's do our best to put them aside and―"

    Guzma interrupted, discovering language again. "They're torturin' her! They're torturin' Lady, cutting into her brain, and―!"

    Faba, to Lusamine's dismay, took Guzma's bait. "No one is being tortured! And we're certainly not 'cutting into' any brains! Madame, I take full responsibility for the security failure―we simply hadn't trained our staff―the card system is woefully insufficient―"

    "Guzma. Faba. Please. One thing at a time. Now, Guzma… Darling, I think you are mistaken about the nature of their activities. I authorized these tests myself."

    Guzma, for a second, gaped and deepened in color again.

    "Do you think I'd allow for such butchery within my own organization? Let's allow the men to explain their work, shall we?"

    Though she said 'men,' all eyes naturally fell on Faba, who looked put upon, especially since Guzma gave him an expression that very much said: I dare you to try and justify this.

    "...Oh, very well." Faba slid a gloved hand up his forehead, over his hair, down to the back of his neck, and then sighed. "When we studied the beasts' physiology, we mapped their central nervous system in excruciating detail. We subsequently found that their brains are nowhere near the complexity of those belonging to humans, or even pokemon. They have sensitive stimulus-reactivity, but no higher brain function."

    "They―" Guzma knew enough to understand the accusation, and tightened his fists. "They're not stupid!"

    Faba snorted sharply at his retort. "There's no need to take it personally, Guzma; it's just their biology. Anyhow, that's why we developed the neural implant and are now able to use it."

    Aster followed up, "The implant we're using is based on pretty crude science, really. This sort of technology has been on the market for years. Mount it into the soft brain tissues―and the electric impulses do the rest. Why, it took us only a few weeks to master a few movement cycles on UB-02F."

    "You're shocking her?" Guzma looked ready to fall apart at hearing this revelation. "You're zapping her brain!?"

    "Oh for―" Faba stomped his foot. "Yes, young man, with electricity! Which is what all brains function on, even yours, allegedly!" He turned to Lusamine. "Do you see the level of illiteracy we're dealing with?"

    "Lower your voices," Lusamine said, addressing both of them. "Nothing good will come of screaming at each other."

    As if she hadn't said anything, Guzma continued hollering. "It was hurting her!"

    Aster, a little alarmed at the suggestion, answered, "Stimulus to the brain tissue wouldn't cause pain. Why, we're not even convinced the beasts can feel pain. They don't have the receptors for it."

    This information was news to Guzma, and it confused more than it clarified. "I don't care! I could see it! I could―I could feel it!"

    Guzma flew his eyes about the room in that moment, searching for any―any sign at all―of understanding or empathy. Instead, Lusamine, Faba, and even Aster stared back at him like he was speaking gibberish.

    "I suppose―" Aster spoke up at last and tried to be supportive. "I suppose I can see how it might be a bit of a shock, seeing it in action―especially if you don't understand the mechanics of it. But you see, Mr. Guzma, it really isn't as frightening as it seems."

    "But why―?" Guzma started shaking again with anger. "Why would you do that to her!"

    Lusamine stepped in, taking his shoulder with her hand. "Darling, why wouldn't we? We can make more accurate assessments of their abilities this way; besides, what if something should happen to you? You're the only one who can manage them. What if you were to get hurt or sick? What if you couldn't control them anymore? We couldn't well release them into the wild, could we? It's so important that we have a way to work with them, should something happen."

    This logic only seemed to upset him more. "Y-you plannin' on me―! You tryin' to get rid of me?"

    "Oh, don't be silly," Lusamine scolded. "It's called a contingency plan, darling. We anticipate the worst possible circumstance, and take steps to prevent and prepare for it. It's nothing to be dramatic about." Lusamine laughed gently at his concerned expression. "Besides, I'm marrying you, aren't I?"

    But her assurances meant nothing to him. He strained out a frustrated growl. "I don't―! Understand―!" Guzma had both his hands knotted in his hair, and his words strangled with repressed emotion. "I don't why you'd do this―!"

    The two scientists looked extremely uncomfortable witnessing his breakdown; Aster nearly stepped forward, before Faba knocked into him with his elbow and hissed something at him.

    Lusamine, at last, decided that the spectacle had gone on long enough. She told them, "Guzma and I need to speak privately for a while. I'll call you when I'm ready for you."

    -

    Lusamine shut the door and said, "Aren't you embarrassed, throwing a tantrum like that?"

    Everything ached. Everything hurt: his head, his eyes, his arms, his chest. He hid himself, slouching over in the chair, and tried to disappear to spare himself of her disapproval.

    As she made her way over to the desk, she released a long, tired, disappointed breath. "...After all this progress I thought we'd made." Lusamine stopped herself next to where he sat, her shadow passing over him. He began to go quiet, and she examined him. "What happened to your hand?"

    He glanced at his knuckle, where it had been bitten and sliced open. The gauze he had wrapped it with must have caught on something in the struggle, and so the wound was left out in the open. "I… I dunno. I think I cut it..."

    Lusamine continued to look him over critically, despite his attempts at maneuvering his body away. "You're a complete mess, darling. And you look exhausted. I thought you were getting some rest? Have you taken your medication?"

    "I…" He realized then that a real migraine had since crept up on him. He winced. "I'm fine."

    "You can't expect to be in top form if you aren't taking care of yourself. Whatever were you doing downstairs to begin with?"

    In the growing pain that started in the center of his forehead and creeped out steadily, he could not come up with a lie. Instead, overwhelmed with emotion, he whimpered. "I made a mistake," he said, twisting his head downward and pressing the bones of his knuckles against his temples. His mouth gummed and started to taste sour. "I shouldn'ta… I shouldn'ta…"

    "Guzma?"

    Anger, anguish, and regret cracked his voice; he tightened his fingers at his sleeves and rocked slightly as he violently shook his head. "I shouldn'ta ever brought 'em here. I made a mistake― 'cause it ain't right, Miss, it ain't right― What they're doin' to her―"

    "Oh, my darling!" Suddenly, Lusamine spoke with vibrant, overpowering condolence; she immediately swooped in, descending on him where he sat, throwing her arms about him and shushing him. Her hands swirled through his hair and pressed against the strained muscles of his face. "No, no, no, we mustn't start talking like that! My poor little tiger. You've gotten yourself so very worked up and confused!"

    The gushing of compassion startled him, and before he had time to even process it, she purred consolations, thumbed away the moisture at the rims of his eyes, planted kisses atop his head, and pulled him into a tight embrace.

    "Oh, my sweet, tenderhearted boy," she cooed. "They're only animals."

    Alarmed, Guzma pulled his head back, meeting her eyes. "N-no!" Guzma shouted, gnarling his fists together. "That ain't― that ain't true! I know they don't look normal, Miss, but you don't know―! What it's like, when we're together, an' I can feel it, I can really feel it, Miss! They got feelings, like you and me!" Unable to come up with more words to convince her, he let his eyes fall, and allowed himself to be drawn into her again. He reached up, fingers clumsily fastening to her skirt in a cloying gesture as she patted his shoulder.

    "I understand," she told him, voice warm with sympathy. "All those weeks you spent alone with the beasts, without human company... It's only natural that you feel that way."

    "You don't…" He shut his eyes in defeat. "You don't believe me."

    "Of course I believe you! I believe that you perceive everything as you say." He didn't catch onto her careful phrasing, so she elaborated, cupping his face with her hands as she did. "But, dear… Let me explain something to you. Have you ever looked up into the sky, and sworn you could see a face in the clouds looking back at you? Have you ever seen the side of a mountain and thought it appeared to have eyes and a mouth?"

    "Um…" His memory, weakened by stress, couldn't think of a precise moment in time, but he could certainly picture it. "Maybe."

    "Well! It's a very real phenomenon. Our brains are hardwired to see patterns, Guzma. So much so, that if we stare into the abyss of random data points, we begin to see... shapes. We see faces; we see ourselves. But it's a cruel trick, you see, played on us by our minds. What we see is mere rock and shadow; it is water vapor―nothing more."

    His eyes traced the floor as he tried to understand, tried to fit together the ideas she meant to convey.

    "What do you see when you look into her? Do you see love, loyalty? Fear, pain?"

    (He thinks on those nights, with Pheromosa staring out into the sky, the loneliness of her veil, the vulnerability and sadness of her compound eyes. He remembers the first time he managed to touch her face, and the delicate, withholding flutter of her eyelashes, and the shape of her mouth, the smallest suggestion of a pleased smile.)

    "But these things―they are fantasies. Fairy tales. Do you understand? You are seeing what you want to see."

    He wanted to argue. He really did. But he didn't have the strength―the wit―the words to do it. So he went quiet and wondered if that meant she was right, after all. If his brain was a traitor to him...

    "I wonder, too," she said, voice dwindling and hands dropping from him, "what you think you see in Gladion."

    "What―" Guzma sat up, startled at hearing the name. Had he slipped? Had he said something that gave him away? He clawed at the front of his shirt and tried to deny it. "What's he got to do with―"

    "Perhaps you see a bit of yourself in him. Which really is silly. He's so profoundly unlike you."

    "Ma'am―I don't know what you―"

    "This all brings me to some unfortunate business we must deal with." Lusamine went around to the back of the desk, opened a drawer, and drew out a small white envelope. She walked back to stand over him. "Do you know what came in the mail later today?"

    He stared at the envelope as she twirled it by its corners between her fingers.

    "He must have sent it last night. I know my Gladion. He's a very strong-headed boy. He does not give up on anything so easily."

    "Miss…"

    "Where were you this evening?"

    "I was… I was in my suite."

    She frowned with disappointment and allowed the letter to fall flat on her desk, before his face. "Darling, this isn't the time to start lying to me, especially on matters so easily discovered. You left Aether Paradise, that much is certain."

    "Fine, I… I went out. So what?"

    "Where did you go?"

    Rather than come up with another lie, he shrugged.

    "Oh, my," she said, sighing and placing her hand to her forehead. "I see now. I've coddled you. It's a weakness of mine―I was too soft on my children, and now my failures as a mother have affected you as well." As she stood above him, her figure loomed almost dangerously. "Darling, I'm going to make this easy for you. I already know. All I want from you is the truth."

    Guzma, alarmed by this escalation, dug in his heels. He burrowed his hands into his jacket pockets and looked entirely unconvincing as he said, "I dunno what you're talking about!"

    He expected this battle of wills to continue for another few seconds―that she would unveil some kind of threat, and he would boast not to be affected by it before duly crumbling. He thought he had memorized her patterns by now.

    Which is why it caught him off guard when she reached out, put her hand to his hair, snarled her fingers into a clump of his black locks, and gave it a stern wrench upward.

    It was such a severe, sudden pain that Guzma released a fast, rather unmanly scream, and shoved himself upwards by his stiffened arms, lifting his body from the seat. The pain didn't let up, as neither had her pulling; he felt the nightmarish sensation of his scalp being rent apart.

    Her voice became loud, to overcome the popping of his follicles and his shocked squealing. "The truth, Guzma."

    Guzma flailed wildly for a second, almost toppling out of the chair. He flew his hands at her, grappling her wrist and trying to give it a tight squeeze, as if to negotiate release. Pulling and flopping, he wailed, "Ow-w! God! Stop; leggo!"

    His physical attempts at untangling her fingers failed; her grip remained too tight to work them apart. She gave another abrupt and sharp yank, and in response he hollered desperately, shoving his head in the direction of her pulling to slack the worst of the strain.

    "Where is the letter you stole?" When he didn't immediately stop his pathetic caterwauling, she stomped her heel on the floor. "Tell me this instant!"

    He buckled and screeched his answer. "I don't have it, Miss L! I swear!" She gave him another wrench, downward this time, and he shrieked. He bent over the side of the chair, where her pulling had sent him, until his gut pressed into the arm of the seat; he pawed and kicked his feet into the carpet in a furious, tormented rhythm. "Augh! Can't we talk about this!?"

    "What were you up to? Sneaking around behind my back―stealing―telling lies to my face― Tell me! What did you do!"

    Guzma hissed, moaned, and gurgled with agony. Finally, his strength broke and he erupted. "I didn't do nothin'―!" he insisted, hitting that whiny, whimpering pitch in his voice that she loathed but simultaneously understood to be a remnant of his childhood. "I didn't do nothin' wrong!"

    "Guzma."

    He sputtered his words out as quickly as possible. "We talked, is all! That's all we did! I read the letter and he wanted to talk, so we met up, and we talked a few minutes, that's all we did, I swear, all right? I swear!"

    She considered, for a second, letting go. She held on to follow up, "...Where's the letter now?"

    "It's in! My room! Under the bathroom sink! I swear, god, please!" At his last plea, he sounded ready to burst into tears, so to spare him his last shred of dignity, she released him. He absolutely shuddered, his entire body spasming like it had been subjected to a strong electrical shock, and he pinned both his palms against his scalp in a tight clasp, all the while sucking in air, gasping, groaning, and moaning, making quite a show of his trauma. He brought up his knees close to his chest and rocked himself in near fetal position, until the throbbing in his head could calm to a terrible, low, but just bearable level.

    Lusamine gazed down on him, incredibly unimpressed. "Now," she said, her voice drained, like she had just finished wiping up a mess from the floor, "would you please tell me what possessed you to do such a ridiculous thing?"

    "I―" He unraveled a little, and still had stars in his eyes; he had to blink them away. "He's your son! And he's kinda... I mean, won't he sorta be― "

    The idea on the tip of his tongue proved too awkward to pronounce.

    "I just wanted to explain it to him, that's all! He sounded real ticked about us, and I just wanted... to make him get it―"

    She studied his expression as he settled into a more natural seated pose, and seemed to take his reasoning into account, but eventually frowned and shook her head. "...'No higher brain function.'" She repeated the phrase over her lips, looking straight into Guzma's eyes. "Life can be poetic sometimes, can't it? You and your beasts..."

    When he didn't respond, as he didn't understand what she meant, she continued.

    "Haven't I made this clear to you? Gladion is not my son. And he certainly won't be yours."

    Guzma opened his mouth, but she talked over him.

    "Gladion has chosen to dedicate himself to my undoing," she said. "He's done everything he can to turn those I care about against me. First my own daughter―then Mrs. Wicke― Now, he's gotten his teeth in you as well! Don't you see? How could I deign to call such a monster my son?"

    "But, I was thinking…"

    "Guzma, how many times must we go over this?" She spelled out her statement as clearly as possible: "You're not very intelligent."

    He cringed, screwed his eyes shut, and pressed his hand to his neck, twisting his grip into his nape. He could still feel the force of his thoughts swelling in his head, sending a pulsating migraine through him. "I― I'm sorry― I, I try to be― I try really hard―"

    "Darling, don't apologize. It's not your fault. But it makes you vulnerable, doesn't it? It's so easy for you to be led astray, to be manipulated by others― Which is why you need me to explain things to you, and why it was so very foolish to go off and talk to Gladion by yourself." She stood over him, gazing down with a look of pity. Her finger traced his stinging hairline. "You poor thing. How he must have run circles around you, confused you..." Her finger stopped at the center of his forehead, and pressed down, a stab meant to remind him of what he was. "What notions did he plant in your head?"

    "He― He didn't!" Guzma tried to summon his strongest voice. "He said things! Stuff that wasn't right! But I told him off! I told him―!"

    "Perhaps you convinced yourself that you thwarted him, yet here we are. He told you about the lab, didn't he? And you went through the door. You let him influence you."

    Tiny. He felt tiny, chastened, used, and utterly foolish. He crumpled in his seat.

    "From now on," she began, staring him down, "I want you to be more careful about the kind of people you allow to sway you. There are people out there in the world who are toxic―who want nothing more than to destroy your happiness. I shouldn't have to tell you that such people are not to be consorted with."

    For a fleeting second, Guzma felt a pang of doubt, but he left it buried and unvoiced.

    "Now then. Guzma. You are going to go to your suite and fetch the letter for me. Bring it here. Upon your return, we'll have to discuss the consequences for your little excursion and fibbing spree―not to mention all the excitement you caused downstairs."

    Guzma sat upright, ready to argue. "But―"

    "All actions," she said, dismissing him, "have consequences. Don't you agree?"

    Automatically, but not happily, he replied, "Yes, ma'am."

    "I'm so glad you understand. You may go now."
    -

    (cont. in next post)
     

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