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Beasts and Beauties [Sun & Moon]

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

  1. dietofwurms

    dietofwurms i see stars

    (continued from previous post)-

    "It was a glancing blow, it hardly made contact―Aster, please stop."

    "I can't understand it," Aster mewled, ignoring Faba's protests and continuing to paw at the swelling forming at his jaw.

    The two stood far at the other end of the floor; they originally had lingered for a while in the hallway, but upon hearing shouting erupt from Lusamine's office, they hurriedly shuffled their way around the corner and to her secretary's desk. It was just as well: the young woman would surely report to them when Lusamine wanted them back. So as they waited, Aster promptly began to fret and express his disbelief.

    "I just can't... He always struck me as so polite, so docile―"

    After shooting Aster a puzzled look and slapping his hands away, something dawned on Faba. "I keep forgetting you haven't been here very long," he cryptically mused. "Don't you know his history?"

    "Well, I…" Aster shrugged, frowned, and brushed back his hair in a new gesture of discomfort. "I suppose I heard he was some kind of criminal, but he seemed reformed enough. But I wouldn't want to meet him in a dark alley, the way that he was…" Aster visibly shuddered at the thought.

    But Faba didn't look particularly bothered. "He was emotional," he said plainly.

    "I understand emotions running high, but the way he went after you―! He might've killed you!" He glanced in Faba's direction, hoping to get some sign of awareness to this fact, but finding none, he sighed and hopelessly stuffed his hands into his pockets. "I hope Madame knows what she's doing, marrying an animal like that."

    An unexpected twinge and inhale preceded Faba's snap. "He isn't―" Then, just as suddenly, he stopped himself, swivelling his eyes to the ceiling and heaving a tired breath.

    Aster turned questioningly.

    "I wouldn't worry," Faba amended in a growl, his words sour.

    The phone at the secretary's desk rang; when she picked it up, they didn't have to guess what message she was about to relay. She glanced up at them, smiling and saying she was ready for them.

    "Back into the lion's den, I suppose," Faba said, fastening his hands behind his back.

    In the midst of saying it, though, they heard the distinct stomping sounds of angry footsteps turning the corner, and the aforementioned "Lion" appeared, dark mane askew, teeth baring, hackles raised. Fortunately, Guzma's silent rage kept him entirely uninterested in the people around him. The two scientists, though, taking no chances, pressed close to the wall and stood stock-still, hoping he would not see them while he stormed past.

    -

    Lusamine, seated behind her desk with her hands delicately folded atop it, looked much more amenable. She greeted them both warmly before delving into business.

    "I ought to commend you, Branch Chief," she said, smiling proudly. "I heard from the others that you were quite heroic in your efforts to keep the test subject safe. Even taking a blow or two! What bravery!"

    Faba, though, didn't look willing to accept any flattery. His face and voice remained flat. "Hmm."

    "Now. I don't want you to think any of this is your fault," Lusamine said. "I am the one who miscalculated. I hadn't anticipated how strong his attachment to the beasts would become. We may have to consider a separation period."

    "Oh?"

    "I suggest Guzma be locked out from accessing the beasts on his own time." The way she said it made Faba think of mothers snatching their naughty child's toys and locking them up as punishment. She leaned back when she saw Faba's expression twitch. "What are your thoughts?"

    "Perhaps it will calm him down," Faba agreed tentatively. "Though it will affect his training."

    "An unfortunate, but necessary side effect, I think." When she still thought she saw a sign of trepidation in him, she tightened her fingers into fists on the desk. "...Faba, what's on your mind?"

    "Oh?" Faba pretended not to have been caught in deep thought. "Nothing, only―you don't think that the tests ought to be―"

    She cut him off, hearing his weaseling tone and anticipating his suggestion. "No, I don't. The tests will continue." Her eyes suddenly flitted at him in newfound chagrin. "I'm not sure I approve of this reckless sentimentality coming from you."

    "Madame, you misunderstand me," he coolly replied. "My worry is grounded in a lack of viable data. You see, we do not know what impact a separation might have on the beasts. Too much stress may alter the test results."

    "Aren't they sedated?" she countered, trying to snare him in his own logic.

    "We still have to handle them to get them sedated. We've only managed to carry on this long without incident because of their regular training regimen."

    She studied him a moment, weighing whether she ought to believe him. Her doubt became transparent when she turned to the other scientist. "Aster? Your thoughts?"

    Surprised at being called out, Aster jumped a little. "Ah! Well―! It's hard to say, really. But like Faba says―a flood of stress hormones could potentially alter their neural tissues. It's tricky business. And―well, we only have the one specimen, don't we? It's a risk―"

    "Recommendations?"

    "Erm, well―"

    Faba easily slid back in. "We have enough data to run adequate simulations for the next few weeks. We can afford to keep them in stasis for the time being."

    She tilted her head wonderingly and relented. "Very well. Do what you think is best. I trust your judgement―as always." She nodded to them and began writing out a note at her desk. "Thank you for your time, Faba. Aster."


    Out in the hallway, Aster tried to speak up. "Um―I'm a tad confused―"

    Faba growled. "Aster, kindly shut your mouth."

    -

    In the training room, lights flickered on and Guzma fumbled forward. He spent many hours in this room, surrounded by the athletic equipment and monitors. Normally, he would come here in his free time to spar and work with his partners, but tonight, he held only vague intentions, layered beneath a knotted frustration.

    He glanced briefly at the paper in his hand.

    "Letter of Reprimand," it read. He snorted, crumpled it, and chucked it into the nearest waste bin. She had already gone over the details, anyway: all the revoked privileges, all the areas of the island he would no longer be allowed to access without supervision, the monitoring of his communications, the restriction of his movements off the island, and most insultingly, a curfew, an honest-to-god curfew. In extreme bitterness, he asked just how long he was grounded for, and she tutted dismissively at his joke.

    "I might be your fiancee," she had said in a blasé manner, "but I'm still your employer. Be glad I'm not putting you on administrative suspension."

    Guzma glowered at the empty training room, dark thoughts consuming him.

    Traitors. Traitors all about him.

    Faba, who he thought didn't hold motives behind his back.

    Gladion, who had tricked him, made a fool of him.

    His own mind, which assaulted him with lies on a daily basis, showing him things that didn't exist, vomiting up unwanted memories at the unkindest moments; a mind so crippled and stupid that it could not be depended on, lest it lead him astray.

    And the beasts―in whom he thought he read loyalty, trust, camaraderie.

    Loyalty? How could he expect that? Plug them into a machine, zap their brains, and they're no longer his.

    He staggered to the PC panel system attached to the wall, and after logging in, he blearily punched in the command to withdraw Lady. Naturally, an error message appeared, so, dizzy with hatred, he chose Buzzwole instead, and the blue beast ball materialized in the casing.

    After extracting the ball and releasing Buzzwole, it took only a second for the beast to take notice of him and, as it usually did, pose its greeting. He didn't respond, only standing stiffly with his hands in his pockets, his face dark. The beast gradually lowered its arms, scurried its large legs over the training room floor, and vibrated its wings to create a curious buzzing noise. Its eyes trained on him expectantly.

    "You're real stupid, aren't you?" Guzma asked, voice low and crackling.

    Buzzwole swayed side-to-side, awaiting orders. It leaned on the tips of its mechanical-looking legs, lifting and sinking its body in a rhythmic fashion.

    "You're not even anything. You're… You're some kinda robot, you don't even feel nothin'! You just do what I say 'cuz you don't know better!"

    As his voice started to rise and sputter, the beast cocked its head at him, and this only made his body tense with fresh fury.

    "I don't know why… I thought you were anything. I got mixed up. I'm so..." He shut his eyes. His headache caused him to reach up and push on his temples while he gnashed and clenched his teeth. "You don't even know me― don't even know the difference between me an' a jolt to the head―" Pain enveloped his body, and in the fullness of that moment's agony, he lashed out, striking his foot into the nearby wall. The metal rang out, and he could hear Buzzwole hiss at its clatter.

    That noise set him off. He turned, bristled, and launched himself at the beast. Before it could understand what he meant to do, he swung his leg as hard as he could at one of its legs, and when his foot met said appendage with a hard crack, the creature let out a squeal of protest. Upon hearing it, he flew into a violent frenzy and screamed.

    "Shut up!"

    He kicked it again―rather than fight, it scuttled backwards, making unhappy, confused noises, and the more it spoke out against its abuse, the more his anger grew, and the more he pursued it, punishing it with his feet and eventually his fists. His lungs rushed with air; his heartbeat exploded in his ears.

    "Whatta you screechin' about, anyway? You don't feel nothin'! That's what they―!" After pushing one of its legs off-balance and watching it stumble, he glared hatefully into its face, trying to read its expression. Its dumb, empty face―full of nothing but big glass eyes that reflected his own contorted expression, containing nothing else. If he had some instrument available to him to do so, he could swear he wanted to kill it, to end its miserable existence. He made do by throwing his fist again, this time making contact with its arm, which swung upward, as if to knock him down, but ultimately didn't.

    This restraint enraged him. "Look at you! I'm whuppin' you, but you're bigger 'n' me! You could squash me like a bug if you wanted. So why don't you, huh?" He narrowed his eyes at it. "It's 'cuz you're dumb, right?" He tapped his brow mockingly. "It's 'cuz there's nothin' there!"

    The beast did not answer. Could not answer. It merely looked back at him, pressing its weight back at every step he took towards it.

    He stiffened and squeezed his fists at his side. His knuckles burned and began to split…

    He threw his fist again...

    -

    The front door lay open and cast a long curtain of light into the dark. Guzma felt his fists burning, stinging―he took a moment to gaze at them, seeing his bruised and split knuckles, ruddy and smeared; the coppery smell still filled his nostrils. He couldn't stop his heart from hammering.

    He watched from the road as a shadow flickered, then emerged from his house. Though the form was dark, he recognized the shape and the voice that came from it.

    "Guzma?"

    Daturo stood on the front step, looking disturbed and afraid. Guzma caught sight of Daturo's hands―there was blood smeared on them.

    "Guzma―what happened? Your father's―" He cut himself off, seeing Guzma's state. "What did you―"

    Guzma turned and bolted for the graveyard.

    "Guzma!"

    -

    He suddenly heard Faba's shrill voice from the opened door.

    "Guzma!"

    He whirled around, startled, and spotted the scientist gripping a carrying case. The man clapped the case onto the nearby counter and hurried over to him.

    "―Have you lost your mind!? What on earth do you think you're doing?"

    Guzma glowered at him, spewing breath from his nostrils. "You said they don't feel nothin'!"

    Faba was suddenly not so sure he still had any of the boy's loyalty that would normally save him from becoming the next convenient punching bag. He felt the presence of Guzma's size and anger, and stepped back. Still, he yelled forcefully. "Pain! They don't feel pain! It doesn't mean they don't feel you bludgeoning them!" He decided not to launch into a lecture on the distinctions between pain and stress. "Now, if you would halt your tantrum, would you listen to me? You need to return the beast and hand it over to me."

    "Why?" Guzma asked, voice dark.

    Faba heaved a sigh, already tiring of his vicious affectation. "Madame requests it."

    Guzma understood that the 'request' was no such thing, so after a moment's hesitation, he coldly pulled the ball from his belt, withdrew Buzzwole, and stalked back over to Faba.

    "After the system refresh, you won't be able to access the beasts for a while." Since Guzma said nothing in response to that, Faba promptly held out his hand, awaiting fast compliance, but Guzma took a moment to stare, flashing several severe emotions at him. Alarmed, he didn't withdraw his hand, though he felt the strong desire to. He wondered if he was about to be socked. "...What is it?"

    "Why'd you…" Guzma frowned, looking hurt.

    "Hmm?"

    "Why didn't you tell me?"

    "What sort of question is that?" Faba, starting to sweat, motioned impatiently for the beast ball. "Madame designated the tests as secret. 'Secret'―surely you understand that word. And orders are orders, aren't they."

    "But…" Guzma felt his fingers tighten into the ball, like he meant to crush it. He couldn't contain his feelings of betrayal. "I thought you were on my side!"

    "What!" Faba, so baffled that he could hardly speak, shoved his glasses up onto his forehead. He looked furious, and if Guzma didn't know better, he would think he had just hurt the man's feelings. "How―! How can you say something so absurd!? So puerile―!?" Fuming, he snatched the ball from Guzma's hand. "...You stupid boy! I'm―"

    The scientist quite suddenly stopped in his tracks, and, huffing with strain, swept his view around them to ensure they weren't being overheard. He leaned in to violently hiss under his breath.

    "I'm in her pocket. Don't you understand that!?"

    Guzma had no answer to that, but it didn't matter, because Faba immediately growled, turned away, slammed the case shut, and started carrying it off. Guzma, feeling like he had just missed something crucial, stammered helplessly after him. "Mr. Faba―"

    "You shouldn't talk to me," was the last thing Faba snarled at him before the door closed, leaving Guzma alone.

    -

    In his suite, Guzma keeps the lights off to stave off the stabbing pains in his eyes; he sucks down the nausea and claws through the blur of colors that his room had since turned into; miraculously, he manages to paw through his desk and find his redemption in the form of pills, little capsules of promise; by the time they reach his mouth, washed down in a flood of warm whiskey, the agony has sent him outside himself, like a ghost peeling from out of his skin. He lifts his hands to his head, feeling the invisible tangle of stinging electric wires and screws that cobbled together his thinking, those treacherous mechanisms that lied to him, and in a moment of morbid curiosity, his fingers wrap about a cord he's found, a rope of distant memory that he previously vowed to leave untouched. As he dares to tighten his grip on it, he remembers― it's the same one that flickered in his cortex earlier that night, like the flash of a dream forgotten… He gives it a horrendous yank, and he can hear a snapping sound in his throat and chest.

    As the memory falls over him, he loses time and sinks into unconsciousness.


    "Guzma!"


    "...Guzma!"


    Though Guzma, at fifteen, rivaled Daturo's height and had all the frantic energy of a typical teenager, he also had the clumsiness that came from growing too fast, and when it combined with the panic that swarmed his head, he stumbled easily.

    That being so, it didn't take Daturo very long to catch up to and corner him.

    The policeman found the teenage boy crouched behind a tombstone, uselessly trying to cower out of sight, but he made such a racket with his panting and sniffling that his hiding spot was immediately found out.

    "Guzma." Daturo brought out a flashlight and passed the cold ray of light over the ground, then to the grave. "Come on out. Let's talk."

    "I can't."

    But this excuse would not do. The policeman scratched his head, muttered to himself, and walked around, eventually standing before him. Guzma rocked himself, sniveling, and refused to look up at him, so Daturo stooped down, gruffing, "C'mon, get up," and latching onto his arm to pull him to his feet. Guzma proved too weak in that moment to put up a fight, so the cop was successful in positioning him upright and beginning to interrogate him.

    "I got your call. Where's your mother?"

    Guzma's voice was trapped at a squeaky, high decibel as he found himself incapable of controlling his whimpering. He still gaped at the ground. "I dunno. I dunno. I think― she's picking something up at the store―?"

    The cop flashed the light over him to make out his features in the pitch blackness―specks of blood glistened on Guzma's shirt, and his fists were visibly tattered and bruised. Though he could guess, he still asked: "What happened, Guzma?"

    "I… I just got home." Guzma trembled. "We― Dad and me―"

    "You got in a fight," Daturo inferred.

    "I got so mad, I got so― I musta got on top of him, and I hit him."

    Vaguely, in the fog of his trauma, he could recall his fist lifting, and falling, and lifting, and falling, and it seemed to him that it moved that way forever, a perpetual agony, a pendulum that broke open his father's head, sent it running with what his young mind interpreted as rivers of gushing blood.

    "Couldn't stop, I just― kept hitting him― I kept―" His fingers clenched at the dark in front of him. "And then he stopped moving―"

    He squeezed his eyes shut, but couldn't push away the vulgar imagery or the throbbing pain of his fists.

    "He's dead," Guzma said, and vomit reached his mouth at the thought. "He's dead, and I killed him; I didn't mean to, I didn't―"

    But Daturo interrupted him. "He's not dead, Guzma. He's got a pulse."

    Guzma found himself staring at the blood smeared on Daturo's hand. He must have… touched his father's throat, touched the jugular to check...

    "I already made a call out. Ambulance is coming soon. So are more cops."

    Though Guzma could hardly see his face in the dark, he could tell he was frowning, and strained curses dribbled from the officer's lips. Guzma felt his stomach clench again, twisting with nausea.

    "He's unconscious―I'd bet, though, when he comes to, he's not gonna hand you over to the police. It isn't his way. But if they see you like this―they'll put it together on their own. Understand? They'll arrest you. I can't cover for you this time―" Daturo suddenly lifted his head, turning toward the road, as if hearing something. They held their breath. But there was nothing.

    "Oh, god." Guzma's head wobbled; he brought his hands to his face, running his fingers into its recessed features. He couldn't stop breathing like a maniac―it made him dizzy.

    For a long moment, Daturo sank into frantic thought. A loose plan formed in his brain, enough to make him say, "Guzma. This is what we'll do. You're gonna get in the car―"

    "No―"

    "You're gonna get in the car, and I'm going to get you someplace safe."

    A moment of desperation cracked through Guzma's sobs. He started to stumble away, in an attempt to make a break for it.

    But Daturo grabbed him by the arm again, making him fumble to his knees; he pulled him up, forcing him to stand facing him. "Hey! Stop! Listen to me! What are you running for? Have I ever hurt you?"

    'Hurt.' Guzma thinks about fists that beat and clobber―palms that bruise―feet that kick. "No," he admitted.

    "Haven't I always done what I promised?"

    When Guzma hesitated, Daturo reached out and squeezed his shoulders, almost painfully. The touch made Guzma lean back―then forward―then back again, teetering on an edge of something. His sobbing started again, harsh and debilitating, causing him to convulse. Guzma gripped his aching head, crushing it between his arms until it felt ready to burst open.

    "Haven't I always looked out for you? Been a friend to you? That's why you called me, isn't it?"

    When Daturo received no answer, he sighed and wrapped his arms about Guzma's seizing body. One arm folded across Guzma's back, just below his tense shoulder blades, pressing down firmly to suppress his shaking; the other arm clutched a hand at the back of Guzma's bobbing head, pressing and nestling it just below his chin.

    "Shh. Hey. Goose. Buddy. It'll be okay."

    Guzma felt sick all over again, and the arms about him squeezed the spasms, swayed him gently. Cold passed over him, causing shudders, and in his diminishing strength, he lifted his hands and clawed his fingers into Daturo's uniform to keep upright. His tears moistened Daturo's shirt. The tips of his sneakers rubbed and dug into the dirt. Over the windless air, a distant siren let out a wail.

    "Goose. We gotta go now."

    Finally spent of his weeping, Guzma lifted his head, with eyes filmy and red, and looked up past Daturo's shoulder and into the night beyond the shade of trees. The sky rent open, black as filth, the moon a dewy eyeball that shed its pale sneer on them. He couldn't breathe, and a cloud twisted into a face of pain, its jaw unhinged in the form of a silent, gaping scream.
     
    Last edited: Apr 18, 2018
  2. TheAlpar

    TheAlpar Journey Enthusiast

    Sorry for getting to this one late; I'm without my computer for the moment and I haven't been able to read much because of it.

    Anyway, what a lovely and horrific chapter this is. I'm pretty sure that even if you cranked up the intensity and suddenly had blood and gore and violence, that still wouldn't be as disturbing to me as the entirety of Lusamine and the way she plays with Guzma. Jeez that makes my blood boil.

    The whole scene with Pheromosa and the experiment was chilling, and I like that you're exploring Aster and Faba a bit more; I like them. Even if I still distrust Aster.

    I hope Guzma's anger and distrust finally gets to Lusamine, though I won't be holding my breath for that. Amazing chapter as always.
     
  3. Chibi Pika

    Chibi Pika Stay positive

    Good lord the dynamic between Aster and Faba is killing me. x'D Every second they're on the page together is comedy gold. I don't necessarily think I'd call them good relationship material, but they're great fun to read. I also really loved the battle with Nanu! The way it was interspersed with the scenes of Colress helping Guzma figure out Z-moves was pretty interesting,

    I'm really intrigued by the way you write Gladion. He's got so many contradictory qualities from the class between his upbringing and the life he's chosen since he ran away, but you balance them well. For instance, it makes perfect sense that his writing would still be formal because that's not something he likely does much in his current life, so obviously it would build on his previous habits. He's got a bit of that same cunning and calculation as Lusamine too, but he's a lot more frank with it. Like he actually wants the other person to be on the same page, rather than dancing circles around them.

    I'm still of the opinion that there's more than meets the eye with the Ultra Beasts. While Lusamine is right--anthropomorphizing is a thing, and one that's especially important to avoid when studying animal behavior... there's still a lot of ways to get complacent and assume things based on what you know. Like the assumption that reptiles can't bond because they don't have oxytocin (most don't have social bonding, no, but exceptions exist.) Or the assumption that shellfish can't feel pain just because it operates on a different mechanism than vertebrates. That sort of thing. I like Colress's philosophy of not dismissing something just because it operates using mechanisms you don't fully understand. And given that the beasts can follow orders and express curiosity, I think there's more going on with them, even if they don't have complex emotions.

    And then there's that scene between Guzma and Lusamine.

    That was hard to read in all the best ways. Just... damn. I see we've hit the tipping point. Before this, Lusamine's put-downs and condescention was always done in an indirect, backhanded manner. Like "negging." But here it's graduated to full-frontal insults before immediately doing a 180 back to reassurance and smothering affection... tearing down any and all self-esteem and replacing it with dependence in a one-two punch. Not to mention the classic techniques of isolation, cutting off ties to others, removal of sources of comfort. Just... damn.

    ~Chibi~
     
  4. dietofwurms

    dietofwurms i see stars

    Chapter 17: Everything Will Work Out and Be Okay

    Guzma was happy here--his eyes shut, all sensation gone. If he lay here much longer, he thought, maybe he would be swallowed up for good, lost in the dark backs of his eyelids, floating in the whirling sound of rain. The pain sweetly left his body, pouring over the sides of the balcony in thick, sludgy drips; all that remained was a blissful numbness starting in his chest and branching out to every nerve ending at the tips of his fingers and toes.

    After what felt like an eternity, he peeled his eyelids open and was met with a splash of water to his eyeballs; he fluttered the moisture out and, once he realized consciousness had started creeping in, struggled to make his body and mind obey.

    He was lying on his back, almost fully flat, on a long lounge chair positioned on his balcony. Rain fell on him from every direction, saturating his clothes and smacking any areas of bare skin.

    He looked up first. The sky overhead rolled with angry, black-and-blue clouds, pushed to-and-fo by the rushing wind. The horizon proved too murky and enveloped in fog to see the islands through them, and the waves churned choppily, broiling like an ashy broth. All Guzma could hear in the midst of the torrent was the howling of the breeze pushing through the metal framework of Aether Paradise, and the pinging, splashing, dripping of rainwater.

    They had rainstorms on the natural islands, but somehow, bobbing in the midst of the ocean during one made the whole ordeal more intimidating. He began to wonder how fragile this man-made place could be--if a typhoon or tidal wave could overthrow it. But he also knew the place had been here for years; surely they had weathered them before.

    Still lying down, he stiffly angled his head to look down at his body as it was pelted by rain.

    "Musta nodded off," he lied to himself. But the liquor bottle stuck to his fingers and filling up with rainwater suggested otherwise. He felt heavier than he expected, which he supposed he could blame on exhaustion, though the fact that he was drenched to the bone probably didn't help; his clothes, a combination of a t-shirt and sweatpants wrapped in a black robe, had soaked through, and he found himself shuddering deeply from the chill.

    Guzma tried to remember how he got here―what he had been doing before he collapsed out on the balcony. Had it been raining, when he first lay down? Had he already been drunk? Had he taken something―? Every recollection remained foggy and vague, only leaving subtle impressions: the glass sliding door opening, the wind, the feeling of wet against his toes. The lost time worried him a little, but not too much, because whatever he had ingested in the last few hours rendered him incapable of feeling much at all. No pain. No panic. No racing in his chest. Just a sloppy, slurring body fumbling its way back inside the suite, trailing moisture on the carpet like a slug.

    He wrung out the excess moisture of his clothing onto the floor (maid would clean it up, anyway) and made his way to his bedroom. He shielded his eyes and turned on the light, softening its sting against his vision by pulling apart his fingers slowly. His Ariados, Pinsir, Masquerain, and Golisopod had all nestled into a tangled pile atop his bed, squeaking and kicking and snoring. Though he couldn't remember releasing them, the sight of them didn't surprise him in the least. He had taken to letting them roam his suite as of late, regardless of the damage they caused.

    Anyway, he was too exhausted to scold them for throwing this room into disarray. He limped past the bed and toward the bathroom. He stood over the sink, propping up his weight and strategically avoiding looking at his own reflection. He waited for the sudden resurgence of nausea to pass...

    Recently, he had started to lose track of the days, of dates. But one number seared into him, inescapable: the days until the wedding. Like a giant countdown clock hovering just above his vision at all times. He could never decide the emotion he ought to ascribe to it; certainly there was trepidation and fear, but as parts of him unearthed, as he remembered things, a strange hope and desperation chased him towards it. He started to think, if I just get married, I won't have to think about that. I won't ever have to look back. Mele'mele could sink into the sea and out of his life forever: his father, his mother… Hala… Daturo...

    Guzma dug his fingernails into his wrist painfully. You idiot. It was his fault, anyway. Shouldn't have picked at that scab of a memory― shouldn't have poked at it, ebbed it back into a bleed―

    But the longer he remained on this island, and the longer he had no one to talk to, the more it seemed the wound swelled in his thoughts, seeping into his waking vision. It snuck its way into his throat, like vomit crawling up his esophagus only to be swallowed down again, lingering with its bitter taste.

    He stepped into the shower stall. He barely had the strength to peel off his clothes and turn the knobs; he had to grip at the tile to keep his head from spinning.

    The blistering water hurt against his frozen limbs, but it was the good kind of hurt--the sort that meant resurrection.

    -

    The rain had died to a slow patter by the time he dried off and fixed himself. He felt better and more cogent, so he was able to get dressed for the evening and make himself just barely presentable. Finally, Guzma checked the time on the laptop and noticed something odd.

    A blip on his screen―a notification from his video call application.

    Oh, god.

    He didn't remember opening the application, and he couldn't in his wildest dreams imagine who had contacted him--or had been contacted by him. He almost considered not opening it and leaving it as a mystery forever, but his contacts were monitored by Lusamine anyway, and so there would be no escaping it.

    He crossed his fingers and pressed it open.

    He blinked hard, but his eyes did not deceive him.

    He had called Kukui. Several hours ago.

    After suffering a near-heart attack, he noted that the call hadn't been picked up, which was a slim mercy he would accept. He cursed loudly, startling his pokemon awake behind him. This was really getting out of hand. He could take waking up in the rain or his pokemon ruining his bed, but drunk-dialling old rivals?

    "Okay, whatever, just…" He spun in his desk chair, glaring at the ceiling. "Could be worse."

    At that, Guzma was ready to move on and do something else, but the record of the call nagged him persistently. He even got up, wandered into the kitchen to find something to munch on, and plodded back into his bedroom, unable to release the thought. Maybe drunk-him had a point. Maybe drunk-him had reflected on these weeks of utter isolation, devoid of conversation with anyone other than his tightly-wound fiancee, and decided enough was enough.

    Time to be honest with himself. How bad could a phone call possibly be?

    The pros: He and Kukui knew each other enough to probably carry an actual conversation--which was more than he could say for basically anyone at Aether Paradise. Kukui was also the last living soul on the Alolan islands who would still be willing to talk to him; he had burned all other bridges, and Kukui had never been particularly susceptible to bridge-burning anyway (God knows Guzma had tried multiple times before). Finally, Lusamine would likely not be able to come up with an reason to forbid such contact. Kukui was no threat to her.

    The one, big, fat con: basically every inch of his body, his self-worth, his pride, his dignity screamed against the idea like it was toxic. You are not gonna crawl to him of all people.

    But drunk-him had a better retort: It's either that, or at this rate, you're gonna start conversations with people who ain't there.

    So in a fit of defiance, loneliness, apathy, and in no small part, chemical alteration, Guzma tried to call Kukui again.

    He eyeballed the notification as it pinged--sank his chin into his propped hand--told himself that he probably wouldn't get an answer, anyway, and this whole ordeal was a waste of time. Ping… Ping… Ping… It lost his attention for a moment, and he gazed out the nearby window. What a friggin' dreary day it was; the fog and wind and rain… Nothing had color to it. Nothing had warmth.

    To his shock, a window popped up, and a video feed started.

    Crap. Shoulda thought ahead--shoulda thought of what I'm gonna say, I mean, the last time we talked it wasn't exactly

    He then realized the image wasn't Kukui, and the voice he heard wasn't, either. The voice was decidedly feminine, and far too young to be the professor's wife. "Hello, Professor Kukui's residence!"

    "Uh…"

    A whirl of white crossed the screen, then settled into a desk chair, where the image of the respondent settled into recognizable form. A wide-eyed girl stared back at him. "...M-Mr. Guzma?"

    What? No. No no no no no. This was not how this was supposed to go. He threw his hands out for the keyboard, but in his panic, forgot how to close the application.

    Lillie was sitting in the desk chair on the other end, beaming her smile into the screen. Her golden hair had been delicately looped into a ponytail at her back, and she crossed her arms over her knees with tense excitement. She let out a quick, joyous squeal at her discovery. "Mr. Guzma! It is you! What a surprise! It's been so long! And I never got to…! I've seen so much about you...!"

    He gave up on escape, instead gawking into the screen, speechless. Okay. He was pretty sure the call wouldn't be recorded or anything--that would be unnecessary--but he could not drop the feeling that this was all a bad, bad idea.

    "How is it on Aether Paradise? There's always so much going on, isn't there?"

    "Uh… I didn't…" Guzma licked his suddenly dry lips. "Hey… kid, why are you--there?"

    He had botched the question, but she took a second and came up with an understanding laugh. "Oh! I see! You wouldn't have known, would you? I'm living with the Professor right now."

    "Oh." He drummed his fingers on the desk for a second, eyes beginning to wander. "Maybe I oughta call ba―"

    Lillie steamrolled right through his dithering. The more she chattered, the more she bounced in her seat with thrill. "I watch the news every night! I try to keep track of you―how have you been?"

    "G-good," he said. "Y'know… Good."

    "The wedding's soon, isn't it?"

    For a second, he wasn't sure if he had misheard. He tried not to grimace. "Yeah… Yeah, it sure is."

    Lillie gripped her hands together into taut little fists against her chest; her entire body vibrated. "When I heard the news… I was so happy!"

    "...Really," Guzma said, unable to contain his incredulity. His eyebrows instinctively scrunched together.

    "Well…!" Lillie blushed, the blood rushing to her cheeks vibrantly visible on her pale skin. "Maybe I was a little confused at first, but I―! I think it's a good thing, that you two have each other! Of course Gladion worries… And Plumeria, she's so funny, she teases me sometimes… She asks 'are you going to call him Dad?' which is silly, really, because you'll always be Mr. Guzma to me… Anyway, I―! Things are going very well for me, so you don't have to worry!"

    "Worry…?"

    "I― I caught my very first pokemon, Mr. Guzma! Would you like to see her?"

    "Uh―"

    Before he could get a word in, she disappeared from the camera, and the sound of bare feet pattering on wood floor echoed from the call. She took a moment to call out-- Goosie! Goosie, come out!

    Guzma, cringing a little at the nickname, contemplated just hanging up.

    He ultimately didn't, though, and Lillie returned to the camera, a Yungoos draped in her arms. "Here she is! Goosie―oh, oops." Her arms briefly flailed about, struggling with a slinky of fur and teeth as the squirming Yungoos tolerated only a second of being held. A thump on the floor signified that it had successfully escaped. "Ha-ha, I guess she's a little shy! But we're getting to be the best of friends! Master Hala says I could start my challenge any day if I wanted, but I think I'll get a little stronger first--Hau is helping me--Ilima too--"

    "Uh, that's… That's great, kid, but could you…"

    "I've seen you battle on TV, Mr. Guzma! It's so impressive! It makes me want to do better―I want to be strong like you someday."

    ...Guzma didn't think anything could be worse than enduring Gladion's cynical barbs and glares of disdain, but somehow, this gushing, unconditional affection was. He struggled to form words in the face of the pain currently lancing his chest. "Oh," he said, stupidly. "Thanks… I guess. L-look, I'm sure you got things to do, so…"

    "Yeah!" Rather than slow down, she blabbed with long-repressed excitement. "There's always so much to do! I visit Ula'ula a lot! To see Gladion! Everyone's so nice to me there! I go to the library with Acerola― I've learned so much!-- and I go to Po Town, too, which was so scary at first, but Mr. Nanu is so nice--he lets me pet his Meowth and we have tea sometimes--and Team Skull acts scarier than they really are. I've made so many friends! I bet you've made lots of friends where you are--there are so many people who are visiting Aether Paradise, aren't there?"

    Guzma briefly wondered a few things--how on earth anyone could describe Nanu as "so nice," whether her brother had confided the sorts of nasty rhetoric they had engaged in during their private meeting, and what trouble this blissfully innocent, lovely girl could find herself in while wandering Po Town. He didn't voice any of those concerns. "Uh-huh. Sure. Is Kukui actually there, or…"

    "What? Oh! You're calling for him, aren't you? He's outside training."

    In the rain? Actually, no, he wasn't surprised by that. Suddenly, though, another thought hit Guzma, and he had to ask: "Does he know?"

    "Huh?"

    "I mean… Does Kukui know that you… and Miss Lusamine are…"

    "Oh!" He could see Lillie flush. "I… No, I haven't told them." A fleeting moment of melancholy crossed her face, drooping her eyes. "Professor Burnet… Has been like a mother to me. And Kukui's been so generous. I suppose I… Don't want to make them feel less important." At that thought, she cheered a little. "Maybe I'm being silly."

    "Nah, I think I… Uh, get it. I won't say nothin', if you don't want me to."

    "Thank you. Besides..." Without warning, her face and voice constricted, fluttered downward. "It doesn't… Really matter, does it? I'm not going to be able to come home anytime soon."

    "W-well…" Some buried instinct--perhaps a paternal one, though he'd never admit it, or a purely macho impulse to defend the beautiful and fragile--made him want to, more than anything, leap to her defense and protect her happiness. Guzma strained and searched himself for even the faintest bit of hope to throw at her. "After the wedding--maybe she'll wanna, you know, see you."

    Lillie looked mildly pleased, rewarding his earnestness with a smile, but also not terribly convinced. "It's okay, Mr. Guzma… I know… She doesn't want me there."

    He slouched a little in defeat.

    "How is Mother?"

    "She… She's, uh, doin' okay. She's busy."

    Somehow, his reassurance caused Lillie to tighten and twist her expression with concern. "Oh… Oh, yes, I suppose she must be, with the wedding… But…" As she thought on how to phrase herself, she bound her hands up close to her chest again, and pleaded earnestly. "Please promise… That you'll take care of her. When she's busy… She gets too busy, Mr. Guzma, and she gets tired, and that's when things can get… So you have to help her sometimes, okay? She needs someone to watch after her."

    Extremely uncomfortable, he muttered, "S-sure, kid."

    "Please don't worry about me! I'm going to stay here on Mele'mele… And I'm going to be patient. Because things will get better. They have to, don't they? And I think… I think…" Her smile returned, but looked different, tainted with something. "I hope you can be happy. And I hope Mother will be happy, too. Because if you're both happy, then… Maybe everything will be okay. Don't you think?"

    Guzma had nothing to say.

    Lillie, looking like a huge weight had been lifted from her, stood up out of her chair. "I'll get Kukui for you. It was so nice talking to you! I feel like I know you so much better now."

    He wasn't sure how that was possible, seeing as he hardly said anything. He clumsily agreed, "Same here."

    As Lillie disappeared from the screen, the room darkened in her absence. As he waited, he began to reflect on her: she was so, so unlike her mother. Absently, he wondered if she didn't take more after her father--after Mohn. He fidgeted with a pen thinking about it; he didn't even know what the man was like, so it could only ever remain a theory, but it felt odd, pondering the personality of Lusamine's previous husband. Of their father.

    A discomfort squirmed inside him. Sometimes, he felt like an intruder here… An interloper. Like he's replacing someone who oughtn't be replaced.

    -

    Dinners between Lusamine and Guzma continued to occur promptly at seven in the evening every night; tonight, he purposefully arrived ten minutes late, just to see her sitting there, expression cold with annoyance.

    "You're late," Lusamine told him, like he didn't know. A few servants flew in, placing dishes at the seat reserved for him.

    "Uh-huh."

    "An apology would be appropriate."

    "Uh-huh," he repeated, giving her a defiant glare.

    She studied him a second, smiled knowingly, and gestured for him to take a seat. "I see: setting the tone, as usual. Very well." She said nothing else as he sat.

    The dining hall used to be a source of glitz and wonder. It captured a stuffiness and formality that initially intimidated him to the point where he could hardly eat, lest he do something wrong. The walls overlooked him with fine white-and-gold, large mirrors that captured every bit of light, chandeliers glinting with crystals, floral centerpieces. But quickly, this all became routine. The colors and textures dulled. What used to be things of admiration turned to targets of his frustration and loathing.

    He collapsed hard in his seat and a servant brought his meal. The same, over-prepared, overly-complex crap they foisted on him every night. He took a few small bites, then lazily scooped around it with his fork, disassembling it, destroying whatever artistry to chef had put into it. Once the food became a disordered pile of mush, he seemed satisfied and pushed the plate aside.

    "You know," Lusamine said suddenly, "you would get more out of dinner if you actually ate it."

    "I ain't hungry." He flaunted his poor grammar, and she professionally disregarded it.

    "You say that every night."

    "Yeah, well..." He grouchily pressed the tines of his fork into the palm of his hand, until small, white impressions formed. He repeated the jabbing several times and eyed her with blatant disdain. "You're not my mom."

    She paused her own eating to examine him, noting his sluggish stupor, the droop of his eyelids, and the sourness of his expression. She came to an easy conclusion. "On another bender, were we?" She sighed to show how disappointed she was. "You may as well get all of that out of your system now, because once we're married, you aren't going to continue drinking yourself to death."

    "Okay," he said, tilting his head aggressively and drenching the word with sarcasm.

    "Must you spend every evening acting like a surly teenager? This isn't about your loss today, is it?"

    Guzma shrugged and thumbed his glass of water. "No. I don't care."

    "It was your third loss of this week."

    "So?"

    She couched her language to try and ease his hostility. "Maintaining a healthy win-loss ratio is critical."

    "If you think I'm not doing my job, then fire me," he snapped at her.

    She had lifted a bite of food to her mouth, but stopped mid-bite to chide him. "Guzma, be serious."

    "What's it even matter?" Seemingly his last line of argument, he brought his elbows up onto the table and folded his arms, slouching and resting his chin against them. He looked to her a second, measuring her irritability, then admired the condensation on his water glass.

    "That's a very productive attitude you've adopted," Lusamine said, not willing to give him the satisfaction of upsetting her.

    As she spoke, a servant emerged from the kitchen, spotted Guzma with his unattended plate, and uneasily approached. Once they stood at a cautious, appropriate distance, they cleared their throat. "M-Master Guzma."

    He lifted his head jerkily at them. "What!?"

    "Are you--um― finished? With your…?"

    "Yeah, I'm freakin' done! You can't tell!?" He shoved the plate along the table, nearly knocking it off the ledge; when the servant jumped for it to rescue it from the fall, Guzma, out of frustration and a streak of sadistic amusement, stuck his fingers inside his water glass and flicked droplets at their face, making them flinch. "Idiot," he snarled, watching them hurry back into the kitchen. He turned to steam in Lusamine's direction. "Are all your staff retarded or somethin'?"

    She watched this spectacle and looked entirely unamused. She balanced her wine glass in her hand, swirling the red liquid to-and-fro. "Darling, I'd appreciate if you didn't abuse the help. It's not dignified."

    Guzma snorted harshly and looked ready to say something in reply, but his eyebrows furrowed, and he decided to make an unrelated announcement. "I'm bored," he said.

    "Oh?"

    "There's nothing to do on this stupid island."

    Lusamine took a sip of her wine and folded her legs under the table. "I think we know who to blame for that."

    He smashed the table with his fist, successfully startling her. "Don't gimme that bull!" he frothed. "I got rights 'n' stuff!"

    "Oh, heavens." She rolled her eyes in exasperation. This was how he opened practically all discussions these days. "What is it now? What do you want?"

    "I wanna have company over," he said sternly, like it meant everything in the world.

    "We have company over nearly every night."

    "No! That ain't what I mean! I wanna invite people I know. Like, for me."

    The request made her look exhausted already. "Darling, I cannot even begin to fathom who―"

    He blurted, "Kukui."

    "You―" Lusamine started to say something, then the name hit her. She lifted her eyebrows at him, like she expected this to be a trick. "Kukui? The Professor?"

    "Yeah." Guzma saw her expression of distrust. "What?"

    Though she did not say it aloud, she had always gotten the impression Guzma and Kukui were firmly estranged. Guzma had certainly never exhibited any positive feelings about him. This was uncharacteristic, an unpredictable move on his part--and Lusamine despised unpredictability. "Oh, nothing. I only―" She shook her head irritably. "Aren't he and his wife going to be at the wedding, dear?" Lusamine had extended an invitation mostly as a formality, and hadn't expected Guzma to take any interest in it.

    "No, they… I, I just talked to him, and they can't. Stuck on some research project―or something."

    She dwelled on the fact that he had made such a transparently desperate gesture. "Hmm. That's a shame."

    "So… They should come over," he went on, trying to force her to follow his logic.

    "That would be nice," she said blandly.

    He waited a second, then slid in, "...This week?"

    "Oh, goodness, no."

    Guzma shocked her by immediately grousing. "You said they're a lovely couple."

    "So I did." She glanced up at the ceiling remorsefully. "So they are. Your point being?"

    "Then why not?"

    "Darling, it's really quite impossible. With all the last minute planning that needs doing, we're completely booked."

    "Not completely! We could―squeeze them in on somethin' else!" He frantically thought through their day. Dinners were always overtaken with banquets or parties or foreign visitors who had accents he couldn't make out. Lunches were pitifully small, usually eaten quickly between appointments. "They could come over for breakfast, couldn't they?"

    Lusamine sighed disagreeably. "Mornings are for quiet and self-reflection, not socialization."

    "One morning. Two hours, tops."

    "We're not negotiating, Guzma."

    "C'mon, Miss L! I promised they'd be able to see us before the wedding!"

    It was a lie, and a bold one, but he knew how she felt about promises. He watched her stiffen with anger and set down her wine. "―Why on earth would you make such a promise, knowing our―?"

    Guzma waited.

    His patience rewarded him; though she clenched her shaking fists and folded her arms to show her disapproval, she gradually wore down, calling on a nearby servant. "Send an invitation to Professor Kukui and Burnet. For Thursday morning, eight sharp." She shot him a stern look as she snatched up her wine again. "I don't want to hear any more complaining this week."

    A smug, satisfied grin on his face made her instantly regret her acquiescence, as did his goofy response, which he delivered while slumping back in his seat and throwing his arm over the back of his chair. "Whatever you say, babe."

    The amount of loathing she communicated with her eyes, darting them over the rim of her wine glass, was truly a sight to behold.

    -

    As if to welcome the professors, the weather on the morning of their visit lifted the recent pattern of rain, breaking open a blue sky and warm sun to shine its brilliance on the waves. Lusamine decided the breakfast would take place out on the roof terrace, which overlooked both the garden and the open sea, as the temperature was mild and the wind, quiet. While they waited, Lusamine sat beneath the parasol mounted over one of the tables, disregarding the busyness of the employees who set utensils and brought trolleys of beverages and food. She wore a floral lavender dress with a matching sun-hat, their oriental cut and design strikingly haute couture, and dark glasses that gave her the look of a woman avoiding attention. While he didn't put in so much effort, Guzma had deliberately decided not to show up in a robe or wife-beater. A simple button-down collar shirt; just to pretend he cared a little.

    "We couldn't have asked for better weather," Lusamine sighed, checking her watch.

    Was all their conversation going to be this benign? He privately hoped not. He grunted and leaned against the railing that faced the sea. He had already watched the shuttle dart inward from Mele'mele, so he knew they were on the island by now.

    Guzma supposed he ought to feel nervous, if only a little. The last time they properly spoke (not including his various public threats, and before the stilted phone call that initiated this meeting) was shortly after Kukui tried out for Captain and didn't make it. Guzma, happy to see the model kid not succeed for once, sourly mocked him for his failure; Kukui, though, didn't seem terribly bothered, laughing and shrugging and saying something about a 'plan B,' which Guzma too late realized meant leaving the islands. So, unceremoniously, and without really saying goodbye, Kukui left, dragging all their complexities, all their unresolved conflicts, out to sea.

    Kukui sent him the occasional letter, at first. But Guzma threw them away, muttering 'good riddance,' and it took only a few months for the flow of unanswered letters to evaporate.

    The worst insult, though, was upon Kukui's return a few years later. All swagger, wearing a lab coat and claiming to be a 'professor'--getting married to his high school sweetheart--settling in easily as a beloved and respected member of the community. All grown up. All happy-good-fine. He had wanted to punch the guy in the face.

    Things felt different now, though. A little. Maybe he was growing up; he wasn't sure.

    Before he could pick that apart, though, Kukui and Burnet appeared.

    As in his imagination, the couple seemed to glow when they stood together. They wore sunny smiles and colors, and Kukui's arm rested on her waist. Guzma noted two things immediately. One, Kukui was wearing a shirt for once. Two, Burnet looked ecstatic, which contrasted against Kukui's more cautious optimism.

    She carried a few bundles in her arms, which she quickly foisted off to Kukui. "Oh my gosh!"

    The petite, white-haired woman had a deeper voice than Guzma expected―crackling and lively, like a roaring fire. He realized then he had never properly met her as an adult, which made her sudden approach rather alarming. She practically ran up to him, and before he could get a word in, she threw her arms around him.

    Guzma froze. "Uh…"

    "We're here! Isn't this exciting?"

    Kukui read Guzma's expression and chuckled. "Sweetie, you're scaring him."

    "I'm sorry!" She let go and grinned at him. "But it's been a really long time, hasn't it? And now you're getting married! Congratulations!" Burnet pointed at the items she had handed Kukui, and the couple proceeded to rattle back-and-forth. "I brought a quiche!"

    "She makes a mean quiche."

    "And some champagne! And orange juice!"

    "She was going to bring wine―"

    "But then I thought, let me bring something we can share! So, mimosas! Ahh, I'm so excited!"

    When Lusamine appeared, she effortlessly took on a more vibrant posture to greet Burnet; the two embraced and spoke easy niceties.

    "You really didn't need to bring anything, dear."

    "Oh, it's fine! It was no trouble at all! How are you? Is everything―?"

    Guzma's attention on the women was briefly interrupted by a thump to the arm. He turned and saw Kukui, who adjusted the green frames of his glasses and greeted him with a simple smile. "Hey."

    Guzma stuffed his hands in his pockets. "Hey," he answered back.

    They ran out of things to say at that point, and clung to silence until the women called them over and breakfast could begin.

    -

    Guzma had forgotten what it sounded like: genuine laughter. Not the condescending, snarky, cruel, or self-important kind. As the married couple sat across from them, both gabbing away and sharing stories about their research, effortlessly taking turns, teasing each other, touching each other, giggling and chuckling--Guzma looked on them as if they were alien life-forms, new species dredged from a hitherto unknown world.

    For a time, he felt like he had done something horribly wrong, inviting such happy people here. He nearly wanted to tell them to tone it down.

    Throughout the meal, the professors carried most of the talking. Lusamine gave polite replies but seemed distracted; Guzma couldn't keep up, and most of the time, couldn't think of anything meaningful to say, so he sat back and let them fill the silence. As it went on, the contrast… Sharpened. Burnet and Kukui, all over each other; Lusamine and Guzma, seeming to just barely stomach sitting next to one another. In an attempt at bridging the gap, at one point, Guzma brazenly reached over his arm about Lusamine's shoulders, touching the skin of her arm. She stiffened, laughed under her breath to mask her nerves, and let her flesh crawl with resistance.

    He let her go after a few seconds and resumed hopelessly poking at his food.

    "So…" Kukui drummed his fingers on his leg. "There a bachelor party in the works, or what?"

    Guzma snorted, trying to keep a straight face; Lusamine subtly rolled her eyes; Burnet crossly said, "Kukui, no."

    "What! I'm just asking. It could be, you know, tasteful. No strippers."

    "Kukui."

    "All right!" He threw up his hands in surrender. "No bachelor party. Probably." Kukui met Guzma's eyes and winked.

    "I… uh…" Guzma attempted to speak, and played with his food as he did. "Wouldn't really have anybody to invite, anyway…"

    Just as he began to realize how pathetically stupid it was to say that, Lusamine gracefully inserted herself in the conversation. "Growing up on the same island together… You must have all been schoolmates."

    "Oh, sure!" Burnet sipped on what was now her third mimosa, and her face was subtly flushed to show it. "Well, these two were a little more than that."

    "Oh?" Lusamine perked up, finally hearing information that she could make use of. "You were friends?"

    Kukui and Guzma, for a second, didn't look at one another.

    But Burnet babbled happily. "You should have seen them! Running around, having adventures together―you know, those boy things: throwing rocks, pestering girls―" She gave Kukui a cross, but also teasing look. "Especially me."

    Kukui laughed, rubbing the back of his head. "Courtship's rough at that age."

    Guzma checked the temperature next to him. Lusamine sat primly upright, fork and knife balanced perfectly between her fingers. She cut into a pastry and did her best to maintain a facade of uninterest. For a while, Guzma watched her out of the corner of his eye, measuring her, contemplating what to expect. A swelling of defiance rose up in him, making him sit with a question on his lips, ready to be launched.

    He looked down at his plate, narrowed his eyes...

    ―And he said it.

    "How's Lillie?"

    Though he didn't look up, he could hear Lusamine's fork screech against her plate.

    Burnet answered him. "Lillie? She's doing fine. She and Hau spend a lot of time together… Oh, and she's caught her first pokemon, too! She's really starting to come out of her shell."

    Kukui looked like he wanted to say something, but he hesitated to interrupt.

    "She goes to Ula'ula quite a bit these days to see her new friends. They're a little―unusual, but at least Nanu keeps an eye on her." Only after divulging this tidbit did Burnet blink and realize something. "Wait… How do you know Lillie?"

    "We… uh…" Guzma carefully avoided Lusamine's heated gaze. "Ran into each other. A while back." The married couple, clearly curious, didn't let up their questioning stares, so he shrugged and elaborated, "She was runnin' with that Kanto trainer―"

    "Ah, you must mean our first Champ!" Kukui glowed with clear pride. "Yeah, that did Lillie some real good!"

    "Are they… Uh…" He tried to think of a way to not sound too eager to know. "Still around?"

    "Ah--nah." Kukui waved. "They decided to hit up another region--enter a new league. I guess they got that itch. Plenty of Champs do."

    Burnet added, "Lillie planned on going with them, but she changed her mind at the last minute."

    Lillie definitely didn't mention that, but Guzma suddenly realized he knew why she chose not to leave. He couldn't help it--his eyes swivelled to Lusamine, who met his gaze only a second before she turned away and made a desperate leap for a different subject.

    "Professor Kukui," Lusamine addressed, not entirely controlling the unnerved tremble in her voice, "How is that League of yours faring?"

    "It's great, ma'am! I was worried for a while there it would be overshadowed by your deal here, but it's actually been a good thing, yeah! Lots of visitors from around the world, all here to check out Alola! Tourism has been booming! Lots of people challenging the League, too! So I guess I oughta thank you both."

    All of a sudden, Lusamine dropped her fork to her plate and pressed a hand to her face. She swayed unevenly.

    The professors both looked to her in alarm; Guzma, not expecting it, didn't react, but fortunately she had the strength to prop herself up on the table.

    "Madame Lusamine?" Burnet reached across and grabbed for her hand. "Are you alright?"

    "Oh," she said, her voice faint, "I'm all right. I only… I feel a little light-headed." She pushed herself out of her seat. "Professor Burnet, would you walk with me?"

    "Of course… Here…" Burnet helped her up the rest of the way, and said to them, "You go ahead and talk without us for a while, okay?"

    Oh… Great.

    -

    Once they were left alone, Kukui and Guzma of course didn't immediately start talking. The eating had more-or-less finished, so they took sips of their drinks on occasion, but that was about it.

    Finally, Guzma grunted and stood up.

    He approached the railing that faced seaward and wrapped his fingers about the top bar. He leaned hard against it with his chest, so that if he dipped his head down, he could see the lower platforms of the island, dotted with tiny, white employees. He looked out from there, out into the busy sea, and in a familiarly cowardly way, waited for the conversation to be brought to him.

    Kukui, at least, had the courage to ignore Guzma's attempt at escape and join him at the railing. He threw his own dark-colored forearms over the top, and pinned one foot on the bottom of the railing in a strangely juvenile, fidgeting gesture.

    After a long while, Kukui looked over at him, judged him, and said, "Man, you look different."

    Guzma hunched over harder.

    "I think it's mostly the hair." Kukui cocked his head to the side. "You ever miss the white?"

    Guzma snorted and gave him a scornful look. "What, you wanna trade fashion tips or somethin'?"

    "Ha!" Kukui cheerfully accepted his sneering. "Guess not." He thought on something, folding his arms under his chest as he decided to share it. "...Do you remember," Kukui started, "that summer I got in my head that we were going to build a fort in the woods? Just the two of us? And neither us knew what we were doing, so by the second day, I borrowed your knife and ended up slipping and cutting my hand down to the bone?"

    Guzma sucked in a breath at the visceral memory. He gruffed, not sure where this was going. "Uh, yeah. I remember you crying like a huge baby."

    "Yeah! Man, I was freaked. Bleeding everywhere―thought I was gonna die or something―knew my parents were gonna kill me―but you were real calm. I remember that. Had me press it on something--a shirt maybe? I wanted to go home, but you convinced me to go straight to the doctor―you even walked me there." Kukui laughed. "You made me swear, what, twenty times not to say it was your knife. 'You fell on a sharp rock,' you kept telling me. Ha-ha. Man. Those stitches were gnarly. Remember that? I got a real kick out of grossing out the girls down the road…" He sighed nostalgically and slumped his shoulders. "Crazy."

    "Yeah," Guzma agreed.

    "Hey, cousin, can I―" Kukui started, then uncharacteristically hesitated, rubbing his neck and laughing over his nerves. "Can I level with you?"

    Guzma blinked at him, implying assent.

    "The invitation was a big surprise in itself, but getting a call from you? It… Threw me for a loop, there."

    Guzma wanted to say, same here.

    "Not a bad loop! A good loop, yeah? After not hearing from you in so long--and, well, it's really been years, hasn't it? Since we really…"

    Guzma had never thought of Kukui as someone who struggled to get words out. To the contrary, he had always been an easy blabbermouth. Yet here he was, tapping his chin and cutting his sentences short.

    "I wasn't…" Kukui put some thought into his phrasing, and spoke with an uncertain smile on his face. "A very good friend, was I?"

    That Kukui had the guts to put the label on it--against their unspoken rule, which had resisted the word, or left it more vague: acquaintance, neighbor, peer, schoolmate--made the statement really mean something. Guzma didn't understand why Kukui was trying to imply he was at fault, though. "Whatta you talking about?"

    "It was real crazy, yeah? After I left for Kanto--came back, ready to be a professor, and I asked around: hey, where's my man Guzma, what's he up to? And everyone tells me…" He shook his head in disbelief. "I'm tellin' you, cuz―I thought, that's not who I knew, they gotta be pulling my leg. But it was true. So it's gotta follow, yeah? I tried to say we were friends, but... We were neighbors―grew up together―all those summers we spent running around― and yeah, the trials, too. We had plenty of chances to get to know each other, but we never did, huh?"

    "We were just little kids. It's not like…" Guzma didn't know how to put his regret into words. "It's not like kids have deep conversations, or anything."

    "Yeah," Kukui assented, though he didn't sound fully assuaged. "Suppose that's true."

    "Why did you even bother?"

    "Huh?"

    "You had other friends, and I was a huge jerk to you."

    "Hey!" Kukui grinned. "You were a jerk to everybody; I didn't take it personally."

    Guzma frowned and rolled his eyes gently. "...Tch. Well, you should have."

    Kukui guffawed loudly at his crack. "You didn't like me at all, huh, cuz?"

    "No, I didn't, because you were the worst," Guzma said. "You were the worst freakin' kid."

    "Ha-ha! You're right, I was, wasn't I? I was kinda pushy, yeah, kinda bossed you around for the most part―"

    And I hated you, Guzma thought, but didn't dare say, because you were happy--happy family, happy friends, happy school-days; everything worked out for you, and I hated it.

    "Anyway. I don't know, I guess… I decided to try anyway. You seemed kinda…"

    Depressed? Pathetic? Lonely?

    "Like you needed a friend." He rubbed the back of his neck. "Kinda stupid, huh? I mean, I get it now--you just liked to be left alone. Hope I didn't drive you too crazy."

    ...Why am I like this? How had he managed to nurture such strong feelings of hatred, resentment, and bitterness for all those years against such a doofus? And now, with the guy standing in front of him, where he can see him for who he really is--just another imperfect human, with incomplete understanding, trying to make sense of the world--Guzma sees the snarled clump of anger in himself, and thinks: I'm the dumbest, biggest, pettiest idiot that ever lived. The only kid on the entire island who didn't hate his guts, and he had to push him away, because he was what, too proud? Too self-absorbed? Too jealous? (The only people he ever gravitated towards were those as damaged as he was--those who sold themselves as troubled souls.) "I shoulda―" The phrase leapt from his mouth before he could stop it, and he mentally kicked himself.

    But Kukui looked at him quizzically, which meant he would have to finish.

    So he mumbled, embarrassed, "I shoulda let… I mean, we shoulda been…"

    "Hey!" Kukui waved a hand, quick to spot and argue against his melancholy. "No need to pull a long face, cousin! The past is the past, yeah? We've got the future ahead of us, don't we?"

    ...How easy, Guzma suddenly thought, it would be to say that, if one's past was a clean thing, free of blemish--a pristine, pure glass to set on a shelf and leave unprotected.

    "So, getting hitched, huh?" Kukui, it seemed, wanted to veer the conversation back to its original cause. "You excited, or what!?"

    "...Sure," Guzma obliged, not bothering to drum up fake enthusiasm (Kukui usually had enough for the two of them, anyway).

    "I wouldn't have pegged her for your type, but―hey, what do I know? Anyway, your folks have gotta be pumped."

    Guzma slumped and shrugged, loathing that Kukui had brought it up. "Uh, yeah, probably."

    "Wait..." Kukui scratched his head. "I know you haven't stopped by Mele'mele yet, but you have talked to them, right?"

    "Everything's, everything's kind of been a rush, so…"

    "Really!? But, they're gonna be at the wedding, right?"

    Guzma turned his body for the sea. "We're not--really making this a family thing."

    "What!" Kukui hollered in saddened surprise. "You're getting married! It's so a family thing!"

    Guzma briefly marveled that he had actually managed to get Kukui genuinely upset―had he ever accomplished that before?

    "Sorry," Kukui said, sensing he shouldn't be so quick to criticize, "I mean, to each their own, I guess, but man! That's crazy to me!" He waited only a moment before following up with another apology. "Sorry we can't come."

    Guzma shrugged. "It's not like I came to yours."

    "Ha! Yeah, that's true." Kukui took a drink, then added, "You know, I tried to invite you. But I couldn't figure out where to send it…? You didn't have an address at the time, I don't think."

    "I wouldn't have come."

    "I knew that," Kukui said. "But still. I wasn't about to give up on you, yeah?"

    He saw the earnestness in Kukui's face and couldn't take it anymore. He glowered bitterly. "So, when did you give up on me?"

    Kukui knocked him in the shoulder with his fist slightly harder than before. When Guzma's expression flashed with anger, Kukui laughed in his face fearlessly. "What a dumb question! C'mon!"

    It had been too long. He had forgotten Kukui's language--his wildly physical means of exacting retaliation and praise. Guzma tried to accept the encouragement, though he couldn't completely contain his grimace.

    "Well, it's been a crazy couple of years, huh? At least everything worked out."

    "Yeah…" Guzma stared out at the ocean, which shone a blissful, jasmine blue.

    -

    (cont. in next post)
     
  5. dietofwurms

    dietofwurms i see stars

    (cont. from previous post)

    Chapter-specific content warning under spoiler tag:
    Depictions of emotional/physical abuse, and implied sexual abuse
    -

    Lusamine would not talk to him for the rest of the day, as a reprisal for his stunt at breakfast. Guzma never found out for sure if her swooning was genuine or a clumsy cry for attention, but he knew, if nothing else, that mentioning Lillie had put her on edge.

    She could not avoid him forever, however, and thus she appeared in the evening at the door of his suite, donned in her dinner gown, her face lacking only her last layer of lipstick.

    "Darling," she said, playing it cool and striding inside without asking, "have you even started to get ready?"

    As he was clearly still in his sweats and bathrobe, he figured this was rhetorical.

    "I wish you wouldn't wait until the last minute for these things."

    "...I'll be ready."

    She frowned and threw her hands to her hips, jangling with jewelry. "Unfortunately, I can't seem to count on that anymore." Lusamine must have expected him to start arguing right away, because his quiet unnerved her enough to make her say, "Are you feeling alright?"

    Guzma shrugged.

    "You look like you're thinking about something, and we both know where that tends to lead you."

    "I'm thinking…" He morosely eyed the window, choosing to ignore her jab. "About this morning."

    "Well, I wish you wouldn't." She started for his bedroom. "Did I pick out the suit I wanted for you tonight? I can't remember―"

    But Guzma didn't answer, instead fidgeting with his robe pockets, then asking meekly, "Do I make you happy?"

    Lusamine stopped in her tracks and turned, immediately furious. "How can you ask me that after today?"

    "Why won't you just answer?" he shot back.

    "Guzma."

    "It's just, they …" He crumpled his face with contemplation. "They seemed happy."

    Now that she sensed his unease, she realized she had answered incorrectly, and tried to reassure him with a placated sigh. "Not all couples are alike, Guzma. They work on different principles. To compare them..."

    "What about Mohn? Did he make you happy?"

    She blinked at him, brought out a handheld mirror from her purse, and began applying her lipstick. "There's going to be an ambassador from Hoenn tonight―"

    Guzma, overcome with frustration, dared to interrupt her. "Why do you do that? You always do that! Why won't you ever talk about him with me?"

    "What does it matter?"

    "He was your husband! Did you love him? Did you even care about him?"

    That, at last, drove her to snarl at him. "You want to know about him? Very well! Think of him as your opposite! A brilliant mind, a man of dignity and kindness! He had charisma, and charm, and I loved him more than I have ever loved anything! There, you see? Now, I would be very happy if you never said his name again!"



    Guzma felt like every molecule of air had been forcefully torn from his lungs. As if, for one horrible moment, he saw something in her he didn't recognize at all, and couldn't decide whether to pity, despise, or fear it; a veil peeked through, a mask that just slipped slightly.

    But more than anything, he felt the strangest sensation of grief--a grief unknown, unexperienced, unexhumed.

    He stood there petrified, suffocated by a weight in his chest.

    "Why are you standing there like that?"

    No answer.

    "Whatever's the matter with you? Are you drunk?"

    No answer.

    "You―!" She huffed, flustered by his lack of response, and fastened her lipstick shut. "I've had about enough of your antics today."

    Still, no answer. He trembled slightly.

    "You've become utterly intolerable lately, and this morning was just another show of it! I suppose you found that little prank amusing: humiliating me in front of company like that." She snapped her hand-mirror shut. "It took everything in me not to tell them they're fraternizing with an unrepentant thief."

    Guzma couldn't contain himself any longer. "...You know she still cares about you?"

    Lusamine turned to him slowly, knowledge dawning on her face.

    "She still―! Wants to come home even, and I don't see what the big deal would be―"

    "I knew it!" Lusamine screamed, blistering with rage. "After everything―! You've gone and talked to that nasty creature as well!" Her arms shook, and she pressed her fists together until they turned bone-white. A cruel sneer twisted her mouth. "How did you like her? Better than Gladion, I imagine." She mockingly cooed, "Did she charm you with her pretty little face? Bat her eyelashes at you? I would have thought she was too young for you, but maybe you like it that way--maybe you like girls young, nascent, budding--"

    He cringed, revolted at her vile accusation. "No; god, what is wrong with you!?" He threw aside the attack and tried to reason with her. "I don't even see what you have against her!"

    "Are you so thick-headed? Don't you see? Those two―! You see the influence they've had on you? I confess that you were once beautiful to me, when you kept your mouth shut and did as you were told, but now―! Insolent! Disobedient! Disrespectful! Their ugliness has corrupted you from afar! That is precisely how insidious and malignant they are!" For a second, she reeled in her anger, gripping her face and twisting her fingers into her locks of hair, thralled by inescapable grief. "Ruining me… They infect everything, ruin me, no matter what I do―!"

    "Are you nuts?" Guzma spat, interrupting her self-pity. "Like, are you really that mental? They're not supervillains or something! They're just little kids!"

    Lusamine dropped her hands and growled. "What has made you feel the need to open your mouth and give me your thoughts on matters you know nothing about?"

    "I know―! I know plenty, and, you know what! It doesn't matter! This isn't even about them! Listen! You oughtta just get used to how I am now! 'Cause…! When we're married, I'm gonna be your husband, and―! Things are gonna change around here! You're gonna hafta start listening to me!"

    Her eyes hardened and her voice dipped into a chill. "I beg your pardon?"

    "B-because!" He puffed up a little. "I'll be the man o' the house, won't I! So you won't! Be able to boss me around anymore, and you're gonna start doing what I say!"

    For what felt like a very long time, Lusamine stood there, eyes piercing his, hands folded before her. The lamplight cast hard shadows over her body and face, making her form angular and sharp; the darkness behind her seemed to absorb in all stray light and destroy it, folding silence into the room. When she spoke, she was quiet, almost taken in by the shadows. "Oh, dear. Are you… joking, or are you really that dim?" Her hand reached her forehead and pressed on it. "Darling, I'm afraid you're not understanding this at all."

    He felt his surge of triumph dwindle between her tapping, finely-manicured fingers.

    "Perhaps it's because you're so young… So simple and childlike in your thinking. But I've been married before, and so I can assure you, marriage does not change a person, certainly not the way you're imagining. In the most fundamental ways… Nothing is going to change between us. I will still have to run things, and you will remain inept and unlikeable―"

    He took only a moment to hear and begin to process the comment; his shoulders stiffened.

    She saw the hurt in his face and continued. "Well, honestly, dear! What do you want me to say? You're either a shrill little child, tugging on people's skirts and begging for attention, or a monstrous, rampaging animal. Neither part of your personality is particularly endearing."

    "That's―That's not--" He found himself stumbling for her, trying to think of a way to answer her.

    "And it's not to say you have no good qualities, Guzma. It's only that you lack the ones conventional people look for. But I'm a charitable woman: I've looked past your flaws--one could say, heroically endured them, at times--and I've worked with your strengths, undeveloped as they were―"

    His fists bound together and trembled.

    She saw and misread his facial expression. "There's no need to be so glum. As my husband, you'll experience certain benefits, to be sure. For instance, you'll be perfectly free to do whatever…" She made a dismissive, circular motion with her wrist. "...Fumbling around you think passes for making love. If we're to have children, it's a sine qua non."

    He flew forward, all the blood drumming into his skull like the rhythm of war. He was almost upon her when he yelled as hard as he could, "If all you wanted was for me to knock you up, you shoulda asked! You shoulda just asked, I woulda done it when we first met; I woulda nailed you―!"

    Her face turned an unrecognizable color, and she screamed in a rage. "How dare you!" Slap. "How dare you!" Slap again.

    His vision whirled and narrowed as the sharp, unexpectedly severe pain bloomed through his jaw. As he brought up his hands to meagerly defend himself, he lost his balance, and she took advantage of it by shoving him into the wall.

    He fell back… Lost track of where he was, momentarily, just long enough for her to slug him again, this time at the bridge of his nose. There was a popping sound―he felt the flood of thick moisture backing up in his sinuses, choking him―

    She hadn't stopped screaming. "Disgusting! Small-minded!"

    The pain finally powered through his initial instinct against forcefully wrestling a woman; he wrenched her arms upward, but she already had him pinned to the wall. Blearily, he cried out, "Get offa me! Get off, you crazy―"

    With a strength he didn't know she had, she twisted out of his grip on her arms and buried her hands into his chest, like she meant to tear his heart out.

    She howled in his face. "You presume to tell me what I want? Think about what you're getting! The keys to my kingdom! Riches beyond anything your walnut-sized brain could comprehend! A wife most men would kill for! Status! Power! Respect!" She raked her nails against his chest; he cringed and desperately tried to pry them off. "What were you, when I found you? An ugly, sad little creature! But I took pity on you, and I made you beautiful, didn't I?"

    "Augh, god!" He clenched his teeth, shut his eyes tight, and tried to ride out the pain of feeling his flesh split open.

    Finally, when his pained writhing satisfied her, she let go. He crumpled to his knees. He thought he would be allowed to crawl away and lick his wounds, but she huffed and gave one more blow, this time with the sharp toe of her high-heel shoe right to his gut. He yelped, then wordlessly whimpered and collapsed onto his hands.

    Once Guzma retreated―cowered, really―against the wall, Lusamine seemed to swell with new resentment. She growled at him.

    "All the time, money, and effort I've poured into you― do I not deserve some credit? Some appreciation!? I do all this for you, and you reward my efforts by whining and sniveling like a spoiled child!"

    He squeezed his eyes shut to fight the swimming colors in his vision.

    "I thought I could make something of you! Extract your potential; mold you! But now, at every turn, you've taken to sabotaging my efforts! Would you rather go back to what you were before? An unwashed thug with no future?!"

    Some of the words got through, but as for others, he crushed his hands over his ears, stooped his head low against the floor, and tried to block out all possible noise. All the things he wanted to scream―all the words bound up in his stomach, choking him.

    For that stretch of time, he shook prostrate on the floor and heaved for air, and she stood over him, drinking in this picture of him, as if it nourished her. She crossed her arms.

    "You are nothing without me," she told him. "Nothing."

    -

    For the next few minutes, she stood in front of the mirror to re-apply her lipstick, clean her nails, and fix her hair, humming a ditty as she did.

    Guzma didn't watch, but only listened to her, the notes floating in the dark like stars in his blurred vision. He sat up and looked over his expansive suite, desperate for anything to catch his attention and distract him from the agony that threatened to burst from his chest. His jaw and eyes burned with humiliation and shock. The tangy smell and taste of blood flowed into his mouth, swirling red and hot on his tongue, and now the room, too, swirled, and was red, and he wondered if he was dying.

    Lusamine broke the silence. "Guzma, come here."

    He staggered to his feet, feeling very unsteady. But he managed to reach the mirror. He tried not to look, but he caught his reflection: it sported a bloody nose, a bruise growing outward at his lower cheek and eye, and a miserable expression like that of a whipped dog.

    "Get cleaned up and dressed. Dinner is in an hour." She clicked her tongue and grabbed him by the chin, examining his reflection. "Get some foundation on that. And if anyone asks, it was a…"

    She left a space of silence, which she meant for him to fill. He dutifully mumbled, "Training accident."

    She flashed a pleased smile. "Good boy. Now, remember: smile! The happiest day of your life is coming soon. So show it."

    -

    Get yourself together
    . It was the fourth time he had muttered this to himself, and this time, it had an accusatory, hateful edge to it. Get! Yourself! Together!

    He had already spent too much time bent over the sink, reeling and trying not to vomit. The first wave of nausea hit him minutes after she went downstairs, and it left him virtually crippled, unable to walk or think clearly. Through the fog of his mental state, however, one word drifted to the surface, fuzzy but recognizable. Drink. He needed a drink.

    Guzma had to claw at furniture to keep his balance on the way to the cabinet, and his hands shook when he reached for the bottle and highball glass. But the liquor poured easily, swirling into the bottom of the glass, and washed down his throat even easier. He threw back the first shot, forcing it down―poured another, gulped on it, sucked it down in a few greedy tilts―coughed and sighed from the strength of it, but savored the sour burn and the numbness it spread to his fingers and face. His eyes watered and his nose ran, and he made excuses for himself as he dumped out another serving. "I gotta― I just gotta get my head on straight, it's fine, it's―" He slammed back yet another. He cleared his throat, inhaled sharply a few times, pinched his brow―anything he could think of to break up the knot of pain forming in his head.

    Throwing his hands about the surface of the kitchen counter, he found his pills. Surely they would send him off― Push his head into happy, fluffy clouds― He tried to open the bottle, but his hands shook, and upon wresting the cap off, the contents of the bottle flew, scattering about the floor, clacking like teeth on the tile. He swore and stooped down in an attempt to grope for the tiny, white bits of happiness―

    Then, off in his bedroom, he heard a rattle, a zap, and a thump.

    He knew the sound immediately and stormed for the room, grabbing his whiskey bottle as he did, barely managing to stay upward as he shouted hoarsely, "Goli! No!"

    Just as he suspected, Golisopod had absconded again, but this time, it squatted Buddha-like before the broad window that filtered in the moonlight. It sat and did not move―as if frozen. Even when he entered the room, it didn't greet him with its usual cry or shuffle.

    Guzma, unnerved at first, quickly flew into a rage. "What is wrong with you?" he screamed, hurtling threats and curses in its direction.

    Golisopod didn't move or respond. It sat very still in the dark, only its eyes following him carefully.

    "I've told you a hundred, million times, you can't pop out whenever you want anymore! Why don't you ever listen to me?!"

    As he yelled, and as he came to realize that Golisopod felt no remorse for its disobedience, he lost his last bit of patience.

    "You stupid bug! " He roared and chucked the partially-emptied whiskey bottle at its head, which struck it in its skull with cruel precision. The bottle tumbled to the floor; Golisopod winced, but wasn't profoundly hurt. "Go back in your ball and stay there!"

    Guzma stumbled back around. He collided with the closet, opened it, and started to tear clothes from their hangers. He couldn't remember which suit she had decided on, so he just grabbed whatever yielded to his fingers and threw it onto the bed.

    Golisopod still hadn't moved, so he started ranting again. "I don't even have time to deal with you right now! I'm running late! I'm running―"

    He felt a wave of dizziness. He wasn't sure it was the alcohol hitting him, or something else entirely, but he lost his balance and had to stumble over to the bed, shoving the clothes onto the floor.

    He steadied himself, sat on the edge of the bed, put his head into his hands, and wept.

    He thought it might be endless; he felt there was no bottom to it, this outpouring and torrent of grief. He sobbed uncontrollably at first, pinned his head with his arms, trying to contain the wracking that shook his shoulders. It hurt to breathe―his head and chest still felt like they might explode any second―he cried, and gasped for air, and cried some more, and just when his vision closed in and he thought he might pass out, it stopped.

    Mostly stopped, anyway. For a time period that stretched out much longer than his hysteria, he pulled himself achily upright and continued snivelling, shaking in the aftershock, and blinking back tears.

    "Ugh, god." He was sure he was a horrible mess by now, smeared with tears, mucus, and blood. He tried to clear his vision by brushing his hands over his swollen eyes. "S-stupid." He could hardly hold his head up, he was so exhausted; he collapsed forward, pressing his face into his hands at his lap. "I'm s-such an idiot, such a―"

    Something put hard pressure on his arm. He jumped, having forgotten that Golisopod was there.

    "Ahh! God!"

    Golisopod nudged him again sternly.

    "You scared the―" He didn't bother to finish scolding it, only throwing himself over it and blubbering all over again. It took a minute to regain his senses and slide back down, weakly trying to make amends. "You ain't hurt?" Golisopod shoved its head into him; he touched its forehead and smoothed his palm over its shining shell. He smirked through his tears. "Nah, you're good. Us boneheads know how to take a beating, huh?" He planted his forehead onto Golisopod's and rested it there for a moment. The pain that had throbbed in his head minutes ago had mostly subsided. Miserably, he wrapped his arms around its neck. "I'm sorry… You shouldn't hafta be stuck with me."

    Golisopod wickered sadly and nibbled on the edge of his robe.

    Then, like a weight had been lifted, he felt himself separate from everything else. His room became a self-contained universe, dark and closed off from outside forces; he felt no sense of time, or responsibility, or even remorse. Suddenly, the things he would have sworn were life-and-death minutes ago all ebbed away, leaving him with a strange peace. So he sat. Felt the sensation of floating, suspended in a void.

    He watched the darkening form of Mele'mele sitting on the sea, blinking its lights, and sinking into shadow. Then, suddenly, he felt the tight, gravitational pull of it.

    "It'll be okay."

    Guzma, still suspended, still spinning, tried to get up. He held onto Golisopod to steady himself.

    Again, with more certainty, he sputtered it, eyes on Mele'mele. "It'll be okay."

    Why does it never work when he says it? No matter the times he chants it aloud, screams it, the phrase remains limp and powerless. It used to be a salve, an anesthetic in the face of the unspeakable...

    Pain bloomed in the shadows, so that he couldn't see it―but he felt it like a living thing, its hot iron, its sting, its wetness, its remembering. He crawled on the floor and he found it under the bed, stuck in his flesh like an ingrown thorn.

    "It'll be―"

    -






    There was a bruise on Guzma's wrist. That's what caught Uncle Daturo's attention that bright and humid afternoon, when he spotted the boy walking home from school. Kukui, who usually walked with Guzma, had stayed after for soccer practice, so Guzma was alone for once, walking the dusty route back home.

    Uncle Daturo―well, really, Officer Daturo. All the kids on Mele'mele called him Uncle. He was nice. Always nice. Bought him things. Gave him rides in his cruiser. Made dad back off. And he listened. He really listened.

    "Your dad hitting you again?"

    Guzma wouldn't answer.

    Daturo reached over from the driver's seat of the police cruiser and put a hand on his knee.

    "Goose, you can tell me anything."

    "...I know."

    "What are you so afraid of?"

    Guzma shrugged.

    "Aren't we friends?"

    The hand was still on his knee. He stared at it while its palm moistened with sweat, and agreed, "Yeah."

    "Look--I'll talk to him for you. It'll be okay."

    Magic words, casting their spell: Yes, Guzma realizes, everything, everything will be okay.

    For a while, Guzma thinks there's so much to feel that he didn't want to feel. So he focused on sensations outside of himself and his struggling to breathe in the suffocating heat―outside of the hand that started on his knee and the clacking of the menthol drop against Daturo's teeth―and instead on the songs of birds outside, on the warmth of the sunlight through the windshield, on the smell of strawberry in his ice cream. In the path of light, he could see particles of dust flying through the air, as busy as hungry insects.

    So, for those minutes: light, and warmth, and song, and strawberry.

    ...

    Guzma's thin legs, which had not yet hit the growth spurt that would arrive in the sixth grade, dangled over the passenger's seat. His feet were bare now―he had shed his sandals to the floor of the cruiser, after kicking his feet together too much and squirming his toes against his ankles.

    The ice cream cone had started to melt and drip all over his hands. He tried, meekly, to put it to his tongue, but the flavor had changed. It tasted like… ashes. Like nothing.

    He shut his eyes and tried to imagine disappearing, not ever having existed―he thinks about floating away, away from here, into the atmosphere, into the dead of space.

    "Goose." Daturo glanced over at him, then reached out to comb his fingers through Guzma's hair, which had gone slick and tangled with sweat. "Finish your ice cream, huh? You're getting it everywhere."
     
  6. Chibi Pika

    Chibi Pika Stay positive

    So. Uh. That chapter was really something, huh?

    I was a fool. I feel utterly bamboozled. Tricked. Deceived. Hook, line, and sinker.

    And the worst part is?

    I didn't even realize it while reading the chapter.

    Maybe it's because the scene with Guzma and Lusamine was just so damn heavy that I was emotionally exhausted by the end of it. So I felt like I'd gotten through the hard part, so to speak. Dropped my guard. And hey, it's a Daturo scene, those are always nice. Or maybe it's because it was 1 am by that point. Whatever the reason, I somehow, completely and utterly failed to realize what was happening. Until (Until!!) I happened to browse your tumblr. Saw that post highlighting all the foreshadowing leading up to Chapter 17. Felt a tingle of apprehension crawl through me.

    "Hang on... why are you juxtaposing those scenes. No. Don't tell me... But I like him, don't tell me he's going to...." *Re-reads the chapter.* "HE ALREADY DID??!?" D8< D8< D8<

    And I really should have known. I got like halfway there. It was obvious from the start that the physical abuse was from his father, but the narrative really didn't seem to be implying that the sexual abuse was. Which... y'know... clearly would mean that it had to come from somewhere else. And yet for some reason I didn't follow that train of thought to its logical conclusion. I was too distracted by his father to put too much thought into that unanswered question.

    Because by that point I'd already let down my guard. I walked right into the trap. The trap that I was actively looking for by the virtue of already knowing what the chapter would contain. AUGH.

    This chapter destroyed me, which is the best thing I can hope for when fic reading, as it's what I myself aspire to do as an author. Well done.

    ~Chibi~
     
  7. dietofwurms

    dietofwurms i see stars

    This is a good point--for those not in the know, you may want to consult this tumblr post (link) to get your deductions sorted out.
     
  8. dietofwurms

    dietofwurms i see stars

    Chapter 18: Bad Hand

    "Well," Officer Hitchens drawled, a cruel smile splitting his face, "look what the cat dragged in."

    All the cops' eyes turned to Kahuna Nanu.

    The police officers stationed on the various islands of Alola didn't mingle much―that is, Mele'mele's cops didn't fraternize with Ula'Ula's, and so on. But there remained a tradition, going as far back as Nanu could remember, of a bi-weekly poker game in the back offices of the Mele'mele station, which Nanu would, on occasion, attend. The group was normally small, maybe six or seven at most, and tonight appeared to be no exception. The room swirled thickly with cigarette smoke, and Hitchens headed the table, flanked by five officers in open-shirt uniform, each lounging with cards before them and cans of beer piling at their sides.

    "Or should I say cats."

    Nanu wiped his sandals on the floor. "You always were a terrible comedian, Hitch."

    "Sweet Almighty, Nanu. It's been awhile, hasn't it?"

    Nanu briefly glanced over the group. He knew them all pretty well, if not too well. Two of them were retired cops, like him―grizzled, both divorced by now and looking worse for it. The other three were resident cops, still active. And there was the head officer of the Mele'Mele station, Hitchens, who had been around as long as Nanu, but still clung to his position like it was the only thing keeping his black heart beating. If there was anything in the world you wanted to know about the residents of Mele'mele, Hitchens could to tell you about it―in lurid detail.

    Nanu hated their guts; they were all slimeballs. But like they say―birds of a feather. Besides, being a cop got you used to hanging with slimeballs. You learned to work with them, and get what you wanted from them.

    He breathed in through the smoke, stepped toward the table, and smirked at their array of red-eyed faces. "I woulda thought you boys were busy with that missing persons."

    "Is that what you're here for?" Hitchens shook his head in mock disgust. "And here we thought you missed us."

    Nanu pulled out a chair for himself. "Only place I've ever hoped to see your ugly mugs is the obituaries."

    "Funny you say that," Hitchens chortled. "We've got a dead pool goin' on you. Wally's already out―thought for sure you were gonna kick it last year."

    "Yeah?" Nanu whistled in sympathy. "Sucks to be you, Wally."

    Wally flipped him the bird.

    "Mind if I join you?"

    "Just in time. This round's about done." Hitchens waved to the dealer and said to the cop next to him, "Get him a beer."

    The card table shook on uneasy legs, but even with the force of another can of open beer being slammed down and Nanu crunching up against it as he settled in his seat, it remained upright and the game rested undisturbed. As the dealer puffed on a cigarette and began pulling the final card for the going round, Nanu gave Hitchens proper respect by addressing him first with small talk. "So. How's the wife?"

    "Still a shrew," Hitchens said. He went ahead and raised--like he always did. "How're your kids?"

    Whenever he talked to other cops, that's what Team Skull was inevitably called. 'His kids.' It wasn't like he had any biological ones, so there was no room for confusion. He answered coolly, "Still brats. Kinda boring without the boy, though."

    The round ended, and Wally collected his winnings; they didn't talk much, but went ahead and started a new round, dealing fresh hands.

    As Ernesto, one of the other retired cops, contemplated his first bet, he suddenly whistled. "Still hard to believe even two years later, huh? A whole town, out just like that."

    Hitchens grunted unhappily and scratched his stubbled chin. "That Guzma kid oughtta count himself lucky he didn't try that crap here―I woulda dragged him out in the street and broke his head open. Ula'ula cops sure are a buncha pussies." Hitchens looked at Nanu, measuring him up. "Not you, though. You were the only one I liked."

    Nanu, not flattered, checked his cards with his thumb. They weren't promising. "Didn't come to get my dick sucked, Hitch."

    A few choice snorts rose up out of them.

    They made their bets, tossing in their coins and bills. When it came Nanu's turn, he shrugged, called, and tried to fish for what he wanted, casting his red eyes over the table. "You find the kid yet?"

    Feet shuffled under the table, and Hitchens growled. "You wanna talk shop at poker night? Cripes, Nanu. Kill me 'fore I end up like you―retired and still sniffing around. Why don't you get a hobby?"

    "My hobby is watching you bumble around like idiots."

    "Kid isn't even missing," Wally interrupted. Though Hitchens shot him a glare, he continued, "He's at his folks' place. He got there a little while ago."

    "I see." Nanu studied their indifferent expressions. "Well. That sure ain't on the news cycle. You gonna call it in?"

    "Why?" Hitchens said. "He'll be gone by morning―that's how it goes with that freak show. Then it'll be somebody else's headache."

    "The depth to your laziness," Nanu intoned, "is truly astounding."

    He sipped on his beer and waited for any response, but as he expected, none of the cops were particularly hurt by this accusation. Hitchens hadn't stopped giving him a suspicious look, though, and asked between the next round of bets, "So. When'd you get here?"

    "Hmm? Oh. Been at Hala's all day. Big meeting. I'm stayin' at the motel up the road."

    "What?" Ernesto eyeballed him like he just said something scandalous. "You got some woman we don't know about?"

    "...Pretty keen on dying alone, thanks. Saves me the alimony."

    Hitchens gave him a slippery, dark grin. "I always figured you were drowning in it. All those teenage runaways―pro'lly come runnin' to you with their daddy issues―"

    This brought a nasty curl to Nanu's lip. Before he had to say something brutal and threatening, though, Wally cut in to save him. "Why bother with that when he works with Kahuna Olivia?"

    A few whistles and affirmative grumbles greeted this comment, and Nanu shook his head disapprovingly. "For the record: you're all disgusting."

    "Like you're some paragon of virtue."

    "That's fair," he acknowledged, "but I stand by it." He rather eagerly changed the topic. "Lemme know if you make a move on the house. I'll tag along."

    Hitchens was surprised by the offer. "You sure about that? The family's loony-tunes."

    "Yeah, but I know the kid."

    "That's right," Hitchens said, "I guess you would. You know the parents at all?"

    "I've run into Witt once or twice."

    "With your cruiser?"

    Nanu, not at all shocked by Hitchens' blatant disdain, relented, "Unfortunately, no."

    Hitchens croaked a laugh and snuffed in a drag from his cigarette. After puffing out the smoke in small, sputtering clouds, he at last shrugged indifferently. "Hey. You wanna come slum with us, that's fine by me. Just don't be disappointed when he ain't there tomorrow."

    Throughout the rest of the game, between the tapping of feet, scratching of shoulders, wheezing, and beer-sipping, Nanu continued his dance of talking and prodding, talking and prodding. With enough alcohol in them, and with few other topics of conversation available, they offered their insight into the sudden stir of activity at Aether Paradise. At some point in the last few hours, a shuttle boat had broken away from its harbor, containing a single passenger; it then stopped to drift in the middle of the waters dividing the islands, and by the time Aether sent out another shuttle to collect it back, the boat was bobbing, unmanned and empty.

    So when Aether staff realized they could not locate their kahuna, the whole matter became a frenzy not only for the Foundation, but also for the police.

    Hitchens was not impressed by all the fuss. "Lord. They're acting like we're about to bring out hounds and helicopters."

    Finally, the poker game ended, winnings were split appropriately, and the men began to pack away their belongings, some pulling on jackets for the cool midnight air, some carrying their beers out the door with them. They chatted on the way out, and the two retired cops tried to invite him to hit up the local bar, but he declined. The front door shut, the graveyard shift started with a pair of younger cops sitting at the front desks, and Hitchens retreated to the back office for reasons unknown.

    Nanu, at this point, could have left the station and had what he needed.

    But for the kahuna, as he lingered at the front of the station, contemplating his next move, loose thoughts drifted back into the forefront of his mind. The thoughts proved coarse, unfriendly, and bitter to taste, but he had only ever delayed them, not disputed them.

    So finally, he decided that tonight would have to be it.

    Finishing the last of his drink and chucking its container into the trash, he started for the back office. The door had been left open, revealing the tiny room packed with ancient file cabinets, loose papers, and styrofoam cups. He could see only the vague shape of Hitchens' back as he was bent behind the desk, digging through a lower drawer.

    "Hitch."

    Hitchens sat up startled at being pursued into his office. "Huh?" He looked at him, clearly not expecting him to still be here. "Nanu. You need something?"

    "Question for you."

    "Yeah?"

    "This missing persons. It's gotta drum up some old memories for you."

    "That ain't a question. But sure." He rubbed his head. "Can't tell you how many calls we used to get out to that kid's house. At least we used to be able to kick them over to Daturo. You remember him?"

    "Vaguely. Guess I've heard things." Nanu lifted his eyes a second. "Come to think of it, that name…" With a quiet hum of thought, he tilted his head. "When Po Town fell… I read the report on the kid's last night home."

    "Ah, yeah, sure. Daturo was the first one on-scene. He had some kinda in with the kid; hung out at the house quite a bit up to then."

    "Whatever happened to him?"

    "You don't know?" (Truth be told, Nanu didn't track the comings and goings of the police force staff much anymore.) "He transferred out a few years back."

    "Transferred, huh." Nanu knew the word enough to take it as a euphemism. "That for any reason in particular? Didn't think you'd wanna boot a 'pillar of the community.'"

    "Huh? 'Pillar'! Shoot, Hala tell you that?" Hitchens belted out a vindictive laugh, then complained hoarsely, "He was a frickin' layabout. Never at his post. Didn't do his paperwork. All he ever did was wander around the island, play ball with neighborhood kids, and flirt with housewives." For a second, Hitchens looked Nanu over. "All right, you old dog. What is it? We both know you want something, and it ain't two-bit gossip."

    "Me?" Nanu shrugged innocently. "Just curious."

    "About what?"

    "What else? You said the kid's home. What do you make of that?"

    Hitchens mused, sighed through his nostrils, and started to tap a pen against his hand.

    "He ran, Hitch. Ran and didn't come back. Kids don't do that for no reason."

    "You're half-right," Hitchens said. "But it ain't as earth-shattering as all that. He's been home before."

    Nanu scrunched up his eyes. "...Really."

    Hitchens grinned at the realization that he knew something Nanu didn't; his voice got smarmy with this secret knowledge. "No joke. Not a lot, mind you. But it's happened three… Maybe four times. Mostly in the first few years--when he was still adjusting, I guess. Same thing every time. Shows up out of the blue; moves in for a day, maybe two at the most; Witt and him start screaming at each other, and he's out the door again."

    "Anything physical go down?"

    "Nah, I don't think so. Just howlin' like two tom cats." By Hitchens' exasperated sigh, he looked like he was developing a headache just thinking about it. "Maybe their last fight knocked it outta their system."

    "Hmm. Quite the night, wasn't it?"

    Hitchens started plucking papers together to shove into the open drawer near his feet, and didn't respond. Nanu kept going.

    "Report I read on it was a bit odd, though. Had holes… You know, it said Daturo called it in, but he wasn't found at the scene? Nobody could find him for almost two hours―"

    The drawer slammed shut, and Hitchens huffed. "You getting at something?"

    "You know what I really hate about Alola?" Nanu searched his expression pointedly, suddenly making the other officer uncomfortable. "Don't get me wrong. It's home, and all. People are pretty decent here. But on these islands… People seem to think being naive is a virtue."

    "Who's being naive?"

    Nanu blinked slowly at him. He could tension wrinkling Hitchens' face, but he kept his speech eerily steady. "No point in trying to sweep it under the rug. I've done my homework."

    Hitchens growled, showing an abrupt moment of irritation, "Should just come out and say it, Nanu. I don't care if you are a kahuna; I ain't gonna tap-dance to your cryptic B.S."

    "I play my cards close to my chest," Nanu said, shrugging. "You should know that by now, Hitch."

    It would be easy, Nanu thought as he watched Hitchens stiffen in his seat, to ascribe this man with more devious intentions than he really deserved. The Mele'mele head officer chronically avoided certain things--his life motto was: ain't my business. Not to suggest that he lauded any given behavior, or ignored it, or even found it tolerable. Indeed, he tracked the sins of every person in his vicinity with obsessive dedication. (Simultaneously, paradoxically, his other motto was: you didn't hear this from me). No, he was another man steamrolled by the Way Things Were; whatever scruples had once lived in him had since been packed away to make room for survival. He kept his head down. Nanu could judge him for that strain of cowardice. But he'd be a hypocrite for it.

    With time, and pressure, and a steady gaze pursuing him, Hitchens kicked back in his chair, drummed his fingers on his desk, and began laying down his first line of defense.

    "I'm just repeating what I've heard. So don't shoot the messenger."

    Nanu snorted and stuffed his hands in his pockets, signalling his laying-down of arms. "Hitch, the day I shoot you, I promise it'll be for a proper reason."

    -

    Earlier that night, Guzma's mother screamed when she opened the front door.

    It had taken much longer than Guzma anticipated to reach shore; he hadn't planned ahead, exactly, beyond the two-step process inspired by an errant, desperate thought. Sitting in his room, staring at Mele'mele, all he could think was: I have to go. And then, I'll have to take a boat. I'll have to…

    Not much more thought went into it. The escape didn't even feel real, or climatic, or particularly meaningful. No. It felt like a long walk--a long, long walk at sea. He figured leaving the boat might lend some mystery as to his destination, though he hadn't guessed how quickly they would notice his disappearance and put everyone on alert. By the time he reached Mele'mele, after an almost thirty-minute swim gripping Golisopod's back, a patrol car parked at the edge of Hau'oli city was ready to spot him.

    He didn't notice. Wouldn't have stopped, even if he did. The gravitational pull proved too strong for him. He trudged through the city, hood up, dark glasses on, and face pointing down, and by the dark of the evening, found himself on the dusty path up the hill towards home.

    The house looked the same, he thought. But the shape of its plain white facade seemed… Sagged, almost worn down beneath the weight of memory. The yellow swing, looking solitary and ghostly, still swayed gently in the breeze crossing the yard; the windows glowed with harsh light like eyes agape; and when he stood on the front step, it was as if time itself rolled back, casting old memorized shadows on the blue grass. Shadows of running. Shadows of hiding, pretending, and wishing.

    It took him forever to get the courage to knock, and he pulled his hastily-packed duffel bag more firmly over his shoulder as he waited for an answer. So first he heard the shuffling of feet, then the unlatching of the lock, and finally, the screaming.

    Cringing at the noise, he nonetheless stole a few seconds to examine his mother, though against the shadows he could see her imperfectly. Some features remained plainly recognizable: premature gray hair from stress, chestnut skin, soft and plump body, voice constantly on edge. She was native Alolan and shorter than both himself and his father by several inches, and for all his life, he only ever remembered her cleaning up after him and deferring to them both. Though he hadn't seen her in years, she didn't appear to have changed much, especially by her outburst of hysterics.

    "Mom! Geez, you tryin' to wake up the whole island?" Guzma ducked in through the door, seized her by the arm, and shoved her inside along with him, hissing for her to quiet down.

    "G-Guzma! Oh my god! What―! Is it really you, is it―"

    After pushing her into the kitchen, he flew back around to shut the door and breathe a sigh. "Yes, obviously, okay, it's me―! Look, is Dad―"

    But before he could manage to start questioning her, she threw herself at him, wrapping her arms about him in a tight, non-negotiable embrace. Her face pressed into his chest, muffling her passionate gushing, and her arms had caught his against his sides, so that he could only lift his forearms to meekly pat her on the back. "I can't believe it…! Oh, oh, my baby boy's home…!"

    He frowned, lifted his eyes to the ceiling, and mumbled, "Aw, Mom, c'mon…"

    He expected this to carry on a little while longer, so he was caught by surprise when she let go and gave him an aghast look. "Guzma! You're soaking wet!" She wasn't wrong; Golisopod was not particularly buoyant.

    "Uh, yeah, I know. Mom―"

    "You're dripping all over the floor."

    He snorted hotly. "Mom! Would you listen!? Is Dad home?"

    She put her hands to her hips, and suddenly looked uneasy. "N… no, not yet. What's going on?"

    Privately, Guzma thanked the stars. He no longer had reason to fear the man, but he didn't feel up to seeing him at the moment.

    "I've― I've heard all kinds of things!" She began fretting. "And then I had to find out you're getting married! You couldn't tell your own parents? Couldn't send us a letter or a phone call or―"

    He decided to cut her off. "I'm staying for a few days."

    "O-oh! You―" She put a hand to her mouth. "Well, of course you can, if you want, but…"

    "I'm gonna change," he added bluntly, bumping past her without excusing himself.

    "Do you.. Do you need me to…"

    He didn't turn around, only briefly noting the state of the house: everything carefully arranged, doted upon, and in its proper place. If nothing else, his mother knew how to maintain outward appearances. He grimaced and couldn't contain a sour note when he said, "I think I remember where my room is, thanks."

    -

    Behind the slammed door, he dropped his bag unceremoniously on the floor, then glanced about in wonder at his room.

    His bedroom was untouched, a time capsule that had captured a moment in time long gone. The same bed, covered in the same worn sheets; the same stereo collecting dust; the same desk, dresser, and end table. Even the chair at the desk seemed to be at the exact same angle he left it in years ago. It took a minute or two to reorient himself, to make it feel like he wasn't standing in the middle of a museum exhibit rather than his own personal space.

    First, he kicked off his soggy shoes―then peeled off his socks―then had to sit on his bed for a second, until the present dizziness could pass. As a new headache emerged, he removed his dark glasses and set on them on the end table, and began to knead his temples with his fingers. He had to do it carefully as to not push up against the nasty bruise that had swelled up at his left eye; at least the redness at his jaw had mostly subsided, and the bleeding from his nostrils had dried up.

    The mattress springs sagged from disuse; he leaned over to reach his long arm for the bag, which he rifled through to find at least one pair of trousers. His upper body remained mostly dry, so he only ended up changing out of his jeans and hanging them to dry over his desk chair.

    "Guzma?"

    He suddenly heard his mother on the other side of the door. Before he could answer, she barged in without so much as knocking. Thankfully, he had finished dressing, but he was just about ready to start cussing her out.

    "Guzma, did you need clean towels? I have some here―" She took one look at him in the clear light of his bedroom and cried out in shock. "My goodness, what happened?"

    He looked uncomprehendingly at her.

    "Your face!"

    "Oh." He reached up, poking at the tender bruise at his eye. "Nothing, it… I sort of, fell, and―"

    "You sit down; I'll get some ice."

    "Mom, don't―"

    She disappeared before he could stop her.

    "Augh!"

    When she materialized again with washcloth in hand, he knew better than to physically resist. All her pent-up mothering made her no more pliable than an iron bar. He snorted, sat on the bed, and petulantly whined as she pushed his face around to get a better look.

    "Mom, it's nothing."

    But she persisted, eventually pressing the ice to his upper cheek. "What did you say happened?"

    "I fell."

    Her voice descended into an almost-whisper, shaking slightly. "You should be more careful." After a second of dabbing the bruise, she sighed nostalgically. "It feels like it was just yesterday―you coming home with all sorts of cuts and bruises."

    I left home with some, too, is what he wanted to say, but he bit his tongue.

    "Go ahead and hold it there."

    "Okay, okay. Geez."

    Once she released her hand from his face, she gave him a remorseful, longing look; she fidgeted with her hands until she spotted something else she could do. She turned, approached his dresser, and carefully worked her knees down onto the floor. For a second, he didn't know what she was doing, but when he saw her pull open an empty dresser drawer and begin to open his bag, he leaped to his feet.

    "Mom, stop," he said, getting irritated. He reached down and grabbed her by the wrist. "I can unpack my own bag, all right?"

    "Are you sure?"

    "Yes."

    As soon as she stood to her feet, she looked him over again and asked, "Are you hungry? Do you want something to eat?"

    He groaned. He had forgotten how annoying her persistent helpfulness could be. "No, I don't. Look, ma, I'm kinda tired? So I'm just gonna go to sleep, okay?"

    "Oh… I see."

    He waited, then started waving her impatiently toward the door. " Night," he said.

    She finally got the hint and reluctantly slunk out. "Let me know if you need anything," she insisted, before preparing to shut the door behind her. "Good night, dear."

    -

    Finally.

    Alone.

    Truth be told, he didn't plan on sleeping quite yet. His nerves were shot, and once peace and silence returned to the room, his hands started shaking again. So he got up, still keeping the ice at the tender eye socket, and approached the window to throw it open.

    For the first time in a long time, he was able to suck in the night air that drifted out from the berry fields, their blossoms tainting the wind with a sickly-sweet floral scent. The nocturnal insects roared their approval, filling the night with their cacaphonic suites, by their clattering of legs and wings. The grass looked soft and unkempt. He rested his arms on the windowsill, admiring the moonless gloom, and found himself remembering the times he spent out in this yard, chasing Wimpod and Spinarak around, trying to get his mind off whatever chased him. He felt some measure of surprise in realizing that his parents had yet to remove the swing-set or adapt his room into storage space--after what, four? Five years now, since his last attempted visit?

    He thought--very briefly--about releasing Golisopod, or even the others in his party. But he knew Golisopod would be both too large to fit in his room and too unhappy; it had few happy memories of this place. And the others would busily fill in space, creating noise and clamor and…

    He twisted his eyes shut, breathed in the cold air, and retreated from the open window.

    Guzma collapsed down onto his bed, smelling the mustiness of unused sheets and pillows. He tried to get comfortable, but he had outgrown his bed, and in order to fit, he had to bend his knees and rest his soles against the footboard. As he lay there, contemplating the blank white ceiling, he fought against invading thoughts.

    "It'll just be a few days. I'll get my head on straight―" He frowned and threw his arm against his forehead. "I don't like it, but, what am I supposed to do, huh?"

    He decided to stop arguing with himself, but not before another voice crept in, like a sleek, velveteen cat:



    You're nothing without me.



    His chest started to itch. He distracted himself from it by turning his face toward the end table and reaching for the nearest trophy. He ended up lifting and dusting off the cobwebs from the silver one, from the last tournament he ever entered. With his thumb, he cleared the thin layer of dust from the plaque at its bottom.

    'Guzma,' it read. 'Second place.'

    Gonna put that on my tombstone, he thought bitterly, replacing it.

    The rest of his room contained scattered evidence of the hobbies most closely aligned to the angry, lonely, sad child: comic books and ancient action figures stuffed under the bed, a stereo piled with CD's of bands he'd now be embarrassed to confess to have liked, a sketchbook in a desk drawer littered with dumb cartoon doodles and graphic designs, an array of pocket knives and box-cutters, trading cards, and his bass guitar, jammed back in his closet behind boxes of junk and left to rot. In his exhaustion and unwillingness to sleep, he ended up getting out of bed, digging the guitar out, falling back onto his bed with it settled on his lap, and plucking its strings boredly. His muscle memory had left a long time ago, so that he could just barely remember a few chords, and of course the strings had slacked and gone horribly out of tune. He didn't attempt to make anything sound appealing, but focused on fiddling his fingers on something to release some nerves. He wondered, absently, if he still had his amp somewhere, but he wasn't about to make the extra effort to find it.

    He sighed, thumped a couple more strings of notes together, then apologized to himself for the discordance. "I was never good at it, was I?"

    It struck him, as he said it, that he could make the same comment for just about every hobby represented in his room. Each thing had been taken up, tinkered with, then thrown back in the closet or drawer when he found he was not a master in its craft.



    ...Nothing.



    Guzma bit the inside of his cheek and snarled to himself. "Whatever." He ditched the guitar against the side of the bed with a clang, pushed off his jacket until he was down to a mostly-dry undershirt, turned off the lights, and fell back into bed. He yanked the covers over himself, folding his legs against his chest to fit himself comfortably, and decided he could sleep forever, and that would be okay with him.

    But his mind raced, and rest didn't come easily. After nearly an hour passed and he was only just beginning to fall asleep, he heard the front door of the house open and slam shut. A muffled conversation between his mother and father followed. He couldn't make out any words, but the tone was clear. A rumbling of disagreement, then a few shouts of anger―then thudding footsteps, their bedroom door slamming, and silence again. The house remained quiet the rest of the night, so Guzma tightened his covers and allowed his consciousness to fall away.



    …Goose.



    ...you've got…



    ...blood... your clothes…







    ...



    ...



    He sees his father's face, twisted like a gargoyle's, all teeth and flesh.

    He feels a starburst of pain break out at the back of his head, hears someone screaming at him, accusing him. What-is-wrong-with-you?

    He faintly recognizes Lusamine, off in the distance, in her nightgown, crouching in a dark corner, soaked and cold.

    He sees his bedroom. The shadows on the wall begin to drip and ooze with moisture, gummy and surreal, until the blackness becomes tentacles roping the walls and pawing for his bed, pulling on his legs and pleading with gurgled, drowning sobs.

    ...see it… in you… please…

    He tries to kick it away, but it's immaterial, like a ghost, and soon it's moaning, wailing, pooling the weight of its gelatinous body onto his chest until he can hardly breathe.

    guzma… please… need you… we see… in you...

    As if his arms are suddenly freed from something, they shoot out, burying his fingers into its soft body. He tears and rips. It squeals in pain, bites his arms and legs, twists its tentacles about his throat. The thorny fangs dig into his neck, but he powers through that, too--until his fingers wrench and split open the soupy flesh, spilling its watery innards out over his chest, all shiny and glistening with human teeth and wet hair, and the further it sinks into him, the more he smells the suffocating stench, and the more he sees: faces and eyes, black and biting as spiders, and...

    White hands, clasping over his mouth.

    And the voice, drilling into his skull, the Nihilego's roar:

    GUZMA

    GUZMA

    GUZMA



    -

    He jerked awake to the sound and sensation of his fist hitting the wall.

    Guzma's heart hammered, all the way into his head and fingertips. He was drenched in sweat. Panting. For a moment, unable to move. Then sensation returned, and he awoke enough to find that he had returned to a long-lived habit. In the pitch black, he ran his finger along the wall, feeling the different notches in the plaster. Some were small. Others, larger. He found what he thought must be the one just created with his fist, a large, cracked depression that still stung his knuckles.

    He counted them. They were numberless, an infinite, starry field of rage-filled dreams, lashings-out of grief, the outbursts that came when he ran out of words. He tried, for a while, to remember the exact moments that birthed them, but in his exhaustion, he couldn't.

    It was too early to get up. He looked at the clock and found he'd only managed a few hours sleep before waking up in a flop-sweat. Go figure. Can't even sleep right. He felt the swirl of compounded stuff deep in his gut, spilling over, entering his mouth with a bitter taste. He tried to reach for his bag, where his pills were. But it was too far away, and he didn't have the strength or will to get up and retrieve them. So instead, he shivered and flipped himself over, trying to sink past the dizziness and nausea by burying his face in his pillow.

    For a long time, his thoughts spiralled outward, then downward, deeper, and deeper into misery. Each thought compounded with another, more self-defeating mantra, until he reached the very bottom of his spirit, and he prayed that he wouldn't have to wake up again... that dreamless sleep would just swallow him forever…

    -

    Despite everything, morning still came.

    Upon opening his eyes and seeing his bedroom ceiling, the first thought that floated through his mind was: I'll be late for school.

    And though it took only a few seconds for him to blink back the lingering sleep and realize that no, that wasn't his problem anymore, in that fleeting bit of time, the room seemed to have expanded in size, fitting him perfectly. By the sunlight coming through the open window, everything was so, eerily familiar. The pattern of light on the wall. The sound of fluttering birds. The faraway clack of buckets being hoisted by the berry farmer next door as he made his morning rounds. Everything felt hushed, like the earth had been draped in cotton. Only when Guzma tried to move his feet did the room shrink back into real-life size, because he immediately had to un-wedge himself from the undersized bed frame. His clunky movements also reawakened his hearing, sensitizing him again to the unpleasant sounds of his own breathing and cracking joints.

    "Ugh."

    Had he slept? He felt a heavy grogginess, and the blankness of memory that implied he had, but he didn't feel rested at all. At least no headache greeted him yet.

    His stomach suddenly growled in protest, and it was then he realized he hadn't eaten since lunch the day before. Faint with hunger, and woozy from discontented sleep, he unwrapped himself from his blankets and slowly crawled out of bed.

    He opened the door quietly so that his mother, who stood over the stove in the kitchen, didn't hear him. He scratched his chest--regretted it when his nails hit the sore scabs--and sniffed, overcome with the smell of food. He glanced about to see if his father was up yet, but couldn't see the man anywhere in his field of vision.

    His eyes hit the wall for a second. The same pictures on the wall. The same smiling boy looking back at him, pretending…

    At last, his mother turned and saw him.

    "Oh! You're up!"

    She had reason to be shocked; he had never been a morning person. He winced at her excitement and shuffled over, stiffly sliding himself into a chair.

    "Do… Do you want some breakfast?" She gripped her serving spoon with both hands, shaking with intent hopefulness.

    "That's why I'm here," he said, perhaps a little too grouchily.

    Her face brightened with relief, and she whirled back around, as if given the opportunity to serve royalty. After a quick minute of prep, she placed his breakfast before him, which was usual fare on the islands: a generous pile of rice topped with sizzling meat and fried egg, all slathered in brown gravy. I've forgotten what real food looks like, he thought, pulling the plate towards himself. In a fast swoop, and without a word of thanks, he sliced off and shoveled monstrous bites into his mouth.

    Though he smacked and slurped like he had never learned any manners--somehow, being in this house threw all of his training right out the window--his mother continued to watch him, aglow with strange pride. She finally took a seat across from him, and eventually, he realized how intensely she was watching him. He swallowed his current morsel, wiped his mouth free of gravy with his hand, and bunched up his shoulders defensively. "Uh… Whatta you starin' at?"

    "Oh…" She blinked and shifted her feet apologetically, but didn't break eye contact. "It's just… It's good. To see you. You've grown so much..."

    "Okay," he said, squinting at her. "Well, you're creepin' me out."

    As if not hearing a thing he said, she glanced over his bare arms. "Goodness, you're skin and bones. Are you eating enough?"

    He nearly ended up making a crack about her weight in retaliation, but before he could lower himself to insulting his mother, the door to his parents' bedroom opened.

    Father emerged.

    He was fully dressed for work: hair clean and combed, pink polo shirt tucked into khaki pants, modest timepiece at his wrist. Since Guzma had left home, his father had clearly gained weight and showed signs of more pronounced aging. A little more hunched over. A little slower. Some gray hairs mixed with the brown. Somehow, Guzma kept imagining his face still twisted in some horrendous, bashed-in horror, but the wounds had healed over forever ago, and whatever bones that once snapped had since fused back into familiar form. He still wore his lax, disinterested expression, as if nothing ever surprised or amused him.

    Once he approached the table, the father and son locked eyes. All calm drained from the room.

    "Good morning," his mother said.

    His father didn't regard her at first, instead sealing his eyes onto Guzma. "So," he said, taking in a weary breath. His voice sounded as dry and overbearing as ever, and he tucked a hand into his pocket as he talked. "Look who's decided to grace us with his presence. Not too much of a big shot to visit us little people, huh?"

    "You must be so busy," his mother interrupted, looking to Guzma. She suddenly appeared nervous. "I'm sure you would have come sooner, if you could."

    To Guzma's immense displeasure, his father followed up by pointing to his eye and snidely inquiring, "There a story behind that?"

    Through clenched teeth, Guzma answered, "Not really."

    "Hmm." That, as it turned out, was all his father had to say on the matter. He saw her sitting and looked mildly irritated by it. "Breakfast coming?"

    "Give me just a minute," she said quickly, jumping to her feet and turning for the stove.

    His father stood there, seemed to calculate something, then broke away and approached his wife from behind. He watched her scooping food onto the plate for a moment, and she seemed only vaguely aware of his presence, because when he suddenly reached out and grabbed her by the hips, she jerked in surprise.

    "Good morning to you, too," he grumbled, pressing against her, making throaty, warm noises. He whispered something else into her ear as he wrapped his arms all the way about her waist, gripping her tight.

    His mother tried to laugh it off uncomfortably, as she didn't want to make a scene, but Guzma could not contain his offense. He instinctively pulled a disgusted face, lifted a hand to ward off the sight, and whined childishly, "God! I'm like, right here! Trying to eat!"

    His father immediately untangled himself and flashed his son a condescending look. He jabbed, not without a smirk, "How do you think you came into this world, huh?"

    Guzma dropped his fork onto his plate, mortified. A disproportionately intense grinding of chagrin hit his gut, and he glowered up at his father, ready to flip the table and fight.

    "Witt," his mother pleaded. "Please."

    "What! He's about to be married, isn't he? He oughta know these things."

    "I know," Guzma retorted, burning with humiliation. "It's not like I'm a little―" What was happening right now? He felt himself shrinking again, folding back into being the burdened, belittled son. All the leverage he thought he would have, all the power―how did it mean nothing? In his anger, he lashed out. "Look, I really don't need to hear about you two bumping uglies!"

    His mother gasped and nearly dropped the plate in her hand. She rarely scolded him, but this shocked her enough to make her admonish him. "Guzma! Honestly!"

    Fortunately, though, Guzma felt satisfied in having said it, and his father seemed equally satisfied to have gotten a rise out of him. Without another word, his father trudged over to his chair, sank into it, and raised a newspaper over his face to scan its contents.

    His mother hesitated in the face of this armistice. She made a peace offering in the form of the plate of food, then followed by a mug filled with black coffee, both of which she placed beside his father. She saw Guzma still eating and asked, "Do you want anything to drink? I could make you some―oh, that's right, we don't have any hot chocolate in the house right now―"

    Guzma could hear his father grunt behind the newspaper; he flushed. "Mom―it's okay, I'll drink coffee now."

    "Oh?"

    His father had the guts to chuckle and lower his paper, reaching over to scoop a bite of food with his right hand. "Getting engaged has grown some hair on your chest, huh?"

    Guzma chomped on his tongue. C'mon, he pleaded inwardly. You've only been in the room with him for five minutes. He practiced his newly-learned acquiescence. "Yeah, I guess so."

    It worked―sort of. His father didn't taunt him any further, at least.

    His mother brought him his coffee, and he drowned it down with milk until it turned a pale, hazelnut color. It still tasted bitter and awful, but it was warm to his raw throat and helped push the drowsiness of poor sleep aside.

    His mother got the courage to try conversation again. "How long are you planning on staying?"

    Guzma just shrugged and gulped his coffee.

    "Did you have any plans? Maybe you want to meet up with old friends?"

    He knew his mom knew, like everybody did, that he didn't have childhood friends aside from Kukui, who really only half-counted anyway. He shrugged again, starting to look exasperated. "Not really."

    "Maybe you should go visit Hala while you're here. I'm sure he'd like to see you."

    Guzma heaved a sigh and rested his chin in his hand. " Mom. I can't see Hala right now, okay?"

    "Well, why not? You're both kahunas now."

    "It's not the same," he growled. "All right? Just butt out."

    She read his hostility and puzzled over it. "When did you two have a falling out? Oh, I'm so confused." For a second, she glanced over to her husband, hoping to find some sign of mutual curiosity, but Guzma's father tucked behind his newspaper even further to signal he had no interest. "So… What have you been up to?"

    "You watch the news?"

    "Well, of course I do, but―"

    "Then you know what I've been up to."

    A little crossly, she countered, "I'd still like to hear it from you."

    "Yeah, well…" Guzma didn't finish, but took another swig of his coffee, signalling that he had no answer and didn't intend to give one.

    "Besides. The things they say about you--I know a lot of it isn't true."

    ...This again. Guzma tried not to audibly groan. His mother had a mental block whenever it came to her family--a deluded refusal to believe anything distasteful about them, even if the truth stared her in the face. Of course her precious little boy couldn't be the leader of some horrible criminal enterprise.

    She immediately read his expression. "Is something the matter?"

    Guzma dropped his mug on the table and scowled at her. "Whatta you talking about?"

    "Well― you show up all of a sudden― no explanation of where you've been all these years, you can't even tell us how long you expect to stay― I just think we're owed some kind of―"

    He finally snapped. "Mom, do you ever stop talking!?"

    ...And his father, as if the last several years hadn't happened, dropped his paper and returned to his old habit: he snipped at his wife rather than defend her. "Leave him alone. Doesn't have to explain anything if he doesn't want to."

    So his mother, outnumbered, went silent.

    For the remainder of breakfast, they ate in stark silence, unable to stomach words. His mother eventually retrieved her own food and sat down, taking nervous and occasional bites. Although the men had since sank into reserved and slumped quiet, she kept darting her eyes between them, like she expected a break in the peace at any second, and her fingers wrapped tightly about her cutlery.

    It was right before she once again mustered the courage to speak that they all heard the sound of a car driving up the road, its tires crunching the gravel.

    "...Oh." She put her fork down. "Who is it?"

    Guzma had a feeling, and as such, brought his coffee mug back underneath him, clutching it like death.

    His father noticed his nerves and pounced. "You expecting somebody?"

    The car parked. The sound of its doors popping open followed.

    His father sighed and lifted himself from his chair to go check on the identity of their unannounced visitors, cautiously checking out the window first. Then, upon seeing who it was, he let out an outraged snarl, locking eyes with Guzma. "What have you done now?"

    Guzma didn't answer, only bolting upright and launching in the direction of the front window. He pushed aside the curtains and peered out: officers. Several of them.

    With his silence, his father only became more agitated. "You on the lam or something? What are you trying to pull, here!?"

    "I'm not―!" Guzma swallowed hard against the bile, choosing to growl and bang his fist against the glass rather than argue. "Augh!"

    "Hey, watch it!"

    "I'm outta here," he declared, heading straight for his room.

    "Hey!" His father yelled after him. "Where you think you're going, genius? They'll snatch you right out that window, if that's what you're thinking."

    The officers started knocking, and this, combined with his father's sarcasm, drove Guzma to turn back around and roar, "You wonder why I don't come home? The second I show, you call the cops on me!"

    But his father folded his arms, snorting at him. "I didn't call anybody, boy."

    The officers knocked again--more insistently this time--and as the father and son exchanged glances, their mutual loathing paused just long enough to realize that the mother had been silent this whole time; almost at the exact same moment, they turned to look at her.

    She avoided their looks at first, pawing her food with a fork and pretending not to notice.

    "Mom…"

    His father planted a hand on his forehead and heaved an overwrought sigh. "...God's sake, Malia." He went for the door, muttering darkly to himself about his 'morning gone to crap.'

    So Guzma followed up by screaming at her. "'Really glad to see me,' huh!?"

    She cringed. "Guzma―"

    "You want me locked up or what!?"

    "It isn't like that! On the news…" She looked at him, pleading. "They thought you were hurt, they thought you were in some kind of trouble, so I just―"

    "Good morning, sir. We're here to―"

    "I know why you're here," his father snapped. "Don't think you're coming in."

    "I wanted them to know you were okay!"

    "Are you stupid ? You've screwed everything―!"

    "Just tell me what he did," his father gruffly requested, placing his prominent body in the doorway to block anyone from either leaving or entering.

    "I didn't do anything!"

    A young policeman helpfully corrected, "Technically, there's grand larceny involved. But they aren't pressing charges."

    His father was the first to yelp about it. "Stealing!? What are you stealing for, don't you have money!?"

    "I borrowed!" Guzma snarled at him. "I borrowed a boat, okay? It's not a big deal!"

    And as the cops looked on rather helplessly, the household of three erupted into a loud, heated argument that could not be controlled. They yelled, launched accusations, complained, attacked each other's faults, and just when the police honestly contemplated locking all three of them up to save them the trouble of sorting anything out, a voice arose out of the fray, sounding mildly irritated.

    "What's with all the noise?"

    They all turned for the door--and saw two officers part to make way for Kahuna Nanu, who walked up on the front stoop with his familiar slouch and grimace. Though dressed less formally, still in his open-shirt uniform and flip-flops, crooked posture signalling that he came of his own accord but still didn't like it, his presence changed the house and its inhabitants immediately. Guzma's father instinctively backed up, and Nanu entered through the doorway. The room fell quiet. The kahuna looked first to Guzma, momentarily softening his expression to greet him.

    "Hey, kid."

    Guzma didn't answer; he only tensed, like he had been compromised.

    "No smile for me?" Nanu teased, now also glancing over to his father.

    The father was first to respond verbally, and huffed angrily. "Nanu? What are you doing here? This isn't even your island."

    Nanu looked more amused than insulted, and raised a single eyebrow at the grown man. "Put it back in your pants, Witt; not gonna start a measuring contest with you." He waved at the officers, explaining, "I think I got it from here, if you don't mind. All right, folks. Let's hear it from the beginning."

    -

    Nanu felt a headache coming on.

    Almost immediately after the other cops left him to sort things out, the three stooges went back to bickering, yelling, and throwing insults around. The mother seemed to be at the center, flummoxed and defending herself on both sides; the father cycled between barking things at his wife and Nanu; and the kid slung accusations and obscenities at his mother.

    Nanu had attempted several times to get a word in, to no avail.

    He rubbed his head and swallowed a deep, nasty groan.

    This… This is why I always kicked domestic calls to somebody else.

    As Nanu watched them squabble, he tried to isolate the problem. Witt was being obnoxious, as usual, but clearly holding back―the guy never showed his true colors while sober or in front of outsiders. Malia was hysterical, but he couldn't really blame her, what with her being shouted down by the men of the family. So he turned his attention to the kid. Guzma was in the midst of a foul tirade, louder than either of them, hurling the nasty stuff right at the woman who raised him.

    Criminy. Nanu waited for Witt to have something to say about all this, but the father stood by, either content with it or too lazy to intervene.

    Nanu slid up next to the kid, trying to gently interrupt. It didn't work.

    Remember your training . Told yourself you wouldn't.

    Then, Guzma decided to go there . After his mother said something that especially infuriated him, he growled, "Stupid b―"

    Oh, screw it, was the last thought that shot through Nanu's brain, before his hand instinctively shot out, cuffing Guzma smartly on the back of his head. The kid squawked, sputtered an epithet, and suddenly, all the shouting ceased. After the initial shock wore off, Guzma turned to him, murder in his eyes.

    But Nanu, older, smaller, and somehow more threatening, glared him down. He snarled harshly. "The devil's gotten into you! Talkin' to your mother like that!" He didn't give Guzma a chance to spew any nonsense back at him; he stabbed his finger into the kid's chest. "Don't think I couldn't whup your behind right here! But I'm feelin' generous today!"

    He heard Witt suddenly leap into the middle. "Hey! You can't talk to my son like that!"

    "Witt," Nanu said, danger edging his voice. "You wanna start with me?"

    Nanu waited. He felt all three of their faces turned on him, different shades of hatred and loathing. He stood his ground, though, and Witt wilted into a chair, grumbling, while the boy turned his head to look away.

    "...Didn't think so. Now, you―" Nanu didn't give Guzma an inch to retreat. He spoke through clenched teeth. "Get your butt out to the yard, 'fore I gotta drag it there myself."

    "He doesn't have to―"

    "Witt, shut it!"

    Despite the father's whining, Guzma didn't complain, but limped contritely towards the door leading to the yard. Once he stepped outside, Nanu figured things would simmer down, but to his astonishment, he could hardly start placating anybody before the wife broke in, interrupting.

    "W-wait just a minute!" Malia puffed and put her hands to her hips, glaring at him. Her face started to turn a powerful shade of red.

    Nanu looked side-to-side morosely, thinking he'd missed something. "...Ma'am? Something wrong?"

    "I call--because I want everyone to know he's okay--and you send out five officers, like he's some kind of criminal! Don't you see you've upset him? He wasn't hurting anyone! I think you should all be ashamed of yourselves! I think you're bullies! I think―"

    Nanu heaved a sigh. He'd really done it now, letting her start talking. "Ma'am…"

    "This would have never happened with Officer Daturo. He actually had some understanding―"

    Nanu shot a glance over to Guzma's father, who didn't say anything but very clearly rolled his eyes. So he responded condescendingly, "Well, Daturo's not around anymore, is he?"

    At this point, Malia tried to say something else, but starting her words proved impossible, and in her overwhelm, she sat herself in a chair and began sobbing. Nanu expected to get reamed out for making the wife cry, but Witt turned on her in her moment of weakness.

    "What are you crying for!?" Witt snarled impatiently at her. "Would you get it together? You're making a fool of yourself!"

    Nanu thought silently of a variety of things he could say; he thought on threats he could make, insults to Witt's manhood, dry jokes at their expense. Then he thought, I'd better not, and reluctantly excused himself to the yard.

    -

    (cont. in next post)
     
  9. dietofwurms

    dietofwurms i see stars

    (cont. from previous post)

    Families like these had a psychology that Nanu had figured out ages ago.

    Families like these―they're more stable than they let on. They run on an internal logic: their own set of rules, truths built on and sustained within the privacy of their home. You might expect families like that to hate each other and fall apart, but in Nanu's experience, they often proved to have even tighter, if unhappier, bonds than normal families. They burrowed deeply together, snapping at each other viciously, but always snapping hardest at outsiders who threatened to upend their way of life. Consistency, to them, was God.

    Guzma had broken the stability before by running away, and so stood out as the clear pariah of their little insular clan. But how quickly, Nanu thought, had the kid slipped back into the house and become an enforcer again, a loyal dog growling at the gate. You can run from a house, but you can't outrun what it teaches you.

    When Nanu reached the yard, he found the young man had sat himself into the swing, which he could barely fit into, and was releasing nervous energy by kicking a spot on the grass, digging out the turf with the heel of his shoe. Nanu watched a second--marvelled at the infantile tantrum--then decided to approach, crossing the overgrown lawn in his sandals.

    As he stood there, a few feet from him, Guzma acted like he didn't sense his presence at all.

    "So." Nanu cleared his throat. "Care to explain?"

    A single eye of Guzma's lifted from the edge of his face, glowering at him. He gripped the iron bars of the swingset and pulled himself onto his feet in a quick, frustrated motion.

    "How is it you act like nobody ever gave you any home training?" Nanu shook his head in disgust. "Your father really is useless, isn't he."

    Guzma immediately tensed and shot back at him. "Don't you talk about my dad."

    As Nanu thought―snap, growl. Predictable.

    "Am I under arrest?" The question came out of Guzma with more vulnerability than Nanu expected―like a little kid, whimpering and asking if they were in for it.

    "What? No. No one's being arrested." He thought it on it a second. "Only crime committed so far is assault, and that one's on me."

    Guzma, not absorbing the irony of Nanu's statement, started to fidget and worry. "Are―are we going back to Aether?"

    "What?--no. I ain't your chauffeur."

    Guzma sourly collapsed back into the swing. "But…" He gripped the ropes with both hands. "Miss Lusamine knows where I am now. She'll―"

    "'Knows where you are'? Yeah, no kidding. This is only the house you grew up in. You didn't think it would take her all of two minutes?" Nanu sighed. "What's got you all spooked, anyway?" He angled his head to take a closer look at his face. Guzma expected him not to say anything, so it was a bit of a shock when he pointed it out. "What's with the shiner? Somebody take a swing at you?"

    "Training accident."

    "That's original. Wasn't your father, was it?"

    Guzma glowered and flushed. He hated that Nanu knew. To cover his embarrassment, he bragged, "The last time he laid a hand on me, I sent him to the hospital."

    "Hmm. Fair enough." Nanu shrugged and pulled out a flask. "You suicidal?"

    "What ?"

    "Your lovely fiancee is tellin' the cops you left a note. Some 'cry for help' or whatever."

    "God! No! I'm not―" He kicked the dirt. "She's twisting it! She always twists things―!"

    "Don't bite my head off," Nanu grouched. "I've got boxes I gotta check. Anyway, suicide paperwork's a real pain, so for my sake, don't do it, all right?" He took a drink from his flask and offered it.

    "...No thanks."

    "Suit yourself." With another slurp, he cleared his throat and pocketed the flask again. "She's a real high-strung lady. Heard she railed into the police chief for ten minutes when you first ghosted." Nanu must have imagined the sight, because he suddenly smirked. He had the sensitivity, though, to drop the smirk for his next question. "So, you mind telling me what the fuss is about? You get cold feet, or what?"

    "I needed some space."

    Nanu grunted and produced an old pad of paper that was probably only ever used to track lottery numbers and grocery lists. He pulled a pen from his pocket so as to say as he wrote, "Needed… Some… Space. Okay."

    Guzma gave him an annoyed look.

    "I'm taking your statement, kid; this isn't rocket science."

    At first, Guzma took this as a signal to clam up entirely. He sat silent for the next minute, kicking the dirt, steaming, and grunting wordless curses. Eventually, though, the pressure got to him, and he launched himself up onto his feet, gripping the metal bar upholding the swing with both hands and ranting aloud. "I'm such a gutless creep! I never wanted none of this! She doesn't love me, and I'm not even sure that I―" He rested his aching forehead on the pole. "This is all so screwed up!"

    Nanu had tried to start writing all this down, but fairly quickly stopped, rolled his eyes, and stuffed the notebook and pen back into his pocket. "Kid…"

    "I guess I like, felt sorry for her? Or―like I owe her! I don't know!"

    Nanu tried again. "Kid."

    "I should have said something forever ago, and now the wedding is next week―!"

    "Hey!" Nanu basically yelled. "You listenin' to me?"

    Guzma finally stopped and looked to him.

    "Do I look like your marriage counselor? Criminy." He lifted his hands to express his dismay. "Ya got problems with the soon-to-be-missus. Noted. Been there myself. But all I need is for you to tell me what your plan is."

    "...Plan?"

    "We don't want any more surprises. So. Are you gonna stay here? Or are you planning on running somewhere else?"

    "I ain't running nowhere."

    Nanu looked like he wanted to contradict him, but instead shook his head, lip curled in faint disgust. "Why you keep lurking around here anyway? If I had folks like yours, I'd stay scarce."

    Guzma roared, incensed. "That ain't any of your business!"

    "Hmph. Lemme hazard a guess. When you've got a big-boy decision to make, and you're too chicken to do it― is that it? Think you can come here, pretend to be a kid again, so you don't have to decide?"

    The guess wasn't perfect―but it hit a little too close. "I just wanted to see my folks," he retorted. He landed back into the swing, slumped, and stared down at his shoes, scuffing his toes into the worn dirt. "Is that such a big deal?"

    Nanu's eyes narrowed at him. For a time, he dwelled on whether to speak, whether to drag out precisely what he meant to. It was a nice morning, Nanu suddenly thought, in a flash of an attempt at distracting himself--the air wasn't overly warm even in the sun, the breeze remained intermittent and calm, and the island had a stillness to it, an innocence and freshness he didn't know on Ula'ula. He wondered absently if kahunas took after their islands--or if somehow, it worked the other way around, and the islands shaped themselves after their guardians as the years went by. If that were true, Nanu would be guilty of something, indeed.

    He thought on Hala. Blameless Hala. Strong, and vibrant, and kind, but stubborn, too, so wrapped up in tradition that he ended up being blind to certain things.

    Thinking on that made Nanu at last speak his piece.

    "Well, if you've come here to relive your childhood, you're a bit late."

    Guzma looked puzzled at first, so Nanu spelled it out in slow, meticulous drawl.

    "Daturo ain't around anymore."

    The name immediately set Guzma on edge. His muscles knotted; his brow strained; he pushed himself back onto his feet, like he was ready to tackle something. "What's he got to do with anything!?"

    "Your mother," Nanu responded calmly. "She just brought him up. But he transferred, you know. A few years back."

    Guzma sputtered before he could properly strategize his response. "So what? I don't care; he was a freak."

    The stray comment made Nanu raise an eyebrow at him. "What makes you say that?"

    Guzma tightened his fists. He shouldn't have said that. Shouldn't have aired that grievance out in the open. "He would…" He harshly scratched his head, a familiar knot forming in his stomach. After some time, he thought of a complaint he could safely leave out in the open. "He was always, acting a way, about my mom―"

    "Chief told me he was a flirt. That what you mean?"

    It wasn't a lie; it wasn't a truth. He could still remember the afternoons coming home from school, resting his chest hard against the picket fence, watching Daturo talk and laugh with her, even dare to reach out and touch her arm. It burned him. Burned him right down to the bone… His nails digging and peeling the paint and breaking off bloodied splinters... The pain of remembering it made him seethe.

    Nanu, seeing his distress, went on, "Look. Everybody I ever talked to around here thought he was a friggin' saint. And your mother seems to think you two got along swimmingly."

    "He was just another person who thought he could fix me, or whatever."

    "Like Hala?"

    This clearly hit a nerve. "No! He's nothing―" He shot a glare off to the house. "I ain't got nothin' to say about Hala."

    "...Hmm." Nanu absorbed this, like it was precisely what he had expected to hear. "Well. Don't matter. Like I said. He transferred. That's what guys like him do. Settle, get in hot water a few too many times, then float away." He absent-mindedly smirked. "I should know. Got shuffled around plenty myself."

    "...Were you a perv or something?" Guzma didn't ask the question very seriously―he aimed it out of anger, out of spite.

    "Nah," Nanu dismissed, without taking offense. "Diddlin' kids wasn't my gig. I left that nonsense to freaks."

    Nanu waited for Guzma to have something to say about that comment, whether through words or fists. But he said―and did―nothing. He fastened an arm against his gut, though, in an attempt to fight against some inward impulse.

    "It ain't your fault, you know." Nanu reached behind himself, scratching his lower back. "These islands are a dumping ground. Nobody wants to work out here in the boonies―pay's crap, nothin' to do but sit on your rear―they kick the cops nobody wants over here. You know. The problems." When Guzma continued in his silence, Nanu sighed long and stretched his shoulders. "Okay, kid--here's the deal. As an old geezer, it's basically a law: I gotta offer some unwanted advice. You ready to hear it?"

    Since Guzma didn't respond, he took it as an affirmative.

    "All right." He took in a tired breath, and began his story, running his words together with passionless pacing. "You know, you remind me o' me, at your age. I got dealt a bad hand--won't bog you down with the details, but the short of it is, by the time I hit twenty, I was at a dead end. Mad at the world. Figured it owed me something, so I took what I wanted; didn't matter who I hurt. It took me a long time to sort things out..." Nanu scratched his chin and let that marinate. He went on more gently, "A guy could spend the rest of his life waiting for somebody to fix him, or chasin' down all the people who done him wrong. I've been in both those places. But that's a wasted life. At some point... " He shook his head at the blue horizon. "It's gotta come down to you. Not saying people can't affect each other--for good or bad. But we all gotta make our own choices in the end. We all gotta take responsibility. Play the hand we're dealt."

    Of course Guzma heard it, but only understood a small portion of what he said. The last bit, he latched onto and wrongly interpreted as condemnation. He sucked in a breath, gripping his shirt, and did his best to hide the prickings at his eyes when he said, in his own defense, "I was just a kid."

    Nanu could hear the hurt in his voice but didn't try to correct him for his misunderstanding. He only nodded, and replied, "I get that." Then he seemed to weigh the statement a little longer, and repeated, quieter this time, "...I get that. But you're grown up now, aren't you."

    In the silence, Nanu turned away, facing the door back into the kitchen.

    "Whatever it is you think you're doing here… Go ahead and do it. But make your choice, kid. Ain't nobody gonna make it for you. Meanwhile, I got stuff to do." Finally, Nanu reached into his front pocket, drew out a cigarette, and planted it at his lip. "I'd better wrap this up with your folks. Cops'll leave you be for now. So long as you don't start wailing on anybody."

    Guzma faintly nodded, still staring off into space and clutching himself.

    "Hmph. You're welcome and all."

    Guzma sat up. "Hey―Uncle."

    "Hmm?"

    "You're still coming to the wedding?"

    "Which wedding? ...The wedding you're not having? Or might have? The Schrodinger's wedding?"

    "Yeah, that one."

    Rather than argue, Nanu shrugged. "...Sure."

    Guzma thought on this a moment. Still not looking him in the eye, he told him, "You know, you get a plus-one. You can bring anybody you want."

    Nanu raised an eyebrow. "You got anybody in particular you want me to drag along?"

    Guzma said nothing.

    "Well. Take care of yourself, Kahuna Guzma."

    -

    Once Nanu had gone, another screaming match broke out in the kitchen, so Guzma remained out in the yard for a while, trying to keep his mind off it. At last, the bickering broke, the screen door slammed, and Guzma brought his head up. He saw his father with his work bag slung over his shoulder, descending the front steps and starting to take the path down to Hau'oli.

    "Dad," he tried to say, calling after him.

    But his father didn't turn around, instead trudging up the road, waving dismissively behind himself to signal that he had heard him but felt no need to answer him.

    Guzma listened to his mother inside the kitchen, crying. After a few minutes, though, her crying subsided and was replaced by the clatter of cleaning up the dishes from breakfast.
     
  10. Dragonfree

    Dragonfree Just me

    (EDIT: Oh, crap, apparently you posted chapter 18 while I was writing the review. This only covers up to 17 at the moment!)

    Still reading! I'm still fascinated by where this is going.

    You made Ultra Space wonderfully unsettling. I don't quite remember beat by beat how this went in the games, so I can't quite tell exactly where the point of divergence is, beyond that Guzma did not get possessed by Nihilego. I enjoyed the way you comment on Lillie, and her courage in particular (and Guzma, of course, kind of envying that courage). The way Guzma realizes Lusamine's insanity but still has this irrational sympathy for the vulnerability he sees, and ends up going through untold hardship living in the wild with barely any food to capture the beasts and bring them back to her to make up for... trying to save her. Ugh, everything about this story hurts.

    It's also fascinating to see his relationship with the Ultra Beasts, and Lady in particular, how he projects Lusamine onto her, as well as a sense of companionship that may or may not be completely imaginary. I don't entirely trust Faba and Aster's research on their brain functions, but there's definitely a lot of projection going on, Guzma seeing what he wants to see. Which is definitely part of why he ultimately accepts, miserably, that they're right and the beasts aren't really sentient, isolating him from yet another source of contact and comfort.

    Which, of course, is just one way that Lusamine has been systematically isolating him, making herself and people under her control the only people he gets to talk to and interact with and convincing him Team Skull are beneath him and Plumeria is the bad one holding him back, setting arbitrary rules and punishing him for breaking them, withdrawing to make him think he did something wrong, deciding unilaterally that they're going to be married without giving him a real choice in the matter, the persistent walking all over his boundaries and acting like his reservations (about disrobing for the fashion designer, or about the experiments being done on the beasts, or about marriage) are irrational and unreasonable... it's the emotional abuser's playbook.

    I definitely wasn't expecting it to go beyond the emotional the way it did so spectacularly in the last couple of chapters, though. Guzma actually stopped trusting her and trying to please her, started to fight back a little - allowed himself to voice things like how utterly batshit her hatred of Lillie and Gladion is - and she just drops all the pretense that she actually loves him, digs into him with a vicious verbal and physical cruelty, and just breaks him down to nothing. It was horrifying to read, in the best possible way.

    I'm quite liking Faba's character - he's slimy in his own way, but not predatory like Lusamine is, and actually pretty perceptive with regards to the twistedness of what she's doing - his biggest sin, of course, is watching it happen and not stopping her. I'm kind of surprised he seems to have actually ended up fooling around with Aster, given how transparently Lusamine put him there with that exact intention, and how Faba clearly picked up on that, but I guess even he succumbs to temptation. His prior relationship with Mohn, and how Lusamine kind of uses that as leverage against him, is interesting too; the way he's kept around an old in-progress chess game that they played was a nice touch.

    Nanu's still a bit of a cipher. He's definitely amusing to read about, but I don't feel like I've got a great read on him so far. You've set up some past sins in his work with the International Police that I'm interested to hear more about, but thus far I'm kind of mostly waiting for that. I still like Plumeria a lot and hope we see more of her, though; the way she tried to reassure Guzma back in the day felt really realistic, and it broke my heart how easily Lusamine could twist it into something sinister.

    I was actually wary of Daturo from the start - I'd already started to suspect Guzma had been sexually abused, after the fashion designer, Faba's observations, etc., and so I was on the lookout when we started seeing flashbacks to Guzma's childhood. In that context, this man in a position of power picking out a friendless child and offering him sweets to show him around immediately read as potentially dodgy. I think you did a very nice job with the final scene of chapter 17; the way he kind of dissociates is chilling, and the ice cream tasting like ashes was a detail that stuck with me.

    Overall, I'm still really enjoying this story and can't wait to see where this goes from here. (Probably nowhere good. But in the best possible way.)
     
  11. TheAlpar

    TheAlpar Journey Enthusiast

    Well.... jesus, man.

    This was one hell of a chapter, though not for any of the reasons I expected. It was extremely heavy and I don't know exactly how to feel; you've got a talent fo describing... these kinda things.

    I really hope there's a breakthrough soon and Guzma can find a way to escape all this, he really deserves it. Amazing job with the chapter as usual, and sorry I couldn't get to it sooner, I just got my computer back.
     
  12. dietofwurms

    dietofwurms i see stars

    Chapter 19: Lover's Leap

    Gender politics in Team Skull was tricky business. Because most of the grunts were young, there was still a yuck-factor in mixing, an occasional panic about an outbreak of cooties; the slightly older ones were a complex blend of relaxation and even more heightened sensitivities. Some boys and girls hung together like it wasn't a big deal. Some dated, and among the more advanced ages, did more. Others clutched to same-gendered peers and formed clans, swearing against the other. Guzma didn't police this very much, much to the chagrin of Plumeria, who had to put up with some of the boys' casual misogyny.

    Guzma would end up with the boy clans most days, lounging about, making cracks about inappropriate topics as boys liked to do.

    One unspoken rule about boy-talk that held extremely true in Team Skull: don't complain about your father. Don't you dare. Most of the boys had problem-fathers: abusive, neglectful, weak-willed, absent. All of them could be said to be aware of that fact, and none would have denied it, if the fact were brought to their attention. But whining about your father beating you or not loving you enough was the fast way to get someone to call you something or to say you've got "daddy issues," and everyone knows what that's code for. Plus, it opened up the possibility that you preferred your mother over your father, and lord help you if somebody got to call you a "mama's boy."

    No: it's much safer to complain about your mother. Moms, they agreed, could be a real pain: always telling them what to do, nagging, stupid, never understanding.

    Sometimes, though, it wasn't enough to stay silent on fathers. So they engaged in their ritual and sat in a circle to brag about their fathers' prowess. It would start in familiar fashion: my dad could beat up your dad. Which turned to: my dad used to whup me, ha-ha, used to whup me good, ha-ha, he'd knock my teeth out, he'd bust me, ha-ha. And in this way, they communicated what they wanted to believe--that they were strong for having survived it, and that somehow, this was a paternal gift to them, a lesson in resilience given on purpose.

    Some of them exaggerated or even made stuff up, especially the ones everyone knew didn't even have a dad. But no one called them out on it, because truth wasn't the point. The point was avoiding the truth and hiding it under laughter.

    Guzma was the best at it.

    "My dad taught me everything I know," he said, puffing his chest. "How to fight. How to take a lickin', and give one, too. Taught me how to take a punch. How to break a guy's nose, if I needed to. How to not let nobody mess with me." He danced in the center of the room, throwing swift and cruel punches into the air to demonstrate his technique. The boys cackled in glee at watching him. "Yeah," he went on to boast, and this part was especially honest: "He made me what I am."

    -
    -

    As his mother cleaned the kitchen, Guzma decided to take advantage of the pleasant weather and free his party out in the yard. The array of bugs stood baffled at first, snuffling the air, circling their spindly bodies to identify where they stood. Golisopod, as Guzma suspected, chuffed unhappily at seeing the house and stomped its feet in minor protest. But within a minute or two, all of his pokemon―Golisopod, Ariados, Pinsir, and Masquerain, too―collapsed on the ground and rolled in the grass in a frenzied desperation (he realized then, they hadn't felt grass in a long time). Thankfully, the lawn wasn't too muddy from the rain in recent days, so the worst they did was tear up the turf.

    "Nut cases," he said, watching them flop and growl and snap when they inevitably rolled into each other.

    Because his heart still hammered, he approached and seated himself down onto the grass with them, the scratchy blades tangling up against his bare ankles. He stared out at the berry fields first, then took to uprooting turf with his fingers boredly.

    His Ariados was first to wander over and stuck its head in his face.

    "Hey." He paused to reach up and circle his fingers around the back of its skull to reach the spot he knew it liked. It clacked its mandibles excitedly. "Home sweet home, huh?" he said aloud, sourness weighing down his voice.

    He sighed all of a sudden, and threw himself back until he lay flat on the ground; he tossed his arms out and lost himself in the atmosphere.

    "What am I doing?"

    He felt the gravity pressing down on his lungs and limbs, and he saw the swirl of clouds up above, smearing the great dome of sky. If he focused, he could feel the planet spin on its axis with his body pinned to its surface. Though no philosopher by any account, he could not escape the natural revelation of looking up and feeling very, very tiny. The sleepiness returned and weighed down his eyelids.

    Then, a smash of a plate and a scream came from the kitchen, and he bolted upright. The monsters buzzed with excitement, pursuing his heels as he took off running for the house.

    "Mom!?"

    The door leading to the yard was open―it must have been left ajar―and just as he noticed that, he saw the cause of the shriek: his Ariados, in its curiosity and excitement, had scuttled into the house, found his mother, and recognizing her, cornered her in the kitchen. It waved its front legs at her in earnest greeting, seemingly oblivious to her terror as she pressed between the countertop and refrigerator and lifted her sandaled foot to ward it away. Her hands dripped with globs of foam from the sink, where the remaining dishes soaked; moisture spotted her apron.

    She looked up at him pale-faced. "G-Guzma! Please―"

    He didn't know who he wanted to yell at more: his mother, for her cowardice, or his pokemon, for its over-eagerness. He swallowed and sighed roughly instead. Without any hurry, he walked astride the creature, nudging it out of the way first with his knee and then bumping its abdomen with the toe of his shoe, pushing it in the direction of the open door, and said, alternating his scolding, "Go, go!―Look, he's not gonna hurt you―C'mon, outside!"

    Ariados complained, clicking its jaws and scooting reluctantly across the kitchen and dining room floor, but it gradually found the open doorway and slipped its weight down the short steps, back onto the lawn. Guzma shut the door and could hear his mother, from across the room, catch her breath.

    "I-I!" She had a hand to her chest, and she slumped in relief against the counter. "I never did understand why you…" She shook her head. "That thing is awfully big, isn't it?"

    "I mean… Kinda…" As he walked back to the kitchen, he watched as his mother returned to the soapy sink. Most of the dishes already sat newly-cleaned on the counter. Seeing the dishes made him suddenly contemplate her nature: this woman, whom he always pictured cleaning, fixing, mopping, sorting... If he combed through his memories, he would find few times of honesty, or true kindness, or sharing with her―and no memories of ever performing chores in her stead, not in all the years he lived under this roof.

    His mother stooped stiffly to reach the plate shards on the floor. An impulse came over him. "I got it," he said suddenly, diving for them and piling the porcelain pieces in his hand.

    His mother hesitated, straightening upward and standing over him with agony in her voice. "You don't have to… It was my fault…"

    He didn't reply to her self-blame. The plate had broken into large, easily collected bits, so it took only a few seconds to find and throw them into the garbage.

    With the accident cleared away, she went back to the dishes and rinsed another plate. He trundled up beside her. "Let me help," he said suddenly, plucking the rinsed dish into his hand.

    She almost snatched the plate back from him. "Oh… Well…"

    He strong-armed his way to a towel and began to dry. "It's not like I got anythin' else to do."

    Somehow, his volunteering agitated her more than it calmed her; she went to the sink to rinse the remaining dishes and ease her nerves. She eyed him cautiously as he wiped the next plate down, and looked like she desperately wanted to say something when he placed it in the cupboard. He wanted to snap at her, ask if he was doing something horribly wrong, but enough guilt crawled in his gut from earlier to restrain himself. He had cussed her out plenty for one day.

    She finally stopped her gawking and tried to start conversation. "You don't…" She set a few clean cups onto the counter. "You don't have plans for the day?"

    "Dunno. Might take a walk." He gave her a sideways look, and awkwardly returned the question. "How 'bout you?"

    "Oh," she dismissed, waving a hand, "I always have things to do around the house."

    For a second, Guzma glanced about, as if to search for such sources of imperfection. The house looked immaculate. Spotless. "Uh-huh."

    "It's really all right," she said. "You don't have to keep me company. Go, if you want."

    That was Mother: endlessly distracted, endlessly self-sacrificing. Like she was addicted to everyone stepping over her.

    "You'll be back in time for supper, won't you?"

    He grunted. "The island's not that big, Ma."

    "When you were a little boy," she said, "you would spend all day out there."

    "Yeah, well―" He was thrown, somewhat, by her kicking up nostalgia. "I'm not a kid anymore."

    "No…" She dipped the saucepan into the water and sighed. "You're all grown now…"

    As she scrubbed, there came an uncomfortable span of silence, which she chose to break with a question.

    "Why don't you tell me about your fiancee?"

    Guzma frowned. He pretended not to hear her.

    "I hardly know anything about her―I've seen her on TV, I guess. She looks awfully fancy. Isn't she a bit old for you?"

    "Yeah, that's…" He groaned and shook his head. "One wrinkle…"

    His mother stopped suddenly, staring at him.

    Unnerved at being examined, he asked, "What?"

    "...You don't get along with her, do you?"

    "Why do you―ugh!"

    She put her hands to her hips. "I can tell. Did you two have a fight? Is that what all this is about?"

    "Mom! I don't wanna talk about it, all right?"

    "I don't see why you won't! You talked to that― horrible, rude man all this morning!"

    "Nanu's not 'horrible' okay? He just―he's just tryin' to help―"

    "Well, I don't like the way he talked to you or your father. I don't see how a nasty person like that gets to call himself a kahuna."

    "Mom, do you ever―!" He shut the cupboard a little too hard on its hinges. "Stop and listen to how stupid you sound!"

    She flinched.

    (Why did he always do this? Why could he not control his temper around her? Even if he tried to start out cordial, she would say something vapid and rage-inducing and set him off again.)

    Fighting a renewed wave of shame, Guzma dropped out of the conversation with a sudden turn of his body. He stomped toward his room. There, he took only a minute to put on a jacket and dark glasses, and collect his smaller belongings―wallet, phone, and, after a sliver of hesitation, his gold watch, which he clasped onto his wrist. (He told himself he wouldn't, but he popped a pill. He already started to feel nauseous, and wanted to take more, but he compromised to keep the edge off. Another compromise: he stuffed the bottle in his pants pocket, in case he needed it later). As he charged out the front door, he grumbled only a vaguely hostile "see you" to his mother; his pokemon, still in the yard, he bid goodbye with a little more formality by leaning over the fence and patting their heads.

    He didn't know where he was going, exactly. But he couldn't be here.

    -

    One widely-reported and respected element of Alola's culture was its reception of visitors, in particular visitors who also happened to be famous. In other regions, if you were known enough, people quickly mobbed you with cameras and questions, forcing you to duck down alleyways or into limousines. The attention might have pleased you at first, but in time, the relentless chase wore on you. And then, one day, a friend told you: go to Alola. In Alola, everyone is family. You could be the King of Kalos, and the people of the islands will smile, nod, and treat you like a brother.

    Guzma supposed that was why no one, in his full circling of the island, tried to stop him on his way and pester him, even though most of them had known him since he was a child. His old neighbors. Young men and women who once attended school with him. Residents of the small towns he used to walk through regularly. Owners of shops he used to frequent. All these people stared, and no doubt recognized him for who he was, but did no more than politely nod, if they caught his look, and smile--maybe even wave. But they would do no more, lest they commit the grave social sin of making someone feel out of place or like they stuck out. He was no longer a mere resident whom they could plague with personal greetings; he was the Aether Kahuna, the ex-boss of Team Skull.

    Overall, Guzma felt incredibly alien here, like he had been dropped on some distant planet. It should feel like home… The rocky northern cliffsides, the golden meadow dotted with happy couples, the grassy fields, the hills, the stillness of the graveyard, the towering facades of rock plummeting into Kala'e Bay far below, the grass huts of Iki Town, and the sleek modernity of Hau'oli. Yet he could not escape the desire to creep between its edges and avoid being seen, as if he was here on bad business. He especially hurried past Iki Town, where Hala could be anywhere, and near the southern shore, where Kukui's shack-lab rested. He could take the gawk-eyed looks of past acquaintances… Just not them. Not now.

    Despite its strangeness, he accepted the several hours of solitude. The sights transported him in short fits to times long past, preventing him from dwelling on the present. He stopped frequently, letting the whirling, sharp colors of his high settle back into place like dust. He pushed on boulders and uprooted plants. He sat in empty places, and busy ones, too, lazily watching the movements of beachgoers and townsfolk. The island was in its off-season for tourism, and the weather was pleasantly cool to prove it, so he didn't have to worry much about foreigners pointing him out. Everything moved dreamlike and slowly, so that he had room to breathe for once.

    Mele'mele was small enough, though, that he ran out of viable surface area to reasonably explore with a few measly hours. He turned back to the way toward Hau'oli, found the shopping mall, and decided to spend some money. Guzma had not packed a full suitcase in his hurry, which meant he managed two shirts, two pairs of pants, and… just about nothing else. He didn't even grab his laptop; he at first lamented his failing to bring it, before remembering that he had enough money to buy five additional laptops and not hurt at all for it. So in a typically male manner, he entered precisely the stores he wanted, wasted no time in grabbing exactly what he desired, and paid for it, completing the entire spree in less than an hour. He planned on immediately returning to the house to drop off his bags and maybe set up his new laptop, but a quick turn out of the mall (and a quicker turn of fate) led him to nearly collide with his father in the middle of the street.

    The two of them stopped and looked at each other, calculating what the other's presence meant. They didn't offer any greeting, but his father spoke first after spotting the cluster of plastic bags dangling from Guzma's hands.

    "You went shopping?" (His voice had a cautious, vaguely accusational tone to it.)

    "Yeah." Guzma shrugged. "I didn't bring a lot of stuff with me."

    His father judged the number of bags suspiciously. "Just how long do you plan on staying?"

    Guzma dodged the question. "Pops, you playing hooky, or what?"

    "'Pops'―!" His father snorted in disgust, and his attention was thus effortlessly diverted. "It's my lunch hour. I suppose you're used to servants bringing you food at any time of day, but around here, we have to fetch it ourselves."

    His father started to move, side-stepping him, but Guzma impulsively pursued him, in part to annoy him. "Where you eating?"

    "It's―" The man paused mid-step and sighed. "It's a new take-out place. Opened a few years ago. You wouldn't know it."

    "Is it good?"

    "I eat there every other day; what's that tell you?"

    Guzma grinned at his visible irritation and patted his stomach. "Is that where you're packin' on those pounds?"

    "I'll have you know that's your mother's cooking." He briefly looked Guzma up-and-down after recovering from his frustration. "I guess staying a few days might do you some good. You're looking real scrawny." His father appeared to think on something by the way his eyebrows pressed together. Finally, he made a begrudging decision. He waved for Guzma to follow him. "Well, I better get you fed before a stiff breeze comes through."

    "Huh?"

    "C'mon," his father said impatiently, already starting down the road. "I'll show you the place."

    Guzma had a few, scattered, mildly pleasurable memories of his father. Most of them centered around food―festival food, snack food, vendors and food courts. Oftentimes, food served as silent speaking, as his father was both too lazy and too emotionally stunted to find any other means of starting an interaction. If they could eat together, even without saying anything, or anything of profound meaning anyway, they could persist in pretending to have a relationship.

    The offer to buy him lunch was transparent: his father wanted to figure out what he was up to. Guzma could have shut it down. He didn't. He hoisted his bags and followed.

    -

    When Guzma lived far away from his father, it became easy for him to remember things a certain way. He would think most vividly of his father's ample, terrorizing flaws, especially those which produced the worst of his home memories. He would, with distance, more easily think of him not as a man, but as a long shadow in a bad dream, a monster, a creature deserving of deep animosity. Guzma could happily imagine him destroyed.

    But it got complicated―being around him in person.

    It wasn't that the hatred fell away or lessened. They had never gotten along very well; their personalities were too different, and in other ways, too alike to sustain an amicable relationship. However, walking and talking with him for more than a few minutes made Guzma come to the uncomfortable realization that his father was human, not some nightmare-beast. His father rarely curbed his nasty attitude, but once in awhile, when relaxed and sated, and especially when it was just the two of them together, the man could emulate being a normal middle-aged father. He'd crack bad jokes (to which Guzma, as the son, was obligated to groan), he'd gossip about rumors overheard at the office, he'd complain about the weather, he'd deliver impromptu lectures about life.

    ...Or give horrendously unwanted advice about how to pick up girls.

    ("Well, look, when I was your age, I had girlfriends, so if you need me to―")

    So, his father, a commandeering, selfish, petty person capable of great harm, could be funny, too, as well as bumbling, awkward, feeble, and well-meaning.

    Complicated.

    Guzma loathed it.

    -

    They sat on the wall facing out to sea; his father had his legs planted safely on the street-side and began digging into his seasoned fried fish with a set of chopsticks. Being originally from Kanto, Witt preferred the savory seafood of Kantonese cooking over the frequently salty-sweet teriyaki flavors of the island's local meats. Guzma straddled the wall with his legs while seated some distance away, fluffing his own box of shredded pork with a fork.

    The two ate, hardly looking in the other's direction. Guzma watched the waves breaking on the sand, and his father seemed satisfied eyeballing the various people who walked by.

    As the lack of small talk began to agonize him, Guzma offered an opener. He swallowed a bite and said, "It's good."

    His father dipped his eyes into the paper box in his own hand, stabbing his chopsticks at the last remnants of his fillet. "Told you."

    Guzma, before he could catch himself, snorted in amusement. He put down his food and gave the tall, glossy buildings a broad look. "Have things changed much around here?"

    "As much as you can expect," Witt said, shrugging. "Shops closing, opening. People moving."

    A beat of silence, then his father thought of something.

    "That Ilima kid's been captain a few years now."

    Guzma instinctively hunched over, fully expecting this to be a dig at his own past failure, but his father continued.

    "That family acts like they're royalty around here," he huffed. He glanced in the direction across the bay where, though currently obscured by an array of tall buildings uptown, Ilima's sizeable house rested at the western rim of the island.

    Though his father didn't outwardly express it, Guzma could hear several emotions at work in his grumbling: envy, primarily, of the family's status in the community and obscene wealth; antipathy for the island's leadership; and a deep-seated tribalism, a nudge to Guzma, welcoming him back into an old us-versus-them mentality. Guzma almost fell for it―almost responded with bitter commentary of his own. Then, he recognized the statement for what it was: trivial, juvenile whining.

    Guzma, for a fleeting moment, felt embarrassed for him.

    Since he refrained from responding, his father sighed and placed his chopstick inside his now-empty carton. "Did you hear what the news is saying about you?"

    Guzma didn't; he'd been avoiding learning anything.

    "They were trying to say you had some kind of mental breakdown." He saw Guzma's expression of aghast horror. "Relax. Their tune's changed. Your… Woman. She's telling everybody you're here for 'personal reasons.' Guess that's true enough, huh? She's pretty keen on keeping the press away from you, though―she said she'll sue them for harassment, if they give you hassle."

    That would explain the crickets from news crews. Guzma had been checking over his shoulders ever since arriving on the island, expecting at least one reporter to show up with the intention of getting to the bottom of things.

    "Tell you one thing, boy," his father said, the slightest hint of commendation in his voice, "You made an interesting pick. That woman's no pushover."

    "...Yeah."

    "Is that what you like about her?"

    The personal question caught Guzma completely off-guard. He curled a lip to communicate how much he disliked it being asked. "I dunno."

    "What do you mean, you 'don't know'? You're marrying her." Witt paused to think of a new approach, and continued, "She's got nice legs."

    Guzma sputtered and released an exasperated groan of disapproval. "Oh my god."

    "What? I'm not allowed to notice these things?"

    "You ain't got no right―"

    "'Ain't got no'..." his father interrupted, mockingly echoing him. "I'm not one of your thug friends; you can speak English to me."

    "You want English?" Guzma leaned in threateningly. "Don't. Talk about her."

    His father limply lifted a hand in surrender and didn't pretend to feel intimidated. "...Alright, alright. Whatever." Under his breath, loud enough for Guzma to overhear, he complained, "Between you and your lawyers, I guess I'm not allowed to talk about anything." As Guzma tried to parse the puzzling gripe, his father continued, "You could've just asked us; I don't see why you had to send your legal goons to the house―"

    Guzma interrupted, furious at being wrongly accused. "What are you talking about?"

    "Your lawyers."

    "―When did you see lawyers?"

    His father didn't answer for a second, appearing a bit put off and embarrassed, then relented, rubbed his head, and mumbled, "Maybe you didn't… Hmph."

    "Dad."

    The man spoke blandly and averted his eyes, putting on a show about being unaffected by it, even though his bellyaching a second ago had proven otherwise. "It was a while ago. Back when you had your big PR stunt―the news conference? Quick as anything, they showed up at the house. Anyway. They made us sign a whole ream of papers. Nondisclosure agreements, mostly." He clarified, noting Guzma's unfamiliarity with the term, "We're not allowed to talk to the press about you."

    "Uh…" Guzma scratched his shoulder self-consciously. That was months ago now―in retrospect, he should have anticipated Lusamine's interest in keeping his parents both away from him and silent, lest they let slip anything that could tarnish the image she had created. "Didn't know nothin' about that…"

    His father shrugged again. "...It was probably for the best. Knowing your mother, she would've started showing your baby pictures to anybody who knocked on our door."

    Guzma pictured it―and snorted a laugh.

    After finishing his food, Witt checked the time and decided he had run this conversation as long as he could spare. He stiffly rolled himself back onto his feet, balancing the empty carton in his hand. "Well. I'd better go. Some of us still work for a living."

    "I work," Guzma contradicted.

    If there were enough time, his father might have stood there and started an argument over it, but he had gone well over his allotted lunch hour, and so he ended their exchange by rolling his eyes and grumbling, "Uh-huh. Right." He gave Guzma a measured, distrustful look; the bright sun hit his face in such a way that it darkened his expression. "I suppose you're going back to the house."

    "Yeah."

    A mysterious emotion, driven by uncertain, passed over him. He warned cryptically, "Don't cause any trouble."

    Only because he had bested his father before, Guzma jokingly pointed at himself and sneered. "Who, me?"

    There came no reply to that; Witt turned toward the western side of the city to return to his natural habitat of cubicles and copy machines. Behind Guzma, the waves thudded on the beach in hissing, perpetual swings, grasping at the ankles and waists of swimmers daring to tread their waters. In the midst of the tumult and tossing of the early afternoon's breeze, he bent to pluck the handles of his bags back into his fingers.

    -

    Every one of his pokemon greeted him at the house by pressing their bodies up against the fence, like they meant to crush it under their weight. They chittered, shook, and twitched, beckoning him with heart-wrenching earnestness. Guzma placed his bags on the front step first, and Golisopod, nearly thinking it was being ignored, smashed its broad claws against the fence to produce a sharp cracking sound.

    "Hey! Chill!" he hollered. He hurried to the fence, but before he could reach it, his Masquerain zipped above the fray with clacking mandibles to squeal and collide with his face. "What! What!" He batted the creature forcefully away in his surprise, sending it flapping to the back of his head. It dangled from his hair as he approached the others. "Geez, whatta you worked up for?"

    As if answering him, each of his pokemon erupted into frantic burbling and scraping of the fence. Apparently, having the morning to run about freely had not rid them of their energy. He groaned and reached out for Golisopod, which over-eagerly planted its forehead against his palm. For just a moment, he tried to bring a semblance of peace back into the creature, smoothing his hand on its shell.

    The front door creaked open, and his mother stepped out to investigate the racket. Upon seeing him, she spoke up in surprise. "Guzma! You're home already?" She wiped her hands down on her apron. A look of concern appeared in her face. "...Some people came by looking for you."

    Golisopod pushed on his hand and whistled and grumbled, as if to echo her report with added insistence. No wonder his team was on edge. Strangers at the house... Though Guzma worried that he already knew the answer, he asked, "What people?"

    "They didn't say." She dipped her hands into her apron pocket, producing a sealed envelope. "They brought you a letter. I told them you weren't here―but they said someone had to sign for it, so I did―"

    He didn't wait for her to finish. He fell away from his pokemon, rushed her, and snagged the letter out of her hand to look at it: a white envelope, with crisp, gold lining. He felt his heart leap into his throat.

    "Guzma! What is it?"

    ...There was no return address or writing on its exterior, but the symbol inscribed served better than a fingerprint. He stared at it for several seconds, dumbstruck, then wrested his bags and himself past his mother in the doorway and wordlessly stalked toward his room. She tried―and failed―to elicit a response from him, until he shut the bedroom door behind him, silencing her.

    -

    Guzma noticed that his mother had, against his request, unpacked his duffel bag and put his clothes in the dresser drawers. Suddenly, he was thankful that he had taken the pills out. He didn't need her snooping around his medication.

    He dropped his shopping bags near the door, balancing the envelope between two fingers, and collapsed onto his bed with a dramatic heave and sigh. He didn't move for several moments. Just lay there―hoping to drag time to a stand-still.

    It didn't work.

    Ultimately, he flopped himself onto his back, holding the envelope up toward the ceiling to examine and ponder it. Its properties had not changed. White. Lightweight. Clean. Since he spent quite a while twirling and turning it over, a sound emerged from his open window, and he turned to find Golisopod had stuck its head through. It grunted and tried to fit―obviously failing miserably―then continued to chatter at him.

    He stared at the letter again.

    "I'm not opening it," he said aloud.

    Golisopod rested its head on the windowsill, eyes steady on him.

    "I know what it is," he snarled. "And I don't care." He felt the impulse to throw it away, but he didn't have a trash bin near his bed, so he compromised by allowing it to slide to the floor through the space between his bed and end table. The act didn't have the satisfying finality of dropping it into the garbage; suddenly, he regretted not shredding it while it still remained in his hands, but he didn't have the will to crawl around the floor and recover it. For now, it could stay there. Out of sight. Out of mind.

    But its presence in his hands had drained him, and all at once, his lack of sleep caught up to him. A heaviness fell over him. A queasiness. A throbbing, centered pain… He tried to shut his eyes and push it back, but it forced itself forward, crushing its weight against his brain. Instinctively, his hand wandered to his pocket to extract the pills, and for a time he didn't consider taking any, but merely tipped the bottle back and forth, sending its clicking contents sliding from top to bottom. There weren't many left. He'd be hurting soon.

    Ignoring the bouncing antennae and complaining whistles of his partner, he extracted another pill―one, measly sliver of relief―and with it, was able to sink his consciousness for a while. He buried himself in his covers, clothes and all; he didn't so much sleep as he let his mind empty for a few hours, letting the afternoon slant of light darken into early evening. Once in a while, Golisopod, or even another of his pokemon, would poke their head through to try and rouse him. But he had fixed his body into a stiff, immovable object.

    -

    He finally heard the front door to the house open: evidence of his father's return from work. A few bland greetings between his parents, then footsteps, then the television clicking on to blast some news commentary.

    Finally, a timid knock at his door.

    "Guzma."

    He didn't answer.

    "Dinner's going to be ready soon. Are you going to eat with us?"

    Still, she waited. Her feet shuffled nervously, but when it became apparent he wasn't going to come out, she sighed and pulled herself away.

    Guzma had forgotten how thin the walls were. The conversation that started in the living room came through his bedroom door as clear as day.

    "I'm worried about him," his mother said.

    "What for?"

    "I don't know… Something's wrong… He's been in there for hours."

    His father had no insight into that.

    "I think it's his fiancee. They're having some kind of tiff," his mother said.

    "If they are," his father replied, "they're not the first couple to have a big fight right before their wedding. They'll figure it out."

    "I think we should..."

    "Malia. Stay out of it."

    For the remainder of the evening, he heard nothing else but the clatter of a few dishes and the squeak of chairs.

    -

    When Guzma finally emerged, his mother and father still sat at the table, although the dishes had been mostly cleared and his father had dressed down for the evening, replacing his polo with a t-shirt and light brown jacket. In all the years Guzma had been gone, his father's fashion sense hadn't changed at all: Guzma still remembered that same coat, and knew what it meant.

    "You goin' out?"

    His parents, startled, turned to look at him. His mother almost said something, but his father cut in, ignoring Guzma's question. "You look like death warmed over. We were starting to wonder if you had a pulse."

    "Did you want something to eat?" His mother gauged his appearance, too, and didn't like what she saw. "We still have some―"

    But Guzma sluggishly dragged himself toward the yard, shrugging his shoulders. "Nah, I'm good."

    Outside, Guzma greeted and returned his party to their pokeballs; they had been out and unsupervised long enough, and the upturned grass and damaged fence was proof enough of that. He was surprised he hadn't gotten lip from his father about it yet, but perhaps the man knew better than to tempt fate. By the time Guzma went back inside, his father had stood to his feet, fitting his jacket more firmly about his body.

    Again, Guzma asked: "So, goin' out?"

    Witt breathed a tired breath through his nostrils. "Yes, as a matter of fact, I am―do you need something?"

    "I could use a drink."

    "...Uh-huh." Clearly, his father had an opinion on this, but withheld it for now.

    His mother nagged, "Are you sure you don't want something to eat?"

    "I can eat at Keone's."

    She frowned. "Guzma…"

    "Do what you want," his father announced. He stuffed his hands in his jacket pockets and turned for the door, a sure sign that he was uncomfortable. "I can't stop you, can I?"

    No, Guzma thought, you really can't.

    -

    The bar Witt frequented was really the only proper bar on the island. Historically, a small population and an only semi-frequent wave of tourists meant that no market existed for having too many of any kind of establishment: one bar, one malasada shop, one grocery store, one… Of just about everything. Most of the full-service restaurants survived by staying open during select summer months, when tourism was strongest, and the others only managed to stay open year-round by serving alcohol in the out-season to keep locals in attendance.

    So this was really it, unless you wanted to squeeze into a table next to a pack of squalling children in order to drink a watered-down margarita.

    Mele'mele's bar―"Keone's"―had a cluttered interior, including large wooden tiki statues seated on the counters and in corners of the room, bamboo furniture, grassy overhangs, potted jungle plants that brushed against you as you tried to navigate the narrow spaces, and blinking string lights tangled up along the ceiling. It contained every essential element that tourists liked to ooh-and-ahh over before ordering one of those ridiculous cocktails served in a hollowed-out pineapple. Locals didn't much care for the style, finding it tacky and perhaps a little insulting, but the bar had been on the island for as long as anyone could remember, and the owners could depend on Mele'mele's residents to show up, anyway.

    Guzma entered the place behind his father, staying back a comfortable distance and judging the establishment. A number of customers of assorted ages sat slumped over the central countertop, nursing their respective beers. None of them turned upon their entrance; some stared ahead, some flicked their eyes to the television screen broadcasting stats from a competition ongoing in another region. No doubt some of them had placed bets.

    On the other side of the bar, from the hollow of a booth, the two heard a slurring voice call out.

    "Ma-a-a-ack!"

    Witt snapped his head in its direction, and the sound of an insistent, open-handed slap on a wooden table followed.

    "Macky!"

    His father sighed shortly and shuffled towards the racket. "Yeah, yeah."

    Following from behind, Guzma spotted the source of the calls: a man about Witt's age, whom he recognized as a neighbor and resident on the island. The man was of slighter size but firmer muscle than his father, and darker-skinned since he worked in the sun for a living as a contractor. He sat at a corner booth, beckoning them with a wave, and wore a bright yellow shirt, a wispy combover, and an obnoxious, flashy grin. It took a second of flipping through his memory to recall his name: Emmett. That's right. Guzma knew his kids slightly better than the man himself, though they were never his companions (or, to their credit, his adversaries).

    As far as Guzma knew, Emmett did not have his father's pitfalls: he lacked a temper, and had a wife and two children who didn't speak a word against him. He was a cheerful fellow, a happy drunk, the sort kids liked to tease and torment, hoping to someday get a rise out of him (they never did; he was thoroughly unflappable).

    Seeing as the two men had so many differences, tourists might question why Witt and Emmett drank together so habitually. But Alolans understood: you can't be choosy on the islands. They visited the bar on the same nights at the same time, and so, what else can you expect?

    "You got company, Mack?"

    Just when Guzma realized 'Mack' was a nickname for his father, Emmett made a realization of his own.

    "Ho-ly crap." Emmett screwed up his face at them both, examined Guzma a second longer, and yelped, "Is this your boy?" He pushed aside his beer, hobbled quickly to his feet, and marveled at the sight.

    "He's not staying long," Witt answered noncommittally, showing no enthusiasm.

    His stony manner didn't seem to dampen Emmett's thrill; the man hooted and whistled as he addressed Guzma. "Aw, shoot, look at you! Shot up like bamboo! I still remember you as yea high!" He held out his hand flat at just below waist level, to demonstrate. He then laughed jovially at Guzma's sudden flush of embarrassment. "Back in your home-town to throw your weight around, huh?"

    Guzma wondered if he was expected to answer. He opened his mouth to respond blandly, but as it turned out, Emmett wasn't done rambling, and staggered to Witt's side to bray at him.

    "Nothing like having one of your grown ones under your roof again! It's a real riot, huh, brother? At least they can drink with you!" Without giving Witt proper warning, he swung a friendly arm about his neck, hanging off of it and chuckling at his friend's annoyance. He lifted a hand to mock-whisper in Guzma's direction. "You should hear your old man; won't shut up about you. Ha-ha. We get sick of it around here: Guzma this, Guzma that."

    For a satisfying flash of a moment, Guzma could see some vulnerability in his father's face―Witt knocked his friend in the ribs with his elbow, muttering darkly about him being a 'drunken idiot.'

    "Ha-ha! C'mon! Sit! Not every day we have a local celebrity around to buy us drinks!"

    "He sure can afford it," Witt added dryly.

    Guzma bristled at first, but decided he could make worse use of his money. "Yeah… All right."

    Emmett sat on one side of the booth. Guzma sat across from him, and Witt, calculating his options, gruffly told his son to move over. Guzma, surprised by his choice, nonetheless obliged. By the time they settled in and Emmett waved for someone to take their drink orders, the man's excitement had already alerted other patrons to Guzma's presence. Some had turned to look. Some clearly recognized him and leaned to mutter in each other's ears. But no one bothered them.

    The alcohol flowed. Glasses came full to the brim and left empty, pressed on by Emmett's easy chatter, his questions, his long-winded stories, his willingness to tell Guzma about every single resident of Mele'mele (how they fared, who married who, where they went). He was the sort of man you could sit and lose hours to without much effort on your part. In time, he got to be more and more interested in Guzma's tales of hunting beasts in the wild―how strong are they really? They ever attack you? How long did it take to catch them? How close did he get to being snatched by police? Guzma, induced by beer and several shots of whiskey, slurred and bragged his answers cheerily, to the growing impatience of his father. Witt's willingness to live vicariously through Guzma ran out in his presence; seeing his son soak up such adoration made his instinctive attention-mongering flare up. He spent most of the conversation leering and sulking with jealousy, carefully following their talk in search of a weak-spot to attack.

    The topic had changed to more recent matters; after quizzing him on his training routine, Emmett asked, "So, what's your record now? How many wins you up to?"

    Guzma opened his mouth to answer, and his father interrupted.

    "Can't count the battles you bungled this week," he said, eyes narrowing at him.

    It took every ounce of self-control left in Guzma's drunken form to not smash the glass currently in his hand into his father's face; the surge of this violent desire actually frightened him. He let go of his glass, hand shaking a little. "I'd like to see you do better," Guzma shot back.

    "I don't have hellbeasts from space," his father said.

    "They're not from space, they're from, like, another dimension, and―"

    "Alright, alright, Professor." His father waved his hands in a sarcastically distraught manner. "What I'm saying is, with what you got, it should be easy. And you still manage to mess it up."

    Emmett, sensing the harsh turn in mood and feeling eager to change it around, jumped back in. He clucked. "C'mon, Mack! You were saying it was boring, when he won all the time..."

    As his father turned to give Emmett a nasty look, a thought struck Guzma. He snorted a laugh of discovery. "You watch my matches?"

    Witt read the accusation for exactly what it was, and floundered with suppressed frustration. "What else am I supposed to watch around here? The programming on these islands―"

    But Guzma hollered and crowed loud enough for the entire bar to hear, "Man, what a sucky life you got, Witt! You must got nothin' goin' on―!"

    "...Quiet down, you idiot," his father hissed at him. Being called by his first name clearly irritated him―so Guzma, encouraged, sneered at him.

    "Hurts, don't it, Witt? I make more money tossin' one battle than you do in a month―!"

    Finally, his father snapped and banged a fist on the table. Sweat crowned his forehead and he let loose some spittle. For the first time since coming home, Guzma saw a flashing glimpse of the rage he knew, frothy with booze and implied threat. "You watch your mouth!" In the ensuing silence and gawking from the rest of the room, he breathed heavily, voice crackling. "I don't care if you are grown; I'm your father, and you don't get to talk to me any kind of way!"

    Guzma knew this pattern. This dance. It felt so natural to him: his father, goading and taunting him into responding; Guzma, eventually falling for it, returning the abuse by mouthing off; their passive-aggression bouncing back-and-forth until finally, Guzma makes a comment that hits a nerve; his father drawing a line in the sand. The next step to the dance was crucial, and painful either way. If Guzma spoke now, it meant a physical altercation. If he kept silent, it meant accepting his father's final word, swallowing the humiliation of defeat.

    Guzma knew he could speak back and take on his father. He had done it before. He would probably win, too.

    But the game they played… It was just so stupid, and suddenly he couldn't remember how they got to be like this. He looked at his father―red-faced, tense, snarling―and thought, was this it? Everything he grew up being afraid of… Somehow, all the tension he had bunched up inside himself and saved for this encounter unraveled.

    His father wanted a fight. So Guzma broke the rules. He lowered his voice, calmed, and said, "Dad."

    "What!?"

    Guzma gave him a sturdy, unshaken look. "Dad, listen. I'm sorry."

    "Well―!" Witt still had his voice tightly wound up at a high decibel, but it strangled itself there. He looked confused and lost, as if Guzma had opened his mouth and spoken in a foreign language; he certainly didn't look like he knew how to answer it. He broke eye contact, still shaking and hot with anger. "Fine. Whatever," he eventually said, pouting and pushing his arms up on the table. He groped for his beer and didn't say anything else.

    ...Emmett, who had sat there the entire time, stupefied, at last let out a beastly heave of a sigh, collapsing forward and splaying himself over the table. "Aye! You two!"

    (The rest of the bar uncomfortably shifted their eyes away).

    He laughed to relieve the remaining tension. "Giving me a heart attack over here! About to get us booted, you know!"

    As it turned out, Emmett guessed right: the bartender approached their table and informed them that they were drunk enough and needed to settle their tab and take their "family drama outside."

    Guzma's father grumbled that they were "leaving anyway," and Guzma peacefully made the payment.

    -

    When they emerged from the bar, night had fully descended on the island, bathing its surface in milky moonlight that made visible every blade of grass. In the bright dark, Emmett said his goodbyes before trundling down the opposite path, and Guzma and his father wordlessly began their own trek home. The cool air soothed their senses, and for a while at least, it seemed to calm the simmering undercurrent that threatened to break open at any second.

    Guzma continued to walk behind his father, taking short and uncertain steps to fight the teetering that had started since his last few drinks. Despite the clarity of the evening light, everything before him blurred, so that when he spotted the glowing eyes of his house at the top of the hill, they pulsed like distant stars. He watched the house intently, and he nearly walked right into his father as a result.

    The man had stopped in the middle of the dirt path, the house a little ways ahead, and turned to face Guzma.

    The posturing was clear. Guzma contemplated walking around him, avoiding the conflict altogether, but as suddenly as anything, his heart turned cold, like it had been doused in ice water, and he knew what he wanted to say.

    His father started, though, by crossing his arms. "Guzma."

    "What?" he asked. He tracked his eyes out over the deep blue horizon.

    "Don't play dumb. We're not going anywhere until you tell me what's going on."

    "Nothing's going on."

    His father snorted. "What is it you want, huh? Following me around―lurking around the house like you own the place―You only ever come around here when you want something, so what is it?"

    "I wanted to see my folks. Before I get married."

    "Are you getting married?" Witt stuffed his hands in his pockets and looked at him with a penetrating gaze. When Guzma feigned confusion, he said, "Most people getting married don't try to move back in with their parents."

    "I am not―"

    "Guzma. Why don't you cut the crap?"

    "You wanna know? Fine." (Guzma didn't know. But he had to make up something―some excuse to hide his frailty.) "I'm here to tell you that I ain't nothin' like you."

    "...Mm-hmm." His father sounded wildly unimpressed. He lowered his eyebrows and drawled, "Could've just made that a phone call."

    "I'm serious!" He swallowed a slick of bile. "We're― we're gonna have kids. I'm gonna be a father―"

    "...Lord. That ought to be a laugh."

    "At least I won't be a drunk prick!"

    Guzma's father burst out into a hard, mocking laugh. "Boy, you're drunk right now."

    "I'm gonna stop. I'm gonna stop drinking―"

    "You know? I used to feed the same bull to my father. All the ways I was gonna be different..." Witt shook his head. "Then reality hits. You'll see. When you have kids, you'll start appreciating what you got."

    "What do I have to appreciate about you!?"

    "So I was a little hard on you!" his father griped. "But you turned out alright, didn't you?"

    Guzma could no longer contain it; he snagged a clump of his own hair and screamed violently. "A 'little hard' on me!? 'Alright' ?!"

    His father didn't flinch, but rolled his eyes and mumbled, "Here we go," as if he had heard this a million times.

    "You ain't got no idea―! You don't know, don't know what my life's been like 'cause of you―!"

    "Oh, I know," his father returned hatefully. "I get it. Everything's always my fault, Guzma. Every time you screw your life up―it's somehow my..."

    "I'm not saying―!" Guzma ground his teeth and tousled his hair irritably with one hand. "Would you just listen! I'm saying you kinda sucked! Can't you admit that!?"

    The clumsy phrasing made his father reel for a second, then shake his head in a gesture of exasperation. "When have I ever said I was perfect, huh?" (There was his game again--swinging Guzma's words against walls, knocking them into distorted shape. Sidestepping every honest accusation.) "You won't ever hear me say I was a perfect father―"

    "Nobody asked you to be perfect!" Bravery in the form of brashness let him speak without self-censorship: "What kinda person sends their kid to school with a black eye, huh?"

    "Look..." His father was clearly rattled that he had laid out the unsaid thing; he lifted his hands and hesitated, unsure at first of how to respond. Finally, he waffled, "With everything that was going on with your mother―"

    " Don't !" Guzma spat at seeing his cowardice. "Don't try to blame this on her!"

    "I did the best I could. What else was I supposed to do!"

    "You―!"

    Everything flowed through him then, like a bolt of lightning: Every blow. Every kick, slap, shove, squeeze, and punch. Every cutting remark, every belittling comment, every bit of hurtful sarcasm that mocked his inability to take it; everything his father did or said that was meant to remind him of how small, useless, and pathetic he was. Every lame excuse his father ever employed, to exonerate himself of any and all failings―

    What are you complaining about? Don't I…?

    Well, if you didn't―

    You don't know how tough it is for me―

    If you don't like it why don't you...

    And when Guzma remembered those excuses, and how they took on new life later, devouring him in a patrol car over and over, ensnaring him in a seemingly endless, nightmarish cycle of promises, half-truths, betrayals, and false apologies―he now let the words crash outward in gnarled fashion.

    "You were supposed to take care of me!"

    When his father looked at him then, he saw indignation and offense, pure and unguarded. The affront he had just levied darkened his father's face, until he puffed up his chest and practically screamed at him.

    "What are you talking about!" He threw his arms out to his sides, crushing his fingers into taut fists. "You ever go hungry? Didn't you have a roof over your head? Clothes on your back? I worked every day to provide for you--and what, you wanna cry that I didn't hug you enough or something!?"

    "He could tell," Guzma said. Dizziness and nausea hit him, almost knocking him off his feet. The night sky whirled, stars and all, and a trembling enveloped his voice. "He could tell you weren't taking care of us!"

    But his father couldn't follow his leap in logic and he growled for not understanding. "What? He ? Who are you―?"

    "Daturo."

    "Daturo?" Witt sneered hatefully. "What do I care! He needed to mind his own business!"

    "It's why he―" (Guzma couldn't breathe now; his words kept latching to the inside of his throat; his chest and eyes burned; hysterical, terrified, wrathful laughter bubbled up inside his lungs, until it shook every syllable he spoke; he thinks he's sobbing, between the hitched laughter and drunken slurring, but his face is so raw and numb that he can't tell for sure.) "It's why he hung around―you know―'cause he knew you didn't care―'cause you were too chicken to ever tell him off―"

    His father, seeing his visible distress, frowned. "What's the matter with you! How drunk are you!"

    Guzma laughed--a long, exhausted, vindictive laugh. "While you were out getting wasted every night―what did you think he was doing with Mom?"

    Because this was more an attack on Witt's manhood than his mother's virtue, his father actually responded with a peak of rage. His eyebrows snarled together; he stumbled forward until he practically oozed breath into Guzma's face. He roared, "You shut up!"

    The two had not laid hands on one another―not since the fight that left one hospitalized and the other running from Mele'mele. It wasn't that they had promised each other anything. It was more that they felt something had been accomplished in their last explosive confrontation. They had threatened, but never followed through, not in almost seven years.

    Guzma's father now stood inches from him, broad and full of potential violence.

    And something... imploded in Guzma, like a breakwater crumbling into the maw of the sea, and he pushed his father roughly, grabbing him by the shirt and sending him stumbling backward. His father was surprised, but the surprise soon meant nothing, because Guzma began to yell, and laugh, and blubber: "Well it don't matter, pops, it don't matter, 'cause―! He didn't even like her, he didn't want her, y'know! He only wanted me!"

    ...Couldn't see his father's face, not through the fog of his anger, but there was silence, and in it, Guzma threw himself forward again, tackling and pushing him another foot backwards.

    "Don't you know anything!? Are you really that stupid!?" Guzma's voice started to go hoarse from screaming. "A grown man and a little kid, like that―you that dumb?" He spewed one last, vile scoff before twisting the knife: "He couldn't keep his hands off me―and you didn't even notice!"

    -

    The next sensation Guzma felt was being pulverized by a solid force banging into him, and then being sent flying backward until his spine crunched against the rocky soil. The shove took him completely by surprise, and therefore effectively toppled him over before he could regain his footing. He gasped, the wind knocked from his lungs, and for what must have been a solid minute, he lay there on the ground, facing the deep blue sky, all its mingling lights, all its cloudless, crystalline surface. Without any passing breeze, the only sound that he could hear was his father's ragged breathing, which moved back and forth as he paced back and forth.

    "Sick." His father's voice shook with a throaty blend of grief, rage, and fear. "You're―! You're some kinda sicko―! You're a sick―! Freak―!"

    Guzma had no more anger in him. He rolled onto his chest, pushed himself up, and moving purely on gravity and habit, he lunged for his father, snagging and wailing on him and grappling his body.

    The fight did not go as it did when he was fifteen; too many factors had changed. For one, though he had grown larger and stronger since then, his father, too, had grown in physical size. The man had heft like a brick wall, and as much as Guzma pushed and rammed into him, he couldn't make him lose footing. In addition, his father wasn't caught by surprise this time and so could block, yank, and bludgeon him, too.

    Both of them were drunk, adding to their lack of swiftness. To them, the fight was a series of twisted slugs, gasps for breath, and groans of impact. But any outside observer would call it a rather pathetic, clumsy display of testosterone-driven flailing-about. In the midst of their tearing each other's shirts, bloodying each other's faces, bruising each other's ribs, and cussing madly, neither of them made headway enough to claim victory. So they continued tousling, attempting to twist the other into a headlock or onto the ground.

    Minutes―minutes adding up to an agonizingly long, hot, alcohol-soaked wrestling match, trickling with sweat, snot, and spit. They might have stayed locked in battle all night, if the yelling hadn't roused the only resident of the house uphill. The screen door snapped shut, followed by Guzma's mother screaming at them.

    "What are you doing!"

    They didn't answer, but continued kicking, punching, and snarling.

    "Stop! Stop it!"

    She circled around them helplessly, then laid her hands on any limb that flew close to her, hoping to unwind them. Guzma's arm first--which he snapped away from her. Then his father's shoulder, which, too, pulled back into the fray.

    "What's the matter with you both! Stop! Stop!"

    It was as if she didn't exist. So while they continued, she ran uphill, entered the house, and a minute later emerged again with something in hand. The two didn't pay attention, and were thus caught completely off guard when she started clobbering them with a broad baking pan―clanging it against their backs and heads with loud, metallic peals like thunderclaps. The noise as much as the pain startled them into untangling, and while panting desperately, she wedged herself between them.

    "Stop it! Please, stop it!"

    They stood stupidly, wavering and licking their split lips. She saw first her husband's bloody nose and torn shirt, and without thinking, she turned to Guzma, barely holding back her tears.

    "Why do you do this to us?"

    Guzma, still heaving from exertion, almost responded. He wanted, more than anything, to call her out for her ignorance and weakness. She was as guilty as him, he thought.

    Then, through the red, he saw how they looked at him: like he was nothing, like he was a stranger, an animal. He took a frightened step back. Their expressions remained. Cold. Black-and-blue. Wishing, he realized, that he would have mercy on them and cease to exist.

    Spooked, he stumbled around them and ran up the hill, past the house and toward the back roads. He didn't look back, even as his mother called out his name―or when his father, mouth gummed from bruising, called after him, too―

    -

    It wasn't fair, he thought, trailing along the rocky paths under the gleam of moonlight. He didn't choose his parents. Those two celestial bodies, moving in all the known universe, and they chose to collide together―with all their unhappiness. Yes, yes, that's how he felt: like the product of two smashed objects, their faults and vices and weaknesses and traumas, amalgamated. Guzma inherited his mother's weakness; father crushed his weakness; he crushed himself; he crushed his father and mother; they crushed one another: and around, and around, and around they went. He was caught in their orbit: spinning and destroying―and being destroyed―forever in a loop, never to truly escape.

    Run...?

    Where could he ever run?

    Where could he ever go, and the beasts not smell the steepness of his unhappiness, hunting him down?

    What path could he take and not end up in the same place, again and again?

    And with that thought, on old instinct, his feet carried him far to the north side of the island, up to Lover's Leap.

    -
    (cont. in next post)
     
  13. dietofwurms

    dietofwurms i see stars

    (cont. from previous post)
    -

    Someone told him―he couldn't remember who, but it was probably a classmate who liked to tell macabre stories―that the place was called "Lover's Leap" because once, many years ago, a distraught woman threw herself off its edge and down into the ocean below. He doubted, now, that the story held any truth; he never heard any adult confirm or even allude to it. But it plucked at something in his untapped poetic side, and so by the time he was seven, he found the place and claimed it as his own. It became his sacred place.

    He always had to be careful not to be seen as he climbed down to reach it. He would look carefully around before hopping over the fence meant to deter children, searching the narrow edges of the cliff with his feet, and finding the small, mossy precipice that dangled precariously over the boulders in the shallows far below. He would lay flat on his stomach on the narrow rock, rest his head just over the edge, and watch the breaker waves for hours―the way they sucked in force, roared, punished the cliff-side with foamy fists, then shrank back, melting and uncovering the scraggly teeth of rock. In the night, each wave looked like a long, wet tongue as black as oil, and would pound the cliff so hard that he could feel the entire island shake against his thumping chest.

    He would think a lot, as he gripped his hands on the precipice, about the mythical girl and her body, how it must have fallen as a wave rolled back, and how the teeth ground and crushed her before the tongue swooped in and swallowed her up.

    The ledge was smaller than he remembered. He was able to straddle it now with his legs, lean over with his fingers braced on the rock.

    He felt both the lulling call of gravity―its needy groping, tugging, urging as he shifted his weight closer to the edge―and a weightlessness in his dangling legs, as if at any moment he might float from Lover's Leap and into the course of the wind pushing its way up the cliffside. The breeze, at its strongest, spiraled like a tornado of mist into him, splashing him in cold air; it flapped his jacket and blew about his hair. After some time, his extremities and face went numb from it, and all noise was muted by the whirling and raging froth of water and wind, adding to the sensation of floating in nothing.

    His head swirled like a galaxy. The rock sat firm under him, but its hold on him felt tenuous. Foam dispersed and broke over the cliffside like shining starlight in the blackness; the tongue fell, and the water sank again, breaking apart into white, snake-like threads, crawling away between the broken stones as they faded.

    Breathe in, breathe out. Cold air filled his lungs until it hurt―until it no longer hurt.

    "I'm tired," he said, to no one in particular. His voice got carried by the wind so quickly, he wasn't even sure he managed to say it. "I'm so tired of―"

    Guzma stopped.

    How had She known…? How did She know what he was going to do…? She wasn't even here, and she still danced in his head, psychoanalyzing him from afar. She could pick him apart… Read his viscera… He felt the pressure in his temples of all of them, the residents of his memories, tangling up in his brain like fishing line. If he could squeeze his head, pop it like a cork from a bottle, letting the blight go and relieving the pain...

    -

    Someone was calling to him. The voice was so faint―far away, or mixed with the wind, maybe both. But it persisted and grew louder, until some twenty feet above his head, he heard his mother.

    "Guzma!"

    He didn't turn toward her.

    Her voice drifted in and out, as she turned around to cry out her discovery. "I found him―Guzma!―he's over here…!" As she approached, her voice lowered to a conversational tone. "You shouldn't sit there. It's dangerous," she said. "You could fall. Come back this way."

    "All I ever…" Guzma stopped a second to think over his phrasing. "When have I ever done anything any good?"

    She didn't answer―or couldn't? Or wouldn't?―but she pressed against the fence and pushed her arms out for him, like an infant groping the air. "Come here," she whispered, choked with desperation. "Please, please, come this way."

    Up at the top of the cliffside, Guzma's father finally caught up. He was short on breath and silently looked over his wife's shoulder, spotting his son immediately.

    When Witt didn't comment on the predicament, Malia panicked and spoke. "I don't know what's wrong. He's not listening."

    Witt continued to watch him carefully, thinking to himself.

    "I'm getting help."

    "Don't be an idiot," Witt said carelessly. He gestured at Guzma. "He's drunk. He doesn't know what he's doing."

    "But―"

    "Listen to me! What'll they do! They'll lock him up, that's what!" He pawed at the wooden planks of the fence, unsure of how to navigate his doughy body over it. He huffed, and decided to duck between the two interior planks. He pushed his way through clumsily, muttering to himself as he did. "...Not going… to send my son to no psych ward."

    "Oh my god."

    "Malia, stay there. Don't move."

    As he straightened himself on the other side, she reached out to him, clinging to his arm for a second and letting out another sob. "Please, please don't let my baby―"

    "Malia. Stop." He shrugged off her hold and cursed at her, and she in turn clung like death to the fence post and watched him stiffly stagger his way to the cliffside.

    It was dry and sandy rock, easy to keep a foothold on, and the cliffside was scraggly enough to always have a rock, crevice, or shelf to hold onto with your fingers. The platforms were small, but wide enough to comfortably stand on as an adult; the biggest risk was swinging your body in the wrong direction, losing your balance, and letting your center of gravity throw you over the edge. Normally, such a climb wouldn't pose a problem, even for an inflexible middle-aged man such as himself. But he was tipsy from liquor and fighting, and so it took him fifteen minutes to safely work himself downward. Rubble hissed and scattered under his feet, bouncing down into the water below; wind blew and disoriented him. But in time, he reached the precipice.

    Guzma didn't turn around, but he knew the approaching presence was his father. It had the heft of his steps, his breathing.

    "Just push me," Guzma sobbed, still facing the sea. He didn't care anymore how stupid he must sound. He pushed his face into his forearm. "Just get it over with."

    His father stooped down, huffing now from strain, slipped his arms under Guzma's and started to pull. He was nowhere near strong enough to lift his son, but he was able to drag him a little ways and successfully pull both his legs safely back onto the rock. Guzma didn't pass out--not really--but he fell limp, silent, passive, quelled even of his weeping, and with the sudden weight of his collapse, his father could only manage to hoist him close to the cliff-face and lean him against it before running out of breath again.

    "Ugh. When did you eat cement today?" his father wheezed. He gripped his knees, panted, and glanced loathingly at the narrow path back up to the island. He began pulling on Guzma's jacket and tugging on his shoulders. "Guzma. You're going to have to walk."

    Guzma nudged his legs forward, flattening his feet on the ground as if getting ready. But after a few seconds of strain, he stopped again.

    "Come on. Up you go―" All his father's coaxing and pulling did not move him. Frustration creeped into Witt's voice. "...Great. Well…" He sighed and straightened his back. "If you aren't going to walk, somebody's got to carry you, and it can't be me." Saying that aloud triggered a thought that formulated into a plan. He leaned over and pulled back the front of Guzma's coat, groping around his waist. At first, Guzma had enough fight in him to grab at his father's hands and resist, but Witt fairly easily unwound his grip. "Quit fussing, will you! Do you have your pokemon on you?" Before Guzma could answer, his father succeeded in finding the belt and adjusted it forward. "Here! Who do you have?"

    Guzma limply put his hand to his belt.

    "I'm not asking you to run a marathon," his father continued impatiently. "Just show me which one can carry you."

    At last, Guzma's hand lingered, and then, as his fingers traced the pokeballs, he clinched onto one in particular. His father scooped beneath his grip and took it from him.

    He mumbled under his breath, "Betting I'm gonna regret this," and released the pokemon out onto the narrow path.

    -

    The moment Golisopod emerged, it balanced itself on the rock outcropping, chittered curiously, spotted Guzma and his father, and broke into a loud, enraged roar. Guzma's mother screamed overhead, and the creature practically bounced forward, landing with an earth-shattering thud on a platform just above the two men, raining them both in a shower of gravel.

    Witt sputtered, spread his legs to steady himself and shielded his face from the spray of grit. He leaned over Guzma's incapacitated form as he quickly tried to talk it down. "Hey! Easy!"

    Golisopod crouched low, its shadow casting over the two of them. Its breath rattled; its armor-like scales ground together like sawing bone, producing a low, grating growl.

    "You remember me, don't you," his father said, too tired to be genuinely afraid.

    Golisopod kept its blank eyes on him and continued snarling.

    "I remember you, too." He bent down again, pressing his fingers into the back of Guzma's jacket. He pulled on him a little to demonstrate his weight. "He's too heavy for me."

    Suddenly, the creature went quiet with contemplation, like it was readjusting its thought process. It dipped its head, gave its master a closer look, then looked again at the father.

    "Don't take all night thinking about it." He started to hoist Guzma up by his arms, thinking he might be able to ease the body into Golisopod's grip, but seeing the grab riled it all over again, causing it to screech and chuff threateningly at him. "All right! All right!" He dropped him and gripped the cliff-side instead.

    In only a few, swift, powerful motions, Golisopod reached down, scooped Guzma up into one of its claws, and after eyeing its surroundings and identifying its goal, used its opposite claw to slam into the rock wall, dragging itself safely forward to climb up the path. In fact, it took only a brief minute for it to clamber its way back up to solid ground, where it stood facing its master's mother. Malia, despite her fear, raced forward to confirm Guzma's safety, and after pawing his face for a moment, craned her neck to again look down the path.

    "Witt."

    Golisopod twitched an antennae at her.

    She hesitated; she had never addressed anything so dangerous and imposing, its eyes black and sharp as glass, its breathing like the hollow rumbling of an oil drum. "My husband," she said, then lost her nerve.

    It stared at her like it hoped to absorb her every vibration. Guzma had already started to writhe a bit, as he started to awaken from his daze, and his mother leaned over the fence to catch of him what she could, so Golisopod rather unceremoniously lifted him over the fence, dropped him on the ground (to his mother's shout of surprise), and turned toward the cliff again. Under the gleam of moon and stars, its shell sparkled with faint iridescence, and it meditated for a long second, claws and teeth clicking together with thought.

    It jumped down. A short few minutes later, it reappeared with Guzma's father, who was not carried but dragged from behind, as he clung reluctantly and uncomfortably to one of its upturned scales.

    -

    When Guzma awoke in his bed, the window open, the insects residing in the berry fields singing, he jerked, momentarily forgetting how he had gotten there. A deep darkness covered the room, save for a slim path of light cutting in from the window; as his eyes adjusted to the shadow that cut across his bed and bedside wall, he noted a rhythmic dance being silhouetted. He forced his heavy head to fall to its side and look to the window, and there he saw his Golisopod's head resting on the windowsill again, with its two antennae bouncing back-and-forth as it kept its gaze on him. Guzma shifted, about to speak to it, and a murky, formerly-unseen shape in his room moved.

    Startled, he threw off his covers and sat up.

    His father, seated in his desk chair, lifted a hand. "It's all right," Witt said, nerves clearly shot. "It's just me."

    "What are you…" Guzma blinked slowly at him. The features of his face, now puffy and red, began to clear up in the shadows.

    "...I thought I'd check on you." Slumping over, he squeezed his wrists and hands, allowing quiet to fall back over the room. He staunchly avoided eye contact, instead keeping his face to the floor. Golisopod whistled once, and Witt cast a quick look at it before turning away. Heavy breaths weighed on his shoulders, making him appear like a hunched gargoyle.

    His father spoke again, voice dim.

    "Look. What you were doing out there… I'm not gonna ask what you were thinking. You're a grown man now, and… You shouldn't have to explain anything to me." In the ensuing pause, there came the sound of his father digging his fingers into the fabric at his knees. He uttered sourly, "I woulda killed him."

    Guzma shut his eyes and winced. "...Dad. Shut up."

    But his father was both too drunk and too upset to stop rambling. "When did he start messing with you, anyway? Why didn't you tell me? I woulda knocked him dead―wouldn't matter who saw me, by the bright of day―"

    Guzma lost his patience and hissed at him. "Why do you say stupid stuff that doesn't matter!"

    The chiding only managed to quiet his father momentarily. The man fidgeted in his seat, doing his best to contain himself, but ended up awkwardly mumbling, "Anyway… It's not as if… Well, you're still normal, so… I mean, you are, right?"

    "Huh?"

    "You're normal," his father repeated, voice insistent and a little pleading.

    It took Guzma only a few seconds to understand what his father meant, and a few more for him to truly appreciate how unfathomably stupid it was to say. Under normal circumstances, Guzma would have reamed him out and cursed at his idiocy, but he was so exhausted, that all he could muster was a very, very seething and cold expression. "I like girls."

    His father nearly catapulted out of his chair. "I―I know that! I know that, it's just, I didn't know if―" He rubbed his head and stopped mid-sentence, realizing he had embarrassed himself enough. "No... forget I said anything."

    Gladly.

    "I know you won't ever―" His father inhaled sharply and cut himself off. He had edged too close to truth, to reality. "That's alright. You don't have to."

    His father wove fingers over his own bruised knuckles, pressing the flesh in circles. He hadn't changed his shirt, so the neck of it was still shredded open, exposing the skin at his chest, and a faint spray of blood stained the fabric. When he spoke then, he still wouldn't look up, and his voice was gravelly, hard, and uneven, like discordant music.

    "I doubt you remember this―you were, what, a first grader? Anyway, you were little. I dunno when it started―you would come home crying, saying you were hungry. We thought, well he's not eating his lunch―but we'd open your lunchbox, and it was empty. I thought you were being bullied or something. Your mother took you to a doctor―you know how she gets―packed you extra food, thought she was starving you. I finally got sick of it and told the teacher to watch you during lunch, to figure out what's going on―and you know what? She told me: these other kids would walk up to you, and they'd ask―ask!―for your food. Point at what they wanted, you know, say, can I have that? Can I have that? They didn't even have to threaten you or ask very hard. You would just hand it over, and by the time a couple kids were through with you, you had nothing left.

    "When I heard that―I thought―lord, this kid… The world's gonna chew him up and spit him out." His father started to laugh, not cruelly, but hollowly, sadly, as if remembering something else. He pressed his fingers hard into his forehead, twisting and pinching at some source of pain. He sighed, and muttered, "Maybe..." He stopped there and descended into silence, into a dark place, like he'd shut a door and locked it tight. In that moment, Guzma wondered if that was it, and those would be the last words he'd ever hear from him.

    (Guzma sees it unfolding, these lessons from his father: this is what it means to be grown up, he thinks. It means loving someone who hurts you. It means having people count on you, and you failing them, over and over. It means crushing your children as you were once crushed. It means always being alone.)

    His heart opened a little. He didn't know what to call it, exactly, the tiny thread of emotion that squeezed its way through, and he was afraid to call it what he suspected it was, so he kept it nameless: a small, twirling, unspeakable thing, blood-colored and frail.

    "...You'd better get some sleep, huh. I'll leave you to it."

    A sound of pain escaped his father's throat as he got up. He winced, huffed, and hid a limp on his way out.

    -

    When his father shut the door, he almost threw himself out of bed. He searched with his hand to the floor, and eventually found the unopened envelope. He drew it up, snapped on a desk lamp, and shredded the letter open. His head hammered and his eyes watered, and he was almost too dizzy to read it, but he held the paper in his hands until his vision and hands steadied.

    The letter didn't contain what he thought it would. There were no apologies or excuses, nor were there pleas or commands.

    Instead, in ink hand-writing inscribed on paper, the shape of the letters bent with pain or anger (he couldn't tell), She had copied the verses of a poem, leaving them without commentary:

    My eyes in vain scan round the hills beyond
    From south to northerly, from dusk to dawn.
    I look throughout in this immensity,
    And say, "There is no happiness for me."

    What good are they, thatch hut, palace and dells,
    Empty places from which no charm still dwells?
    Rivers, forests, stones and solitude rare,
    Just one person missing leaves the world bare.

    So far as I can see, the whole wide earth
    Leaves me but emptiness and void desert;
    I want nothing of all the world and clime,
    Nothing at all until the end of time.

    Would that the god of Sun take me to where
    You dwell, object of love with you I share.
    Why should I tarry in earthly exile?
    Nothing to share on this my desert isle.

    And when the leaves fall down on the prairies
    To be flown off the vale by evening breeze,
    Just as a wilted leaf I'll be forlorn.
    O, northerly, take me with you, windborne.
    *

    [*poem excerpt from "Solitude" by Lamartine]
     
  14. TheAlpar

    TheAlpar Journey Enthusiast

    You don't pull your punches, do you? Every single chapter gets worse and worse as it goes on, and I can't help but feel super shitty for Guzma, the poor man. His family couldn't be more ****ed up and you get a feel of how someone like him ended up like that.

    I'm glad you took some time to flesh out his parents, and to write a chapter without Lusamine in it (until the end, at least), because I feel like that's exactly what we needed. Hopefully now that he's at the end of the rope, Guzma will get a chance to do things right for once.

    Amazing chapter, thanks a lot for it.
     
  15. dietofwurms

    dietofwurms i see stars

    Thanks all for the continued attention. And here we go into...

    Chapter 20: Trouble

    By the time Nanu reached the Po Town police station, the rain had started to let up. In both of his arms, he carried bags of groceries―nothing fancy, just the bare necessities to get him through the first day or two after a long time away. The time he spent on Mele'mele proved troublesome and hardly satisfactory, and so now he hoped to do nothing but stow his food, kick up his feet, watch some television with a purring…

    Nanu stopped on the path, feeling the cold spray of moisture hitting his back.

    The door to the station was ajar; he could hear the sounds of laughter and broken glass.

    "―What in the Sam Hill?"

    A dark thought crossed his mind, and his lip curled.

    "Of all days," he grumbled aloud, voice crackling, "they had to pick today."

    Nanu began his approach, keeping his steps soft and steady. He avoided the crunching gravel, weaved his way through the rain-speckled grass, and reached the doorstep without alerting anyone inside to his presence. He paused to listen. Of the intermittent speech, he could understand very little, but he identified at least four unique voices, possibly more. He quietly set his groceries down at the bottom of the steps, positioned himself before the doorway, cleared his throat, and let his voice boom. "Saved me the trouble of tracking you down, did you?"

    All at once, a frightful clamor of voices, breakage, and footfalls erupted from inside. Through several shouts, one cried out more clearly: "Run!"

    Nanu planted his feet, eyes on the doorway. He sucked in a breath, readied his hands… Ready… Ready… And…

    The first two to spring through the door were boys, teenagers, fit and lively, so that when he tried to pin them at the doorway with his body, they effortlessly slipped through― the first ducked under the arm, and the other, of whom Nanu briefly snagged a shirt, flew out of Nanu's grip by sheer force. Off they went, scurrying down the road. Nanu turned back for the door, not discouraged.

    He managed to grab a girl's arm next, and might have been able to restrain her if the next two children hadn't collided with him hard in their egress, knocking her from his hold. He cursed, flew his arms at the crazy huddle of heads, scarves, and arms, and cursed again at watching the three run off unimpeded. Nanu, panting, watched them skip and hoot their way back to Po Town.

    "Don't let me see you 'round here again!" he hollered at them, between wearied gasps for breath (he was getting too old for this, he realized). "Friggin' pests. What'd they do…"

    When Nanu turned to examine the interior of the station, he faced a surprise.

    One, lonely, straggling boy, who reached the door in time to catch Nanu's attention, feebly attempted a similar escape to his peers'. He ducked―and the ex-officer, easily thwarting him, swung his arm hard against the kid's stomach and scooped him up against his hip.

    "Hey!"

    The boy squealed and pumped his feet in the air helplessly; Nanu, not even addressing him, entered the station. The entire place lay in complete disarray. Nearly every object had been knocked from the counters and tables and left smashed on the floor. Beer bottles and cigarettes littered the tile. Nearly every wall had been covered in spray paint, every cupboard emptied and trashed, every food bowl for his Meowth upturned so that kibble crunched under his feet. The Meowth themselves he nearly thought were gone―probably spooked right out the door, he thought―but after a few seconds of glowering at the scene, he spotted a few pairs of eyes peeking out from behind and underneath furniture. A few troopers, holding down the fort.

    Nanu absorbed the destruction and insolence expressed in his ruined home. And though a significant part of him burned with righteous anger, he couldn't avoid a pang of devastation in seeing how completely they had tossed the place.

    "Aw, hey! Gramps! Pu'mme down!"

    Nanu paced forward, past the waiting area, and tossed the kid to the floor with a blunt thud.

    The sprawling, lanky creature that untangled itself at his feet looked to be no more than twelve, maybe pushing thirteen―probably some new idiot recruit, who didn't know any better and had been dragged along by some idiot friends. Whoever he was, his scarf had fallen from his head in the scuffle, revealing a dumb, round-faced, dopey look about him.

    "Get up," Nanu snapped at the kid, rage building in his tone. When the boy didn't move quick enough for Nanu's taste, he impatiently smacked the kid atop the head―not too hard, just enough to make the boy cry out in surprise. "Get! Up!"

    The boy grunted and pushed up to his feet, muttering curse words that would make a sailor blush.

    Nanu shoved a finger in his face. "Alright, brat! Lemme explain something to you! You can trash Po Town all you like!" He suddenly snatched and shook the boy violently by the shoulders. "But haven't you dummies ever heard of 'sacred ground'? Because this here's the definition, punk!"

    The boy, puffing out his chest, decided not to grovel for mercy. He leaned over and spat a thick glob of saliva onto the floor. "Yeah? Whaddaya gonna do about it?"

    ...Any other day, he'd cuff the kid and send him on his way, threatening to do much worse if he ever saw him again. But today, Nanu had no patience. Nanu yanked the boy up by the arm. "Put you over my knee, for starters!"

    "I ain't afraid o' you, geezer!"

    "Yeah? You're a real brave one, huh?" Nanu fumed and pulled him toward the back of the station. "Let's see how long your brave face lasts, huh?"

    "Ow-w! Lemme go!"

    Nanu dragged him over to his wardrobe, where he started digging through his trousers. "―Where'd I put that thing? Is it hanging on the―?"

    The boy must've deduced what he was looking for, because he began floundering. "Pops!" the kid whined, starting to blubber and squeak. "Aw, c'mon pops! You can't do that, pops! It ain't right! It ain't legal! Promise I won't bother you no more, pops!"

    "Eh, must be―ah, there it is." He unlooped the belt and began pushing the boy back in the direction of the sofa. "C'mon kid, it's time to put your brave face back on."

    The kid sobbed and dug in his heels. "I'm sorry! I'll clean yo' joint up! I'll pay you back! Honest!" He snivelled and wiped his face with his forearm. "I'm tellin' the truth, pops, a hun'ned percent!"

    "―Criminy, boy, I haven't even whupped you yet, and you're already givin' me a headache."

    "Aw, please!"

    -

    Nanu had forgotten to shut the door behind him, a mistake he immediately paid for: before he had a chance to exact his wrath, Gladion, without asking permission, breached the doorway and knocked on the panel to make his presence known amidst their arguing.

    Nanu snapped to attention, then pulled a fiercely exasperated look at seeing him. The grunt, on the other hand, wilted and looked so tremendously relieved, that given the chance, he might have kissed Gladion's feet.

    "L'il G! Aw, you came just in time! Help a homie out―!"

    Gladion, though, first noticed the station's interior condition. "What happened?" He then saw Nanu holding the boy by the arm. "What's going on?"

    Nanu shook the grunt quiet and spoke sharply. "Brats moved in. Trashed the place while I was out. The others ran, but I caught this one red-handed."

    Gladion looked over the station in horror. He crossed his arms and shot the boy a stern glare. "What were you thinking?" He shook his head. "Officer Nanu deserves your respect."

    The boy averted his eyes and twisted his foot on the floor.

    "You should apologize."

    "I did! I'm sorry, pops, really!"

    Gladion kept his gaze steady on the boy. "Don't mistake my coming here for mercy. Plumeria will hear about this, and she's already in a nasty mood." Gladion, satisfied, in turn gave Nanu an equally demanding look. "Let him go."

    Nanu sneered but relented. "Hmph. Depriving me o' the simple joys in life." He released and shoved the whimpering kid in the direction of the door. "Get." Nanu, ignoring the boy's subsequent flight outside, began to kick aside the glass bottles lolling on his floor. He bitterly sighed and turned his frustration on Gladion. "Thanks for watching the place while I was away."

    Gladion again glanced at the belt in his hand. Nanu, sensing his silent judgment, rolled his eyes and tossed it aside.

    "I wasn't gonna really hit the kid. Just spook 'im, is all―"

    "Kahuna Nanu," Gladion said. "I―need to talk to you. About Guzma… and my mother."

    Nanu made a horrible, grizzled noise.

    -

    Nanu swiped some garbage off the sofa―just enough to give Gladion space to sit―and staggered first outside and then into the kitchen to put away his groceries.

    Gladion. Nanu hadn't much contact with the kid, not before Guzma left, but as he became familiar with him, he could see a lot of Lusamine in him. That woman… Even after a long separation from her, Gladion reeked of her influence in everything from his seating posture―proper, upright, with legs together and hands folded―to his exacting speech. He tried so hard to be a little adult.

    Strange, then, that Gladion seemed to have settled in nicely with a role in Po Town. It spoke to Plumeria's great distress that she allowed the boy, whom she had previously disavowed as a sniveling brat, to become her primary muscle. The two did share a powerful disdain for Lusamine; maybe that was enough to form a bond.

    He still didn't wear Team Skull gear, opting instead to remain in that black hoodie. Nanu took that as a sign of something.

    The boy spoke, interrupting his thoughts. "You were on Mele'mele, weren't you?"

    Nanu shoved the milk carton into his fridge, sighed again, and worked his way to his coffee percolator, which miraculously, though it had been knocked to floor, appeared not to be broken. "How you figure?"

    "That's where Guzma was. His disappearance made the news―like everything he does now. You seemed to have left right when it happened."

    "Yeah, yeah, all right, brilliant deduction an' all."

    "But you saw him."

    Nanu waved a hand affirmatively as he prepared a pot. "He didn't exactly run off into the mountains like last time. You want any?"

    "No, thank you." Gladion watched him carefully, and eventually asked, "How was he?"

    "You're a funny kid. If some jerk shacked up with my mother, I'd be lookin' the kill the guy, not ask after him."

    The term 'shacked up' made Gladion cringe and redden. "He―" (He collected himself, pressing a hand to his face). "Despite everything, we have history. He took me seriously and gave me a chance to prove myself when no one else would. I can't call us friends, but I do owe him something." He thought Nanu would have something to say on this―possibly something cynical―but the kahuna stayed quiet and plugged in his percolator. "I'm getting... conflicting reports about his disappearance."

    "Hmm."

    "Did he run? Did he... Have second thoughts? Is that what it was?"

    Nanu rubbed his eyes roughly and grimaced. "He might be gettin' hitched to your mother, but that does not mean I'm gonna air his dirty laundry to you."

    "He…" Gladion stopped, blinked, and creased his eyebrows. "You can't mean he's still…"

    "He took the shuttle back to Aether this morning."

    Whatever color Gladion still had in his face vanished. "You're not serious."

    "Saw him off myself," Nanu assured him, though he really meant that he watched from afar as Guzma made his stilted goodbyes to his parents.

    "But…" The boy crossed his arms. "I don't understand. He got away. Why would he…"

    "Who knows. He wasn't real forth-coming on his plans. But, far as I know, the wedding's happening right on schedule." He pointed to his desk. "I've got my ticket to ride."

    The coffee brewed, gurgling hot water and steam. Gladion was apparently stunned enough to remain quiet for nearly a solid minute, eyes tracing the floor with troubled thought. Finally, he muttered. "That… idiot. I tried to warn him."

    "Eh. He's gotta have his reasons."

    Gladion looked shocked; he almost lost it. "'Reasons'? What reasons could he possibly―"

    "Hey, I ain't saying he has any good reasons. You know, not that it's any of my business, but…" He sighed deeply, drawing himself a cup of coffee. "If you owe him so much, maybe you oughtta give him the benefit of the doubt, huh?"

    The salience of Nanu's advice took Gladion aback.

    Apparently tired of the conversation, Nanu pulled out his flask to spike his coffee. He paused and decided to be polite, proffering the flask to Gladion first.

    "...You know I'm thirteen, right?"

    Nanu shrugged. "Entrapment. Couldn't arrest you anyway."

    "It's also early in the morning."

    He tilted a generous serving into his coffee. "Hey, do I come to your place and knock your way of living? Hrngh, my head." Meowth began to creep from out of their hiding places and swarm his legs, mewling hungry protests. He pushed them around with his foot. "Yeah, yeah. Gimme a minute. Cripes. Everybody wants a piece o' me this morning."

    Gladion studied him. A few Meowth hopped up onto the table, and Nanu, grunting, hoisted the television from the floor. He positioned it back on the coffee table, cracked screen and all, and rubbed his back with a groan of complaint. Though Nanu searched for the cables necessary to get the device back in working order, he apparently gave up on the task for now, and cleared another spot on the couch to take a seat.

    Finally, Gladion narrowed his eyes at him. "I have to admit, Kahuna Nanu… I've… wondered about you. I even looked you up."

    Nanu snorted and went for his flask again. This needed another shot.

    "A lot of your records were scrubbed. Especially concerning your work with the International Police. But when you were a community officer, at least, you were called to disciplinary hearings―a lot. Excessive force. Bribery. Contraband. Extortion. Obstruction of justice. Conspiracy..."

    "...Stop, I'm blushing."

    Gladion looked to him sadly. "You weren't a good person, were you."

    Nanu took a long time to absorb this accusation. It made him trace down a long set of unpleasant memories―ones he tried daily to push into the recesses and neglected corners of thought. All the cruel and thoughtless sins he had brought on those around him, in particular on those he confessed to love. He took a hard drink from his cup and finally said, "...I lied." (Gladion waited for some profound truth to come next). "I was gonna whup that brat 'til Tuesday, if you hadn't shown up. Lucky devil." He gave Gladion a horrible, nasty grin. "I 'wasn't a good person'? What makes you assume I'm a good person now?"

    "Tapu Bulu chose you to be a kahuna."

    "The tapu… Don't know what they're doing. Read up on recent history, Scruffy… They've screwed things up before, and now… Choosing a wretch like me to protect anybody. Feh."

    "But you still accepted the position. Is it penance…? Serving as a kahuna, watching over Team Skull… And even Guzma…" When Nanu sighed and swigged his coffee, Gladion's expression brightened. "I'm right, aren't I?"

    "You've got quite the imagination. What's your deal? Hassling an old man like this..."

    Gladion tensed again. "Lillie still thinks Mother can be saved. I'm not so sure."

    "Well, if you're looking at me as a case study, forget it. Some people… They're far gone." Nanu saw Gladion's face harden. He shook his head. "Why the long face? Most people who hate their mothers would take that as welcome news."

    A thin, taut line of resistance pulled on Gladion's voice. "I don't hate her." He shrank back in his seat, and quieted. "I hate… what she's become. What she's chosen to do to others."

    "That's fair." Nanu paused. "Do you love her?"

    Gladion's face somehow simultaneously paled and flushed―a mix of childish vulnerability and self-aware, adult dread. But he couldn't rightly say the question was a surprise. He fixed his limbs tightly together against his body as he thought it over, and replied only, "She's my mother."

    "Hmm." Nanu pressed the ends of his fingers into a Meowth's cheek, eliciting a loud, rumbling purr. "Love ain't always about deserving. You're awfully young to have figured that out." When he noticed Gladion's discomfort, he decided to nudge the conversation a bit. "So. On that note: what are your plans?"

    "Plans?"

    "With the wedding, and all. You goin'?"

    Gladion answered quickly, looking horrified. "Absolutely not."

    "I figured you weren't on the invite list. You could tag along with me."

    "No, I mean―" Gladion frowned, confused by the offer, and amended, "I want no part of it."

    "Conscientious objector, huh. Your loss, I guess. It's probably gonna be quite the gig."

    As Nanu spoke, a tiny, electronic medley rang out from Gladion's pocket. Surprised, the boy drew out his phone and examined the call screen. He stood immediately upon seeing the name. "I have to go."

    "Good. About time I get some peace and quiet around here."

    The boy started to leave after answering the call; Gladion put the phone to his head, and just as he reached the doorway, Nanu overheard a brief quip of French from his lips. That alone told Nanu who was calling: when the two sibling conferred over the phone, especially when they wanted an additional layer of privacy, they always spoke in the language of their homeland.

    (Nanu knew only enough to understand Gladion's opening question: "What is it?")

    -

    The remaining Meowth, sensing that the trouble had passed, returned from outside and came right on time for Nanu's sluggish feeding routine. He shuffled to the back, pulled out the hefty bag of animal feed, and occasionally swiped away a nagging feline face. He filled bowls, set them on the floor, and surveyed the group.

    "We missing anybody?"

    While they pushed and squabbled, circling the bowls and scarfing down kibble, he counted them. Eventually, he sniffed, satisfied with the number.

    "...At least that's good… Hey, now, don't fight, there's enough for everybody… Let number five in there… He's gotta eat like the rest o' you…" He placed his foot into the group, pushing their furry bodies around to fit in the last cat. He watched a second. Scratched his chin. Gave the interior station another hard look.

    Maybe he ought to eat breakfast.

    The task turned out to be easier said than done. Once he reached the kitchenette, he found the extent to which it had been thrown around, and so had to collect both appliances, utensils, and foodstuffs off the floor before he could even consider what to eat or how to prepare it. This grueling process went on for some fifteen, perhaps twenty minutes.

    Just as his back threatened to give out, though, he heard the voice of his next visitor.

    "You in there, Uncle?"

    He strenuously grabbed the countertop and pulled himself up. He spotted Plumeria and puffed an ill-tempered breath. "...Is there a sign on my door that says 'bother me'?"

    The girl tossed her pink pigtails and scanned the station; she must have heard about the scuffle, if she showed up this quickly to give it a look. "Oh my god." She tried not to laugh, but an impressed snort escaped her when she clapped a hand over her mouth. "They really did trash the place. I swear it wasn't like this yesterday."

    Nanu's face wrinkled. He trudged forward and stood in the middle of the station, surrounded by the mess. "Good to know. I guess three days was too long to expect the place to stay in one piece."

    "Sorry," she said. She studied his anger and put a hand to her hip. "Forget about rent this month."

    "...Don't talk nonsense," he murmured, averting his eyes.

    "I mean it."

    He sighed, dropped his intention to further argue, and began plucking beer bottles from the floor and gathering them on top of the table.

    "It was a group, right? Did you at least get to thump any of 'em?"

    "No," he grumbled loudly, "your new toy poodle interrupted me. Not sure why he has license to come around here and tell me what to do. Say what you will about your old boss; at least he didn't say boo to me when I handled my own business."

    That much was true: Guzma had no patience for the grunts who purposefully antagonized the old man and came complaining to their boss when they got their ears yanked or behinds beat. What'd you expect, dummy?

    "Gladion's just not used to it," Plumeria surmised, shrugging. "He wasn't raised that kind of way."

    Nanu thought on Gladion's propriety and primness, and agreed, "Suppose that's true." He absently scratched his ear, felt the fidget in his fingertips that led them to his shirt pocket, and made his way past Plumeria and out the door.

    Her eyes followed him, and she spoke up in alarm. "Where are you going?"

    "Outside," he grunted, "for a smoke. Cripes, do I gotta explain everything to you?"

    Plumeria was a girl of certain habits, but smoking was no longer one of them, so during his smoke break, she neglected to join in. She did, however, grant him her presence on the front stoop, watching him huff and flood his airways with the sulfurous stuff. He hacked up phlegm; she cracked jokes about drawing up his will. They had their ritual down.

    Now, while the smoke of his cigarette rose into the wet air, he adjusted the stick on his lip and waited for Plumeria to address what she really wanted to talk about. Of course she had come over in response to hearing about the station―but more importantly, she must have known where Nanu had been. With whom he had been speaking, over these last few days. Ever since the engagement announcement came over the news, Plumeria had enforced an absolute rule of silence on the issue. No one dared breathe a word of it, or so much as hint at it in her presence. Even in her conversations with Nanu, she kept mum. In those weeks, Nanu tried to stay patient, to let her determine when and how she wanted to bring it up, but at this point, he thought, avoiding the topic was beyond silly. The wedding would happen in a matter of days.

    So Nanu, when he saw that Plumeria didn't have the courage to, broached the topic on her behalf. "Hey, Rainbow. My ticket comes with a plus-one. Come to the wedding with me."

    "What?" She shot him a disgusted, ferocious glare. "Why would I ever―"

    "Free booze. I plan on being three sheets to the wind by the rehearsal dinner. You got better plans?"

    She tapped her foot and ground her teeth, but couldn't come up with an answer. Maybe crashing the stupid wedding would make her feel better. She finally snorted at him. "Don't you have somebody else you can take?"

    He shrugged. "Does it look like I have friends? Look, Scruffy already said no, so…"

    "Gladion?" She burst out laughing. "Wait―you asked him to be your date before you asked me?"

    Nanu stared for a second then said, "You're uninvited." He ditched the cigarette to the ground, stamped it out, and walked back in through the doorway. "Gee, that was fast."

    "...Wait!"

    -

    It had been years since Nanu operated a vehicle more complex than a ten-speed bike. Life on the islands didn't necessitate cars save for specific purposes, like transporting goods or busing large tour groups. Besides, Nanu liked the freedom and slow pacing of a proper walk.

    However, there was no way he was about to carry luggage to the other side of the island.

    Nanu laid on the horn and slumped in the driver's seat. Though all he could see was the shut, iron-cast door outside the Po Town walls, he muttered under his breath, "C'mon, girl, not waiting all day."

    Another minute passed under a soft patter of rain. Fat drops collected on the windshield, fogging the view ahead of him; he lowered the passenger's side window to keep an eye out, and didn't worry too much as he watched the door and seat begin to drip and spatter wetly.

    He hit the horn again, and the door opened.

    "Cool your jets, grandpa!" Plumeria pried open and shut the hefty door with a clang, swinging a sizeable backpack about her shoulders and upholding an umbrella against the worst of the rain. Her effort with the door was clumsy, and a real gentleman would have stepped out of the car to assist her, but Nanu felt pretty comfortable and dry where he was. Finally, she poked her head in through the window. "Can you pop the trunk?"

    "Is that all you're bringing?"

    She rustled her bag as it rested against her back. "I pack light."

    Nanu briefly thought on his own experience with women's packing habits, but chose not to quibble over a light load. He pointed over his shoulder with his thumb. "Just throw it in the back seat. Lots o' room there."

    Promptly, she tossed both her bag and her wet umbrella into the back seat, and she twisted herself into sitting position, shutting the car door. As she settled into the passenger seat, he noticed her wardrobe: a sleek red dress, gold bangles and necklace, and high heels. Even her hair, usually bound up and sticking out ridiculously, had been loosened and set to a gentle curl down her shoulders.

    Nanu, who wore his usual, coffee-stained red shirt and police uniform, snorted at this display of care. "What are you wearing?"

    Plumeria smoothed out the wrinkles at her knees and raised an eyebrow at him. "...A dress?"

    "You know the wedding ain't actually 'til tomorrow."

    "It's a cocktail dress, you―" She yanked the invitation schedule from his dashboard and read aloud, "Please board in light formal wear; there will be cocktails and hors d'oeuvres upon boarding." She gave him some side-eye. "Did you read the schedule?"

    "I skimmed it." He shrugged. "T'be honest, I wasn't planning on dressing up anyway. Where'd you get that―" He vaguely pointed at her. "―thing?"

    "My closet? I have clothes, you know."

    "...Coulda fooled me. Always walkin' around half-naked."

    To his surprise, she balled her hand into a fist and thumped him in the arm. He yelped and clutched himself.

    "Hey! Assaulting an officer! That's a felony, you know!"

    "Arrest me."

    He glared at her sternly, then rubbed the spot where she had struck. Cripes, she had an arm on her. "Don't start sassing me, girl, 'less you wanna start walking."

    "I might get there faster if I did." She clubbed the dashboard, as if testing whether it was about to fall apart. "Where'd you get this clunker?"

    "It's a rental. Don't break anything." He produced the keys and put them into the ignition. "So, what's the gameplan, Rainbow? Seduce the bridegroom?"

    "No. Was that your plan?"

    Nanu rolled his eyes and mumbled something caustic, but she couldn't make it out.

    She crossed her feet and straightened her dress as he started the engine, put on the windshield wipers on, and pulled the car into gear. Finally, once the drive started, she asked, "...How do you feel about hijacking a vessel at sea?"

    "Huh." He stared straight ahead, but put on a grin. "Sounds like every good party I've ever been to."

    -

    On a day as balmy as this one, the beach beside the Grand Hano Resort would normally be covered with hotel guests relaxing in their bathing suits, or children combing its white sands, but today, the bulk of the activity spilled from the hotel lobby and out onto the sparkling plaza. The sounds of bubbling fountains and laughter mixed with the rolling and pushing of luggage, as guests collected themselves outside after checking out from their rooms. As a group, these people came in a variety of ages and genders, but had mostly pale complexions of far-off regions, and could be heard occasionally making exclamations in foreign tongues. The whole lot clinked and jingled with wealth, with their cufflinks, bracelets, and earrings; they smelled of perfume and polish.

    These, Nanu thought, are truly not my people.

    From where he and Plumeria stood, at the back steps to the plaza (they had not yet ventured up to join the crowd, and Nanu seemed content keeping it that way), they could see the dock. The ferry they took to Akala had already departed, leaving the terminal empty. Just when Plumeria thought to ask, so where's this boat?, a blast of a gutteral sound shook the island, rattling the glass of the hotel's windows, and in its wake, a monstrous, drifting structure appeared from behind the building, carving its passage through the waters. The noise and sight of the brilliant white cruise ship set the whole crowd aflutter; they secured their items and began to cluster towards the dock. It became apparent that the pair would be stuck at the end of the line if they didn't start to move. Plumeria went first. Nanu sighed and hobbled after her.

    The cruise liner glowed luminous in the direct sunlight, bathed in white and glinting chrome, and it moved swiftly for such a large, bulky vehicle. It slipped into place at the dock, groaning and hissing like a living thing. And as Plumeria felt its shadow creep and cast over the plaza, her stomach clenched and sank.

    "You still up for this?"

    She turned in surprise to find Nanu studying her. She frowned. "Sure I am."

    "...Because you don't have to."

    Plumeria examined the tall, consuming monster before her. It growled hungrily as the boarding platform lowered. "I know."

    Boarding was uneventful, if uncomfortably crowded. At least this group didn't push and shove like frantic tourists―the occasional gripe about the wait could be heard, but otherwise the guests were exceptionally behaved. By then, though, Nanu and Plumeria noticed they received a number of odd and suspicious looks, as if the others were not entirely convinced they belonged there. Nanu figured she'd mouth off on someone eventually for their blatant rudeness, but instead, she pretended not to notice and took her careful, gradual steps closer to the ramp.

    At the top of the ramp, just before the entrance, there stood a man who took tickets and ushered guests through. They approached, and the representative stood at sharp attention, wearing a navy blue uniform with shining brass buttons; he affably requested Nanu's ticket and identification, which he handed over. But after Nanu received his papers back, the representative turned and gestured at Plumeria.

    "...And the young lady?"

    "She's my plus-one."

    The representative nodded. "I'll still need some form of ID."

    Plumeria, expecting this, plunged her hand into her purse and produced a wallet―covered it with her hand, giving Nanu a warning stare, and handed over an identification card so that Nanu couldn't see. The kahuna wasn't surprised by her caution. She had warded off all of his attempts at checking out her background, and she wasn't about to offer up a juicy detail like a full name or birth date.

    The representative took her card, gave it a cursory glance, and made a suddenly alarmed expression.

    Uh-oh. Had they been made? It was just his luck.

    Plumeria, though, decided to ignore the look and try to get a reaction. She looped her arm around Nanu's, gushing, "Oh, sweetheart, our first cruise! Aren't you excited?"

    He cringed, but forced words through clenched teeth. "Uh-huh. You bet."

    The representative uneasily looked between them.

    "What are you gawking at? Dating babies. Thought it was the theme of this whole shebang."

    "The attendant," the representative said, pointing inside with insistence, "will check your luggage."

    Plumeria looked closely over the group now gathered on the open deck, far at the top of the cruise ship. Tables covered in white linens and ornate decorations lined the platform, and guests lazily followed them, occasionally plucking food or drink. In addition, a number of boat attendants navigated the crowds, holding plates balanced with champagne glasses and neatly-crafted hors d'oeuvres. But look as she did, Plumeria did not see any evidence of either bride or groom-to-be.

    Her stomach gnarled back into a tight knot. She saw more looks―more elegant, dull faces turning to the two of them with questioning expressions. So she moved her body, forcing herself to ignore them, and looped her arm about Nanu's.

    Nanu, unnaturally startled, jumped at the touch. He had stood so blithely with his hands deep in his pockets, that he hadn't noticed her standing so close. "What? ...You need something?"

    "No."

    "You…" He looked directly at her arm, hoping to force her to explain herself, but it didn't work. He sighed. "Whatever. Look, why don't you go ahead and mingle. I'll be at the bar." Nanu began leaning hard in its direction at the other end of the deck.

    However, Plumeria didn't release his arm, instead tugging him back. "The bar's going to be there all week. If you want the good hors d'oeuvres, you gotta move before they run out."

    "I'm not really a finger-food guy," he started to say, but she already had him.

    Far above the easy and friendly chatter of the wedding guests, above even the flutter of tablecloths and dresses, and the diminutive hum of violin strings, the sky deepened in its blue. Clouds formed to cover the afternoon sun, washing out the vibrancy of all the colors onboard, and as evening crept ever-closer, the guests' shadows overpassed one another, causing a constant flickering of light and dark across the wooden floor of the deck, and faces seemed to appear and disappear at random. Plumeria, though, didn't pay attention to their faces as she pulled Nanu about in her quest for food.

    She had solidified her grip on his arm. After a while, this earned them substantially more attention than their odd appearance; a level of confusion, then discomfort passed over those who stood nearby. Nanu nearly thought to object on being dragged around in such a manner―it wasn't like he knew these people, but he wasn't especially crazy about being labelled a cradle-robber, either―when she found a crispy palmier and shoved it in his face, touching it to his lips.

    "Uh." He tilted his head back irritably and brought his hand up to take it from her. "Can feed myself, thanks." He popped it in.

    "I see mussels. Do you like mussels?" She didn't wait for his answer before yanking him in their direction.

    "Whatever―yeah, hey," he said, motioning to the people she just bumped and shoved past, "coming through, pardon―"

    This cycle of pulling, snatching food and moving quickly to the next item went on for some time―capturing a healthy spread of tartines, caviar, canapés, scallops, brochettes, rissoles, croquettes… None of which, to his surprise, she rejected. To the contrary, she didn't hesitate in her handling of them, nor did she cringe in startled disgust at any of their flavors. He studied her reactions so carefully that he stopped minding her feeding him.

    At least, until she tried to foist a small piece of bread with some black, gooey gunk on it he didn't like the smell of.

    "Here, try this," she said.

    "What is it?"

    "It's escargot."

    "Woah, hey." He drew up his hands in surrender. "I gotta draw a line at eating worms, sorry."

    "It's a snail, not a worm."

    "Uh-uh. I wanna see you eat it."

    Plumeria gave him an exasperated look. "Ugh! Fine―" He didn't have time to take back his dare; she took it in one bite, chewed, and swallowed. "See? You big baby, it's not that bad."

    Kahuna Nanu stopped to stare at her, at first baffled, then amused, like he'd cracked a code.

    "What?" She knew that look, and didn't like it. She put her other hand to her hip. "What is it?"

    "You come from money, don't you?"

    The shock in her face told him everything. She didn't respond, and stared back at him a moment, until she broke eye contact and desperately pretended not to understand.

    Eventually, Nanu decided not to wait for her to answer. He gazed out over the greying sea. "...My ex came from money. It was the way she carried herself." He felt her arm squeezing against his bicep, so he lowered his voice. "You don't wanna talk exes?"

    Still, Plumeria remained silent. By now, they had worked themselves away from the thick throng. Finally, in their walking, she pulled on the skirt of her dress and said, "Do you want that drink now?"

    Nanu smiled wolfishly and nodded. "Lead the way."

    -

    Though a kahuna, and ostensibly a man who upheld tradition and custom, Nanu did not see many redeeming qualities in pompous affairs such as weddings. Perhaps he was embittered by his own personal failures, but in his broader sense of value, he saw these debacles―weddings, festivals, dances, ceremonies, funerals―as noisy, cluttered nonsense. They involved stuffy routines, emotional outbursts that were well-scripted and timed, and worst of all, small-talkers. If forced to attend, he lessened their impact in whatever way he could: arrive late and leave early; sit or stand strategically toward the outskirts to avoid human contact; drink or eat himself into a happy stupor.

    Nanu thought on this and contemplated his own motives for attending this event. The beer in his hand served currently as his best excuse, but he wondered how deep his self-pity went.

    Then, just as easily, he turned his conjecture on her. Was her coming here desperation? Revenge? Resignation? Morbid curiosity?

    With their drinks in hand, they retreated away from the crowd and found their way downstairs to the quiet of the promenade deck. Here, the sound of the clatter, music, and laughter sounded distant compared to the easy slap of the sea, and not another soul had ventured this far from the partying, so the two were completely alone, looking out over the railing. It was a good, comfortable silence.

    The ship hadn't set off yet―and neither Guzma nor Lusamine had appeared to the guests. Nanu started to wonder.

    Plumeria, after drinking some of her champagne, finally asked, "You were on Mele'mele. Right?"

    "Yeah, that's right."

    "So you talked to him."

    "Uh-huh."

    She nervously danced her fingers around the glass. "Well? What did you talk about?"

    "...It was private."

    This response bothered her; obviously, she thought she was owed some intel. "Okay, sure," she said, voice strained, "but did he explain himself? Did you even try to talk him out of this?"

    "Who the devil said it was my job to do that? Look, Rainbow, if you had something to say to him, you know where he lives. Nothin' was stopping you from making the trip yourself."

    Nanu almost immediately regretted his tone; Plumeria, wounded, turned her back to him. It took some time and a few additional sips of champagne for her to come back around, and without looking him in the eye, she confessed, "I loved him once." She wrinkled her brow, as if hearing the words from her mouth disturbed her. "I mean… As much as a thirteen-year-old kid loves anybody. You know?" Unsurprisingly, Nanu had little to add to that comment, so Plumeria, in the momentary pause, tilted back her glass, drinking the last of the pearly champagne. She trailed only a few steps away to set down the empty glass at a nearby end table, then returned, her face somehow even more guarded than before. She looked out where the afternoon sky started to burn into the reds and pinks of sunset, and her eyes and skin radiated with the horizon's flush rosé color. She looked vibrant. Strong. But in a far away place, a far gone place. Finally, she said, voice barely above a whisper, "...Maybe I never really knew him."

    Nanu snorted. "You really believe that?"

    "I said 'maybe'!" She gripped the dangling cords of her hair, tugging on them in frustration. "It's just… I didn't think in a million years…! What is he thinking! That he'd just go along with it, being some cougar's boy-toy, be some trophy husband…"

    "In my experience, people do what makes sense to them."

    "'Sense'!" She folded her arms tightly in exasperation. "I'd love to knock some into him about now. Where is he, anyway? Have you seen either of them?"

    "The couple? Nope."

    "Well, where the heck are they!"

    "...Could be letting off some pre-wedding steam..."

    "Ugh!" Plumeria slapped his arm hard and fumed. "You're disgusting!"

    "Complain if you want," he countered, scoffing, "but come their honeymoon, you know there's gonna be some adult content―ow, all right, all right, ow."

    After delivering a few more smacks to his arm and hearing his whining, her anger subsided. "...Stupid," she muttered at him, though by now with a hint of affection.

    As they watched the sun just begin to bronze, Plumeria sighed a tired sigh, rested her chin in her one hand, and started to lean into him. Nanu, caught up in his thoughts, simply finished his beer and dropped the empty bottle to the floor, and in committing this careless action, he felt her wrapping her arm around his once more. He nearly thought she was trying to balance herself―that perhaps the champagne or the sway of the boat had suddenly affected her―but no, she stood firmly against the railing, her shoulder pressed up against him.

    Nanu looked around himself. He rolled his eyes. "You know…" He eased his hand between their conjoined limbs and untangled himself until he stood freely at her side. "You can drop it now. There's nobody here to witness the little game you're playing."

    "Huh?"

    "Your arm candy routine. Ain't you got any shame―gadding about, pretending to be hanging on some geezer's arm?"

    She laughed. "Like I care what they think. Besides. I wouldn't mind it."

    The comment almost flew right over his head. He blinked and gave her a cross arch of an eyebrow. "...Come again?"

    "You're not that bad. You're hilarious. You say what you think. You don't let other people push you around―not us, not the kahunas, not the tapu, not anybody."

    He pushed his body to face the other direction.

    "...And you've looked out for me. For us. When you didn't have to."

    "Hrmph."

    "You're not bad-looking, either―"

    He turned back around in a huff, wearing a terrific scowl. "Are you quite finished embarrassing yourself?"

    "I'm saying I like you. Don't you like me?"

    "I..." Nanu shook his head, like he had narrowly avoided a trap. A grumble curdled in his throat. "...You're trying to get a man in trouble. Shouldn't tease old folk like that, you know."

    "What! I'm not teasing!" Her eyelids fell, weighed with thought; she reached over and touched his arm. "Nanu. I'm saying I would. If you asked."

    He stared down at her hand, flabbergasted.

    How had he missed it?

    It was easy to overlook when she wandered Po Town wearing those goofy, skanky outfits that she must have felt empowered her; it was easy to overlook when she snorted at dirty jokes and threatened those who bullied her "stupid little brothers and sisters." But now, by the light of sunset and ocean gleam, with gold bracelets at her delicate wrist and a fine dress trailing down her back, she blossomed, and he realized that's what she was: a young woman. Strong, and beginning to embrace the passions that drove all natural life.

    He was an idiot, he thought. The way she spoke to him all this time―the looks she cast on him―that he dismissed as a little girl's fancies―

    He looked away. Tried to. But she put a hand to his face, turned him to her, and kissed him.

    A soft, kindly, bird of a kiss, flapping its wings, burgeoning with an affection he didn't know he remembered until now.

    -

    "Nanu," the blonde agent whispered, "I'm not asking much, am I? I know I can't compete with her―you'd never leave her―that's why―"

    She works her slender fingers under his shirt; her kisses press against his throat. The hotel room door had shut, locking in the dark and sticky warmth.

    "Please―is it so much?―to have you hold me―just this once, to have you here with me―"

    And he fell with her―fell with that Faller, fell deep into pleasure and the agony of broken promises.

    The last thing he said to her before fate ripped her from him in violent retribution for his sins, but shortly after awakening her by kissing the back of her neck, was a cheeky, "Someday, you're gonna get me in such trouble, aren't you?"


    -

    For just a second―a measly, hair's breadth of a moment―she thought she felt him kissing back.

    Then he pulled away.

    Plumeria thought she had seen the full range of Nanu's emotions, seeing as he didn't seem to have range at all―anywhere beyond chagrined, irritated, or furious, anyway. His eyebrows were always locked together in a permanent scowl that spared no one, and his eyes always roamed cold and ruthlessly over that which he surveyed.

    But when he looked at her now, she saw something new and completely unfamiliar. He gaped, speechless, like she had just punched him in the gut. "Y-you…" He coughed once, then twice, struggling to breathe. His expression drooped and he looked at her sadly, almost crushed. "Rainb―" He stopped himself, sighed steeply. "Plumeria."

    He started to lift his arm, as if considering reaching out, but he must have thought better of it. Instead, he touched her hand, removing it from his face and placing it back at her side.

    "Two years." He somberly leaned back over the railing. "Seen you grow up, haven't I… Seen you become a young lady…" Unspoken regrets rolled off his tongue. "My place ain't with you… I've made enough mistakes for one lifetime. Besides, this world's for the young, not for washed-up wretches like me."

    "So what? Washed-up wretches need love, too."

    He gave a bitter laugh at that thought. "I had my shot… A long, long time ago. But who knows. Life is long. Too long, in my opinion." He had rambled enough. "Anyway… You oughtta start lookin' at somebody your own age."

    "Pff. Like who?"

    "What am I, your matchmaker?" He was silent only a second longer as he scratched his ear in thought. "Molayne's single."

    Plumeria screamed, startling him. "What? Are you joking?"

    "What's so funny about it?"

    "That king of nerds? Can you give me one good reason?"

    Nanu, genuinely surprised by her resistance, shrugged helplessly. "I dunno. He's cute, I guess."

    He had said it so plainly, so gruffly, so matter-of-factly, that she almost died from laughter. "Oh my god!" She shrieked and pummeled him in the arm with her fist. "Shut up!"

    -

    If there was a time for the engaged couple to show themselves, it should have been during dinner, to which all the guests were called soon after. Yet as the guests filed in, finding their assigned tables, every keen eye noticed that the spot of honor remained empty and unattended.

    The dining suite itself overtook nearly half of the ship's interior space, encompassing all three floors; the guests for this occasion occupied only the main floor, although for larger parties, two additional floors of dining space overlooked the space behind balcony railing. The entire suite stood on gold-colored columns, and was lined with ivory accents that made the space glow under its strong lights. The circular tables packed in rather tightly on the floor, so it took considerable time for everyone to weave through and find their seats, even with the guidance of attendants.

    Finally, though, most settled. In lieu of the wedding couple, a gaudy, willowy woman wearing a white fur coat skipped up to the front of the tables, smiling and gesturing at the occasional, apparently recognized guest, until at last she was handed a working microphone and spoke in a clear, lilting voice.

    Thank you, merci, welcome, welcome! Bienvenue!

    The roar of confused speech quieted to hear her. Many turned in their chairs or strained their necks to see. The woman tried to appear calm, but some apprehension could be heard in her hurry to speak.

    We're very sorry for the delay in schedule tonight―Madame has given me permission to tell you that she has been feeling, ah, under the weather, unfortunately… And so, she will not be joining us tonight… But, we hope to disembark soon, beginning our overnight cruise to Unova… In the meanwhile, dinner service will continue...

    (Someone in the crowd spoke a question aloud, and though not everyone could hear them, the woman answered.)

    Ah, yes, and the gentleman is currently attending the lady…

    (Nanu nudged Plumeria and said, "Told you." She elbowed him back twice as hard in the ribs.)

    They both send their regrets and best wishes to you all… They hope after a good night's rest, they will be able to rejoin the festivities. Merci! Amusez-vous!

    She stepped away unceremoniously, and the news proved such a puzzling surprise, that no one knew how to respond to it, other than uncomfortably returning to their small-talk about the tables. Within a minute or so, the din of conversation returned to normal.

    While Plumeria had become distracted by dinner service, however, Nanu picked up on further activity up front. He kept an eye on the woman speaker, and watched as both an attendant and a stuffy, important-looking woman approached her. The attendant spoke in her ear, and she exclaimed something in surprise, making emphatic motions with her hands.

    "Hey, Rainbow. Something's up," he said.

    Plumeria snapped to attention. "Huh?"

    "Look."

    The group grew, one-by-one, as members of the Board of Directors approached and gabbed with one another. Then, suddenly, said group left for the exit door.

    "Wanna snoop?"

    As if he had to ask. Plumeria glanced about―seeing the empty spaces on the tables surrounded with too many utensils, the waiters coming around with dishes of food, and the couple sitting opposite to them, who hadn't spoken a word to them. She pushed out from the table. "Uh, yeah, let's do it."

    No one prevented them from leaving, though they earned plenty of looks for their hurrying between tables to reach the exit. They caught up enough to see the directors turn toward the boarding dock, and as the two followed, they noticed an abundance of activity among the ship's staff―likely preparing for disembarking.

    "Do you think the wedding's cancelled?" Plumeria asked, not disguising the hope in her voice.

    "Quiet. Can't hear."

    Indeed, several yards in front of them, the moving group persisted in their talking. However, with the sound of the ocean waves, the grinding of the ship's awakening engines, and the distance between them, they could make out very little.

    "...Didn't think they'd…"

    "...Unexpected…"

    "...You think she…"

    In the dark of approaching evening, outdoor lights lining the ship began to spring to life. And with that burst of illumination, Plumeria could make out, from far away, the two figures at the boarding dock, whom the directors fast approached. Nanu, at his age, didn't have her night-time vision, so she had to nudge him and hiss.

    "Oh my god."

    "What?"

    "They came."

    Nanu got impatient. "'They'?"

    Plumeria squeezed his bicep with painful force. She spoke breathlessly. "Gladion. And Lillie."

    Perhaps she meant this revelation to shock him as it did her. She continued to gawk until the two, small adolescents were surrounded by the pack of curious Aether directors. However, Nanu didn't move or express any surprise. He only shrugged. "Huh. Welp. Maybe this whole thing'll get to be interesting, after all."
     
  16. TheAlpar

    TheAlpar Journey Enthusiast

    Nanu and Plumeria huh? Not the kind of couple I'd expect to go to a wedding together, especially considering their history with Guzma, but I suppose anything can happen at this point. I like how they both bounce off each other and how their personalities mesh; they're really funny and I'd like to see more of that. Also nice to get another small glimpse into Nanu's backstory and another appearance by Gladion!! I like the boy; he shouldn't have to deal with all this crap because of his mom.

    Also damn, Lillie and Gladion did make it to the wedding. I wonder if that's the reason their mother isn't feeling well. I'm excited to see where this goes :D
     
  17. dietofwurms

    dietofwurms i see stars

    Chapter 21: White Knight

    Faba thought―wrongly―that he would be able to experience his morning hour of peace, with a cup of dark tea balanced on the end table, his feet propped on an ottoman, and the morning paper, which had been freshly delivered to his door mere minutes ago. This ritual offered him the only bit of relaxation he could afford in his current, overcrowded schedule.

    But just when he started to scan the headlines, his focus was interrupted by a voice coming from the other room.

    "Oh my god."

    (He tried to ignore it.)

    "Francine's pregnant."

    His fingers tightened on the newspaper, then dropped it onto his lap with an exasperated sigh. When Faba looked up from his chair, he saw Aster trotting back into the living room while staring at his phone. Said younger scientist was still shabbily dressed in loungewear, face and hair ungroomed; this contrasted sharply to Faba, who needed only to throw on his lab coat to start the work-day looking professional and awake. Faba grimaced, but decided to prod. "...Who?"

    "Francine." Aster gave him a momentarily disbelieving look. "You know… Francine. Works the front desk in HR." A blink on his device triggered a series of responsive taps from his fingertips, and he added, "It's probably Miguel's. No―definitely."

    "Aster," Faba complained, shaking his head, "I never have the faintest idea who you're going on about."

    Aster collapsed into a nearby chair, pushing aside a pile of papers to find his seat. He chided, rather unseriously, "Do you know any of the employees by name?"

    "Of course I know some of them. The important ones."

    "Ooh, ouch."

    Faba, hoping to end the exchange, grumpily pulled his newspaper back up to his face. He unfolded the pages and rifled through to another section. "Indulge in office gossip if you like. I'd rather read something of actual material importance."

    "Uh-huh…" Leaning over, Aster peeked at Faba's paper and asked cheekily, "What page is that? The celebrity column?"

    Faba grunted and flapped the paper hard in his hands, creating a sharp, cracking noise, and went silent again.

    When Guzma left Aether―vanished, really―he left the island in some dire straits. In the mere few days of his absence, Lusamine had descended quickly: first, roving in a maniacal search for answers, screaming and launching accusations in every direction; then collapsing into pathetic, woe-is-me misery, sulking about her home; and finally, in a form very recognizable to Faba, cocooning herself in her bedroom, refusing the company of anyone she deemed inessential.

    Faba had not successfully gathered the cause for Guzma's expedient exit, but he could make some educated guesses. The boy's restlessness and instability had been apparent even from afar. Lusamine had clearly lost control of him, and herself.

    Thus, the familiar cycle started all over again. Faba had witnessed it time and time again: when Mohn disappeared, when Gladion ran, when Lillie followed suit, when the beasts initially slipped through her fingers… Her precious baubles, the things she loved more than she could comprehend, each dissolving into the sea. These circumstances, he thought, proved Ms. Wicke's necessity. Normally, Wicke would be the one to talk the woman down, reason with her. Now, an attending nurse and flustered attendants did what they could―with miserably poor results.

    Faba didn't know if Guzma intended to come back. Certainly, it would simplify matters if he didn't. Lusamine would gradually crawl out from under the bed, the spectacle and glitz on the island would fold away, and she would, eventually, find some new shiny creature to latch onto. Lusamine was nothing if not adaptable.

    But Faba's hopes were unceremoniously cut down, in the form of a phone call Aster picked up in the middle of tea that morning. The man immediately put the device to his head upon receiving the buzz. "What's up?"

    Faba could hardly fathom the rudeness of chatting over the phone this early in the morning. He clasped his head. "Aster, is it so much to ask― just a few minutes of quiet―"

    "What?" Suddenly, the other scientist lurched forward in his seat, nearly jumping, and with a free hand, waved maniacally in Faba's face to get his attention.

    "Aster," Faba hissed irritably, knocking his hand away, "what on earth―"

    "When?"

    A pause.

    "Is he back for good, though, or…?"

    ...And there, Faba felt the descent and pained clench of his stomach; he let the paper slide to the floor.

    "Well, I suppose," Aster said, still talking to the person on the other end of the line. He stood to his feet and put on a nervous expression, balancing a hand on his hip. "So much for a quiet weekend, huh?"

    While Aster talked, Faba, without speaking, stood up and started for the front door of the suite. He plucked his white lab coat from the wall and threw it over his shoulders.

    Finally, Aster noticed. He put a hand over the receiver. "...Where are you going?"

    "Aster," he said, somewhat breathless as he pulled his arms through the sleeves, "I want you to start the morning cycles for me."

    "What?" The request more than startled him; Faba was notoriously over-protective of his equipment, and barely trusted Aster with the lab even under his supervision. "...Are you sure? You don't want me to…"

    "Just do it! I'll…" He fastened his coat buttons hastily. "I'll be down shortly."

    -

    The first employee Faba found downstairs got a real ear-full.

    Inexcusable! he screamed. Does being Branch Chief mean nothing around here!? How is it that I had to hear about this second-hand― Why wasn't I notified?

    It took several minutes for said employee to understand what he was ranting about, and a few more for the employee to contact the involved parties. Security answered, made excuses, then begrudgingly admitted that Guzma would be arriving at the docks within the next hour. Apparently, such intel had been fed through a small group of security personnel, and it started to make its way to Lusamine, but for unstated reasons, they neglected going to Faba. This lack of communication had unfortunately become common lately (yet another dysfunction Faba didn't remember experiencing when Wicke was here to organize things).

    When Faba reached the dock downstairs, he found several employees standing ready. One turned in surprise.

    "Branch Chief? Why are you―"

    "I'd appreciate not being questioned. I imagine he's on his way?"

    The employees glanced at each other nervously. "Yes, sir."

    "Well." He neatened the angle of his lapel, and buffed his buttons. "Someone of importance ought to greet him back, don't you think?"

    With a small hint of reservation, they echoed, "Yes, sir."

    -

    As Faba planted himself, standing importantly a few feet from the quiet, crystalline water, which swelled and dipped in a peaceful sway, he pondered the events that would soon take place. The boat would appear on the horizon, the boy would step back onto solid ground, and… What? Faba had seen so little of the young man since their last conversation in the lower laboratory. Guzma had taken his advice and stopped talking to him, but Faba still caught sight of him in the public places of the island. He had seemed, up until now, antsy. Easily agitated. The kahuna had taken to abusing staff and growing impatient with the slightest error. No wonder Guzma had been so successful as a gang leader, Faba thought. He could be a horrible tyrant, given the right circumstances.

    Was Guzma returning to slide back into that woman's graces? To exact some sort of revenge, for whatever offenses she's committed against him? To deliver a declaration of independence? To poke around, in a gesture of exploratory surgery, searching for what was wrong with the place? Surely Guzma realized by now how sick Aether was―how disease penetrated its heart. But Faba had no means to read the boy's mind or intentions.

    So Faba decided: he'd cut the boy off at the pass. Make him tell him what he was going to do. Certainly, he'd have to do it before Guzma was whisked off to the spider's parlor.

    A drawn line of light brightened the morning horizon, so that when the boat first appeared, its white carapace blended nearly completely with the color of the waves. However, within minutes, it grew in size, sloped downward toward the shore, and began its fast approach. Faba, still caught up in his thoughts, settled his nerves by tightening his hands at his back.

    The sound of the boat's engine arrived first, reverberating its sputtering over the waves, and the boat followed by gliding itself smoothly into place. The well-practiced pilot fit the vehicle inches from the dock and cut the engine, so that in the sudden silence, Faba and the waiting employees heard the cabin door pop open. Out crawled a white-dressed attendant first―then, ducking under the doorway, there appeared Guzma.

    The boy stood straight and tall, turned his head to give the island a sullen look, and stepped out.

    Faba scrambled to position himself at the port side. Once Guzma took the careful steps down onto solid ground, Faba cleared his throat and tried to look important.

    "Guzma," Faba announced. "Welcome back."

    Guzma turned around to meet him. An expression of surprise, then indifference crossed Guzma's face as he looked at him. The boy, Faba realized, looked… different somehow. He wore casual clothing in the form of a red hoodie over a plain white shirt, which, combined with his partially untied sneakers and floppy hair, made him look more juvenile than Faba remembered. He held a duffel bag over his shoulder, and the slope in his posture and eyes communicated heft, like something weighed on him. Most worryingly, upon a second look, Faba noticed a butterfly bandage at the edge of his forehead, just barely obscured by his hair. He did seem to have some faded bruising, the result of some fight, Faba supposed...

    Faba did not let Guzma's stone silence deter him. He spoke again, maintaining a stuffy tone. "No doubt you want to hear what's transpired―let's go to my office, and we can―"

    Guzma broke eye contact and walked past him, toward the elevator.

    Faba hesitated only a second and fruitlessly tried to follow. "...In… In my office, we can discuss the situation, and what's happening going forward―"

    When Guzma paused in his steps, he didn't address Faba, but shot a glare at a nearby employee to ask, "Where's Miss L?"

    "She's safely at home," Faba said. "But I still suggest we―"

    "A'ight. Let's go."

    The ambiguity of Guzma's statement made Faba ask, "Go where?"

    "I need to see Miss L," Guzma answered, and with that, he pushed forward and reached the elevator shaft.

    "Young man―" Faba bit his cheek and successfully, but barely, suppressed the urge to scream. He scuttled quickly after him. "Do you understand what I'm telling you? You should not see her now."

    "Why not?"

    "Because!" Faba would have elaborated further if they weren't in the company of uncomfortable employees, so he cut himself off with a harsh, frustrated sigh. "It is my advice… As Branch Chief."

    The elevator gate lowered, opening the platform. Guzma stepped inside, and Faba, sensing he wasn't convinced, shooed away the other employees so that they could have a moment of privacy. Once the gates lifted and the platform ascended upward into the shaft, the elevator went quiet save for the hum of electricity and rush of passing air.

    Faba stared at the wall, sealing his hands behind himself again, and worked up the courage to speak. As if worried they would be overheard, he hissed between clenched teeth, "She isn't well."

    "...You said that before."

    "What?"

    Guzma turned his whole body toward him. Suddenly, his height and weight felt incredibly real, and Faba realized he may have made a mistake in sending the others away. "You know," Guzma explained dryly, "when I first got here. With the beasts. An' she was all…"

    Faba blinked, but finally made the connection. "Ah, right. Yes, her condition is comparable. This is what happens when she cannot get something she desperately wants."

    "Wants…" The word, and the bitter tone it was spoken in, triggered a private thought in Guzma, which Faba didn't bother prodding into.

    "It's unseemly behavior for a grown woman," Faba continued to gripe. "Whatever hold you have on her, I wish you'd relinquish it."

    Before Guzma could respond to this puzzling comment, the elevator stopped on the second floor, lowered its gates, and allowed the two to step out near the front desk, where workers spotted them. With their privacy compromised, they stopped talking altogether and moved purposefully for the house.

    -

    Lusamine's home had a dismal, oppressive air the first moment they walked inside. Morning light barely managed to break through the thick curtains over the windows; the place echoed like a tomb. Faba wondered if Guzma noticed. Certainly, he didn't change pace or posture. He kept the heaviness in his steps and the dark resolve in his face.

    A few stressed attendants greeted them downstairs, and didn't like Guzma's intent on visiting Lusamine any more than Faba did, but they didn't argue. What they did, as they brought them to her bedroom, was impress warnings against exciting her, antagonizing her, frightening her… By their nervous nattering, it seemed they thought she was made of glass.

    When they reached the door, Faba stayed back. An antagonistic exchange between Lusamine and himself a day earlier meant he knew better than to venture inside. The nurse―a relatively new employee, who had claimed many of Wicke's lesser duties―opened the door from the inside and poked her head out, saw Faba and Guzma, and promptly stiffened.

    Guzma blurted before Faba could speak: "She okay?"

    "Master Guzma." She looked ready to chide him, but mercifully didn't. "She's expecting you."

    Though Faba hoped to add something, an additional warning maybe, or a cautious query, Guzma moved too quickly, pushing through the door, past the nurse, and into the room.

    The nurse eyed Faba a moment, as if expecting him as well, but the scientist didn't budge, so she nodded and shut the door.

    Faba strained to listen from where he stood.

    Behind the closed door, there was a cry―a nearly indiscernible thump―and then silence.

    Faba waited. Counted. Glanced at his watch.

    But the explosion he expected never came.

    In the end, he extracted himself from the hushed conversation inside, sat in a chair against the far wall, and waited. The situation could be far worse, he decided. He would take whatever good outcomes he could―no matter their slightness. Though when the door opened and the nurse emerged, he had to question it.

    "What's the matter?"

    The nurse, surprised, shook her head. "Nothing; they asked to be alone."

    "And you…" Faba searched her expression. "You think that's wise?"

    "They seem alright," the nurse responded. She tilted her head inside the room again, looked satisfied, and turned back to him. "Did you need something from them, Branch Chief?"

    He thought hard and relented. His fingers twisted and danced together in a frantic rhythm as he muttered, "...No. No, thank you."

    The nurse shut the door behind her and left him alone in the hallway.

    -

    After what felt like forever, but by any accurate measure could be described as approximately a quarter of an hour, Guzma emerged, not looking any more cheerful than before. In fact, he appeared distinctly more haggard―more sluggish, as if the very breath of the room had wrung him out. Faba saw the bags under his eyes, previously disguised by the light bruising he'd noticed before. When Guzma saw him, the boy squinted, like he hadn't anticipated the man still being there.

    Faba stood up expectantly. "Guzma. We really should talk."

    A distrusting frown steepened on Guzma's face.

    "We could go back to my office, unless you have another place in mind."

    Guzma stuffed a hand down into his pocket, and there stirred the jangling of loose keys. He snorted and started down the hallway. "...Got my own office now, so… Yeah, let's 'talk,' huh."

    "'Got your own'..." Faba shook his head. "What are you talking about?"

    Guzma didn't answer, but sucked his teeth and moved to the end of the hallway, stopping at the heavy wooden door holding up a fine metal plaque bearing the title: 'President of the Board.' Though Faba followed him, he ended up freezing a few yards from the door, as he was too stunned to move any further. For a flash of a moment, he thought for sure Guzma had to be joking. But sure enough, Guzma brought out a ring of keys and, after rifling through them, found the correct one to unlock the latch and push his way inside. The door creaked from disuse.

    "Guzma," Faba said, his voice strangled and overwrought. He felt his head start to swim.

    But the boy had already disappeared inside.

    No.

    No.

    Faba refused to believe this.

    His feet, which had frozen to the floor, yanked into motion, and he launched himself at the old President's office.

    Years ago, Lusamine had shut that door with an air of finality. After Mohn disappeared, she co-opted the modest space for herself, using it for the everyday affairs of paperwork and management, but once she digitally converted the most crucial of their documents and moved her office to the main public building, she had no reason to continue using the private office. The place was only ever cracked open if she needed a specific, unarchived file, but other than this occasional venture, the room went untouched. Uncleaned by staff. Avoided by Faba.

    The decoration, style, and furnishings of the office had an old world feel that did not match the rest of the house―though it used to, before Lusamine performed a complete overhaul on the mansion. As a couple, both Mohn and Lusamine agreed that the office held sentimental value and should be kept as it was, and so the broad and brilliant wooden desk, the creaky office chair covered in lavish red leather, the ornate shaded lamps, the polished bookshelves lined with both tomes and binders, the varnished wood wall tile, the oriental rug spiraling with decorative foliage, and glass-paneled cabinets all remained in place. The difference in seeing it now, of course, was a fine layer of dust blanketing every open surface. The room smelled of its age and repressed grief.

    By entering it, Faba felt a powerful wash of emotion―dread, regret, guilt―and sucked in a breath, like he had just broached an open tomb. How many hours had he spent in here? Mohn, rather improperly, liked to eat his lunch in his office, and nearly every day, he took it upon himself to track Faba down and invite him to eat with him, as a continuation of an old habit formed in their college years. Hey, let's do lunch, my office… Faba remembered trying to weasel out of it, as Mohn, not a political animal, didn't realize the jealousy such preferential treatment aroused. But Faba usually gave in. Mohn was that type of person―the sort you gave into.

    Guzma, while Faba reminisced, showed no qualms about any of it, and so marched right up to the desk. He rudely scooped up a framed picture and wiped it down with his hand. He looked at the contents of the photo and immediately grinned. "Pssh. Look at the little dweebs, huh?" He flashed the picture at Faba―it was a familiar picture of the two children, young, about three and six respectively, if Faba remembered correctly. They smiled brilliantly and had feathers of their shock-blonde hair falling before their faces from the exertion of their play. While Lusamine preferred the posing and structure of professional family pictures, Mohn was a photography hobbyist, and would spend inordinate time snapping impromptu photos of his children and his wife, when she chose to endure it.

    Faba stared at it, felt the color draining from his face again, and chose not to comment. He did, however, weakly clear his throat. "Guzma," he said again. He felt and sounded so faint that he momentarily worried he wouldn't make it. "What are we doing in here?"

    "I told you," Guzma answered, irritably clapping the picture face-first onto the desk, "this is gonna be my office."

    "I―" Faba gawped, choked, put a hand to his head, and stammered out, "I―I have so many questions, I can hardly―why do you need an office? Why this one? Did she tell you to―" A more pressing issue suddenly leaped into his brain, and he barked out at a higher volume, "And what are you doing back!? Have you gone stark raving mad!?"

    Rather than even attempt to tackle all the questions at once, Guzma grunted. "Well, I'm gonna move in, aren't I? I should have, like, a space in the house for my stuff... An' everybody else got a office, so why can't I?"

    Faba could not piece together his logic whatsoever, until realized the implication. He echoed the phrase over his tongue, over-pronouncing it. "Move in."

    "Yeah. After the wedding." Guzma collapsed into the office chair behind the desk, and the plush seat sighed out a breath of air. He wheeled around in it lazily. "Ain't like I'm stayin' in my suite, after we're married."

    ...So, all of Faba's fears were confirmed. He checked the door behind him, confirming it was sealed shut, and approached the desk, while feeling the constriction of his frenzied, stressed breathing. After watching the boy spin around a few more times, he clapped a hand flat on the dusty surface of the desk. "Young. Man." He spoke as sternly as he could; the effect of this made Guzma stop spinning and face him. "You cannot be serious."

    The boy stuffed his hands into his jacket pockets and shrugged. "Sure I am."

    "You―!" Faba gesticulated and lowered his voice to hiss, "That's it? What was the point of this whole debacle? All the drama, all the intrigue―and what, you return as if nothing's happened!?"

    To be scolded in this manner caused Guzma to put on a tremendous scowl; he sneered and growled at equal volume, "What's it matter to you?"

    At this point, Faba began to realize how greatly he had miscalculated the impact of their last conversation. Despite the time that had passed, and despite having what Faba considered to be a common enemy, Guzma's perception of him hadn't adjusted to new circumstances. Faba hadn't been forgiven. A more socially-adept person might take this moment to apologize for prior offenses and explain themselves, but Faba chose to bluster instead. "Will you listen to me!? This is no time to put on an attitude―the situation's dire, and if you can't put aside your petty grievances long enough to see that―!"

    Guzma swung his weight out of the chair, lifting himself onto his feet. "I dunno what you're talking about... Everything's fine."

    This proved to be the single least convincing statement Faba had ever heard; he flailed and put his hands to his hips. "Is that so?"

    "Yeah." Guzma flitted his eyes at him temperamentally. "Geez, I go home for a few days…"

    "Guzma, what happened?"

    The directness of the question startled them both; neither of them had anticipated Faba would have the guts to actually ask. Guzma averted his eyes, and walked over to the bookshelf on the left side of the room. He seemed to meditate on the various titles and items before dodging the question gruffly. "Nunna your business." He cocked his head to the side in a show of vague intimidation. "'Sides. We talked it out. That's what adults do, right? Talk things out."

    Faba groaned. "...Good lord. It's worse than I thought. Guzma..."

    Before Faba could get out another word, Guzma seized a book, pulled it from the shelf, and began dusting it off.

    Faba, distracted by their argument, had forgotten where they stood, and Guzma's sudden violation of the bookshelf shocked him back into attention. He winced and took an anxious step forward, as if Guzma had just poked at something sacred. "Never mind that―regardless of what she told you, you should not be in here."

    "Why not?" The boy looked around the office, noting the dust and neglect. "Nobody's using it."

    Faba's voice hit a higher decibel. "That is not the point! Now put that back!"

    Skeptically, Guzma looked at the book in his hand, then at Faba. He crumpled his brow, narrowing his eyes at him. "Looks like a buncha old junk to me."

    Was Guzma antagonizing him on purpose? If he was, it was working; Faba's fingers dug into his coat pockets, clawing at their interior fabric. "It is not junk and it is not yours!"

    "Then whose is it?"

    "It―" Faba stopped, glared back at him, and promptly stalked forward. "I know what you're doing," Faba said. "I see right through you!"

    Guzma stiffened but said nothing.

    When Faba attempted to take the book, Guzma pulled it out of reach. So Faba ranted, "Did she tell you to come in here? That would complete the picture!"

    "I dunno what you're talking about!"

    "Don't you?" No longer worried about being overheard, Faba blistered and shouted. "I endured it when she wrote him off! I put up with watching her lock away his memory and flirt her way through a parade of scoundrels―I even swore to myself I'd stay out of whatever degeneracy she had planned with you―but this!" In a daring fit of madness, he jabbed a finger into Guzma's chest. "Understand―you can marry her―produce awful hellions with her―take his office, take his children, take his wife, take the fruits of his labor―but by the gods above, you are not him, and you will never―never take his place!"

    As he yelled, at last, the crescendo in his voice peaked, and the last word cracked. And while Guzma went silent, Faba took advantage of his stillness by snatching the book from his hands and slamming it back into place. He further went over to the desk, pulling the framed picture upright, and even circling around the desk to push the chair back into its original position.

    In the ensuing, uncomfortable period of quiet, Guzma looked appropriately stunned by Faba's outburst. Faba, for his part, felt an immediate wave of humiliation; he shouldn't have said all that. Shouldn't have exposed his feelings on the matter. His heart pounded so hard he could hear its beat against his eardrum. Heat rose to his face.

    Then, unexpectedly, Guzma broke the silence with a question. "This was Mohn's office?"

    Brilliant! Perfect! Faba contemplated, for a moment, flinging his body out the window. After all that, and he didn't even know! By some miracle, Faba cleared his throat, released a sigh of agony, and managed to recover his dignity enough to respond. "For God's―yes, yes! Of course… it's the president's office, isn't it? Each president of Aether used it, at one point or another, including Mohn, as well as Madame's father."

    "Oh." Guzma, sheepish in the face of emotions he didn't see coming, rubbed the back of his neck and traced his eyes around the room. He caught sight of something and pointed behind Faba, toward the far wall. "So that's her dad?"

    Faba turned, saw a portrait hanging on the wall next to a cabinet, and glanced over the portrait, which featured a gently-smiling middle-aged man with combed, dark blonde hair, gentle blue eyes, and a fragile face. The portrait seemed to bore into him. "Y-yes, that's…" Faba redirected his gaze. "That's him. The original founder of Aether, Alban LeBlanc."

    Guzma scratched his jaw and gave the picture another once-over. "What's he do now?"

    "Monsieur LeBlanc is no longer with us."

    "Where is he?"

    Faba had forgotten how dense the boy could be, so he explained bluntly: "He's deceased."

    "...Oh."

    "Hasn't Madame told you all this already?"

    Guzma shrugged. "She… doesn't talk about, like, family stuff with me."

    "But she hasn't even given you a history primer on the Foundation?"

    "I dunno. Maybe." Guzma admitted, "I mighta not been paying attention."

    ...He gets points for honesty, at least. Faba put a hand to his forehead, hoping to find a way to crawl out of this conversation with his proverbial tail between his legs. "Well… Anyhow… L-like I said… we ought to…"

    "Mr. Faba," Guzma said. He sounded more sure of himself, and more serious. He waited for Faba to turn around and look back at him before he articulated his question. "What kind of… person was Mohn?"

    Faba was stunned. He could have refused to answer. He wanted to ream him out, for even daring to touch on the topic. But fair was fair―he had brought him up first. He tossed his head, put on a show of unhappiness, and crossed his arms as he reluctantly spoke. "Mohn was―" Faba almost stopped himself, as he would have any other day, but he bit his tongue and powered through it, speaking even as his throat rebelliously restricted. "Very popular… Brilliant, of course, but compassionate too, and kind, generous... the sort who could light up any room he entered…"

    Guzma processed all of Faba's gushing and carelessly spat out, "You liked him, huh."

    "Everyone adored Mohn," Faba said, taking care to cover the exposure in his tone. The boy really did fling around words without thinking. "We were especially close friends."

    "Right. I didn't mean…" (Guzma, realizing his mistake, rubbed the back of his neck and quickly changed the subject.) "Did he… Did he love her?"

    "Of course he did." Faba's answer carried a twinge of offense. "He wouldn't have married her if he didn't."

    "And… he was a good person."

    Troubled by this line of questioning, Faba answered, "Yes, I would say so."

    Guzma dragged his tongue thoughtfully along his bottom lip, with his eyebrows creased together. "Is that why she loved him?"

    Faba lied. "I haven't put that much thought into it." He wondered for a minute what the blazes Guzma could be thinking. "...Guzma. What I said earlier… I'm not directing it at you, per se. I realize you're not aware of all the history at play…" He saw Guzma's blank look and continued. "You're not the first man to come here, you know. Others… After Mohn… They saw this place as an opportunity to line their own pockets. As if they could come here, woo some lonely widow and take Aether for themselves. Madame saw them for what they were. Called them vermin. I wouldn't dispute that characterization… In any case, she played games with them―made fools of them―and drove each of them away, one after another."

    The boy didn't seem to like hearing this, but didn't interrupt.

    "I sense, though, something different with you. What is it you want from her? It isn't Aether. Is it money? Status?" He read Guzma's reluctance to answer and huffed. "You've already interrogated me; it's only right I return the favor. So? Justify yourself."

    To Faba's surprise, Guzma weighed his words for several long seconds before answering. As the young man pondered, his hand wandered to his pocket, from which he withdrew a now-softly-crumpled paper. He didn't unfold it, but passed it between his two hands, overturning it, gazing at it, and as this continued, his face gradually softened with introspection. Finally, he swallowed hard and a sound leaped from his throat. "I want…" He paused and flushed. "I wanna help her."

    "That's ridiculous," Faba leaped to interject. "She's not a child, Guzma! And she's no damsel in need of rescue."

    "Who else…" Guzma shook his head and crushed the paper in his hand. Repressed emotion swirled in his face. "She don't… she don't have nobody, and…"

    "What do you mean? She has plenty of friends."

    Guzma snapped back. "They aren't her friends. I seen them. An' you said it: They all want stuff from her, they don't even care about her―"

    "Yes, yes, of course. You're the only one who understands her: is that what you've deluded yourself into thinking?"

    "You don't get it," Guzma suddenly snarled. "What it's like. To not have anybody."

    Faba still didn't respond, but privately, his thoughts snaked at lightning-speed through his cortex, triggering a long trail of memories he rarely chose to dredge up. He thought of himself―young Faba, who not unlike his present self, had an abrasive, profoundly unlikeable personality: anal-retentive, over-exact, unable to restrain himself from correcting others, admired by his teachers for his work ethic but loathed by his peers for out-showing them, protective of his accomplishments and earned titles, always perceived as showing off. In some ways, he chose his path, and so had no reason to complain: he knew a life of discipline, hard work, and intellectual prowess would be a lonely existence. But when you're young… Knowing this is no balm to the chronic sting of isolation. It is an all-encompassing pain, he thinks―like a disease in the bones and joints, that eats away at life.

    Before he could stop himself, he remembers Mohn, carrying his lunch at the university cafe, standing over him. It was freshman year. Faba had already built a wall of books and papers at the table to ward off all invasion, but Mohn had never regarded such defenses.

    Hey, don't I know you…? You're in my advanced physics class, right…? Mind if I sit…? What're you working on there…?

    Of course, Faba didn't breathe a word of any of this. Instead, he replied noncommittally, "That's not a reason to st―" Just then, Faba's pager went off, and he twitched in surprise before drawing it out. He glanced over the message and muffled a curse. "I… I have to go." He tried to think of something he ought to say before leaving him this abruptly. He started for the door. When his hand met the doorknob, a thought at last struck him. He turned. "You ought to know this―I've already told Madame," he said, his voice going thin. "After the wedding… I'll be tendering my resignation." Faba awaited Guzma's response, but the young man didn't appear to have one aside from his perpetual, prying look. "I probably should have gone years ago. This place isn't what it was."

    Guzma scratched his head. "Where are you gonna go?"

    "I haven't the foggiest." He saw a faint glimmer of sympathy in Guzma's face―a surprise enough―and dismissed his unspoken concern. "I won't be out in the street, Guzma. At my age, I could probably comfortably retire."

    The pager in Faba's pocket buzzed again. He pulled on the doorknob. Before he finally left, though, he looked one last time at Guzma's face, noting its strange vulnerability, its peace with fate. This has all been a mistake, Faba thought to himself, though upon thinking it, he couldn't pinpoint exactly where it had all gone wrong―at what moment, exactly, he had failed Guzma as one human being to another.

    Now, without any way of fixing it, Faba awkwardly quipped, "Well, don't do anything reckless."

    "Like coming back here?" Guzma's expression didn't lighten, so if he was joking, it was an uncharacteristically dry crack. "Like marrying her?"

    Faba tapped his fingers thoughtfully on the door frame, pondered what to say, and ultimately decided to say nothing: he just blinked his assent, slinked through the door, and left it ajar on his way out.

    -

    Guzma, once he returned to his suite, had a lot to think about.

    He prepared for his thinking by first throwing open the door out to the balcony, letting in fresh air. He noted the bags piled near the door―attendants had brought up his luggage during his talks―but didn't bother to unpack, instead trundling into his bedroom and sitting at his desk. He pushed aside the laptop, dug out the letter from his pocket, and unfolded it on the desk's surface, smoothing it out with his palm. The ink smeared a little on his hands.

    He read it again, and the words buzzed like insects in his head.

    Somehow, from the very pit of his stomach and out to the tips of his hair, he could remember.

    It felt like forever ago, and the image had faded and become an impression of light and shadow in his brain. But if he took it upon himself to focus, and took steps downward into passageways, he found her again. Seated in a throne of porcelain and crystal, shining, and perfect. A serene angel who could open untapped channels in him. And he thought of his dreams, too, where her brightness dimmed and she looked like a child, a scared, vulnerable bird he could crumple in his hands, break her needle bones into splinters.

    ...Had he been fooled? Or had he always suspected, always sensed the dark kernel in the heart of her, that she hurriedly buried under smiles and laughs and music? Now, looking back, it seemed obvious: her sadness was not incidental, nor temporary. It made her flesh prickle; it poisoned her blood. It had swallowed her ages ago―all he'd ever seen was what remained of her.

    That's what he saw, in her room just now: a hollow shell, a mere suggestion of who must have once been… In his absence, she had shriveled up, so by the time he reached her again, she had already fallen into a childlike stupor, whining and fearful and needy. Guzma could easily dismiss it as more manipulation tactics―guilt-tripping, excuses―but a strain of her madness came across as harrowingly genuine. She crawled. She begged. She wept.

    You aren't going to leave me again, are you?

    I'll do anything. Anything.

    Just don't leave me alone.



    He would die for her.

    Was that strange? Was that illogical…? But all the same, that truth burned through him in terrible certainty; if he could, by some magic incantation, throw himself from a cliffside or into a fire, thereby breaking whatever curse had taken her, he would―and he knew it wasn't fair, wasn't what he was supposed to do, which is why he dared not tell anyone, not even her. But all the same, there was hard and ancient poetry in it, that thought of human sacrifice, that even the primal part of his brain could recognize.

    Besides, it wasn't much of a price. Days ago, he was ready to throw himself away for free.



    There was a message on his phone.

    He had work to do.
     
  18. TheAlpar

    TheAlpar Journey Enthusiast

    **** man, even Faba's giving me major feels right now. His relationship with Guzma and with Mohn works really well to humanize him and I'd honestly say he's one of the only people you could really trust in Aether even if that sounds stupid at first.

    Of course Lusamine would trap herself in her room again, that's the kinda person she is, always wanting for others to think about her while doing none of the work. And of course now her hold on Guzma has solidified even further, turned into a sort of obsession. It's so ****ed up but so interesting to read.

    Amazing chapter, I'll happily await for the next.
     
  19. dietofwurms

    dietofwurms i see stars

    Chapter 22: Crash and Burn

    When Gladion started the dispute, they were already running late. Perhaps, then, he shouldn't have said anything; in fact, the moment he said it, it dawned on him that he would not win this argument.

    Still, he couldn't help himself.

    "All I'm suggesting is that it may be communicating the wrong message."

    Lillie, who had just stepped off the ladder to her loft and given Gladion a demonstrative twirl in her garish purple dress, frowned and put her hands to her hips. "'Message'?"

    "It comes across as… condoning."

    "Well, I think you're being silly," Lillie huffed. "It's a wedding, and I want to wear something nice."

    Gladion chomped down on a snide comment, (an exasperated "girls" sat at the tip of his tongue), and he heeded his internal voice's warning against saying any more. Certainly, between the two of them, only one looked like they were ready for a wedding celebration: Gladion, hard-headed and stubborn as ever, showed up to Kukui's lab wearing exactly the same clothes he always wore, and Lillie, who had gone shopping the day before, greeted him in new, fancy attire. Lillie, if nothing else, had come to relish in her freedom to dabble in different styles, even starting to depart from her white-and-eggshell-blue palette.

    Gladion had worried about this. Ever since getting the call from her, and as they collaborated on their plan of action, he could not quite bring her to his mindset. He wanted to stay serious and dispassionate. This was a business matter, he kept saying. But there the girl stood―frilly skirt and white purse, dress shoes and finely-braided hair.

    While Gladion kept the remainder of his disapproval quiet, Kukui's Rockruff, excited by the presence of the two siblings, scurried between Lillie's legs, yapping for attention. She yelped and fixed her skirt. "I know! I know! You haven't had supper yet―"

    "Lillie. We have to go now."

    Before she could make excuses, there was a knock at the front door. She jumped and ran for it. "Just a minute!"

    Out at the front of Professor Kukui's ramshackle lab, overlooking a serene sea, an elderly neighbor stood on the stoop, waiting to be invited inside. Lillie, by her easy smile and quick permittance, apparently knew him.

    "Oh, Mr. Mahi!" She fumbled, and just remembered to wave. "Alola!"

    The man, amused, stepped inside and waved in return. "Alola, Miss Lillie. I'm not late, am I?"

    "No―you're right on time!" She looked to Gladion, almost as if ready to introduce them to each other, but she nervously batted her eyes and bowed to the neighbor instead. "Th-thank you so much! For taking care of the place while I'm away. I know it was last minute―"

    The neighbor waved a hand and shook his head. "It's no trouble. Besides, you said it's a family emergency, right?" His eyes wandered over to, and settled momentarily on, Gladion.

    "Y-yes! Of course. I don't know when I'll be back, but the professor should be returning on Thursday. If―! If you need to call me―"

    He laughed and stooped down to scratch the chin of the Rockruff, who had turned its attention to this new visitor. "I'm sure I'll manage, miss. You be careful now."

    -

    The sun would be setting soon. If they hoped to reach Hano Hotel's docks before the ship left, they would need to catch the very next shuttle out from Mele'mele. So when they stepped out onto the sand and started their way up the hill, they didn't have time to talk. In fact, this silence resumed until they boarded the shuttle, threw their modest luggage under their seats and sat next to one another, and felt the boat's motor pull them out to sea.

    Gladion watched Lillie for a few moments; she was distracted with pensive thought, and staring out at the water as it rolled by. Her legs nervously bounced against the seat, and she brought out her Yungoos to let it curl up in her lap and calm her. It didn't seem to work.

    He rather intrusively put his hand inside Lillie's purse to extract the envelope in question. He still could hardly believe it, even when Lillie first revealed it days earlier. He opened it with his thumb, rested his chin against his hand, and contemplated the note's contents.

    No mistaking it. In gilded font, words of invitation…

    Another surge of skepticism and suspicion rose in him, so he broke the silence. He turned to his sister. "Lillie."

    She looked up and blinked at him questioningly.

    "Can you tell me exactly what he said?"

    "He… I…" Lillie bunched up her Yungoos tighter against her. She averted her eyes. "I don't remember exactly."

    "Lillie."

    "I― I'm telling the truth! All I remember for sure is―" She screwed her eyes shut in concentration. "He said… He wanted us there."

    "But he didn't say why. He didn't say what to expect when we got there. Or whether Mother has put him up to something―"

    "She wouldn't," Lillie said hurriedly. "I… don't think. But, no. He didn't say."

    "...This better not be some idiotic plan on his part."

    Gladion could tell from the way she sucked in air that she wanted to contradict him. It was just more evidence to support his already-cemented suspicion that Lillie and Guzma had been in more regular contact than she let on. Somehow… For some reason… She had an impulse to defend him.

    "Could you at least hear something in his voice? How did he sound?"

    "He sounded…"

    Gladion waited anxiously.

    "I… I don't know." She shook her head in defeat. "I'm not sure."

    ...She was holding out on him. Keeping secrets. And though he knew it, and could have called her out on it, he frowned and decided to let it go. He slipped the invitation letter back into her purse; she adjusted the bag wordlessly, pulling it to her opposite hip, away from him. The satin hem of her dress rippled in the bit of wind that passed through the open windows of the shuttle, and the Yungoos started squirming and growling to show its discomfort at having to sit still.

    Gladion considered putting in his earphones and listening to some music, but instead, he chose to absorb the white noise of cleaved and churning water, and thought on things he hadn't dared consider until now.

    If Gladion put his thought into it and traced the passage of his childhood, he would characterize it as uneven at best. Unlike Lillie, who was so young when Father vanished that she could hardly remember Mother's immediate response to his spiriting away, Gladion knew his mother's grief. He knew its appearance and its sound. Of his formative memories as a young child, many of them contained pieces of her, flung about like shards of glass slicing any unfortunate creature who wandered too close. There is nothing as harrowing, he decided, as watching your own mother fall apart without being able to stop it.

    Though both Lillie and himself were spared the worst of her, usually whisked away during the worst episodes by a wary and attentive Mrs. Wicke, they were not always spared trauma. In one instance, Gladion sat in Mother's office for a routine meeting, as he often did, and as suddenly and unpredictably as a clap of thunder, she had her hands on Faba's throat. He could still remember the sounds of her screams. The look in her face. The way she swore―swore that she was going to kill Faba then and there. Of course, Gladion was immediately yanked from the room by staff, and later even Faba addressed him and downplayed it ("She's very stressed," the man glossed. "She's not herself"), but the boy was so shaken that he could hardly sleep that night.

    Yet with time, she dusted off her crippling grief. She took control again―wrestling order from chaos, and stabilizing herself enough to convince the Board the elect her President. It struck Gladion now that this slavish devotion to order had consumed other parts of her life, in particular her interactions with her children. Everything had to have its place, exactly. Every hair. Every word. Every stitch. And should someone violate her protocol, even to slightest degree, they were considered in allegiance with the very anarchy that had swallowed her beloved. Lillie survived well in this harsh environment, as she was a sweet, pliable, conscientious girl who only wanted to please. Gladion fared worse. His stubbornness surfaced early, and Lusamine could only interpret his unwillingness to obey every mandate as personal rejection, hatred, treachery. And being too sly to openly heap abuse on him in retaliation, she resorted to more subtle forms of warfare.

    As small children, Lillie and Gladion got along well-enough. They had to, after all: rarely did they have contact with other children on the island, save for the occasional visits from staff or guests' families. In schoolwork, in play, in living at the Foundation, the two synchronized; they developed their own games, even their own secret language, which they could babble to one another while adults scratched their heads. But Mother, prone to bizarre fits of jealousy (perhaps threatened by their closeness, thinking it might result in an alliance against her), and seeking a way to make her disapproval of Gladion's behavior apparent, began to use division tactics. Lusamine did what she could to separate them: diverging their schedules, so that they had little time together; dedicating more hours to one-on-one time with each child; whispering slander and flattery to each of them to build resentment and turn them against each other.

    She knew her children enough to know the best strategy: Lillie, sensitive and fragile, was especially vulnerable to unfair comparisons ("Gladion's more of an intellectual than you are, dear…") and feeling like a burden ("You should leave him be; he finds you a bother"); Gladion, responsible and prone to feelings of superiority, she found more susceptible to accusations ("You aren't putting in your best effort") and abject praise ("You're special, Gladion; you're not like other children..."). Worst of all, she played blatant favorites whenever the three of them were together―doting on Lillie exclusively, giving her presents, fawning over her, how pretty, what a sweet child you are, my sweet, my gentle, my lily of the valley...

    It worked wonders on the two. Her two well-dressed marionettes, dancing for their mother, clashing and swaying to the precise movements of her hands.

    The more Gladion thought on it, the more he marveled: after two years, and miles away, Mother's impact could be felt even now. He asked Lillie one question, and the wall came up again, wedged between them as if it had never really gone.

    His chest tightened. He suddenly felt a wave of frustration, and anger, and jealousy, and remorse all at once, in the form of a knotted lump in his throat. He crossed his arms and took a hard stab at the barrier. "Lillie."

    She looked at him.

    "I'm sorry," he said.

    She wrinkled her brow and mouth with confusion. "Sorry…? A-about what?"

    "It's been hard. Talking to each other. And I think I know why." He studied the lingering fear in her expression and shook his head. "When I ran from Aether Paradise… I didn't consider how my decision would affect you."

    "I… I don't…"

    "No… That's not true. I did consider it. But I thought for sure she wouldn't take it out on you. She was always easy on you, and I…"

    She tensed and sat up straight. Her Yungoos hopped down onto the floor, startled by her movement. "Gladion…."

    His folded arms braced harder against his chest, and he clenched his teeth, grinding them. "I shouldn't have left you alone. To deal with her all by yourself. Maybe…" He put his hand to his face, which strained with dark and bitter thought. "Maybe I shouldn't have left."

    Without warning, Lillie jumped to her feet and cried out a protest. "No, you can't say that! You―you had to! To protect Null!"

    "I saved Null, but what about everyone else? The other beast-killers… Cosmog… You..."

    "But you had no choice!" Floundering, she tugged on the strap of her purse and hiccuped breaths for trying to form words. At last, she quaked and blurted out, "I― I'm the one who should be sorry!"

    It was Gladion's turn to be confused; he shot her a baffled look, and saw the intensity of her pain as she explained herself.

    "I'm not… Strong like you are."

    (Strong? Gladion found himself amused by the description―him, strong, as he felt his nerves turn to ice, his throat to fire, and his hands to trembling leaves.)

    "When she… was hard on you… I never stood up for you. I was so afraid―afraid that she would turn on me, too. But because of me… You suffered. And Nebby suffered. Because I was weak."

    ...Was he to contradict her? She wasn't wrong―cruel though it might be to say. As much as Gladion was callous, she was frail.

    But Lillie hadn't finished. She stammered further, "A-and that's… That's why I want to be strong now. So no one else gets hurt."

    The silence remained for a time, all sounds of her harsh breathing carried by the hiss of water and wind. In time, her Yungoos scraped its paw cloyingly at her ankle, and she answered it by leaning down to gather it back in her arms. She waited only a little while longer, thinking Gladion would respond to her somehow, but his eyes had since traveled to the floor and not budged.

    She sighed and sat back down. It must have been a few minutes later when, as she stared straight ahead, she whispered, mostly to herself, "No one else gets hurt."

    And Gladion knew, to his discomfort, that she meant, not even Mother.

    -

    Arriving late turned out to be the best option, because it meant that by the time they reached the ship, all the guests had been shuffled into the dining area, and the boarding platform was blissfully empty and free of drama. Had they been spotted right away, one could only imagine the outbursts and attention they would have received. For now, they strolled right up to the ticketmaster, with only staff in sight, and boarded the ship without incident.

    After handing off their luggage and reaching the top of the stairs, however, an attendant in a snappy white uniform greeted them with evident nerves. He had a young and fidgety look, which made Gladion wonder if he had been alerted in some way.

    His intuition was backed up by the attendant's immediate, breathless question: "You're her kids, right?"

    Out of the corner of his eye, Gladion saw Lillie's hands clutch at her purse strap again. He replied evenly, "Yes."

    A bead of sweat formed at the attendant's brow; he glanced over his shoulder.

    "Is something wrong?"

    The young man looked caught. "Huh? No! Uh…" He studied the two children, one after the other, pondering his strategy, and finally gestured at them placatingly. "So, if you don't mind, just standing right there for a minute? Don't move."

    ...This wasn't a good sign.

    Even though they didn't answer him, he blurted a "thanks" and hurried toward the dining hall. They complied with his request, standing awkwardly near the boarding dock and watching the hectic movements of the cruise ship's staff around them. The two had reached the boat just in time―they appeared to be readying for departure.

    When Gladion searched Lillie's expression, he found paralyzing fear.

    "You shouldn't worry," he said.

    She looked at him―and across the deck, an older male voice cried out after them.

    "Young masters!"

    The two turned their heads and found the entire flock of directors heading right their way.

    Gladion recognized most, though not all of them. Docteur Morel, the older, sterner woman of the group, had only been elected into the board a year and a half ago, so while he could remember her face from previous contexts, her name escaped him. The group, as a whole, had always been polite and respectful to the children, and though Gladion suspected they acted as such out of fear, neither he nor Lillie had any reason to begrudge them. Lusamine's minions they may be, but like all of Aether, they followed her without malice.

    For now, they carried surprised faces, overshadowed with false, reassuring smiles.

    "My!" It was Monsieur LeRoux's voice; Gladion could tell by its blandness. The well-suited man cleared his throat into a gloved hand. "It has been some time since we've seen either of you."

    Lille smiled and did a polite curtsey, but Gladion felt no need to offer a similar gesture. He crossed his arms and agreed, "Indeed it has, Mr. LeRoux."

    "What a pleasure!" Madame Blanchard pushed forward to put hands on both of their shoulders; she beamed to show her thrill. "Madame President had told us you wouldn't make it. Does she know? Or are you going to surprise her?"

    Gladion honestly didn't know, and as he contemplated how to answer, Lillie cut in to say, "You won't spoil it, will you?"

    "Oh!" Blanchard let go. "Of course not, dears."

    By now, Gladion caught on to the fact that they were all giving his clothes a skeptical look, though they were too courteous to bring it up.

    Blanchard spoke again. "And how has school been for you both?"

    The two raised their eyebrows at her. "Is that the excuse she gave for us?" Gladion asked.

    "Hmm? 'Excuse'?" The group collectively frowned, and Blanchard, speaking for all them, explained, "Your mother told us you were attending boarding school."

    Gladion and Lillie glanced at each other. That Lusamine had lied to the directors was no shock; the truth of their running away would be humiliating to confess to her peers. In looking at each other, the children silently reached an agreement.

    So Lillie replied first. "I ran away," she said. "I've been living with another family."

    Gladion didn't give them a chance to express their stunned disbelief, and spoke next. "I ran away as well. I'm currently living out of a motel."

    "Good heavens!" Blanchard popped out a fan from her purse and flapped it unhappily at her face. "Are… are you joking?"

    "I'm afraid not, Madame."

    In the midst of their puzzled silence, Monsieur Dupont snorted a dry laugh. "Well," he said, lifting the glass he'd been holding and ignoring the other board members' looks of despondence, "that all sounds educational to me."

    The others shifted, visibly displeased with his outburst.

    "What? Striking out on their own… Having adventures… It's what I did at their age―"

    Blanchard smiled to resist the temptation to snap at him, and leaned down, purring sweetly, "Well, in that case… You'd better see your mother straight away. She must be worried."

    "I think you're right," Gladion said. He glanced past the shoulders of the directors and saw, far off at the other side of the boat's platform, Plumeria and Nanu watching them. Lillie had probably seen them, too. He grit his teeth, weighed his options, and nodded to Blanchard solemnly. "Actually, our first order of business is with our future stepfather."

    For a few seconds, the poor woman froze with a stupefied expression on her face; finally, she cried out in realization. "Oh, yes! Of course." She put a hand to her forehead and tried to laugh it off. "How funny! I haven't gotten used to thinking of him that way―"

    "If you're looking for either of them, they're not in the dining hall with everyone else," Pierre interrupted. "They're together in Madame's suite. Surely one of the crew can show you the way."

    "There's nothing to worry about," Blanchard continued fretfully. Something about implying Guzma and Lusamine were alone the night before the wedding made her anxious. "She's been sick since last week―honestly, she should have pushed the date, but, well, when she makes her mind up about things…"

    Plumeria, as the directors rattled on, deigned to wave at them in a desperate attempt at grabbing their attention. Gladion wordlessly shook his head at her and motioned for Lillie to go the other direction, toward a nearby attendant. "Then we'd better get going. Messieurs, mesdames."

    Though the directors nervously gawked at one another, Blanchard obliged his goodbye with a farewell of her own. She waved as they departed. "Well.. Master Gladion and Lillie―bonne chance. Don't get into too much trouble, oui?"

    They hurried off and could hear the gasps and exclamations of dismay being released in their absence. ("Goodness―What is going on around here?" ) Gladion did his best to press Lillie forward, and after a quick word with the attendant, they were guided to a staircase leading to the residential suites at the second floor. But just as they started to climb them, a voice below halted their progress.

    "Hey!"

    Lillie, oblivious to Gladion's purposeful avoidance, cheerily leaned over the railing and greeted the tag-alongs. "Plumeria! Mr. Nanu!"

    While Nanu stood a ways off, trying not to get involved, Plumeria looked up at them, arms crossed. She focused her glare on Gladion. "Just gonna ignore me?"

    "Sorry," Gladion said, insincerely. He didn't turn to look at her, instead facing the stairway.

    "Uh-huh. Since when were you two planning on being here? Sure didn't tell me. Are you here to crash?"

    "No."

    "We were invited," Lillie added.

    "Seriously? By who?"

    Just before Lillie tried to answer, Gladion reached out and took her shoulder, urging her back around. He hissed, lower than Plumeria could possibly hear, "We have to go."

    Plumeria saw this secrecy and clearly didn't like it. She sneered, taking offense. "Hey, what's your deal?"

    Gladion finally turned toward her and gave one, sharp scowl. "Sorry. Family business."

    "'Family business'?" Plumeria scoffed. "I thought you gave up on that witch."

    The two siblings stared at her a moment, unaffected by her name-calling, until Gladion blandly proffered as he started up the stairs again, "We'll catch you at dinner."

    (As they walked away, he could hear Plumeria complain to Nanu: "Can you believe this?"

    "Yeah," Nanu agreed, "a real travesty. I'm going back to the bar.")

    -

    The last time Gladion felt this kind of fear, it was when he boarded the elevator to reach his mother at Aether Paradise. Like then, his stomach ascended quicker than his body, lifting and fluttering. His legs shook. His heart beat in skittish, frantic throbs. Without the adrenaline pumping through him, he might have even locked in place, incapable of movement. Initially, he strode with some confidence, arms at his sides, but the further they walked across the interior access of the residential hall, the deeper he stuffed his hands into his pockets.

    The attendant, without warning, stopped a few feet in front of them and settled in front of a door.

    He was about to reassure Lillie―but she grabbed his arm before he could get a word out, and squeezed.

    The attendant knocked on the door, and after only a moment's wait, it cracked open; neither of the children could see who it was from where they stood, but a hoarse, gravelly voice emerged from the darkened inner room.

    "It's Madame's children," the attendant said, apparently answering whatever it was that had been mumbled.

    A pregnant pause. The door suddenly slammed shut, causing all three of them some alarm, but just as quickly, it opened again, and they caught sight of a faint sliver of Guzma's face. "Be a minute," he said, which served to explain why the door went on to shut one more time.

    The bewildered attendant tried to offer the children an encouraging smile, but they gave no sign of being reassured.

    Then, at last, Guzma emerged.

    As the older man dismissed the attendant, Gladion examined and made recursory conclusions. Guzma, despite being holed up in the suite the entire evening, wore a formal suit, though at some point he had discarded the suit jacket and tie: black slacks and polished shoes, and what must be an uncomfortably-warm lavender dress shirt (in fact, he had unfastened the first few buttons from his neck, and sloppily rolled up his sleeves, all in an effort to relieve himself from the muggy evening air).

    Gladion moved his attention past Guzma's clothing and to his body language, which proved far more informative. No wonder Lillie wouldn't confide how Guzma sounded: he looked miserable, and probably sounded it, too. Eyes glossy, with heavy bags beneath them; hair brushed mussily back, so that it fell lopsided on one side of his head; skin pallid; breaths heavy. Gladion had thought himself nervous, but apparently, his own anxiety paled in comparison to that of the groom-to-be. The young man didn't even greet them―he simply shifted his weight in place, distracted by unseen figments in the air.

    Lillie decided to gently get his attention. "Alola, Mr. Guzma."

    He snapped his head in her direction, startled by her cheer. He then meekly waved a lowered hand at her in greeting. "Uh. Yeah. Hey." He agonized over his choice of words, and added, "Thanks… For coming."

    Gladion noticed quickly that Guzma was avoiding looking at him, and fidgeted with unexpressed shame. After all, their last conversation climaxed with a punch to Gladion's jaw.

    "Is Mother all right?" Lillie asked.

    "Your… your mom?" Guzma glanced over his shoulder at the suite door.

    Gladion clarified, "The directors said she's sick."

    "Oh. She's… She's fine, mostly. She just, you know, needs a lotta… Attention." This obvious dodge, accompanied with nervous scratching at his neck, didn't put the children much at ease. He tacked on a detail: "She's got a nurse in there with her. So it's okay."

    "...She's still that worried about appearances?" Gladion marveled aloud. When Guzma didn't understand his jab, he raised an eyebrow. "A chaperone…?"

    "H-hey!" Guzma jutted his eyes over to Lillie, then shielded his face with his hand to lock eyes privately with Gladion. He didn't look very intimidating as color flushed his face, but he hissed under his breath, "Shut up!"

    Lillie, blissfully unaware of what they were bickering about, asked with sudden intensity, "Does she know we're here?"

    Guzma looked at her. He hesitated. "Uh…" They thought this was the beginning of confessed bad news, but the young man glanced up and down the hallway, searching for other human beings. At last, he said, "Look… Let's go outside. There's stuff... we gotta talk about."

    The exterior residential walkway they retreated to faced the Hano Resort, which at this time of night turned to a starry dappling of illuminated windows and balconies, and its plaza shone with the white glow of the street lamps at the plaza's fountains and pools. With the wedding guests onboard, only a few tourists could be spotted entering and exiting the hotel.

    Guzma settled his back against the balcony railing and stuffed his hands in his pockets. He watched the two children for a moment, blinking and frowning as he did, seemingly trying to measure their emotional state.

    Tired of waiting, Gladion prodded, "So, Mr. Guzma?"

    "She knows you're here," Guzma clumsily transitioned.

    "And why are we here?"

    "Your mom's gettin' married. Figured you'd wanna be here."

    The answer did not prove very convincing.

    "I know… This ain't exactly normal, but… Look, some stuff's happened, and I did a lotta thinking, so this is what I'm doing. Maybe you came to stop me…" Guzma paused his rambling to collect his thoughts; he saw their confusion, and his expression softened. "But I made up my mind. Okay?"

    "Is that all?" Gladion asked, a hint of snideness to his tone.

    Guzma pressed a hand on the railing behind him and squeezed it. Embarrassment creased his face. "...No. 'Cause… Really? I… decided on somethin' else, too… And that's why you're here, because I decided…"

    Tension choked the air; Gladion could feel Lillie pressing close to his shoulder.

    In the moment before he came out with it, they couldn't read the mixture of emotions in his face, but he bunched his shoulders tightly, and clenched his throat, so that the words came out taut and strained. "After the wedding's over… You're both gonna come to Aether Paradise," he said. "You're gonna live with us."

    -

    ...Silence.

    ...Deathly silence.

    Gladion felt his head whirl and swim. The two of them paled, stunned, flabbergasted, unable to speak. The progress of the silence agitated Guzma, who waited for an awkward amount of time for them to reply; he searched their faces and, displeased with their responses, tried to amend his statement.

    "I mean… It ain't like… You gotta be there all the time," Guzma said, his words hurrying as he sensed their impending resistance. "You can still―! Do whatever you want, on the islands… But you'll have someplace to be, you know? You'll have a home."

    Lillie managed to speak first. "I have a home."

    The first sign of frustration protruded from Guzma's brow. He barked, "You have a couch! And a motel room!"

    "...This is your plan?" Gladion could hardly get words out, he was so struck by disbelief. "Marry her, and then sweep us up into your farce? So that we can all play house and pretend to be a happy family again?"

    "That's not…"

    "Are you crazy? Does Mother know about this?"

    "Yeah," Guzma said, though his eyes shifted a little, to show he withheld something in his answer. "Yeah, she… Knows."

    For a second, Gladion had to fight the urge to scream out in indignant rage. He planted his hand to his face, absorbing the quaking of his palm. He counted backwards… And decided to do what he vowed he wouldn't. "Then I'd like to speak with her."

    Obviously, Guzma hadn't anticipated this request. He floundered and puffed out his chest. "Wh-what, you don't believe me?"

    "She never agrees to anything unless it's to her advantage. So, yes, I don't believe you, and I want to speak with her now ."

    A hideous growl leaped from Guzma's throat; Gladion nearly thought he was about to receive another sock to the jaw for his stubbornness, though thankfully, after Guzma kicked the railing behind him with his heel, he simmered down enough to merely yell out his exasperation. "I'm not lying to you! Okay! She does know, she just…" The man crumpled. "She just…! I don't think she's ready to talk yet."

    "You mean," Gladion corrected, "that she's still not on speaking terms with us."

    Guzma didn't reply, which told Gladion everything he wanted to know.

    "Why would we want to live with someone who still despises us?"

    "She doesn't―!" Guzma retorted miserably. "Look, she'll get over it―And I'll be there. So it'll be different."

    "Mr. Guzma. I know you mean well, but…" Gladion shook his head. "There's a reason we left."

    "She's getting better."

    "You honestly expect us to believe that?"

    Suddenly, Guzma turned his attention on Lillie, who had remained eerily quiet for the most of the conversation. "Isn't this what you wanted?" he demanded.

    She opened her mouth to answer him.

    "You don't know what she wants," Gladion interrupted.

    "She told me! Aren't I right!" Guzma, again, locked eyes with her. "You want everything to go back. To the way it was!"

    ―And still, Gladion: "That's the problem! It's going to go right back to what it was―"

    While the two boys argued, Lillie looked between them, over and over, trying in vain to find pause to insert herself, until, at last, she borrowed a gesture from her mother. She stomped her foot hard, clacking the sole of her shoe against the wooden deck, and yelled, "I―I have something to say! If you don't mind!"

    Startled, the boys immediately went silent and gawked at her.

    Lillie blushed. "I'm sorry! For yelling! But I can speak for myself!" As Gladion sheepishly looked away, she stepped forward, twisting her hands about her purse strap and trying to appear as adult and unafraid as possible. Determination filled her voice, though her volume steadily lowered. "M-Mr. Guzma, I'm sorry―I think I gave you the wrong impression," Lillie said. "Of course I wish I could go back. If I could come home… If Mother could be the way I remember her, when I was little… It would be a dream come true. But you can't promise that, can you?"

    She clearly expected an answer; Guzma muttered, while shrugging hopelessly, "I dunno."

    "Then, what can you promise me?"

    Gladion sensed something wrong with the question. He turned, brim with displeasure. "Lillie."

    But she ignored him, focusing entirely on Guzma. The older man stared back at her, clearly confused, but the gears clacked in his head, grinding together forceful thought; he puzzled, chewed the inside of his cheek, and tensed, like he knew everything hinged on his answer. He reached up, combed his fingers through his mussed, black hair, and sucked in a breath. "I'll.." He grimaced. "I'll do my best. To help her. That's all I can really do, ya know?"

    Lillie kept eyes on him. Inspected his sincerity. Went almost completely still, like stone. Then, her shoulders noticeably relaxed. "Mr. Guzma... I never got to thank you… For saving Mother from the Nihilego." She dipped her eyes and tilted her chin downward, allowing a moment of silence before continuing. "When I saw you… risk your life for her… Maybe that's why I… Convinced myself this would be different. All the same… You really care about her… Don't you?"

    Guzma couldn't bring himself to answer, but his eyes rounded, his jaw set, his fingers curled. Lillie watched him, further scrutinizing him...

    Then, after some time of breathless waiting, she shut her eyes, air shaking out of her in the form of a whisper. "...Okay."

    The ambiguity of the declaration made them both twitch.

    "I… I trust you. If you want me to go… I'll go."

    A violent ripple of emotion shot through them: Guzma mostly stiffened in place, overcome in the face of such a moving and unexpected expression of faith; Gladion, in opposition, shot out with wanton physicality, both by grabbing Lillie by the arm and exclaiming aloud.

    "Absolutely not!" Gladion was livid. Anger coursed through him so powerfully that he had to check his grip on her, to ensure he hadn't hurt her in his lashing out. He gave her an exasperated glare. "Have you gone crazy, too?"

    "Hey," Guzma complained, "it's her decision, y'know―"

    Gladion disregarded Guzma's self-interested bawling. "You've gone through enough," he told her. "It's wrong. It's wrong of him to ask you to do this. Can't you see that!?"

    Apparently exhausted of her self-expression, she simply trembled and avoided his eyes.

    "Way I remember it," Guzma jeered haughtily, "you didn't have a problem leaving her at Aether before."

    But Gladion didn't stumble over Guzma's accusation; he effortlessly continued, "He's right, Lillie. I should have protected you, and I didn't… But that's why I can't let you do this. I've failed you once. I don't plan on doing it again. You aren't stepping foot on that island."

    Lillie, crushed by his reasoning, looked torn between taking it all back―or obstinately declaring her own rights. She glanced back and forth at Gladion and Guzma, paralyzed by her inability to choose, lest she hurt either's feelings. However, before she could even decide, Guzma exploded.

    "Fine! Do what you want! It doesn't change anything!" He snarled and stomped on the railing, threatening to buckle it under force. The two children flinched. "You think I care!? I'm tryin' to help you out!"

    Lillie reached out to calm him. "Mr. Guzma…"

    "You're her kids! I thought you'd actually give a rip what happens to her!"

    Lillie stepped back, withdrawing her hand―saw his flailing, impotent rage―and her face fell. Whether it was his hurtful words, or his anger, or Gladion's reasoning―she didn't say. In fact, she didn't say anything at all. She turned toward the stairs leading down and fled.

    "Lillie―"

    "Kid! Wait!"

    They watched her go as their cries fell fruitlessly on her, until she disappeared down the steps, and the sound of her shoes clacking on the floor faded.

    "See what you did?" Guzma hissed.

    Gladion didn't indulge his obvious deflection of blame. He crossly glared Guzma down. "Did you really expect this to work?"

    The older man's face twinged vulnerably.

    "If it is as you say, and that woman agreed to this… Ugh, I can't even think how you would gain her consent on this, unless she really is that desperate."

    "I got my ways," Guzma bragged recklessly.

    "What do you mean?"

    "Uh…"

    "You mean you made her consent."

    "It was…" Guzma grumbled, now realizing his mistake; he roughly scratched behind his ear. "I made a deal."

    "How!? You don't have any leverage. How could you possibly―"

    Guzma turned to the ocean, pushing himself hard against the railing.

    The unspoken thing suddenly hit Gladion. "No. It's you. You're the leverage."

    "She doesn't wanna be alone. When I pushed that… When she knew I could leave if I wanted…" Guzma shrugged, and a small, bitter smirk lifted the edge of his mouth. "How's she gonna say 'no'?"

    "So, emotional extortion."

    Guzma sensed the accusational tone, and it rankled him. "What?"

    "Finding her weakness. Exploiting her vulnerability, to force compliance out of her. It's exactly what she would do."

    Guzma must have deduced he was right, because he refused to argue, instead rhetorically ducking. "I'm gonna help her. I'm…"

    "Mother doesn't take threats lightly. She's going to retaliate. She's going to make your life hell."

    Guzma shook his head and turned away from him. "...Doesn't matter. I can take it."

    Gladion desperately wanted to all-out berate him―what was he thinking!?―but he chose a more diplomatic option. At the very least, if he could find Guzma's motivation, perhaps he could reason him down. "I've known you to have harebrained plans of action before," Gladion said, alluding to their months of working together. "But I'm awfully curious what inspired this."

    Guzma countered crankily, "I ain't gotta explain myself to you."

    "Is it guilt? Or are you afraid to be on that island alone with her―that you need to recruit her children to keep misery company?"

    "What do you know? You're just a dumb little kid!" Guzma snapped. Suddenly, though, his voice strained, weakened. "But it ain't― it ain't your fault―"

    For a time, neither said anything. Guzma fixed his arms over the railing, entirely slumped over, and fiddled with the gold watch braced at his wrist. Its sheen seemed to mesmerize him, pulling him away from the coarse reality surrounding him―the thick breeze coming across the docks, the buzz of wildlife from the forests beyond the resort, the ever-distant patter of civilian footsteps. Though Guzma didn't want to speak, forcing his mouth shut only proved to build up pressure, rather than extinguish it: he squirmed, cast a dejected eye on the young boy whom law would soon have him call son, and winced.

    "Your sister―I guess she thinks I'm a good person or something―but I really ain't… I've never done nothin' for nobody. I hurt people. I was born doin' that― I've always done that―" His confession rambled, veered off into burbling nonsense. He faced away to roughly wipe at his face. "See? I know you ain't never gonna see me―as anything but a creep― But that's okay, 'cuz I'm not tryin' to be your dad or something. But I gotta grow up. 'Cuz you're just a kid, and I'm the adult, aren't I? So I gotta― it's my job, isn't it? My responsibility. I hafta take care of you."

    There it was. His reasoning: twisted, tortured, bloodied by unfixable regrets. Gladion stared at him. The man―it was unfitting, calling him that, though that's what he was―stood a little ways off, twice his age, easily twice his size, arms roped with the lean, cruel muscle that had threatened before to break him. Yet, despite every element of monstrosity, Gladion could not help but find him… pitiable.

    Gladion dropped his eyes. "Mr. Guzma. You took on a great risk to make this offer―but we can't accept it. Our family… it's not your job to fix us."

    Above them, a blast of air and sound shot out from the ship's exhaust. The first horn blew, and down in the lower quarters, the ship's crew began their busy movements, racing to their posts. In several minutes, the loading stairs would be folded up, and in a few more, the ship would blast its final horn and sever its tie to the dock, pushing its weight into the dark open sea. Guzma looked up at the sky, which had finally began to break out in starlight. He sighed, as if the horn had released something in himself. "...Y'all came just in time," he mused as he listened to the revving hiss of the ship's engine. "Guess you better hurry, though, if you wanna get off again."

    But Gladion shook his head. "There's no hurry. We're not leaving."

    Guzma looked mildly surprised by this news, and just as Gladion started for the stairs himself, Guzma lifted himself and said after him, "Hey―wait a sec."

    "...Yes?"

    "Your sister. T-tell her… I didn't mean it. I was just hyped up, and…"

    Gladion grunted unsympathetically. "You're an adult; tell her yourself."

    -

    All Guzma could feel when Gladion left was the shaking in his hands. At first, he attributed it to the rumble of the ship as it roared to life, but he wrapped his fingers into fists, and the trembling swallowed him up: all the humiliation of defeat, the sting of being nothing.

    Guess he was alone after all.

    "Stupid," Guzma uttered first, that no one above or below could possibly hear him. Then, in flashes of moonlight, their faces hit him again: Lillie's hurt, and Gladion's angry dismissal. He fixed his fists against his temples to fight against the throbbing, but it did no good, nor did the subsequent, ferocious pounding of his knuckles against his scalp. "Stupid !"

    The last cry echoed, booming out across the ship. No doubt some of the crew―maybe even Gladion, still descending down the stairs―had heard him, but he didn't care. He absolved his only bit of shame by smashing his foot against the railing and huffing his way back toward the interior hall.

    Her children could leave her. Ditch her. Abandon her. They had already done it before, so he didn't know why he expected any different.

    So while they went to eat their fill and navigate the other wedding guests, he returned to the suite, back to the dim light and weak voices that buzzed in his head.

    --> Chapter 23: Entropy
     
    Last edited: Jun 11, 2018
  20. TheAlpar

    TheAlpar Journey Enthusiast

    Well, it's nice to see that despite being one of the youngest characters of the fic, Gladion is probably one of the most sensible people around. He is absolutely right; while there is a small possibility that they might help Lusamine, no one deserves to go through all the trouble that'd take. Neither him nor Lillie should have to suffer any more because of that. And I get where Lillie is coming from; she's young and hopeful and wants to make things better, but she's also too optimistic and Lusamine would eat that alive.

    As always amazing chapter, you know exactly how to portray all these character's emotions and make us feel things. Thumbs up.
     

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