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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

    Chapter 23: Entropy

    Aside from the soft glow of moonlight slipping in through the window, the only light source in Lusamine's suite was the small lamp at the end table next to her bed. For that evening, it had served to illuminate her resting form, which had hardly moved since earlier that afternoon. The light painted both her body and bed covering in a monochrome shade of light gold, so that in her stillness, she seemed to melt into shadow, a matte of peaceful folds.

    Guzma had hardly left her side since boarding, a consequence of her frailty and clinginess; it came as no surprise to him, as she continued this behavior from where it left off on Aether Paradise. Skipping dinner had shocked him, though. Surely, he thought, she'd muster up enough will to show herself off to the public… It was her element.

    Yet she showed no sign of crawling back out of bed. It irritated him. Worried him.

    When he entered the suite now, after cutting away the frustration of a fruitless conversation with her children, he expected her to be in her usual position: lying down in bed, tossing around occasionally, drifting in and out of sleep. But she was awake, sitting up, and visibly shaken.

    "You see, Miss?" The nurse, seated on the other side of the bed, gently chided her. "I told you he was right outside―"

    Lusamine spoke right over her. "You were gone," she said, trembling like a leaf.

    "Yeah, for just a few minutes," Guzma replied.

    "I woke up," she continued, reduced to a whisper, "and you weren't here."

    Guzma stopped and stared from just inside the enclosed doorway. At the distance where he stood, he could see her green eyes, flickering and full of pain, and the tightness of her skin over her face. She still wore her silken, kimono-style robe over a delicate nightgown covering her modestly, with its sleeves fanning out like fairy wings as her hands fidgeted on her lap. Guzma frowned. "I'm here now."

    All she moved were her quaking china hands, groping them at the end of the bed facing him. Her voice rose to a pitch of pitiful urgency. "Sit… Sit with me…"

    And as he had for the last few days, without fail, he gave in, knowing full well what a web she spun, what a game she played. He placed his hands in his pockets and approached the queen size bed, watched her persist in pulling on the comforter draped over her lower body, and then sat down on the edge of the mattress. Lusamine leaned over, snagging his shirt sleeve with her fingers.

    He looked down at where she grabbed him but didn't respond to it with any emotion, beyond vague resignation.

    The nurse, reading the tension in the room, stood to her feet and cleared her throat, addressing Guzma. "Now that you're here, I can check on dinner service. Do you need anything before I go?"

    "Uh…" Guzma lifted his eyes, meeting Lusamine's face. Though they didn't speak any words to each other, something clear was communicated between them. "Nah, I think we're good."

    Lusamine's hand hadn't left his arm even after the nurse disappeared out the door, but he still didn't address it, even as he knew what it meant. The room dimmed. By now, though, he had memorized the placement of objects and furniture about the suite, so that he could trace the faint shadows and know what they represented―chairs, tables, shelves, ornaments.

    Her hand tugged more insistently than before. "Guzma." The words shrank in her throat, until he could hardly hear them. "Sit with me."

    "I am sitting with you."

    Vexed, she adjusted her body on the bed, pushing herself to the far side, and reeled him in.

    "All right, all right―" Apparently, being alone had made her more bold. He thought briefly about removing his shoes, but in the end he didn't bother; he clumsily made his way onto the bed, eventually sitting at the right proximity next to her, with his back against the headboard.

    Instead of letting him go, she wilted, enclosing him with her arms about his torso. Upon receiving no resistance, she rested her head upon his rising chest.

    ...And then they fell silent again.

    They remained like that for some time. Guzma nearly thought Lusamine had drifted off, but the final blast of the ship's horn made her suck in a breath and lift her head in alarm.

    "The ship's going," he told her.

    The sudden tightness in her muscles relaxed. "...So… At last…" Without the strength to keep her head up, she settled in again with a sweet exhale. "Going…"

    Although Guzma could not clearly see the shoreline from where he sat, out of the bottom edge of the far window, the tops of trees, in the form of black smudges in the dark, drifted. He expected to feel the movement as the ship propelled itself forward, and for a second he thought he did―but the sensation was so subtle, that he couldn't be sure he wasn't imagining it.

    "Going…"

    (Why the preoccupation with that word?) Nervously, he fixed his hand to her back, smoothing his fingers against the silk fabric. The touch seemed to quell whatever thought had lodged itself in her. She went quiet aside from the steady pace of her breathing.

    -

    Guzma, in the last few days, had plenty of time to both observe her and make determinations. In particular, he learned what it meant to be around her. Before, all interactions between them were brief, rehearsed, scheduled, under controlled conditions. But now, in her languishing, she came across as strangely real and intimate, as if she really had a body after all, and maybe a soul, too. She craved his company fervently, so that he could hardly separate himself from her; she wanted to be held by him, she wanted to be near him, she wanted to breathe his air and hear his voice. The attention dizzied him. Receiving affection had always been a weakness of his, but this fawning proved too unsettling. He indulged her―a little. Just enough to relieve her excitement. Through it all, though, his lizard-brain sense of self-preservation kept him wary. She gushed, while he tried to stay mostly aloof.

    Yet...

    Despite what he knew, it was easy, falling back into old and broken fantasies.

    Especially when he watched her sleep.

    Somehow, her veneer of perfection not only survived, but flourished best in her sleep; whether on her back, like an honored and holy saint, or curled up like a newborn, she embodied all qualities that she professed: gentleness, sanctity, peacefulness, fragility. It was as if her deception ran so deeply, that it preserved itself in her slumber.

    And then she would wake up and recount her dreams in a trembling voice: she dreamed she was lost on a mountaintop, she dreamed of an empty house that howled, a barren valley, a burning room slowly suffocating her, shadows chasing her, hallways without doors, darkness, darkness, darkness. (Was that the darkness crawling up out of her, fighting to escape? Or was it just more words? More tricks?)

    Guzma dealt poorly with the whiplash of dealing in cynicism and foolhardy hope. He could look into her eyes, see every shade of amber green glistening with remorse and promise, and forgive her of everything. Then, just as quickly, he would remind himself of one important thing:

    Lusamine had not apologized.

    The neglect went even further than that: she utterly refused to talk about it. In fact, as far as he could tell, she convincingly pretended nothing had happened, even acting like she didn't know why he left in the first place. A few times in the last week, he had timidly attempted to bring the matter up―only to have her change the subject, act confused, or outright deny knowing anything. He couldn't decide the cause of this. He didn't think she'd forgotten―that seemed unlikely. If he pressed, really pressed, she would squirm and bluster, lashing out with revealing hostility… That read as avoidance, not ignorance. So was it shame? Was it guilt? If it wasn't, she had learned to mimic those emotions with frightening accuracy.

    He wanted to hate her for it. For pretending it hadn't happened, and even moreso, for pretending that not talking about it negated its power. But the strategy was familiar to him. He of all people knew that if you push something far enough down, stomp it with enough force, you can trick your brain into disbelieving it or mistaking it for a nightmare you had once, or for a stray thought you wrongly allowed to become a memory.

    -

    The headboard started to cut sharply against his back; he shifted his weight.

    The movement roused Lusamine from her state of peace. She unwound her arms from his torso, throat quickening with small, alarmed swallows, and she lifted herself enough to gaze pitiably into his face.

    "You aren't… Leaving again…?"

    He frowned and lashed out irritably. "Will you chill? Seriously. Every time I sneeze don't mean the wedding's off―"

    Lusamine, who evidently did not appreciate being addressed in such a manner, threw back her sheets and comforter, grabbed his shoulders to balance herself, straightened her hips, and swung her leg across the width of his thighs, with the end result being that she straddled his lap. He sputtered, but before he could properly object, she escalated. She pulled herself up onto her knees, wrapped her hands firmly at the base of his throat, and enwrapped him in a kiss.

    The kiss lasted a few moments―warm, tinged with cloying need and yearning. He pushed his hands up against her the flesh of her arms, beneath the robe's sleeves―she released her lips and shivered…

    Then, abruptly, Guzma yanked her down, sitting her flatly on his lap. "Okay," he said, "I gotta get up."

    "Oh, what's the matter?"

    At first he didn't respond, only trying to roll her off; she wrapped her arms around his neck and fought fiercely to stay in place, so he momentarily gave up and glared at her. "I'm going to my suite. It's next door; no big deal."

    Lusamine became frantic. "Did I do something wrong?" She tried to read his expression―failed to understand its apathy―and curled her warm body close to his chest. "Why don't you stay?" she whined, drenching her voice in sickly-sweet sensuality.

    But he was too distracted―too exhausted―too frustrated to even start falling for this. He roughly pushed her back. "'Cause at some point, I gotta get some sleep."

    Undeterred, she leaned into his face again, hovering her lips over his. "You can do that here. Can't you?"

    "Miss L…" He frowned, drumming up an appropriate excuse. "I don't think we're supposed to spend the night before the wedding, huh?"

    "Oh," she sighed, "don't be so moralistic… It doesn't suit you at all..."

    Guzma dwelled on her disappointment. Though she probably deserved the occasional rejection, the thought of depriving her of anything still weighed on him, so he slipped his hands about her lower back, thought about it, and mumbled with an ounce of consolation, "Tomorrow night. Tomorrow, I can stay as long as you want."

    "Yes… You're right… Tomorrow night… And the next…" Lusamine snorted a breathy laugh, and repeated, "And the next… And the next..."

    He tried to disguise the spike of discomfort fixed against his voice. "...Yeah."

    "My… acolyte…" She hummed and dipped her face into the crook of his neck, and he could feel her lips stretch into a smile against the sensitive skin of his throat. "Still… defending my virtue…"

    Guzma rolled his eyes…

    And the door opened.

    In the dim light, the nurse must have not seen them right away, and upon seeing them, not understood: however, after a few seconds, she recoiled and sharply gasped.

    "Oh no," Lusamine cried, though clearly amused by the nurse's embarrassment. She sank back into Guzma's arms. "We've been caught, darling."

    "I'm―!" The nurse covered her eyes and started for the door. "I'm so sorry, I should have knocked…!"

    Taking advantage of Lusamine's relaxed demeanor, Guzma swiftly caught her and tossed her onto the bed. He ignored her yelp of surprise and threw his legs over the side, leaving him seated and facing the servant. "Nah, it's all right―I'm leaving."

    "Leaving? They're bringing dinner service," the nurse said.

    "They can send mine to my room."

    "Honestly," Lusamine complained, pawing at his back, "I thought you'd at least stay until after dinner…"

    Guzma bristled. "No! I told you!" He realized he had raised his voice more than he intended when both women stared at him; he hoisted himself to his feet and rubbed his hair in a fit of agitation. "Look…" He tempered his tone after stuffing his hands into his pockets. "I'll stop by later."

    "To tuck me in?"

    He groaned and resisted the temptation to roll his eyes again. "Whatever you say, Miss L."

    When the trolleys rolled in through the door and the servants chattered, he gave his last word by pointing to the nurse.

    "When I get back, I'm gonna ask her if you ate anything, and if she says no, I'm gonna be pissed."

    "Oh?" Lusamine tilted her head to the side, lazily putting a finger to her lips. She countered his strictness with a teasing, "Will I be in very much trouble?"

    But her kittenish attempt at bringing levity out of him failed. He eyed her sternly. "I'm serious."

    "Hmm. Very well." She heaved a sigh and landed her hands on her lap. "I'll be good."

    Guzma stared at her. Before he left, he chewed and thought, added the gathered information to his previous notions… Tried, in his sluggish brain, to pick apart her freshly adopted behaviors. He didn't know where this all fit in. It had to fit in. She was too calculating and keen to put on mannerisms without some intention behind them.

    But as he had for other issues, he dismissed it as too late to worry about now. Whatever her plan was… It would become apparent tomorrow.

    -

    Over the bobbing waters, behind where the waves were cleft between the hull's steel sides, an attentive crew member could, if they tried, spot the winding patterns of light continuing to connect the ship to Akala Island's shore. The city's landscape cast an exterior ring of shadow about the sand and rock, with sunken imitations of towers, shops, bridges―windows and lamps illuminating the ever-distant surface of the waters. A sharp line of disturbance cut through these reflections, demonstrating where the ship had already successfully trudged, and the line wavered, its milky white foam hastily melting back into the blue pitch.

    But unbeknownst to anyone, much less the crew, another line had been drawn.

    It was thin and as transparent as glass. Barely noticeable against the bright lights of the horizon and the black nothingness of the sea. But if one knew what to look for―and mind you, no one on the ship did―one could squint and see it. A silent ripple in the reflections. A small blip of life. And then, as Akala's lights fell away, so did It, this phantom of the surface that no one would notice.

    The dinner service continued unabated.

    -

    Nanu's cunning detective instincts were telling him that he was not nearly drunk enough.

    Plumeria had run off―being hormonal or something, not that he asked―leaving him alone at a table with some couple he'd rather not pay attention to. He'd grabbed another drink (harder stuff this time) and finished it off in time for food, which actually turned out to be a delightful arrangement, some of the best fish he'd ever had, certainly a better meal than the cup ramen he subsisted on most of the time…

    Anyway, two additional drinks later, he started to feel a comfortable buzz and identified Gladion and Lillie sitting at the long head table. Normally, this would be seen as a daring move on their part, but with their mother not in attendance, this seating arrangement made the most sense. The directors interrogated them a second time―to little impact, as far as Nanu could tell―then left them to be casually approached and greeted by various other guests who recognized them for who they were. And while he wasn't normally one to initiate social contact, they looked sufficiently miserable, and he felt sufficiently bored.

    So Nanu moved himself and his refreshed drink over to their table, watching as another guest ended a conversation with the children. He at first stood beside them and waited to be greeted, but the two were so distracted that they didn't notice him. They hadn't touched their food. Lillie had a glass of water in her hand, which she sipped at gingerly. Judging by the surrounding circumstances and where he knew they had been, he could figure the cause of their vacant, deer-in-headlights expressions.

    Nanu cleared his throat. "Hey, kids."

    They jerked from surprise and looked up at him, but neither of them greeted him in return―not even Lillie, who normally buzzed with social energy.

    "Changed your mind and came after all, huh?" Nanu mused in Gladion's direction. "Should I take it personally?"

    Neither of them spoke.

    "Shoot," he said, pulling out a chair and slumping into its seat. He kicked back as he glanced them over. "You look like you're at a funeral."

    A stupid comment. He could blame the drinking for that. At least they didn't take offense. Gladion shook his head and pushed his dinner plate aside to make room for his elbows, propping them rudely atop the table. "Matters have gotten complicated."

    "...Hmm."

    Gladion frowned and glanced past Nanu's shoulder. "Where's Plumeria?"

    "Heck if I know."

    "We should reconvene with her."

    "You have some kinda plan you're itching to share?"

    Gladion nearly answered in earnest, but he thought on something and started tapping a finger on the table. He grit his teeth as he muttered bitterly, "Besides stewing in our own juices…?"

    A small smirk tugged at the edge of Nanu's mouth. "I wouldn't call a pity party a 'plan'..." After making that snipe, Nanu turned to Lillie, who remained quiet and sullen. He cocked an eyebrow. In his experience, the girl didn't restrain herself from rattling on nervously. "Hey, princess."

    She lifted her eyes from her drinking glass, brow stitched together.

    "You should eat something. The food's not bad."

    Encouraged by his rare display of care, she smiled primly. "Thank you, but… I'm not very hungry."

    At this point, Kahuna Nanu sensed both their unwillingness to engage with him, and through the fog of his drinking, something… else. At first he attributed the sensation to their evasive behavior, but he planted a hand on his knee, slumped over, took another drink, and realized that the tingling at the back of his brain was not due to the children at all. He blinked. The dining hall had a warm, comfortable glow--nothing amiss. The sounds of clicking china and glass accompanied the vibrant bursts of laughter and conversation. He leafed his fingers through his thin, flaky head of hair, blinked back the cobwebs, and just when he thought to dismiss his feelings as drunken paranoia, the idea resurged with more intensity.

    The wait staff had disappeared.

    Had no one noticed…?

    "Um…" Lillie noticed his change in posture. "Mr. Nanu?"

    He grunted and looked out over the crowd. He saw an older woman pawing her empty glass, looking impatient―she hadn't received attention for at least a few minutes. Outside, on the other side of the glass door, a nervous crew worker paced the deck.

    "Are you okay?"

    After a moment of continuing to ignore her, Nanu suddenly stood up and dusted himself off. He teetered some, then, seeing their gaping, waved his dismissal. "Eh, look… Sorry to bother you… I'll leave you to it…"

    As he went, the two children exchanged puzzled looks.

    Great. More nonsense. At least it couldn't be any more surprise guests, now that the ship was out on open water. Had to be something interesting. Plumeria hadn't returned yet; if he was going to go snooping again, he'd have to go it alone.

    Before he sidled his way out to the deck, he studied the other guests. No one appeared perturbed or worried. Notably, even the Board of Directors still sat at their table, apparently blissfully unaware of this particular drama.

    "Well," he murmured to himself, replacing his glass at his table, "here goes nothing."

    Upon opening the glass-panel door out to the deck, Nanu caught sight of the crew worker. The stout, flummoxed man hurried over to him, appearing consumed with panic; that the crewman was overweight, older, and hadn't managed to button up his uniform properly added to the sense of overwhelm. In the faint outdoor lighting, lines of sweat could be seen streaking his brow and cheeks. "Sir," the man said, trying to grab the handle to the door to block Nanu's exit, "I, I'm going to need you to go back inside―"

    "Huh?" Nanu feigned ignorance, and rather than force his way through, he drew out a cigarette from his pocket. "Something up?"

    "No."

    (The answer came too quickly. Like the question was expected, and the man had rehearsed his response).

    "No," the man repeated―he must have realized how transparent of a lie it must be― "it is nothing serious… But please… For the safety of everyone on board, we're requesting everyone stay where they are until…"

    "What, are we sinking or something?"

    The worker started hyperventilating and flapping his arms. The louder he cried, the more obvious his lilting, Kalosian accent got to be. "No! Non, sir, please don't say that sort of thing around the other guests―"

    "Relax; I'm not looking to start a riot." Nanu waved his cigarette. "Just on a smoke break."

    The crew member looked at him, a little dumbfounded at the excuse, and couldn't think of a way to rebuff him. His eyes tellingly swiveled, especially toward the back of the boat, but the longer he saw that Nanu was serious, the more his grip on the door weakened. At last, he relented and stepped back, giving the kahuna space to step out onto the deck. "Yes… I see… Just as long… As you don't wander, yes?"

    "Sure."

    In an easy motion, Nanu slid out and propped himself against the railing, overlooking the expanding sea. More distance grew between the boat and Akala, but the island had not disappeared yet, remaining black and blinking on the horizon behind them. While Nanu put his cigarette to his lips and searched for his lighter, he could hear the crewman's agonized breathing and pacing behind him. He tried to tune out the noise, cupping his hand against the warm breeze to produce his flame, and then, in his first bit of observation, he spotted something out on the water. The object drifted in the opposite direction on a long, parabolic slope of disturbed water, far from them; a quick mental calculation of its current trajectory determined that the object must have narrowly missed them. Was that it? A near collision?

    The night sky started to blur in his vision. His thinking muddled. It was a boat, he thought, or something like it… The cigarette puffed a trail of smoke, which drew a silky white line in the air before him…

    Trickling out of the wind, a sound emerged. He thought it was coming from out on the water, but no, he turned his head toward the back of the ship. The poorly-lit, obscured side deck prevented him from seeing the source of the noise, but that, combined with the crewman's attention to that side of the ship, he could only conclude that the trouble started there.

    He narrowed his eyes.

    "...The devil is…?"

    And though it was far away, as he cocked his head to the side to listen, he could swear it sounded… Familiar. Irritating.

    -

    Up in the residential suites, Guzma, having finished his dinner, had to make one more decision for the night. He could not hear the commotion outside, and no attendants had come to inform him, so he felt no urgency when he exited his suite. He replaced his suit jacket over his shoulders, as he hadn't decided whether to go downstairs later―it wasn't that he desired company, as much as he felt he'd go crazy, remaining stuck alone in his room any longer.

    Not paying close attention to his surroundings, he shut the door to his suite. In his mind, he started to practice his final conversation with Lusamine―perhaps his final conversation with her as a fiance. He turned. He nearly missed it, as he was so stuck in his thoughts, but after taking a single step toward Lusamine's room, he spotted a visitor standing across from him, leaning against the wall and eyeing him.

    The name launched into his throat, and choked on it. "Plume."

    While he expressed a mix of horror, regret, and surprise, Plumeria showed a more straightforward emotion. Her eyebrows lay low, settled against her steely, pin-point eyes; she had her arms folded and braced against her body with hostile tightness. She didn't answer his clumsy greeting, so he tried again.

    "...You come with Nanu?" He waited a second, then shook his head. "...I didn't… really expect you to show..." He awkwardly noted her red dress. "You, uh, look nice."

    Plumeria was not impressed. She put her hands on her hips. "Seriously? 'You look nice'?"

    Okay… Admittedly, not his smoothest attempt at easing tension. He grimaced and diverted his eyes. "What do you want me to say?"

    "How about, 'I'm sorry, Plumeria'? 'I was a jerk,' 'you were right about everything'--"

    To her surprise, he snapped angrily, interrupting. "You're outta your mind."

    "Who, me?!" Plumeria no longer kept her voice at a middling, restrained volume; she didn't care who heard anymore. "Me, and not you, the guy who's selling his soul?"

    As she grew louder, he became more antsy. He looked about for escape routes, and tried to step toward Lusamine's suite to end the conversation.

    But Plumeria lunged, placing herself in the middle of the hallway. When he irritably tried to side-step her and was thwarted by her swaying, she said sarcastically, "Sorry, am I in your way?"

    Guzma nearly replied―then the words bounced around in his head, striking him as familiar and… Of course. ' You're in my way, Plume. You've always been in my… ' Outwardly, he remained stoic. "Plume…"

    "'Plume', what?"

    "You don't know anything, all right? You don't know what I'm doing… You definitely don't know why I'm doing it. So I don't wanna hear it, okay? I don't wanna hear your take on things―"

    "You really are," she said, agonized and unable to keep her words from shaking, "the dumbest idiot on the planet."

    Guzma leaned in. He thought, for a time, of things he could say to mend, or agree, or pacify, or recant… And then, towering over her, he let his frustration out in the form of a deep, harsh growl: "Grow up."

    Because she wasn't expecting it, the sweep of his hand that came directly afterward successfully knocked her aside; she fumbled in her heels and ended up balancing herself on the opposite wall. She watched him as he turned his back to her and approached the door, and as anger at his dismissal bubbled up inside her, she began to rant furiously. "You've got me messed up, if you think I came here just to beg. 'Cause I'm over it, Guzma. Whatever stupid decision you wanna make―that's on you!"

    He ignored her and reached for the door handle.

    "So don't think I did it for you."

    ...He stopped.

    Amused, she thought aloud: "You know, of all the people at this bash… I didn't see any friends of yours. Like, I think Nanu and me are the only people who know you at all. Kinda sad, if you think about it."

    Guzma lifted his hand from the door handle and looked at her while narrowing his eyes. "What are you talking about? What you 'did'--?"

    Plumeria didn't get a chance to allude to an explanation; just before Guzma could question her any further, an attendant burst through the door at the end of the hall, entering from outside. The young man looked pale and out of breath, and after a few seconds of puffing and wheezing, he exclaimed upon seeing them. "Sir! Madam!"

    At that moment, Guzma felt his stomach plummet and head spin.

    "Please, for your own safety, we're asking that everyone remain inside… If you could both go back into your rooms, that would be…"

    Guzma ran, shoving the attendant aside on his way out. He reached the railing overlooking the back of the ship and gazed down at the lower deck just in time to watch the blockade break.

    -

    To understand precisely the catastrophe that befell the wedding ship that evening, one would have to pull back―to see the wider view of things, and to see into the last few minutes in which the disaster came to a head.

    It started around fifteen minutes prior, when the Team Skull speedboat, a remnant of the days in which the team had money to waste on luxuries, took aim for the cruise liner some dozens of sizes larger than itself. After the speedboat nestled itself against the churning sides of the white ship, plugging along as fast as it could, bodies emerged, and within minutes, a rope ladder had been secured over the side, and about two dozen (or so) wedding crashers helped themselves and each other up onto the deck. They were so practiced in the art of climbing into places where they didn't belong, that the whole group of thugs had already gotten comfortable when crew members discovered them.

    The speedboat absconded―leaving the body of grunts between the sea and a frightened boat crew.

    At first, this scenario moved rather sluggishly. No one made sudden movements; the crew sent out alerts to all workers on board, warning them to retreat inside and keep guests where they were. Within seconds, the police were called, and the quartermaster made sure the teenagers knew it. Everyone stay where you are, the police are on their way…

    In the midst of all this, the grunts showed themselves to be surprisingly calm. They actually sat and lounged on the deck, eyeballing the crew members who had cornered them, occasionally whistling or calling out a threat. Silence simmered with grumbling and jeers.

    But as Guzma arrived at the overlook, seeing the standoff beneath the glow of floodlights, an unseen signal must have been communicated, because at that moment, all the grunts acted at once. An explosion broke out: pokemon partners were released, allowing dozens of the creatures to tear across the deck; the hissing snap of firecrackers and smoke bombs burned the air; an unbridled, collective scream of joy preceded a storming forward, breezily breaking through the defensive wall of crew workers.

    From where Guzma stood, all he could see was the swarm of bodies and flapping wings and haunches and scarves on heads, paint, smoke, and banners with skulls waving in the air, with all the grandeur and intent of a pirate's skull-and-crossbones. To pick out individuals among the black caps proved impossible, especially as the group clustered and funneled violently down narrow pathways along the deck, toppling any resistance standing in their way.

    For a few minutes, Guzma couldn't even find it in himself to move. He just stood there, gripping the railing, watching the chaos unfurl and listening to the ear-splitting cacophony of screaming, laughter, footfalls, crashing, firecrackers, and pokemon cries. As the crowd of adolescents vanished down the other end of the ship, a group of fumbling crew workers picked themselves up and started to follow, calling to each other as they did.

    ...Guzma could turn around. He could head back inside, curse Plumeria royally out, and lock himself in his suite until the whole thing blew over―which, inevitably, it would, as the invasion clearly hadn't been planned with an exit strategy. He could even retreat to Lusamine's suite, to bar the door, keep her calm, and hold out hope that the ensuing damage would resolve itself overnight.

    White-hot anger, however, motivated a different impulse altogether. All the agony and strain he had put into this―and they spat and rolled around in it, like it was a toy to play with, like it meant nothing. He didn't try to suppress the feeling; he flew toward the stairwell, fully intent on bashing every head he could connect with his hands.

    -

    Downstairs, Nanu had the distinct honor of facing the group of grunts barreling toward him with all the grace and finesse of a Tauros stampede.

    While the crew worker behind him squealed and ran, he planted himself lethargically against the railing, huffed his cigarette, and cursed under his breath. "...Oh, god. Kill me now."

    As the thundering grew closer, he still didn't budge, though he eventually pressed a hand to his ear to temper the screaming being launched in his direction. Of course, he was recognized quickly by the mob and had to endure their excitable braying.

    "Uncle!"

    "Nanu!"

    "Gramps!"

    They didn't aim to crush him, but by the very nature of their clustering, the rushing crowd of shrieking, popping, bashing children, with pokemon spilling from under their feet and fluttering above their heads, almost entirely absorbed him as they flowed toward the dining hall entrance. Jolted and momentarily off his feet, he struggled, knocked a few heads with his elbows, and staggered back onto the ground before being pinned back against the wall. Before he could even get a word out beyond additional cussing, the swarm managed to press open the door and stream inside, to the startled cries of the men and women currently finishing dinner.

    Nanu, discombobulated, surprised himself by feeling a bit shaken up―he had been caught in mobs before, and there was no feeling quite as powerless as being surrounded by twenty to thirty reckless bodies, pressing and grabbing and clobbering and tackling, all threatening to send you to the ground, at which point being trampled to death was not an impossibility. For a brief few seconds, the breath got knocked out of him, and he had to come to terms with the miserable reality that he was not as young and fit as he used to be.

    However, just as quickly, the bulk of the group had disappeared into the dining hall, leaving only a few grunts outside to pester him. Two girls, seeing his unsteadiness, flanked him and actually took hold of his arms.

    A boy he recognized as Nene gestured his arms wildly and spoke cheerfully. "Dang, Mr. Nanu, you got messed up, huh?"

    Nanu tried to brush it off and coughed wheezily. He swallowed his humiliation enough to croak, "My cigarette."

    "What's that?"

    Nanu started searching the ground. "Where's my cigarette?"

    "Yo, it's dead. Forget it."

    He sighed. "...Great."

    The girl at his left arm pulled and squealed. "Uncle! You glad to see us? You miss us!?"

    "Ow―no." Nanu pulled his arm free of her--or at least tried. "What in blazes are you doing here? Decided you'd rather rob rich folk?"

    "We ain't here to rob nobody, yo!" Nene puffed self-righteously. "We here to party!"

    While Nene talked, Nanu glanced past him and through the glass-paneled walls. He could see at least one grunt yanking a purse out of a woman's arms. At the table next to them, a plump Raticate leaped up onto the tabletop to stuff leftovers into its cheeks. "Well, you idiots picked the wrong venue. Cops jump real quick for rich folk."

    "Who cares! Like we're afraid o' cops."

    Nanu turned his head to look down the deck. "...Hmm. Maybe not. But you might want to watch out for that guy."

    The grunts followed his eyes and saw what he saw: Guzma making a run for them.

    Without another word, they scrambled and split up, yelping with excitement, dodging into the shadows further down and ducking inside the dining hall. The warning gave them just barely enough time to disappear before Guzma, puffing and red-faced, slowed to a stop where Nanu stood.

    The groom-to-be panted, glared, and dramatically flung himself in Nanu's direction. "You!"

    Nanu arched an eyebrow and pointed to himself. "...Me?"

    "You brought Plumeria!"

    "...Yeah? I don't know where she is."

    Suddenly, Guzma towered over him in an ineffectual attempt at intimidation. "Did you know she was gonna do this?"

    "Do what?" The sound of distant smashed plates reminded him. "Oh, that. Yeah, in retrospect, that makes sense, don't it…"

    Guzma steamed wordlessly, and Nanu appeased him with hands raised in mock-surrender.

    "Woah, hey. Before you throw grandpa under the bus―no, I didn't know anything about this." Nanu paused to think a moment. "...Technically."

    Guzma groaned, stared at the chaos gripping the well-lit dining hall, and pressed his hands to his forehead. "I'm going to kill her."

    "Kid…"

    "I'm actually going to kill her."

    "...As a former police officer, I have to advise against that."

    Guzma sucked in some air, as if preparing a ranting screed, then seemingly gave up on it, releasing it in a dry, tired sigh. He pushed his hands into his pockets, and Nanu looked up at him in the sharp contrast of light and dark, seeing a deep, crippling exhaustion that shouldn't be in any face of his age. Nanu could understand Plumeria's indignation, and maybe even sympathize with her desire to stir up trouble, but after seeing that, he thought sourly, way to kick the kid while he's down.

    "Look… Kid…"

    Guzma shifted his feet. He watched the grunts through the glass, and the more he saw, the more agitated he became. Some grunts even spotted him in the nighttime lighting and gestured at him, further incensing him.

    "There's no point in fighting it," Nanu droned, waving lazily side-to-side with his hand. "Just relax, go upstairs, get a drink, watch some TV; the whole thing'll be over before―"

    Guzma snorted and stormed over to the door into the dining hall, pulled it open, and entered.

    "―A-and I'm just talking to myself, aren't I." Nanu dug another cigarette out of his front pocket. "...Well, I tried."

    While he leaned back against the railing to recover his senses, bracing against the cooling air of the deepening night, he filtered out the noise the best he could. For a moment, he even enjoyed himself―breathing fresh air, hearing the black waves slap against the ship.

    Of course, it didn't last long. The wedding guests decided they didn't want to cower and take any more abuse, so in different directions, they began to file their way out of the dining hall, either by stairs, back entrances, or even cutting through the kitchen. Several couples raced to the door where Nanu lounged, and as they spoke in high-pitched, offended voices, they brushed off food, groped where items had been snatched from them, and lamented the paint that ruined their fine clothes.

    One young woman who looked particularly terrified saw Nanu and wept at him. "What are you doing, standing there?! You're an officer of the law! Do something!"

    "I'm retired, lady," he retorted, teetering and slurring. He breathed in his fresh cigarette. "I'm also drunk―but mostly retired."

    -

    Lillie and Gladion were as surprised as anyone by the sudden appearance of Team Skull in the middle of dinner. But while the other guests cried out in sheer terror at the sight of this army of juvenile delinquents, the two stayed seated, choosing to express their shock by watching the spectacle in amazement.

    Lillie murmured a rather understated, "Oh, dear."

    For whatever reason, the grunts focused their romping on the round tables of the center floor, and momentarily neglected the table where Gladion and Lillie sat at the very front. One grunt carried in a boombox, which flipped on to blast muffled music; another several ran around the rotunda, shaking and aiming spray-can paint at guests, using their clothes as canvas; at least one table was kicked clear to make space for a grunt attempting to break-dance. The rest were satisfied to demolish whatever they came across without prejudice, to make as much noise as they could.

    Their pokemon enjoyed the pillaging as much as they did. Golbats and Crobats circled the air, while Rattatas and Raticates scooted beneath tables and skirts to scoop up morsels of food or glistening, unguarded items. Some wedding guests brought out their own partners to try and beat back the mob, but none of the grunts had interest in challenging them to a battle, so this strategy accomplished little, aside from driving them to other tables. Docteur Morel of the directors looked especially peeved, allowing her Pyroar to blast spurts of fire at any child who dared hassle her.

    A large, plump Gengar finally waddled unattended to Lillie and Gladion's table. Rather than attack, it stood across from them and pawed the surface of the table, chittering and reaching for Lillie's untouched plate of food.

    "Oh…? Sure, you can have it. I wasn't eating it, anyway."

    She pushed the plate across, and the Gengar blinked at her gratefully before it shoved the meal--plate and all--into its wide, cheshire mouth. The ensuing chewing noise was horrible, but Lillie actually managed to laugh.

    "Yo! Gengar!"

    Chops, bandana down around his neck, jumped down from a table toward the other end of the hall and rushed over. The pokemon was evidently his; he rubbed its head and pushed it aside to see them. His face brightened when he recognized them. Chops, of the older boys in Team Skull, had warmed up to Gladion the most in those months, though Gladion suspected ulterior motives―Chops' attention only seemed to spike when Lillie was nearby.

    "Aw, hey, Li'l G! Whassgood?" Chops leaned his elbow atop the Gengar's head. "Didn't know you'd be here!"

    Gladion tried not to look absolutely aghast; he trailed his eyes across the room, as plates were smashed, guests harassed, food dismantled, and pokemon let loose over tabletops. The noise in the room was so incredible that he had to holler his response. "Likewise."

    Chops stared at Lillie until she awkwardly greeted, "Um… Hello…"

    Chops wagged his head, looking over her and clucking, "Mmm, yeah, hey, babygirl, what's the word?!"

    Not appreciating Chops' tone or eye-scrolling, Gladion stepped between them and glared daggers at the boy.

    "Tch, c'mon, G! She said 'hi' to me first! What am I gonna do, huh? I ain't tryin' to be rude!" Chops shook his head vigorously. "How you here so fast, anyway? Big Sis sneak you in early?"

    Plumeria? Gladion seethed quietly; of course she would pull something like this. "No sneaking was necessary. We were invited."

    "Invited?"

    "Due to our family connection."

    Chops glanced at the two of them. "Family-who?"

    Gladion put his hands on his hips, marveling at his ignorance. "Have you really not pieced it together? The president's our mother."

    Chops' eyes widened. "Wait, what? Yo, hold up, so that means―" Looking eminently concerned, Chops leaned in close to say into his ear, "Big G's gettin' it on with your mom?" He didn't wait for Gladion to respond, which was a mercy, because Gladion had nothing kind to say to that. Chops crowed aloud, looking offended on his behalf, "That's screwed up! You're gonna fight him, right?! That's why you're here?"

    Gritting his teeth, Gladion prepared to say something nasty…

    But Guzma entered, throwing the whole room into a tizzy. The young man didn't take much time assessing the situation, but sulkily passed the grunts who hopped up on chairs and hollered after him, and reached instead the table of directors. He spoke with Morel, apparently convincing her to withdraw her Pyroar and attend the rest of the guests out. He then turned for the front, spotted Gladion and Lillie, and shook his head at them. He approached and pointed for the door, where the guests had started to rush out. "Y'all should go with 'em," he said.

    "We'll be all right," Lillie answered.

    Guzma gaped at her, puzzled by her refusal, but didn't look to have the will to fight it.

    "What are you going to do?"

    He shrugged. He didn't look very sure of himself. "Gotta try something."

    Inspiring last words, Gladion thought.

    (cont. in next post)
     
  2. dietofwurms

    dietofwurms i see stars

    (cont. from previous post)

    -

    Guzma worried that the grunts would take the guests' escape as a clue to flee as well, perhaps even chase the people around the boat in an endless cycle of harassment, but Team Skull had decided the dining hall served well as a gathering place. It had seating, surfaces to decorate, food, drink, and a nice view. So the gang collected among the tables, some seated, some standing, some still wandering about. They laughed and prattled freely, with the occasional foreign object flying through the air, not always aimed at someone in particular.

    At the center of the front table, Guzma stood. He negotiated his pose, weighing between adult authoritarianism and youthful detachment, and ultimately decided to stand mostly straight, but leaning back a little, resting lightly against the edge of the table while he looked out over the group. The room was filled with the incongruous images of chandeliers with sneakers, fine linens with stained bandanas, and sparkling crystal glasses with dyed hair. Team Skull looked laughably out of place, and they seemed to know it, too, which drove their desire to smash their surroundings, forcing it to fit in their aesthetic. They did not move with unity, but broke off into factions of diverse activity and attitudes, boys and girls, couples and trios and packs. Guzma didn't remember them acting so disjointed before. Sure, they were never synchronized or anything, but they used to react to signals, or share some semblance of a goal.

    He crossed his arms and waited. As he remembered it, that was all that was needed to gradually work them into attention: a good stare.

    But they continued to chatter and move randomly.

    Guzma made his first verbal order. "Hey, listen up!"

    Still, no change in their demeanor.

    He put his hands in his pants pockets, scoffing. "Y'all―I got somethin' to say!"

    An impatient, snotty voice retorted from somewhere in the crowd, "Then say it!"

    A wave of laughter rolled over them.

    "You stupid? You ain't listening! How'm I supposed to―"

    His voice was drowned out again. Some unhappy grumbling started up in the front row, and only some of their eyes had wandered in his direction at all.

    Guzma lit up in a snit, lifting himself from against the table, and this time, really shouting. "Hey! I said shut up!"

    For a brief second, silence swept the room as the grunts gawked at him and each other―and then immediately, the quiet crumbled into unruly, uproarious laughter. Kids fell out of chairs. Hit each other. Screeched, hooted, brayed, crumpled napkins and balls and chucked them up toward him until they collected at his feet. In the midst of the shrieks and giggles, he could hear some of them echoing his plea in effeminate, squeaky voices of mockery: ooh, I said shut up! I said shut up!

    Guzma felt anger and humiliation inflame his face and punch into his gut; this group used to be his, used to cower and scurry at his every demand, but now, as he looked out at the sea of faces, he realized he had no power over them. Of those he knew, they eyed him like a friend forgotten, a sellout; of the others, he saw new recruits who had never met him before, and thus saw him as another, nameless adult trying to wrangle them into control.

    He made several more attempts at speaking over them, including threats and admonishments, to no avail.

    "Mr. Guzma."

    Guzma turned to find Gladion beside him, addressing him quietly.

    "...I don't think this is working."

    "Yeah?!" Guzma lashed out at him. "Geez, how'd you figure that out?"

    The younger boy grimaced but continued, "By now, the crew will have already contacted law enforcement. The ship isn't far from the islands, so the police will be arriving any minute."

    "So, what?!"

    "You should let the police handle this." Gladion sidled in closer, hissing at him impatiently. "You're giving them the reaction they want."

    "Kid!" Guzma fumed, almost ready to pull parental authority on him. "Go siddown and shut it!"

    As they squabbled, they unintentionally found a solution to the team's lack of attention; all the grunts had quieted to try and listen in on their argument. The two were so caught up in their disagreement, that they didn't realize this until a voice broke out of the largely-silent crowd: Ayyyye, it cried, Don't let him diss you like that, Li'l G!

    Kick his butt , Li'l G!

    Guzma briefly puzzled over who "Li'l G" was―and Gladion scowled, turning away. The grunts groaned in disappointment. In all likelihood, Guzma could have taken advantage of the grunts' momentary focus, if he had immediately addressed them. But the fact was, Guzma hesitated long enough to yield the floor to the next loud and forceful personality in the room.

    -

    Bully hopped up onto a table in one smooth leap, landing on the toes of his white sneakers. He straightened himself first, standing tall above all their heads to call attention to himself.

    Bully―snake-faced, crude, and boundary-pushing as ever―had grown only more brash and confident with Guzma's departure from the gang. As Bully posed and entertained the giggling mass of teenagers, Guzma noticed that the kid sported nasty bruises and scrapes on his forearms, left proudly on display. And while the marks on Bully face from Guzma's last beating had long since disappeared, by the mugging Bully gave him, the attack had not been forgotten.

    "Hey, ya disrespectful brats!" Bully hollered, stomping the table until the standing glasses rattled and fell to the floor. Despite his scolding words, his mouth spread into a horrible grin. "Dont'cha know who's talkin'?"

    Naturally, the grunts gravitated toward the table, aflutter with anticipation. Bully only seemed to revel in the attention, and so he wildly kicked the remaining glasses from the tabletop and jeered.

    "That there's Big, Bad Boss Guzma!"

    Guzma could tell when he was being mocked; he rankled and took several steps closer to the group, until he stood but a few yards away.

    "Or he used to be. I know y'all can't tell," Bully continued, "seein' as he's a suit now, but that guy used to be somebody."

    Guzma noticed that the chain dangling from Bully's neck gleamed silver. He used it to retaliate. "Yeah? And who are you? Still not Boss, huh?"

    The only bit of goodwill evaporated from Bully's face. He growled. "That don't matter!" To save face, the boy bragged, "Plumeria might be Boss, and pretty-boy there―" (He pointed with free hostility at Gladion, who had since seated himself back beside his sister). "--Might be her top guard dog, but e'erybody around here knows who wears the pants in Team Skull!" To demonstrate this principle, Bully proceeded to make a lewd gesture at his crotch, and the surrounding grunts cackled at his crassness.

    ...Guzma found himself thinking, was that the entirety of Bully's schtick? He remembered finding it hilarious, but now it came across as desperate and lazy. He swallowed his increasing irritation and decided to use their back-and-forth as an opening. "Look… I dunno why you came, but you can't be here," he told them. "All of you have to leave."

    "Huh?" Bully scratched the inside of his ear. "Why?"

    "Because you weren't invited."

    "Yo! I can't believe what I'm hearing!" Bully crossed his arms and sneered, blasting his voice out to address the other grunts. "Big G tellin' us we ain't invited! That's messed up! You the one who told us what it meant to be a member of Team Skull! We don't need permission, and we don't need invitation! We go where we want! Do what we want! Take what we want!"

    Guzma scanned their faces. He saw belief―true, innocent faith in every stupid phrase or motto he ever uttered. For all their show of not caring about him, his destructive philosophy lived on in them, unquestioned. How could they be that dense? As to not see that everything he told them was self-serving drivel, meant to justify his own violent impulses? And, at worst, a means to keep them dependent on him, to make them less viable for society and thus more slavishly devoted to this cobbled-together clan? Guzma wanted to explain all of this; he wanted to scream it out. But he didn't know how.

    Bully read his astonishment and guilt and mistook its source. He squatted on the table, wrists resting on his knees in a callous pose. He set his eyes on him fearlessly. "I was willing to let it go, ya know? So you ditched―for cash and a chick willing to ride you. Like, whatever. But you had to be a punk about it. Act like you're better than us."

    Guzma had an answer to that: I am better than you. But before he could dishonor himself by actually saying it, Lillie bolted to her feet, causing the chair beneath her to squeal. Guzma jumped, turned, and was ready to snap at her, thinking she meant to interrupt, but she wasn't looking in his direction at all.

    He saw her surprise and a glimpse of fear. Much of the noise from the grunts petered away; Gladion looked, too, though not with the same dramatics as his sister.

    Before Guzma could turn his head, Lillie said the telling thing in a shaken voice.

    "Mother."

    -

    For a woman who had been bed-ridden all that afternoon, Lusamine appeared remarkably put-together. In the short time since he left her to her own devices, she had dressed herself in her favorite white-and-gold dress and heels, smoothed and combed out her hair until it flowed shapeless down her back, and applied some subtle, final touches to her make-up. All this was meant to communicate to her guests that everything was fine, a message that, she soon discovered, had come too late.

    So for the time being, she entered the dining hall and stood there, taking in the details of what had smashed her event to pieces. She gazed first at the grunts, who, for their part, saw her but didn't know what to make of her. Their opinions of her had always been divided, and since her claiming of Guzma as her own, this division only grew; no one, though, seemed particularly eager to confront or challenge her, and the grunts went quiet and attentive in her presence. They looked to each other. Snickering and murmuring became the primary noises in the room.

    She then cast her eyes in another direction, and identified her two children. Her face twitched. Her eyes went cold. Trembling started in her arms. She looked away.

    "Miss L," Guzma cried, fumbling for her. When he reached her, he instinctively latched onto her arm to press her toward the door. "What are you doing? You shouldn't be here―"

    Her veneer of strength faltered for a split second; she flinched at his touch and maneuvered herself away, as if frightened. Quickly, though, she recovered and put on a false face of calm. She gently pushed his hand aside. "You didn't… Come back… I wanted to see… All this fuss…"

    "You gotta go back to your room."

    Lusamine invoked her old temperament―that of the unflappable, charming lady with dewy eyes and flush lips. She smiled, drooped her eyelashes to add mystery, and floated a few steps past him. "My," she said, drawing a finger to her mouth. Her voice, though emulating her usual soothing tone, had a weak bent that made her seem all the more vulnerable. She surveyed the grumbling teenagers. "You always did… Have a penchant for drawing unconventional guests…" Her voice darkened. "Traitors… and miscreants… All together."

    "Miss," he said, breathless with anxiety, "they're leaving soon, all right? But you gotta―"

    Watching this interaction between the couple caused Bully to erupt with boredom, jealousy, and wrath; boredom because no one was throwing fists, jealousy because all attention had drifted to them, and wrath because he identified Lusamine as a source of trouble. So Bully stomped on the table again, drawing all eyes on him. "Yo, lady! You should listen to your boy! We're dangerous! So scram!"

    For different reasons, Guzma and Lusamine both gave him a nasty glare. But while Guzma tried to use the interruption as momentum, reaching out for her arm to again to lead her out of the hall, Lusamine side-stepped him. Against her better judgment, she spoke. "...'Dangerous'? I highly doubt it."

    Guzma's sense of dread only grew. He did not need these two going after each other. But Lusamine handily evaded his intervention, and as much as he wanted to, he didn't have grounds to drag her off physically.

    Bully, not helping matters, swung his arms around and howled, "Yeah right! We could wipe the floor with you any day of the week!"

    "Man, shut up," Guzma finally vented.

    "Yo, we're just spittin'! It ain't even that serious." Bully, pink-eared and huffing, flopped down and rested his legs over the edge of the table, thumping his heel occasionally against the wood by kicking backward. The grunts and their pokemon had gone virtually silent with bated-breath, waiting to see how this would resolve. But after a moment, Bully's poorly-hidden hostility gave way to mischief; he saw Guzma trying to speak to her, maybe even persuade her to ignore him, and decided to interrupt. "Hey, Miss, I gotta question for you."

    ...It was too late. There was no way Guzma would be able to stop him now, or extract her, and Guzma knew from experience that the question was going to be something stupid and terrible―but of course she didn't know, so she blithely walked into it. "Yes?"

    "Big G give you the D yet or what?"

    The tension in the room collapsed as the grunts broke out into elated screaming, though if one looked carefully, one could tell the very young ones laughed along with puzzled expressions. A small group of older boys, sitting close to Bully and obviously his friends, laughed more severely than any others, obnoxiously throwing themselves over each other, kicking over chairs, and giving the joke far more credit than it deserved.

    Those not on Team Skull stayed respectfully silent, showing a mixture of disbelief, disgust, discomfort, and―primarily from Guzma―barely-contained rage.

    Yet, as time passed and the commotion died down, attention began to linger again on Lusamine.

    She stood absolutely still. Serene. Untouched. In fact, no one could say for sure if she had blinked.

    She even smiled, pixie-like and entirely composed.

    This fact, above anything else, unnerved Bully. Once he finished his round of self-congratulation, he stiffened and curled his lip at her, considering whether she was crazy or worse.

    Lusamine proceeded to take a few steps forward and purr, "How old are you?"

    Bully started to fidget nervously, exuding discomfort. "Whazzat got to do with anything?"

    "...If your parents were to hear that sort of talk coming from your mouth… I would think they'd be very ashamed."

    In their short minute of conversation, Lusamine had already reached a sensitive spot. Bully was so moved, that he hopped down from the table, shuffled toward her, and sputtered furiously. "What!? Are you on drugs or something? You stupid? You don't know nothin'!"

    "I think… You are a very rude young man," she said, voice still eerily even.

    "Whatever, trick!"

    Bully started to froth and spit; the grunts wanted to express their shock, and some gasped and oohed, but the atmosphere had changed―the joy to the spectacle had been wrung out, leaving an awkward, uncomfortable weight to the air.

    Lusamine dimly looked around herself. "By your friends' reactions… I suppose that must be some sort of derogatory term… But, dear… It's simply more effective to use words I can understand…"

    "That ain't my problem!" The angrier he became, the higher his voice became, until it nearly squeaked with contention. "Read a dictionary, ho!"

    (The same cluster of boys sputtered and collapsed into each other, barely breathing for snickering; the rest were dead silent).

    Her eyes and tone turned ice-cold. "A little boy like yourself... should watch what he says..."

    "I ain't afraid of you!" Bully cocked his head and gave her a sneering glance-over. "What are you gonna do? Huh? Janky, old, drag-queen-lookin'―"

    Bully, it could be said, was the sort who never learned his lesson. The grunts didn't have time to warn him―not that they would have, because they were raring for a fight, and really, to talk trash to someone's girl like that, he got what was coming to him. So Guzma plowed into him, toppled him into a table, snagged him by the shirt, and slammed him to the floor, raising a fist to bring down―and the crowd of grunts closed in around them, filling the dining hall with peals of thrilled noise.

    Perhaps Lusamine might have felt some validation or pride at receiving such a raucous defense, but the outburst of violence served mostly to startle her; she stumbled backwards to avoid being swept up by the crowd of onlookers.

    Gladion announced matter-of-factly to his sister, "We'd better go."

    On their way out, Lillie saw that their mother hadn't moved, seemingly frozen in place just feet from the chaos. Lillie tried to do the noble thing. She didn't tell Gladion her intentions―she doubted he would have approved, anyway―and rushed over to Lusamine's side. In the frenzy of the moment, she did not even hesitate when she reached out to take her mother by the wrist, in an effort to pull her away.

    Before Lusamine saw who it was, she actually yielded a little, stepping backward and allowing herself to be drawn toward escape. But she turned her head, her face pale from alarm and the sudden resurgence of exhaustion, her eyes gone dim… And upon seeing Lillie, the reaction came immediately. She snapped her arm away, hissing, like the touch seared her. All the indifference and fear broke, and hatred, unadulterated, poured out in the form of a snarl.

    "Don't you dare touch me!"

    Lillie, swallowing her hurt, didn't retreat, but tried to think of something to say. She tried to reach out again.

    "Lillie," Gladion called out. "Let's go."

    Lillie frowned and thought of what to say. She put her hand down and looked to her mother. "I-I'm just…" Lillie spoke, but her voice could just barely rise above the din. "I'm just trying to help."

    The children still roared. Guzma and Bully still crashed through the dining hall. Lusamine still glared, like Lillie was some putrid thing she had stepped in.

    Finally, Lillie left and couldn't bear to look back.

    -

    Outside, Nanu was finishing his cigarette and standing with false diligence. His nearly monochrome palette almost caused them to miss him entirely, as the shadows and darkness covered his ashen complexion, graying hair, and black police uniform. However, his keen, cat-like red eyes cut through the night, and he narrowed his gaze at the two of them once they brought themselves out onto the deck.

    "Cops are here," Nanu helpfully announced. He lifted his head to watch the confusion of upturned tables and jumping children. "What happened in there?"

    Lillie was ready to tell the whole story, so Gladion abbreviated: "Bully is obnoxious, and Mr. Guzma is a hot-head."

    "Oh." Nanu dropped the stub of his cigarette overboard, letting the wind take it. "So… a 'water's wet' kinda situation."

    Simultaneously, they turned their heads at hearing a Golisopod roar.

    Gladion sighed and put a hand to his forehead. "At least now it's a pokemon battle. You said the police have arrived?"

    "I just seen 'em roll up that a-way," Nanu said, pointing a thumb toward the docking ramp. If they angled their heads, they could see a crowd of upset guests gathering there. "I think it's Mele'mele's crew. Haven't actually said hi yet."

    Gladion took that as a reason to move; the police would be confronting Team Skull eventually, and they wouldn't want to be caught in the middle. He started down the hall, thinking they'd join the rest of the guests and crew, but found himself walking alone for several steps.

    When he turned around, he saw Lillie still enraptured by the images beyond the glass. He almost snapped at her, but she was too wilted and pathetic to deserve his impatience.

    She noticed him waiting and apologized by stammering, "It's… just terrible, isn't it?"

    "Terrible?" It wasn't exactly the word he'd use. Exasperating, maybe.

    "To see her… Like that…" Lillie's eyes trailed back to the dining hall.

    Because he couldn't help himself, he followed her eyes for a moment, too, and saw Lusamine standing petrified by pride.

    Gladion never could wrap his head around why Mother chose Team Skull. Guzma, he could fathom… Because as a leader, he represented the only part of the operation that had any desire for law and order. Lusamine could work with order, and mold the presuppositions that come with a mind craving instruction and validation. But Team Skull, as an organism, lacked cohesion. In most ways, it was her nightmare scenario: no respect for elders, no sense of discipline, no duty, no rules, no strict hierarchy. Indeed, Gladion had gone to them precisely because he thought that would be the one group she'd avoid at all costs. She should have loathed them and plucked Guzma out of the gang as soon as she set her eyes on him; instead, she fed the group under the table for months as a sponsor.

    It was delusion, he decided. The same delusion that convinced her she could drive the beasts out into the world and thereby accomplish a beautiful vision. When she set her eyes on a writhing hydra, its throats curling into itself, flouting its lawlessness, its power, its disorder… She could not help but arrogantly assume the place of its tamer.

    It seemed fitting―perhaps even poetic―that one serpent-head would finally wrap around to bite her.

    Lillie felt sorry for her. He could understand that. He knew the extenuating circumstances driving his mother's behavior. But as for himself… Gladion reserved his pity.

    "She can take care of herself," he reassured her, though to be honest, he wasn't as certain as all that.

    -

    Officer Hitchens arrived with his fleet of policeman and a highly-irritable temper. By his mussed hair and uniform, the guests could tell the call came at an inconvenient time for him; among his remarks, he said he was "just about to sit down with a beer." But after climbing aboard the ship, he assessed the situation the best he could, visibly cringing as more factors added up: the President of Aether, whom the police knew to be high maintenance; Guzma, whom Hitchens knew too well; and Team Skull, a group never easily cornered and extracted. And not only that, but Hitchens had the unpleasant duty of trying to calm a huge throng of hysterical upper-class men and women, who bayed about every scratch and indignity they endured.

    When Gladion, Lillie, and Nanu arrived, Hitchens expressed mixed feelings at spotting the kahuna. He approached and folded his arms. "Nanu. Figures I'd find your wrinkly rear where the trouble is."

    Nanu smirked. "No need to flirt, Hitch; I know you're happy to see me."

    "Drunk, too," Hitchens observed wryly. "Good to see a kahuna taking his duties so seriously. Is that why I had to bust over here so quick?"

    "Pfft. Don't complain. Sooner be here than in bed with the wifey, huh?" Nanu slumped with a guffaw, then realized the children still stood by him. He motioned sloppily with his hands. "Sss-orry kids, adult humor…"

    The old friends bantered only a little more before the guests got impatient again. Hitchens eventually broke away to stand before the crowd and explain the situation. The ship would be turned around and docked at Hau'oli, he said. Everyone would need to deboard to clear the ship and head to the station to make statements, in particular anyone who was a victim of a crime.

    One guest sobbed melodramatically, "We're all victims here!"

    Hitchens grimaced fiercely and squinted through a pair of reading glasses. He was fumbling in the dark over an initial report that he meant to fill out. "Yeah… I don't have paperwork for 'hurt feelings,' so… Let's keep it to the good stuff. Robbery, arson, assault…"

    (No one had ever accused Hitchens of having a good bedside manner).

    As for Team Skull, a group of policemen did quickly make an attempt at encircling the dining hall, but the number of exits and connecting stairways, combined with the small available number of officers, meant the exercise turned out futile. From the standpoint of the gathered guests, they heard only additional crashing and yelling, and saw skull grunts scamper unheeded upstairs or back to the other end of the ship. A few cops brought back Lusamine, who walked without any assistance and was greeted by a clutch of alarmed friends.

    She didn't talk much. In fact, the only words out of her proved to be so cutting and cruel that, slowly, gradually, each person who came to console her crept away. Within minutes, Lusamine sat herself entirely alone on the front suite steps, darkly crawling her eyes over the guests, as if she thought the fault was in part theirs. She did not deign to look in her children's direction, of course, and she similarly seemed to have no interest in talking to the police.

    The fight in the dining hall had been effectively broken up, in any case, so while the police were unsuccessful in snatching any criminals, they did return with Guzma. In handcuffs.

    All of Lusamine's collected attitude shattered; she rose up and screamed like she was being actively tortured. Whether it was genuine indignation at an unfair detainment, or the pure shame of her fiance being restrained in public, no one knew―but the rage was obviously real.

    "What on earth you doing?" She flew at the pair of police. "Get him out of those now! I'll sue―! I'll see to it that you mop floors for the rest of your life―!"

    While she caterwauled, Guzma had to take on the unnatural role of diplomat; her tantrum embarrassed him more than the cuffs, and with the fight over, his energy had simmered low, giving him the cool head needed to talk her down. "I ain't arrested―just relax."

    Momentarily, she stopped screeching long enough to see his bruised jaw. She swirled her hands through his hair and about his face, and practically wept, "Oh, oh, darling what did they do to you?"

    "...It's fine," he said, lamely adding, "you should see the other guy."

    So in front of a good collection of guests and police, she fawned, cooed, and whimpered, standing on her toes to pepper his mouth with kisses. Guzma mumbled, as if unhappy about it, but tellingly, he neither moved nor told her to stop.

    The gushing was eventually interrupted by a grumpy sigh from the head Mele'mele officer. "...Ugh, god." Hitchens stiffly approached, cleared his throat at them, and rolled his eyes when this nonverbal cue didn't work. "Okay, you two. Break it up." As they unwound, the officer gave Guzma a snide look. "Long time, no see," he said.

    Guzma wisely didn't reply, but his face hardened.

    "Still remember booking you as a little guy. Snatching tourists' purses and other nonsense. Good old days, huh?" Hitchens waved a signal at the attending officers, who promptly unfastened the cuffs. "Speaking of: don't suppose you have any advice for getting your old buddies out of here?"

    As Guzma rubbed his freed wrists, he chose to grunt rather than reply.

    "Officer…?" Lusamine folded her hands and stepped closer, trying not to show her irritation at being overlooked. "I'm sorry, I didn't catch your name."

    "Huh?" Hitchens, from his height, had to look down to meet her eyes. "Oh. It's Hitchens." He blinked slothfully at her, then looked back at Guzma. "We'll be at Hau'oli in fifteen."

    The first slight Hitchens made was not addressing her right away, ignoring her and not introducing himself properly. For that, she could forgive him, perhaps even attribute it to a lack of attention. But by the second slight―the pulling away from her to talk to Guzma, as if she wasn't there―she was irked, and started to read into his behavior pattern uncharitably. It was the way he looked at her. Talked at her. Talked over her. It set her hair on end.

    Thankfully, she called up her training. She squeezed her wrist, swallowed, and forced a warm smile. "Officer Hitchens. Thank you for responding to this unfortunate incident. I know it must be an inconvenience…"

    The buttering up wasn't particularly working. He squinted and seemed distracted.

    "But I hope you can understand… I'd like this resolved as quickly as possible."

    "Oh," Hitchens said, sounding unimpressed and a bit amused, "would you, now?"

    "Yes, of course." Lusamine eyed him. "How long do you suppose it will take for us to be back on schedule? Two, three hours?"

    "Hmm… Well, that's… Huh. Three hours…?" Hitchens' mouth creased into a small, restrained smirk. He rubbed his ear in thought. "That's a bit… Optimistic, don't ya think?"

    "Optimistic? I'm afraid I don't understand."

    "Well, little lady," he began, slipping his palm up against his cap and sliding his voice into a lilting, condescending tone, "first we have to clear the area, get everyone off the ship―apprehend the kids, which could take a while―they're all over the place, and there's only so many of us―then we have to assess the damage, conduct an investigation, take statements―it's a bit technical, ma'am, I hope you understand."

    Strike three. Lusamine sucked in a sharp breath, then said, "Let's step inside and talk in private. There's a lounge behind us." She didn't wait for Hitchens to agree with her terms, but turned heel past the stairs. As she passed her fiance, she snipped at him. "Guzma."

    "Huh?"

    She saw his blank, dumb look and answered by abruptly snagging his arm and pulling him along.

    -

    "This is all entirely unacceptable."

    Guzma flopped into one of the sofa chairs, exhausted and expecting a long, drawn out screed. It took Lusamine mere seconds after they entered the lounge to turn on the officer in full, froth-mouthed fashion.

    "Not only are you incapable of doing your job in a timely manner, but now you're vacating the area?"

    Hitchens' eyes very briefly trailed to Guzma, thinking that he might want to add something, but naturally, he didn't. The cop shrugged. "Look. This isn't a suggestion. It's just how it's gotta be―"

    "I don't know if you realize this," she snarled sharply, "but this is a wedding. We are supposed to have our wedding ceremony tomorrow morning, in approximately twelve hours. Can you at least assure us that you won't allow this to disrupt that?"

    "Ma'am, does it look like there's gonna be a wedding in twelve hours?"

    Lusamine went frighteningly quiet.

    "We'll just―" Guzma, exasperated, spoke up to play diplomat again. "Move the time, it's fine."

    "Fine?!" Lusamine exploded―her spoken volume and speed accelerating exponentially. "You think it's 'fine'? It is absolutely not fine, and I would appreciate not having to listen your asinine analysis of the situation, thank you!"

    The conversation screeched to a halt. Guzma, not as much hurt as he was despondent, sat back and looked to the ceiling; Lusamine folded her arms tightly and stewed silently. At this point, Hitchens realized why she wanted to talk in private. He clicked his tongue in thought. "Well then. I guess..."

    But before he could even formulate a thought, Lusamine aimed at him. "Don't. You. Start. I don't need to be patronized by some small-town, backwater, uneducated yokel in a uniform! And if you think I'm going to step aside while you and your collection of mouth-breathers fumble uselessly around―!"

    Hitchens let her ramble freely as long as he could, but finally lost his patience. He stepped up, red-faced. "Listen, you crazy broad! I don't have to take this kinda lip from you!"

    Lusamine's face drained of color; Guzma, like an animal excited by an unheard pitch, scrambled to his feet and rushed toward both of them.

    "I get it―your wedding plans are a bust―I see you put a lotta effort into it, real shame, but lady―"

    "You…" As Lusamine interrupted, her voice and breathing deepened and crackled with hatred. "You…! Had better…! Watch your tone with me, or I'll…! I'll be speaking to your superiors about this, I promise you!"

    "Yeah, okay, sweetheart. You do that. Now―"

    The white in her face turned to purple, and a murderous impulse shot through her body. Fortunately, in the split second before she raised her arm to commit a felony, Guzma had reached them and, knowing her intentions, clamped down on her upper arms, pinning them to her sides. As he started to extract her by pulling her backwards, she shrieked and struggled. "Get your hands off of me!"

    She managed to twist herself about and start shoving against his chest. Guzma mostly ignored it and growled at her, still tugging her as far from the officer as possible. "Miss L, stop."

    "Let go of me this instant!" Her hands flew around, in a flurry of claws and teeth. She yowled like a cat caught by the tail.

    Guzma howled, "I'm tryin' to keep you from bein' arrested!"

    "Let him arrest me!" Lusamine wriggled free and tried to make another lunge, but Guzma maneuvered his body between them and took hold of her shoulders again. The officer did not show any sign of feeling threatened―in fact, a small smirk had developed at the corner of his mouth, throwing her into another convulsion of rage. She barked nastily at him, pushing around Guzma's frame, "Pig! I'll have your badge!"

    The cop snorted an unoffended laugh. "Uh-huh. Whatever you say, doll." He waved at Guzma, blithely turning for the exit. "I'll be outside."

    Lusamine continued to throw insults at him, to no effect, and once he disappeared, she turned her wrath on Guzma, upbraiding him while thrashing her arms about against his restraining grip. "Are you going to let him get away with talking to me like that?"

    "I'm not fighting a cop for you! Okay! Anyway, he's right―you're being crazy!"

    Impressively, she didn't let up struggling, so he dealt with it the only way he knew: he shoved her down onto a nearby lounge sofa, forcing her to sit. She landed awkwardly and off-balance, but after some huffing and readjusting, she sat up straight and glared at him furiously.

    "Stop picking fights with everybody, okay!" As he scolded her, he found he had to catch his breath; he was just about physically spent. He plopped himself down, seating himself next to her and slumping forward. "We can… We can figure this out, but it ain't gonna work, if we don't…" He slipped his hands around his face and scalp, groaning. "I wasn't thinking."

    "Oh? You mean when you threw yourself at that child, like a wild ape?"

    "Hey, you're welcome."

    Lusamine turned away from him, pouting. "I did not ask you to start a brawl, and you're delusional if you think that's what I wanted."

    "Yeah, well, you stayed for like the whole thing. You're crazy." He frowned and rested his chin in his propped hand. "You shoulda left when I told you to."

    "I can't fathom what difference that would have made. You would have found some excuse to become violent, with or without me present."

    Guzma snapped, "I wish I knew how to make you listen to me!"

    Perhaps he didn't mean it, the way it sounded, but Lusamine snarled her fingers into her skirt and suggested nastily, "Have you thought about beating me? I hear it's a favored tactic among brutes like you."

    Like all her calculated statements, this one struck the heart. Guzma stared at her, speechless. It must have been a full minute of this pained silence before he stood up. "I'm…" He rubbed his neck and averted his eyes. "I'm gonna go check on... everybody…"

    Guzma slipped out. With that, Lusamine sat alone in the lounge, admiring its countertops and tables, its smooth white tile floor, its tropical ferns meant to give it life, its relaxed feel. It would have been a good place, she thought, for in-between times, with nothing else going on. Guests could have sat at the full-service bar, or kicked up their feet.

    It glistened and gleamed, all shiny with could-have's.

    -

    Lusamine remained there for nearly an hour, unmoved. Outside, she could hear the steady sounds of people talking, but once the ship docked, these sounds began to gradually creeping away, as more and more of the guests successfully made it off the boat. No one came to address her. The only company she received in that time was that of a pair of grunts, who ran inside from another entrance, saw her, and promptly scurried out in the other direction.

    After a long enough silence, she decided there was simply nothing else to do but get up. Her limbs rebelled, sleepy and stiff, but she wrenched them as she willed, forcing herself back outside. A fog seemed to envelop her head and vision, making shapes hard to make out in the bleak night, but she hobbled to the outside railing of the ship, grasped it, and balanced herself until the blur passed.

    A cop, seeing her, approaching cautiously to tell her, "We were just about to come get you. Your family's waiting for you; we're ready for you to deboard."

    Family…? She wanted to ask the idiot what family he meant, as all her family was in the ground, but the sour words wouldn't even budge from her throat. So she stared at him until he let her be.

    The guests, she could see from the pier lights, stood out on Hau'oli's docks, crowded along the platform, some of them venturing up toward the city. Luggage was being checked out―with only a few hours left of the evening, the guests would need their belongings for an overnight at a hotel.

    Cowards.

    Above everyone, watching from the roof-top floor, hanging like vultures over the railing, were a pack of grunts, this time accompanied by Plumeria. Her Salazzle lurked beside her, snickering and adding to her look of cruel satisfaction.

    Scoundrels.

    And at last, at her level on the deck of the ship, stood the police, Hitchens still gabbing with Nanu, another officer speaking with the ship's captain, and her two children, waiting patiently with Guzma, who apparently didn't know who else to confide in.

    Traitors.

    So, this is her company now. This is who surrounds her at all times. This is all she has.

    All the elements added up in her brain: the police, her fiance, her children, Team Skull, the wedding guests…

    And something snapped.

    "I need you to leave," she said aloud.

    At first, everyone looked around, suspecting she meant them. Honestly, she could have been addressing anyone: her children, the grunts overlooking them, Guzma…

    Lusamine didn't clarify at first, but circled a few times, as if dizzy, until she turned her wrath right back at Officer Hitchens. "You," she growled. "You―all of your men―off this ship at once!"

    Hitchens turned from his lazy chat with Nanu, slowly removed his glasses, and rubbed his eyes, muttering, "Huh, what?"

    But rather than explain herself, she turned to the captain. "Captain, is the crew still on board?"

    The ship captain, hat tucked under his arm, looked at her in amazement. Eventually, he confessed, "Yes, Madame."

    "Then there's no problem. We'll set off straight away."

    The captain glanced about himself, hoping someone would explain what had gotten into her. He had the bravery to ask, "But, Madame… Your guests have deboarded. Don't you think..."

    "Do you think I care!? All those cowards―can't even stand up to a group of rowdy children!"

    Hitchens, catching up, uttered in disbelief, "And you realize those kids are still there, right?" He pointed up at the rooftop; helpfully, Team Skull hooted and waved. "Yourealize―"

    "It doesn't matter! I want you to leave, now!"

    That another shouting match had started didn't surprise Guzma at all, but this time, he showed no rush to intervene. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see him talking to the children emphatically, probably in league with them. Lusamine could see it: alliances, forming against her.

    Hitchens noticed Guzma's avoidance as well, and promptly complained, "Hey, kid! Would you c'mere and get your woman under control? Sweet almighty…"

    "I beg your pardon!?"

    Nanu frowned and clapped a hand over his ear. He should have known better than to stand this close around these two. He knew Hitchens could be a charmless dog.

    In the end, the argument carried on, and when Guzma could no longer put it off, he came over to sort through it. It took several iterations of her demands for him to make sense of them, which naturally meant he had to argue with her, too. The three―because Nanu took no part in it―continued this back-and-forth, with essentially no one on the others' side, until Hitchens threw his hands up in frustrated surrender.

    "You know what? Fine! We'll go. Have fun with―whatever this is." As he sputtered and pulled at his radio, he looked between Lusamine and Guzma, puffing and shaking his head. "You two nutcases deserve each other."

    The call went out. Watching the policeman gather at the deboarding area and climb down the stairs felt strangely cathartic to her, now, like it was the last bit of pain she needed to endure before death. Guzma didn't understand at all; he kept asking why, as if she knew the answer. But all she knew was: no more struggle. No more dragging this out, fighting for it, rearranging or negotiating.

    Loss meant peace, and that's what this was.

    Lusamine tried to return to her room. She was tired, and all she wanted now was the sleep forever, but as she started up the stairs toward the wing of suites, Guzma refused to let it go. He still brayed and demanded, climbing the stairs after her.

    "I just don't know what you want! What do you want?"

    She reached a center step and stopped. "What do you think I want?"

    "I thought you wanted to get married."

    Lusamine gripped the stair railing―seethed―and broke out into another shriek, turning herself to confront him. "Don't pretend this isn't what you wanted! To humiliate me―"

    "I don't know what you're talking about! You see me trying to fix this!"

    "All of you!" She stomped her foot, and as she spoke, her voice began to break and shudder. "You want me to suffer, don't you! So, I'll suffer! For your amusement! Now, will you be happy?"

    As he scratched his head and puzzled over her reasoning, she continued back up the stairs, hurrying her pace to evade him.

    "Miss," he said. She kept going. "Miss L, stop. Miss―"

    When he grabbed her wrist, she pulled away and kept going.

    "Lu. Miss―Lusamine, you gotta listen, you've lost it, all right? Please."

    -

    Finally, she reached her room. Guzma, a picture of persistence, ignored the taunting of the grunts above the stairwell and said anything he could think of to convince her―all his plans, how they could still get off the ship and change the date and make this work, but she wasn't interested anymore.

    Lusamine entered her suite, shut the door, and locked it behind her.

    She knew then that she was safe.

    She crumpled to the floor, leaning her back against the door as she did. Guzma still banged his fist on the door and called out to her; she shut her eyes and covered her ears, until they sealed in like iron. She stayed like that, cocooned and impenetrable, until agonizing minutes passed and the sound and rattling stopped.

    When she got up and crossed the room, she didn't turn on a light, instead fumbling forward in the darkness until her body collided with the bed. She fell to her knees, clinging to the edge of the bed. For a time, she couldn't find the strength to move. She clawed at the blankets with her fingers. Nausea started in her gut, and she fought it with raw gasps for air.

    Finally, she made the last grasp at strength necessary to pull herself up onto the bed, crawl under the covers, and keep herself safe from the world.

    She took a pillow and screamed into it―screamed, screamed, until her lungs hurt, and the sound popped her ears, and her vision blurred for lack of air.

    Then, silence.

    It didn't last long: far away, as if from another world, she could hear the laughter of children. The sea gurgled, the wind tore, her body trembled with sick.

    A familiar, inward voice sneered, This is what you get.

    "Shut up," she whispered, throwing a pillow over her head.

    How ever did you fool yourself into thinking anything else?

    "Please."

    It's fate. It's fate, don't you remember? Fight as you will, but fate...

    She looked up into the murky blackness, the ceiling coiling with slimy ropes of flesh, dripping, oozing from a spiral of shining teeth. It moaned from its belly and asked her:

    Darling, didn't I tell you? That this is how it would end?

    And it all came back to her―like a channel of fire searing open her veins―and she thought, desperately, is that when it started? Had all her misery started that night when He l҉͈̟̬͖̜̗o̗͎͢o͉͜k͍e̪̼̺̝̬̺͟d҉̗̼ ̢͓̱͕h̙̣͖̤͓e͎̩̗̭͡r̗̻͈̜ ̢̻̦͍̦̳͈i͔n ̹̬̜̠̜͘t̬̺͍̦̙̯ͅḩ̲̫̭͕ͅe͖̞͍̱ ҉ͅe҉̞͈̣͔yẹ̫̬s̳̳͓ ạ̟̹̘̺n̵͚̭͉̗͞d̗͎̙̩͚͞ ̷͕͔̬̮͇̙̠͟ͅt̶̺̗̻ͅo̸̜̟̙̳͙̣̞̯o҉͇̘͉̯̦k͎̼̪͇͎̘ͅ ̢̨̱̟̯h̶̗͓̮̬̬͝e̩̬̪̝͡r̭̮͢͠ ̦̬̗̖̦͍̞͘̕b̛͚̰̥̻̲̘͓̗̤̣̖̳̮̱̤͕̳͢͜͡y̸̧̲̱̝̙͞͠ ̴̳̣͇͙̜̜͇̱̥̖͍̠͍̤̺̖͕͈͢t̵̖̦̜͖̙̲͔͎̮̣h̶̸̖͕̼̺̗̖̣̭̭̜͖̺̟ͅe̴̲̲̜̼̟ ̸̸̡̡͎͎̲͔̗͕̖̲̦̰͓̰h͟҉̶̦͙̪̭͚͉͔̭̟̪̦͘a̶̧̛͈̻̤͉̼͈͢͝ņ͕̼̜̩͙̠͖͎̤͉̣̼͎͕̮̻̥͕͘͜Ǝ̛̤̠̼̜̣̕͢Ż̤̣̬̺͙̘͙̱̯̖͈̤̥̺̕͢͢Ț̶̷̸̺̻͓̱̭̩̱̻̯͖͈͙̮͠Ṣ͜͠҉̷̠̟͎͓Ạ̶̟̣͔̉͜͝͝ử̵̡̛̹̗̗͓̜̟͎͞ợ̳̹̻̱͓͍͖͙̙̬͚͓̲͈͓̮̙̯̜ỵ҉̡̞͓̼̼̟ų̶͚̙̱͕̯͔̜͔̳̞̯̬̥̭̜̻̗ͅX͏͏͉̠̝̣̝͎̩̲͕̯̯͉͍͕̻͓̺̙̕͟ʌ̡̝̱͉̦͈̭̮̣̝̥̰͜ͅɔ̡̫̺̜̪͕̹̳͟͝Ⅎ̢̠͍̜̥̟̥̤̠̘̥͓͖̯͍͔̺͈͖͢ᐴ̡̜͈̪̺̦̰̩̺̱̣̮̮͖͈̟̱̩̲͢ͅ


    >>ERROR


    >>CORRUPTED MEMORY FILES DETECTED


    >>PLEASE STAND BY

    >>MEMORY_DISC_1 RECOVERY BEGIN
     
    Last edited: Jun 11, 2018
  3. TheAlpar

    TheAlpar Journey Enthusiast

    I keep being surprised by the amount of emotions you can make me feel in a single chapter, especially when they're all so different and contradictory. I found a lot of this chapter to be terribly funny, especially the parts with Nanu and Team Skull. At first I thought the whole problem with the ships was going to be an Ultra Beast or something similar, but this is much better.

    As usual, great chapter. The ending is freaky as heck, and I can't wait to see what happens next.
     
  4. Chibi Pika

    Chibi Pika Stay positive

    Don't mind me, just catching up! Let's see... last chapters I read were 18-20 (still have yet to read 21-23) so those are what I'll be commenting on!

    It's scenes like the beginning of 18 that make me glad we also have Nanu as a POV character, because without him I feel like we'd miss out on a crucial outlook in a story like this--that of the person on the outside, looking in. He's got his own problems and his life is faaaar from perfect, but at the same time he's not quite as tightly wound into the same mess as the other characters, and that gives him a unique perspective. Plus it's fun because he supposedly wants nothing to do with any of this nonsense and yet keeps going further to try to get to the bottom of it, even going so far as to unearth what happened to Guzma as a child.

    It was fascinating to see Guzma back home and interacting with his family. And really sad at the same time. Nanu's observation was spot-on. It's all about the status quo. Things operating in a familiar and predictable, even if dysfunctional way. And it was really interesting getting to see his father directly, rather than just hearing about him. It made him feel more human. He's still pretty terrible, but like, not some evil force out to make everyone around him miserable.

    And then, of course, the wedding. Gotta say, it was pretty clever to shift straight to Plumeria and Nanu, because at that point, it leaves the reader hanging. We know, of course, that things are not going to go as planned, and we haven't even found out what happened when Guzma returned to Aether (which I've already read ahead and saw is going to be the subject of 21.) So it's this tantalizing little reminder in the back of the head that something happened, and we don't know what, and the POV characters don't know what either. And Gladion and Lillie showing up just shakes things up even further! Can't wait to see how that's going to play out.

    ~Chibi~
     
  5. dietofwurms

    dietofwurms i see stars

    Chapter 24:
    Ego Sum Nihil - Memory_Disc_1


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    Everyone who knew the LeBlanc family knew that the closer together Lucienne and Nikolai stood, the further the two siblings regressed in age. It worked as precisely and consistently as natural law―like the force of gravity. So by the time Lucienne, at nineteen, and Nikolai, at thirteen, joined one another at the charity banquet that night, they had transformed into petty, squalling toddlers, scratching, pulling, and calling each other names.

    Fortunately for everyone involved, none of the guests had arrived quite yet, so the only witnesses were serving staff trying to cart food, cutlery, and finishing touches around the siblings in the dining room. The huge array of tables, topped with fine white linen and expensive glass fixtures, had been prepared earlier in the day, and Lucienne, who only ever attended her father's events in hopes of establishing new connections with celebrities and politicians, started poking around about five-thirty, thinking she might spy on the names on the table placards, thereby generating a social strategy for the night. The fight with her little brother only started because as she looked over one particular table, a hot snap of electricity zapped her rear end. She screamed, whirled around. And there, floating just out of reach, was her brother's Magnemite. Immediately she spotted him seated at a table a few spots down; he buckled and kicked with laughter.

    "That was brilliant!" Nikolai had to push his glasses back onto his face, against the force of his snickering. "The look on your face right now!"

    "Dead!" Lucienne screamed. She launched herself at him, and he hurriedly scrambled from his chair once he saw her wrath. "You're dead, dead, dead!"

    In running through the dining room and into the outer hallway, they succeeded in toppling several chairs and knocking into one dessert cart, and very narrowly missed tripping a waiter carrying a drink tray. None of the servants they passed, however, including the waiter, dared scold them. So they continued in their path, Nikolai yelping out of a mixture of terror and joy of the chase, and Lucienne describing in morbid detail exactly what she planned for him when she caught him.

    -

    The LeBlanc manor through which they currently ran had not always been one of the centers of high-end social life. The house sat at the northern edge of Lumiose City, not far from the bustle of the sprawling urban center, but despite its opportune location, the place had, until recently, suffered some measure of decline. At its prime, the dukes and duchesses of the LeBlanc family owned much of the area, depending largely on historical wealth and a rural economy, but the city, and changes in the world overall, had made them less relevant over time. By the time Alban took the head of the household, the LeBlancs were virtually bankrupt.

    But Alban, a shrewd and careful businessman, proved himself an adaptor to change. Unlike his stuffy descendents, who winced at the idea of downsizing, diversifying capital, or investing in modern enterprise, he made the steep cuts and aggressive investments necessary to bring life and security back to the manor.

    While he was a booming success financially, though, less could be said of his parenting skills. Hence his running, screaming teenage children, currently bringing terror down on the servants before his lavish, annual wildlife fundraiser.

    While they engaged in their squabble, Alban busily discussed the menu with the head chef in the kitchen, overlooking the hors d'oeuvres selection, the available entrees, the soups and salads, and desserts. He donned his best suit and cravat for the night, and a Noibat nestled and hung sleepily from the back of his coat collar. Alban LeBlanc possessed a classic, dignified sort of attractiveness: square jaw, earthy blonde hair, sturdy frame, and pronounced nose. Though tall and broad-shouldered, and not even sixty yet, a prolonged period of troubled health a few years back had knocked the physical strength out of him, and so as he hobbled about his house with a cane, he could look shockingly old and delicate.

    As for the two children, both sides of their family had a strong, virulent strain of blonde hair that seemed to overpower each game of genetic chance, and their tone of skin was nearly vampiric. The children's high and luxurious beauty came directly from their mother (rest her soul), with her slender and timid face, willowy form, and amber eyes that shone like honey. Even Alban had to admit to that. But for all the children's inheritance of angelic looks, to Alban's despair, neither of them had taken to angelic behavior.

    The swinging traffic doors into the kitchen swung open in the middle of his conversation.

    A high-pitched, ear-splitting scream of rage cut through the air. It was one of those screams that sounded like it hurt to release. "DADDY!"

    Alban cringed, shut his eyes, and brought his hand around to the back of his neck to calm the startled Noibat. Under his breath, he murmured a quick, anguished prayer―"Oh, sweet heaven"―and called out, as sweetly and deferentially as he could possibly muster, "Yes? What is it, my Lu-belle?"

    He could hear a tussle going on, and he almost didn't want to turn around―as if hoping it would dissolve by not observing it. But continuing talking to the chef would be impossible like this, so he turned around to find his allegedly adult daughter tugging his son through the kitchen. She had Nikolai by the ear and in a headlock while the young boy squirmed and whined; this undignified stance was sadly no stranger to the pair.

    Alban reached deeply inside himself and sighed. "All right," he said, sounding horrendously resigned to his fate as referee. "What's going on?"

    "Daddy!" Her shrieking had tempered a little, but it still had that grating, screeching quality that made it painful to listen to. "I'm going to take him outside and sell him to the highest bidder!"

    "Please don't. That would be highly illegal." He shook his head. "Let go of him, dear. You're too old to be wrestling your brother."

    "Ugh! Fine." She released him, and the boy huffed and straightened his glasses.

    "Now, whatever's gotten into you, darling?"

    Lucienne fiercely jabbed a finger into Nikolai's shoulder. "Ask him."

    Alban shifted his eyes to Nikolai's, a trace of sternness in his gaze.

    The boy's face fell; of the two of them, only he had perfected acting sorry, so he fastened his hands behind his back, tilting his head downward, and fidgeted his foot. His big, wet, gold eyes looked upward, glowing with contrition. "Magnemite gave her a tiny zap. That's all. It was just a joke, Papa."

    "Gentlemen should not play jokes on ladies, Nikolai. For that matter―no more jokes tonight, all right? We're still recovering from your prank last year."

    Despite his best efforts, Nikolai couldn't hold back a devilish smirk. "...It wasn't my fault the sprinkler network was unsecured…"

    "Anyhow, Lulu-darling, I wish you'd keep your composure―" As Alban looked over his daughter, he noticed something. "Is…" He frowned, squinting at the fluffy white stole around her shoulders. "Is that Minccino fur?"

    Lucienne missed the horror in his tone and scoffed. "Uh, it better be; I paid enough for it."

    "For God's―" Alban shook, reddening in the face before putting a hand to his forehead and heaving an exhausted sigh. "Do you…? Even think about these things―this is supposed to be an animal welfare event, and you―"

    "What? What?" Lucienne glared at Nikolai when he started snickering.

    "They don't shave the fur off, stupid," he explained between snorts of laughter.

    She shrieked and clapped him atop the head. "I know that! Look, I'm sure it was humane or whatever!"

    "Never mind," their father relented desperately. "Just… please, never mind. Now… Could you―" Alban stopped to place a hand to his temple and give it a squeeze. "For my sake, children, could the two of you at least pretend to get along? Just for one evening?"

    The two siblings cast side-glares at one another.

    "Lucie," their father continued, eager to change the subject, "why don't you bring out one of your pokemon? Other guests will have theirs out, and it might… distract from the… neck area."

    Lucienne sniffed, but to curry her father's favor, she complied. She pulled her purse around and rifled through it, eventually producing a black-and-gold ball, and releasing her choice: the pink, bright-eyed Stufful materialized on the kitchen floor, lifting its furry head to examine its surroundings, and immediately fluffing up its tail and ducking under Lucienne's legs. It cowered and growled at her father.

    "...That one…?" Alban eyed the small raccoon-bear skeptically. "You don't want to bring out one that's a little more friendly?"

    Her green eyes narrowed at him. "No, I don't."

    Nikolai craned his neck at it and wrinkled his nose. "Isn't that the one your boyfriend gave you?"

    "All right!" Alban could see another argument brewing, so he promptly placed his hands on their shoulders, turning them around and ushering them out the door. "Out of the kitchen, both of you. And behave. Guests will be arriving within the hour."

    As they trotted out into the dining room, a banner reading "THE 9th ANNUAL AETHER INSTITUTE FUNDRAISER" raised over the back wall.

    -

    After nine years, Lucienne knew all the guests who would attend. The rich and famous, the conscientious royals, businessmen, entrepreneurs, designers, television and film producers… She had worked, connected, flirted, dated, charmed, persuaded, and conversed her way through every single one at some point or another, whether at this event or some related location. She took it as a point of pride to never forget a name or face, lest she lose possible future advantage. So now, even though she hadn't lived at the manor proper for nearly two years, she attended the banquet religiously, scouting for more threads to tie.

    This year, though, she noticed some new attendees.

    They were not the same breed as the rest. They dressed in less refined style, and did not carry the same haughty attitude that came with assurance of wealth and class. The group was composed of at least seven people, young (in their twenties and thirties), and male. By their mannerisms and actions once inside the manor, she guessed they were students from universities and graduate schools in, and possibly beyond, the area.

    Of course, she thought, realizing it now. That project her father had been going on about. Was he finally making a move on it? She would have thought he'd wait for the tenth banquet to announce anything publicly―he was the sort who liked making decisions on round numbers. But on the other hand, he may be simply lining up possibilities… Making plans.

    Lucienne chatted up one of father's old friends, but kept a close eye on this new, fresh-faced group. They did not all seem to know each other, but they were greeted by Alban as one unit, further solidifying her theory that they related to his project. She judged them as individuals; as she looked them over, she mentally labelled them plain-faced, bespectacled, serious, attentive, wary.

    But two of them in particular caught her eye for longer than the rest.

    They had clearly come together. She could tell by the way they talked, moved, and interacted; they stood at an intimate distance that she only ever saw in friends. The two young men were quite the pair, which was what caused her to linger her attention on them: one stood straight-backed, broad-shouldered, with radiant color to his skin, a proud head of gold hair, and confident, easygoing posture; the other man slumped impishly, possessing a thready body and vaguely sickly face, balancing thick-rimmed glasses on his long nose, and wearing limp, receding hair in the form of a combover. If one pictured the stereotype of "jock" and "nerd," one would probably come up with two people not unlike these. Despite their polar opposite appearances, they hovered closely to one another. The jock (oh, she needed to get their names; this would not do at all) periodically reached out to put a hand on the other's shoulder or back. She could not tell how comfortable the smaller man was with this, but he seemed used to it.

    Lucienne didn't keep watch forever, of course, and eventually lost them in the crowd. Alban gave a group announcement that she couldn't hear, but the effect of it was immediate: a number of guests released their pokemon to freely attend them through the reception area.

    As she looked out to make casual observations about their choices, she suddenly saw something… Unwanted.

    Oh, no.

    Mr. Brooks.

    She had thought for sure he wouldn't come here tonight, but there he was, dressed in his ridiculous white suit and beret, talking with Dupont.

    He started to turn his head, and her heart leaped. She grabbed her Stufful and ducked behind the broad shoulders of a nearby male guest, and prayed silently: don't let him see me; in fact, get him out of here. Give him food poisoning, give him cancer, I don't care, just don't let him stay.

    After a few seconds, she got the courage to peek around her body shield. In the midst of the crowd, she could swear he was moving toward her. She pulled back. Had to think of an escape plan, but no path was open to remove her without being left in the open. So she did the cowardly thing: she stood as still as possible, hoping for a miraculous intervention. Perhaps if she didn't move, he would lose track of her… Get distracted…

    Something warm wrapped around her wrist. It was fleshy and furry, not like a hand, and it startled her so badly that she let out a scream, effectively blowing her cover. She pulled on her arm, but didn't manage to break free, so she fumbled in her heels and turned to look at what had her, and saw, standing a little behind her, a cooing, purring Sylveon extending its ribbons for her.

    Of course she knew what it was, and knew that this species liked to hold hands and soothe frayed nerves, but she had never met this one before.

    "What are you doing?" she snapped at it, still unsuccessfully tugging to get her wrist free.

    The Sylveon squeaked joyfully in reply, bounding up and down as if it had decided she was its new best friend. Her Stufful in her hands began to squirm and growl, not happy at all with this intrusion.

    "Let go of me, you little rat!"

    "Razz!" A booming male voice called out over the crowd; through the milieu of guests, the Sylveon's apparent owner began to nudge his way over.

    Fate of fates―it was him. The blonde new visitor, the taller one of the pair, looking flustered and embarrassed.

    "Razz, what are you―oh, geez." He ran up to her and began untangling the ribbons from her wrist, profusely scolding his pokemon as he did. "We've talked about this! You can't run off and go grabbing onto people―"

    So Lucienne and the stranger proceeded to fumble together, both grabbing at the ribbons to undo them, and in the process, touching hands and apologizing to each other for it. Eventually, she was successfully extracted, and he took up his Sylveon under his arm while it persisted in chirping and waving its ribbons about.

    Lucienne was then able to get a proper look at him, one with more detail than the impression she received from far away. He had a gentle, warm face, welcome and expressive; he had a grounded, rugged attractiveness from a broad-set jaw and scruffy chin. One could get used to a face like that. After wrestling his pokemon, his carefully combed blonde hair had puffed up, fanning out at the back of his head. To add to the sense that he didn't fully belong in a ritzy banquet like this, he wore less-than-high-class clothing―a simple suede jacket over a rose-colored turtleneck.

    He was looking at her with his dark green eyes hovering over her face, searching for offense. He slicked his hair back with his hand and spoke, and she heard the slightest inflection of country twang in his voice. "Sorry if Razz startled you, Miss."

    "'Razz'?"

    "Yeah." He laughed nervously and rubbed the Sylveon's head. "He's a little, uh, overly-friendly. We've been working on it."

    Lucienne then noticed something she hadn't before. She tilted her head at the creature. "He looks… a little different."

    "Oh, good eye!" The stranger removed his hand to show off that, indeed, the Sylveon's fur was not a bright pink, as it was for typical individuals of its kind, but a shade of sky-blue, and its eyes were a raspberry pink. "Yup, he's a variant all right."

    "You're a breeder?" she asked, before really thinking about it―'variant' was a rather 'breeder' thing to say.

    "What? Ah, no… My folks are, though. I guess it creeps into my vocabulary, doesn't it?" He rubbed his head. "Geez! Where's my head? Now that I've violated your space and all―my name's Mohn. And you are…?"

    Lucienne paused, considered her options, then extended her delicate hand to him, smoothly declaring, "You may call me Lusamine."

    -

    Lusamine―as she was called by all her friends outside of immediate family―was used to hearing gasps after introducing herself by her stage name. She was used to the other person stopping, realizing with whom they were speaking, and either grovelling or declaring their admiration.

    But Mohn showed no sign of recognition. In fact, he took hold of her proffered hand and ended up shaking it. "Well, much obliged, Miss Lusamine. And who's this friend of yours?"

    It took a moment to recover from the shock and realize he meant her pokemon. "Oh… This? My Stufful…"

    "Aw, hey there, little guy." Mohn reached over and, before she could get a warning out, tried to pet it. His overeagerness earned him a snarl and whack on the hand with a free paw.

    She tried not to laugh at his dejected expression. "She doesn't like being touched by strangers."

    He finished rubbing his assaulted hand and spoke directly to the Stufful. "Sorry, little… Er, miss. I should have asked first." He joked to his Sylveon, "Guess I better practice what I preach, huh?"

    (Sylveon mewled a titter at him).

    "Isn't that an Alolan species? Are you from there?"

    "Oh, not at all. A…" She quickly thought of a term. "Friend traveled there for work. He brought it back for me."

    "Well, tell him I'm mighty jealous! I've heard there's amazing wildlife out there."

    Lusamine felt so at ease talking just then, that she completely forgot about Brooks―and she was starting to think that, perhaps, she wouldn't have to worry about it for a while.

    But the conversation was cut off by Mohn's companion, who came up behind him and touched him on the arm.

    "Mohn," the thin companion said. His voice was as frail as he looked. "Monsieur LeBlanc is asking for you."

    "Oh! That's my cue." Mohn jumped and turned around, almost leaving her without saying goodbye. Thankfully, he remembered his manners and looked at her, smiling. "Wish me luck."

    "Luck…?"

    He didn't explain, but winked at her and hurried away. The two friends chatted on some matter, beyond her range of hearing.

    Now that she was left alone again, she had to make a decision. Mr. Brooks in one corner of the room, and the two intriguing strangers disappearing down the other. To help her in this quest, she held up her Stufful to her face. "All right―so, either I go face my problem head on like a proper lady, or I go stick my nose in other people's business."

    Her Stufful sagged its head, giving a resigned whine, like it knew regardless of how it tried to answer, she would hear only what she wanted to.

    "Hmm. You're right. It's not even a contest." Lusamine rested her Stufful against her shoulder and promptly slipped her way through the crowd, ignored the occasional call after her, and followed the two companions out into an adjoining hallway.

    -

    The halls of the LeBlanc manor were ideal for sneaking, creeping, and spying. Sometimes, Lusamine suspected it was built that way on purpose, for the sake of household intrigue. Dips and hollow spaces in the walls could be used to duck behind, and a line of pillars made it easy to follow someone and regularly hide.

    So Lusamine expertly tracked them while remaining unseen herself. They didn't go very far, passing only a few family portraits and proudly-displayed artifacts her father had collected from far-off lands, before they reached Alban at the farthest door connecting to the dining hall.

    He greeted them politely, apologizing for bringing them this direction, for he had briefly gone to retrieve something from his office.

    Lusamine settled behind the nearest possible pillar and listened intently.

    "You remember my colleague, Faba," she heard Mohn saying.

    "Ah, yes, of course." (Alban sounded… slightly surprised. As if the man's presence was an unexpected element. )

    The men shook hands.

    "I don't mean to keep you from everyone else," Alban told them, "but this should be quick and you're my last… Undecided factor, so to speak. So, Professor Mohn, have you thought about my offer?"

    "Well…"

    At this point, Lusamine couldn't contain her curiosity; very carefully, she brought her face around the pillar to look. The momentary silence she heard was due to Mohn looking to his friend, Faba, and scratching his chin with thought.

    "I don't think we can expect a better one," Mohn finally said. "Our project is a bit of a niche, and this opportunity… It's sort of a dream come true!"

    Faba spoke up to mitigate Mohn's rampant enthusiasm. "We would like more details, though…"

    "Right, details!"

    "...Oh." Alban looked between them both thoughtfully. A troubled expression crept into the contours of his face. "Oh, I see."

    Though Mohn didn't know the cause of his reaction, he hurried to add, "Not to say we aren't ready to make a decision! We know you're on a tight schedule―"

    "Mr. Faba, right?" Alban suddenly turned to the smaller man and smiled. "I'm very sorry to ask this, but… Would you mind telling my butler to go ahead with the seating arrangements? I don't want to disrupt the schedule too badly on account of my own tardiness."

    The request confused them both. Faba started to shake his head. "I don't know…"

    Alban cut him off by placing a hand on his shoulder. "He's the tall chap at the front of the hall. Black hair, black moustache. Purple suit. You really can't miss him."

    "But…"

    "We'll meet you inside momentarily."

    Looking incredibly put-upon, but too cowardly to further complain, Faba put his hand in his brown coat pocket and mumbled his assent. He stepped out through the near door, leaving Mohn and Alban alone.

    Mohn said, "Uh, shouldn't we wait for him?"

    "Professor Mohn, I have an apology to make." Alban sighed, positioned his cane beneath his weight to stabilize himself, and gazed remorsefully at the young man. "I see now… That I've made a dire miscommunication. When we first spoke about a future position at the Aether Foundation, I hadn't exactly…" He planted a hand at his suit lapel to straighten it. "Oh… How shall I put this… Factored in your friend."

    Though Lusamine could not see Mohn's face, she saw his body stiffen.

    "I spoke carelessly, I admit it. The fact is, I'm interested in your project, and I'm interested in your contribution to the Foundation, but my offer was meant for you, as an individual. Not for the pair of you."

    "But―" Mohn sputtered and turned about, casting an agonized glance out the door where Faba had gone. He hastily formulated his counterargument, speaking with clear conviction. "No, no, sir with all due respect―that doesn't make a lick of sense to me; this is our project, we developed this together!"

    "Professor Mohn…" With his trademark, stoic gentleness, Alban reached out to touch his arm. "I realize…"

    Desperation made the young man's voice waver. "Please. I don't work without him."

    "This isn't an issue of preference. I have my science team picked already; I only have the budget to hire on one more full-time member."

    "Then don't pay me."

    Alban heard the request, put a hand to his forehead, and sighed.

    "Or―cut my pay. Cut our project's overhead. Whatever you need to do!"

    After a moment of bowing his head, the LeBlanc patriarch lifted his eyes and intoned, "Perhaps it's hard for you to imagine, but I was young once, too. I remember the fierce camaraderie, as well as the passion and idealism. I'd be glad if you brought those traits with you, when you join the Aether Foundation. However, while your loyalty is laudable, not all success can be shared."

    They could hear the shuffle of feet in the dining hall; Alban straightened his shoulders.

    "Well, dinner's starting. You'll consider what I've said, won't you?"

    Mohn went silent for a painful second, then reluctantly returned, "Yes, sir."

    Sensing the younger man's turmoil and wanting to diffuse it, Alban smiled congenially. "Good boy. We'll talk soon."

    When the door opened and shut, Lusamine nearly assumed they had both gone out, but the sound of readjusting feet on the tile floor alerted her that someone still remained. Mohn stood there, still and quiet, like he had been cast out into empty wilderness. And the longer he stood there, the more tense Lusamine became, because without conversation going on, she couldn't afford to make the tiniest of sounds lest she be discovered.

    A minute passed. She felt her breath ache for being held. Her heart pounded so fiercely, that she feared he could hear it from across the room. Out of the corner of her eye, a small, cream-colored shape crept from below, and while narrowly avoiding crying out in surprise, she snapped her head at it. The blue Sylveon had wandered over and locked eyes with her behind the pillar.

    She made a horrible face at it and gestured silently for it to shoo.

    Thankfully, Mohn spoke up. "Razz. C'mon, now."

    The Sylveon promptly turned around, plodding over to his owner.

    She listened, and in the middle of the empty hallway, Mohn breathed out a long whiff of air and said with miserable dejection, "That tears it, huh… Oh well… We'll just… Have to keep looking, I guess…"

    And with that, he went through the door as well.

    Lusamine did not understand his expressed pain.

    She had never seen it before. It was a foreign concept, this willingness to throw something away for the sake of sentiment. Her father, and indeed all the men and women who ever did business around her, had taught her that wisdom meant cutting away those who held you down or compromised your success. Surely, this Mohn must have befriended Faba for some unknown but lucrative advantage, and this, she could comprehend. But when the advantage ran out? When a friend's presence runs afoul of your desires? That's the textbook definition of "dead weight," and no one should have to blink before throwing such vermin off.

    What a fool, she thought. Only a fool would think to turn down an opportunity delivered on a silver platter, all for the benefit of someone else.

    (Yet… Because it was strange to her… It intrigued her, as much as it annoyed her. It made her question whether another playbook existed, of which she could acquire strategies, strategies that could allow her to get more of what she wanted).

    -

    Lusamine had distracted herself so badly that she didn't hear footsteps coming up behind her.

    "Boo!" Hands shot out, snagging her by the waist.

    She jumped, screamed, and gasped horribly, all in time to spin around and find the regrettable Mr. Brooks grinning down at her. She fumed and started beating his chest as he invasively enfolded himself around her and laughed at her anger. "Ugh! You―! You are so―so childish!"

    "Serves you right," Brooks said, teasing. With arms around her, preventing her escape, he began to press her up against the surface of the column. "You've been ducking me all night."

    Of all Mr. Brooks' faults, and he had an ample number of them, his inability to get the hint ranked, to her mind, as his worst. He was a slightly older man, in his thirties, and as a film director, he ought to have plenty of experience reading people's body language. But Lusamine had since come to the conclusion that past relationships had enabled his worst behaviors. She ought to know. Plenty of her own vices were the final product of enabling, leech-like friends.

    Lusamine looked up at his dull, smarmy face, and frowned. She worked her arms between them, trying to force him away. "Get off."

    He snickered and shoved his face into hers, hovering his lips close. "I'm trying," he whispered.

    She decided enough was enough. She groaned at him and kicked him in the shin with the sharp tip of her shoe until he skittered backwards. The one good thing about Mr. Brooks was she could treat him like a dog―if he got too frisky, a stern slap on the muzzle was usually all it took to make him cower.

    "Augh!" He retreated and cursed, but didn't fully back off. He kept his hands on both sides of her, pinning them firmly on the column. Finally, he laughed the pain off. "Geez! You Kalos chicks really are uptight."

    "What do you want?" she demanded. It annoyed her that she remained trapped, but she decided that negotiation might free her.

    "I just wanna talk. You haven't been returning my calls, babe."

    "Hmm." She grimaced and put a hand to her hip. "I think if we put our heads together and think very hard, we can come up with a reason why that is."

    "Oh, come on." Next came the begging. He leaned as close as he could dare and pleaded, "You were just upset; I know you didn't mean it."

    She tossed her hair, letting her bangs settle over her cruel green eyes. "I did mean it, Matthew."

    Right on cue, he became spitting angry. While his looks were plain under normal circumstances, they became disfigured and ugly in his rage, like a greased pig. "After everything I've done for you? Just like that? Without my say? You're kidding, right?" He glanced down at the Stufful squirming in her arms. "Besides, we both know you still like me."

    "You're delusional."

    "Why else do you keep using her? Do you think about me every time you bring her out?"

    She turned the Stufful away from him, as if to protect its innocence. "...And you're disgusting."

    For a long moment, he seethed silently, examining her, trying to drum up the most hateful thing he could think to say. Thankfully, he was not a sharp fellow, so he eventually growled, "You're a piece of work. All that time and money, and the favors I did for you―and what, you're done with me?"

    "You got to walk around for four months with me dangling from your arm," she countered. "Be glad you got even that."

    But her disingenuous appeal to his sense of gratitude fell flat. Suddenly, Brooks lashed out, grabbing on her upper arm and tightening his fingers around her flesh. He frothed. "You know," he said, squeezing her arm painfully, "you should really think about how you treat people. You treat people like garbage―and someday, they're gonna treat you like garbage right back."

    Lusamine tugged, could not pull her arm out from his grip, and then tried to simply launch herself aside in a forceful getaway.

    In sheer reaction, he pulled her back, yanking her arm and landing her hard against the pillar.

    As her back struck the stone, she felt breath fly out of her.

    ...This.

    This wasn't supposed to happen.

    She wasn't supposed to lose control of the situation like this.

    Her other arm, on instinct, lifted with the full intent to scratch and pluck his eyes out―to teach him what he earned by making her feel, in the moment, weak, cornered, and powerless.

    But her Stufful, attuned to its owner's pained sounds and startled by the man's violation of its personal space, threw its head around and clamped its teeth down on Mr. Brook's wrist.

    Brooks jolted, cried out, and knocked the small animal to the floor with a fling of his hand.

    "Augh―god!"

    He clutched his wrist―the skin had only barely been broken, but he milked the injury for all it was worth by complaining and writhing. Impulsively, he swung his foot at the Stufful once it landed, but his kick mostly missed, scuffing its tail fur and nothing else.

    Lusamine protested. "Stop! What's the matter with you?"

    ...And the creature scurried away, only to scamper over to a pair of small feet in white leather shoes.

    Nikolai, standing a few feet away after coming through the door unnoticed during their scuffle, took his eyes briefly off the couple to examine the Stufful cowering at his legs; without hesitation, he bent down, reached out with his hands, and allowed it to clamber into his arms. Its fur still stood on end, so he gave it a few soothing strokes on the head while its puffiness receded. As he did this, his Magnemite hovered over them, spinning and making curious, clicking noises.

    Nikolai finally looked the stunned Mr. Brooks in the eyes and, more out of spite than actual moral indignation, scolded, "Do you feel brave, bullying something smaller than yourself?"

    Brooks flared, still applying pressure to his wound. "Buzz off, kid. We're having an adult conversation here."

    "Oh," Nikolai said, putting on a slimy grin, "I can certainly see that."

    "Niko," Lusamine hissed, "get lost."

    But the small teenage boy taunted, "Make me."

    She felt her stomach tense, and she ground her teeth. She did not need to be rescued by her snot-nosed brother.

    Naturally, though, the boy was only happy to throw a wrench in her plans; he examined Mr. Brooks, and proclaimed, "You're that movie director out of Unova."

    "Huh?"

    "I saw your last movie―'Attack on Metropolis 2.'"

    Brooks looked momentarily pleased. He straightened and folded his arms, a smirk lifting the end of his mouth. "Yeah?"

    Nikolai, spotting his overconfidence, gave a smirk of his own. "Well, part of it, anyway. I got bored after fifteen minutes and shut it off. Unovians really produce horrible cinema. The only saving grace was I downloaded it, so at least I didn't waste my money."

    Brooks' face changed, but his tantrum was over, so rather than go on the offensive again, he grumbled and stuffed his hands in his coat pockets. "...Yeah, real funny." He shot Lusamine a glare when she didn't contain a small titter. "You should watch your mouth around your elders, pipsqueak. Not all grown-ups are as nice as me; you're liable to get smacked."

    Nikolai looked neither bothered nor intimidated. He cocked an eyebrow and shrugged dramatically. "Whatever. If you two are done sneaking around and engaging in 'adult' behavior, Father would like you to come inside."

    Brooks frowned, but ultimately decided on retreat. He went for the door, reaching for and tousling Nikolai's hair rather roughly on his way out, over the young boy's obstinate objection.

    After Nikolai finished straightening and combing his hair back into shape with his fingers, he huffed at his sister accusingly. "He's a buffoon. Are you dumping him yet?"

    Lusamine grunted and nabbed her Stufful back into her arms. "None of your business, twerp."

    "Why are all the men you date boring and stupid?"

    "Because all men are boring and stupid," she countered hotly.

    "Hmph! The hasty generalization fallacy, along with incomplete evidence." With nauseating pompousness, he put his hands on his hips and lectured, "What lazy thinking!"

    All the humiliation she felt fluttered in her chest; she burst out even more ferociously, "Why do you talk like that all the time! Why do you have to be such a freak!" She saw his confident expression wilt a little. Weakness. She sneered at him. "Why did Mama have to die after you were born? I could have been an only child, and instead, I got stuck with you!"

    She didn't--exactly--feel proud of the statement. But a catharsis followed her saying it, especially when Nikolai tried, and failed, to keep his facade of unflappable maturity. For all his vocabulary and mechanical know-how, he was still a young, vulnerable teenager, and once in awhile, she needed to drive that point home with a sharp object. His lip quivered, and he covered his hurt with a shouting retort of his own. "No one here misses you, you know! Everyone's glad you're gone! Because you're awful!"

    She snorted in amusement. He was booksmart, but his biting wit was still so… juvenile. "Ooh," she crooned, feigning a crushing heartache. "You got me right here."

    Nikolai furiously turned, threw himself through the door, and slammed it shut behind him.

    "God, what a baby," she said aloud. That comment alone justified her behavior to herself.

    But now… Now she was alone, with no one left to project her sins, or serve as a scapegoat for her problems. Overwhelming shame, and guilt, and self-hatred began to creep through the shadows, pursuing her as quiet predators, threatening to catch her in mid-step. She dodged them the only way she knew how: she stepped out into the bright glow of public attention, flipping her hair, and smiling at anyone willing to fawn after her.

    -

    The one thing she thought would redeem the evening was finding that blonde man, Mohn, again. Surely he and his friend had seated themselves somewhere. She had enough of the stuffy, old troubles; she wanted something new to sink her teeth into.

    However, once she reached her table and began to look about, she could not find them anywhere.

    Well, this won't do at all.

    She glided her way over to her father, interrupting an intense exchange about stock options, she supposed.

    "Daddy."

    "Hmm?" He looked up at her in surprise, eventually pushing out his chair to face her. "What is it, dear?"

    "There was a man here―we started to talk, but then he had to talk to you. His name was Mohn."

    Alban studied her expression with clear suspicion. "I see. And what do you need?"

    "Do you know where he is?"

    "He left already, darling." He scratched his chin with thought. "I think his friend wasn't feeling well so they both called it a night. Is that all?"

    In her head, she burned furiously. How rude! To leave without even attempting to say goodbye to her! "Well, how am I supposed to find him now!"

    "Lucie…" He spotted the predatory glint in her eye, sighed, and brought his voice down so others couldn't hear. "Please don't."

    "What!"

    "Professor Mohn is a nice, responsible, wholesome young man, and I don't want you mixing him up in your personal affairs."

    "Uh! You want your daughter to stick to dirtbags, is that it? What kind of father are you?"

    "I know my daughter," he said crossly. "And I know the trouble you bring. Stay away from him."

    Her father should have known better.

    Nothing― nothing ―motivated Lusamine more than being forbidden something.

    -

    A few nights after the charity banquet, Lusamine asked to be dropped off at a nondescript street near the university. Her entourage of friends riding with her clearly disliked her decision to go out here, and go out alone, but they knew better than to question her.

    She crawled out of the limousine, dismissed the car with her entourage inside, and faced the street.

    In all her years, she had never visited an establishment of this sort. The bars and clubs she frequented all possessed the flair and class that she deserved: glitz, high-shelf liquor, dress-codes, the smell of money. She never had to worry about bouncers, on account of who she was―she was always let through―but their presence symbolized the exclusivity of her nightlife excursions.

    This place, on the other hand…

    From what she gathered, this pub-style bar, in particular, served mostly university students, peaking its service in the evenings after classes as well as on weekends and holidays. The place occupied a small corner of the street block, and its lights glowed brightly through broad glass panels painted with the bar's name― La Licorne. She could clearly see people gathered at tables, dressed in plainclothes and indulging in wine, beer, and cocktails.

    She glanced down at herself. She may have overdressed. No matter. She drew her dark cape tighter over her dress, sucked in a breath, and marched inside.

    The bar's interior contained a modest array of tables and booths beside the front bar, and already, she could feel some heads turning. Without turning her own head too obviously, she surveyed the customers, and within a few steps toward the front, she spotted her mark.

    Lusamine asked the bartender if she could use their phone, and the man pointed her for the booth at the back. This gave her an excuse to walk to her vantage point.

    Just as the little bird had told her, Professor Mohn, along with his friend Faba, sat across from one another in a booth against the wall, perhaps celebrating the end of another work week, or drowning their sorrows. She knew she couldn't simply stride up to them and ask; she was too subtle for that.

    She waited.

    For a while, she came to worry that she would never see an opening, but at last, Mohn got up to cross over to the front.

    Lusamine hung up the phone―exited the booth in a hurry―and as she strode, she looked down and pretended to be busy digging through her purse.

    Thump.

    "Oh…!"

    The collision was light, enough to bump shoulders and startle him to attention, but not knock anything out of hand; she glanced up, and they met eyes.

    "I'm sorry," she said, awaiting his recognition. "I should watch where I'm going."

    ...Did he recognize her? He apologized too with a nervous laugh, then gawked at her in astonishment.

    She turned heel to leave, and just as she suspected, he spoke up.

    "Hey, wait. Don't we―?"

    When she faced him again, his face lit up.

    "Hey! I do know you!" Mohn pointed to his chest cheerily. "We ran into each other at the fundraiser the other night. Remember?"

    She broke into a smile. "Oh! Of course. What a surprise!"

    "Geez! That's crazy. What are you doing here?"

    "I just came in to use the phone," she said, putting a hand to her lips. "How funny."

    In his excitement, Mohn chattered at her in a mix of interjections and expressions of disbelief before calling over to his friend. He reached out, putting a hand delicately at her elbow, and led her over to the table, where quick re-introductions were made and Lusamine deduced that Faba, of the two of them, was more cautious. The thin, sallow-faced man remained seated and traced her with cold suspicion, as if he had already figured out her ruse.

    "...And here she is! Isn't that a hoot?"

    Faba, from beneath his thick-rimmed glasses, shifted his eyes. "...Yes… What a... Coincidence …"

    Mohn completely missed his friend's sarcasm and looked at her with all the enthusiasm of a wagging puppy. "Are you busy?"

    (From behind him, she could see Faba's expression wrinkle.)

    "Actually, no," she answered.

    "Then join us!"

    Faba lifted his hand to massage his temple tiredly, and his shoulders fell with a silent sigh.

    -

    Mohn offered her the seat across from Faba, then fitted himself next to his friend. She analyzed this choice: perhaps he didn't want to seem too forward, or perhaps he was a tad oblivious, or… On the other hand, it's possible she failed to identify something about these two, that they preferred each other's company to hers.

    "So, do you want anything?" Mohn took his glass half-full of beer and scooted it back to himself. "I hear they have good burgers, if that's your thing."

    She heard the suggestion and noted they had an order of fries, partially-eaten and getting colder by the minute in a basket in front of them. "You don't like the food here?"

    "We're vegetarian," Faba snipped.

    "Oh, I see," she said. She placed her purse on the opposite side of her. "My. I had thought your kind had gone extinct in Kalos."

    Mohn laughed―and Faba just rolled his eyes.

    "Yup, there sure aren't a lot of us," Mohn admitted. "But it's getting easier. I think it's the diet of the future, really."

    A futurist and a utopian. No wonder Father was so interested in bringing him onboard for his Aether project. "You think so? How fascinating. I follow a fairly restrictive diet myself―so I won't be needing anything just now, to answer your initial question."

    As she spoke, she saw Mohn nudge the basket in Faba's direction. She also noticed that Faba's glass was filled with water, not beer, and that overall, his appearance did have a… vaguely limp look.

    Lusamine caught eyes with him. "Are you doing all right?"

    Faba looked at her strangely.

    "At the banquet the other night… I was told you weren't feeling well, and that's why you left so early."

    Shocked that she would even ask such an intrusive question, Faba frowned. "I'm just fine, thank you," he said, voice tight with hostility. "Anyway… It wasn't serious… Probably something I ate."

    "Before the meal started?"

    He paused. That the comment tripped him up betrayed his lie, but he amended, "Yes… Earlier in the day…"

    Mohn leaped into the fray. "Don't eat at that bistro on Estival Avenue. Those crepes just about killed us."

    (Mohn was covering for him. Lusamine kept that in mind. It struck her as… interesting.)

    "Well, anyway! This gives us a chance to actually talk, doesn't it!" Mohn put his hands flat on the table. "Why, I don't think I even found out what you do for a living. We got as far as names, as I remember."

    "You…" Faba turned and raised an eyebrow at him. "You don't… know who she is?"

    Lusamine watched in amusement as Mohn squirmed and looked desperately between them. "Wait… Should I?"

    Faba tried again, "You really don't recognize her?"

    "Huh? Well―" Mohn scratched his chin, now caught in the middle of a puzzle he felt he ought to know.

    "Lusamine," Faba began, sighing. "Baroness de LeBlanc, L'étoile de Lumiose..."

    A brief flash of possible understanding crossed Mohn's face, but didn't resolve.

    "...Alban LeBlanc's daughter?"

    "Oh! Really!"

    Faba looked a bit exasperated by his ignorance. "Not to mention her face is practically smeared on every magazine cover and street corner―"

    She read Faba's familiarity and disdain, and decided to take a stab at it. She flashed him a coy smile while batting her eyelashes, tucking her chin against her bare shoulder suggestively. "Are you a fan of my work, Mr. Faba?"

    He stopped. Glared.

    Mohn, however, continued to babble happily. "Well, now I'm curious! What sort of work is it?"

    "Fashion modeling," she answered. "I contract out for advertising on occasion… Hence the billboards."

    "Wow."

    She awaited the usual comment―she only ever heard a variation on one in particular, from men who had to find out about her job. No wonder, they'd say. I'm not surprised. A beautiful woman like yourself…

    Mohn sank his chin into his propped hand, thinking very hard. "That's gotta be a challenging job," he finally said.

    She blinked at him, momentarily baffled. "Oh? What… makes you say that?"

    "Oh! I don't mean to…" He nervously chuckled, obviously worried he'd said something foolish. "It just seems to me, it's gotta be stressful. Being in the limelight all the time. You must be very good at dealing with difficult people, huh?"

    Faba elbowed him, evidently not impressed with this line of rambling.

    But Lusamine absorbed it a minute, pondering what exactly he saw in her to trigger this observation. She broke the tension with a sweet smile. "I've been very fortunate." She lowered her eyelashes. "But my work is so dull to talk about. Why don't you tell me a bit about your work? If Father's interested in you, it must be something indeed."

    -

    After a few minutes of listening to Mohn gush, she came to the conclusion she had uncorked something recklessly; barely before finishing her question, he launched into an autobiography and a primer on interdimensional physics.

    Of what he told her, she latched onto key details: they were recent graduates with their respective doctorates, as well as roommates; they had worked jointly on a project meant to someday test the boundaries of reality; and they were currently searching for funding.

    Much of his ramblings about the physics aspect, however, went sailing over her head. Still, he persisted in explaining it, seeming to find eminent satisfaction whenever she showed the slightest bit of understanding.

    Faba, uninterested in putting his life's work into layman's terms, spent those minutes glowering with increasing irritation at her. She was used to receiving flack, when giving attention to one man and neglecting the other, but this look of his communicated something… different. She put up with this for a while, but as she got bored with it, she returned the favor: under the table, she slipped a foot from its shoe, brought her foot over to one of Faba's, and slid it up his pant leg until her toes touched his ankle. All this while maintaining a polite, attentive expression for Mohn.

    Faba jumped and jerked horribly, and Mohn looked over in surprise.

    "Uh. Are you okay?"

    "F-fine!" Mortified and flustered, Faba yanked his leg backward under the table, scuttled further down the booth seat, and diverted his eyes from her. "I'm― I'm fine. Just a―muscle..."

    (He stopped looking at her after that.)

    Mohn picked up where he left off. "But imagine! Another world! Why, it could have its own laws of physics―its own colors, its own elements, its own life forms!"

    "This is all―" Faba glared at him crossly. "Wild speculation, of course. We have the mathematical theory hashed out, but none of the equipment to practically test any of it."

    "Yeah, turns out, it takes a lot of grant money to poke holes in the fabric of the universe," Mohn said. "But it's free to dream, isn't it!"

    "Dream as you like, but finding life is astronomically unlikely…"

    "Aw, Faba, my man!" Mohn swung his arm around Faba's shoulder, shaking him roughly. "Always keeping me at ground level."

    Lusamine finally decided she needed to up the ante. She liked the direction this was going, but the obstacle had become crystal clear to her. She asked for a drink. Naturally, it was Mohn, in his chivalry, who volunteered to fetch it for her, and so just as she wished, she got a few, slim moments with Faba alone.

    Lusamine folded her hands atop the table and gave him a magnanimous, warm, silent gaze. It took only a few seconds for him to huff and glare accusingly back. "Don't give me that look," she teased. She held back a giggle. "You started it."

    The scientist grimaced and pushed the frames of his glasses up the long bridge of his nose. His lips moved, as if he meant to mutter something, but it seemed he hadn't gathered the courage yet; his fingers twitched and sweat beaded his wide, pallid brow. It wasn't but a few years ago that she used to eat nerds like him for lunch. Everything about him threatened to bring out old, mean-girl instincts in her. His lack of stature. His pitiful lack of confidence. His nerves.

    Now that he didn't speak, she focused on him, steel-eyed. "...Listen." Her tone crept low and lilted, like the steps of a predator. "...I don't mean to be rude… What was your name? Faba?" She sidled over in her seat so that she sat directly across from him, and could lean over the table to better whisper to him. "But, dear… You don't seem to be having a very good time. Don't you think you'd rather go on home?"

    Faba still said nothing.

    "I promise I'll take care of things here."

    Extremely under his breath, so that she could barely hear it, he sniffed and grumbled, "Yes, I'm sure you would."

    She sat up in a bit of shock. Underneath this… quiet, nervous, antisocial, fidgety geek, there was just a little bit of sass. Lusamine found this discovery delectable and worthy of further investigation. (And here she thought he'd be the boring one!) She tossed her head, feigning hurt for the time being. "Oh, whatever do you mean! You silly little man; you don't drink, you don't like the food, and you're clearly not fond of my company. What's even the point of sticking around? Why don't you take the night off, hmm?"

    Suddenly, he clapped his hands down onto the table. "I am not...!" He nearly shouted, but as his face turned a shade of red, he brought his voice down to a raspy, harsh whisper, "Leaving him here to be picked off by some spoiled hussy!"

    If not for her warrior-like composure in that moment, she would have belly-laughed. Instead, she buckled over, snorting and suppressing her hysteria by clapping her hands over her mouth. Faba was not at all pleased with this reaction, which made it even harder to stop, because every time she saw how cross he was, she felt ready to burst out laughing again. "I'm so sorry," she wheezed eventually, breathing out in short puffs to regain control of herself. "How unladylike of me!" She fanned herself with her hands, her face almost in tears. "Oh, goodness!"

    Unfortunately for Faba, by then, Mohn returned, martini in hand, and the evening had to continue as he grit his teeth and bore it.

    -

    At the end of the night, they gathered on the sidewalk outside, bantering their last few lines. Lusamine made her final move by requesting someone walk her home, and Faba, to the shock of both of them, leaped to volunteer before Mohn could offer to fill the gesture.

    "Well, we could both―"

    "That won't be necessary," Faba assured him with uncharacteristic confidence. "I'll catch a cab back home. I'll see you then."

    On the walk, Lusamine started out winding her arm around his, just for show, but once they disappeared from Mohn's sight, she dropped her arm and admired the evening streets. The streetlights had turned on, basking the walk in a milky glow. Her mood, despite the unexpected elements of this night, lifted.

    Then her attendant cleared his throat and started talking.

    "I don't know what you think you're doing," Faba said, breaking the serenity, "but I know… Your reputation precedes you, and…"

    They stopped at a corner, and she sniffed. "Do you believe everything you read in the paper?"

    "I won't let you hurt him."

    "What?" She laughed. "Oh, down, boy. Who said anything about hurting anybody? I want to get to know him better; is that a crime?"

    "You…" Faba shook his head. "I know your type… If you want a toy to play with… Go elsewhere."

    She expected to feel irritated by his broken-record attempts at driving her away. She expected to find him pathetic. But all at once, as she listened, and as she saw his face drenched with the strain of his conviction, another strange, new feeling grew in her. What was it about this Mohn, that he inspired everyone around him to growl like guard dogs when she got close? His friend expressed his loyalty not only with passion, but without being asked, without even being known. Lusamine had many friends over the years, but she couldn't name one who would have stuck up for her when she wasn't looking. Backstabbing… she had always assumed it was the natural course of things.

    Faba, the longer she stared at him, became more flustered. "Wh-what… What are you looking at?"

    "Does he know?"

    "Does he know what?"

    She studied him and then folded her arms. "The way you look at him―the way you talk about him, even… you might as well scream it out."

    "I―!" Faba growled and stuffed his hands in his pockets, air flaring his nostrils. "I don't know what you're…"

    "I'm in the fashion industry, dear. I know your type, too."

    For a few seconds, he must have pondered lying, but he sighed and relented, "No. He doesn't know. Why, do you intend to extort me for it?"

    "You silly thing! You can't extort someone with hearsay." At that, she started walking again, flying past the street and toward a fountain. She sat down on its edge, only furthering his impression that she didn't actually intend to go home. "Now see here," she said, crossing her legs, "some day he's going to find a woman, isn't he? You can't chase us all off. Wouldn't you at least like that woman to be on your side?"

    At first, Faba stood a ways off, but the preamble to her proposition made him approach and scoff. "'On my side'..."

    "My father wants to hire Mohn for his new Aether project. It's a dream offer. Everything he could ever want. The trouble of it is, my father doesn't want to hire you."

    "N-no," Faba started to retort, looking greatly confused, "that isn't… how it is, where did you hear…?"

    "What did you do, to make my father hate you so much?" While Faba stammered obstinately, she shrugged and smoothed her hand down her flow of blonde hair. "You're right. It's probably not anything you did. He's just very conservative… Likes his men to be men, women to be women… He could probably smell the nancy on you."

    "You―!" He turned around, threatening to leave. "I don't have to listen to this."

    "Don't get huffy! I'm offering to help. I know my father. I know his hiring methods. I could ensure you two get to work together for the foreseeable future."

    Faba froze. He turned back, eyed her with extreme suspicion, like he knew this was some sort of trap, but couldn't resist it. His hands came out of his pockets and demonstrated his internal wrestling by pressing them to his neck. He had a pained expression when he asked, "What do you care?"

    "I can't want to help someone, out of the goodness of my own heart?"

    "You would do this… You don't even know us…"

    She smiled broadly and unfolded her legs. "Don't you believe in fate?"

    "I… I believe…" He pulled a look of disgust. "You like getting your way."

    Apparently, his answer served as good enough; Lusamine sprang to her feet, her heels clicking busily on the pavement, and stopped a hair's breadth away from him. She reveled in his discomfort, then pulled a pen and small notebook from her purse. After tearing out a sheet of paper, she slapped it against his chest and began writing on it, using him as a flat surface.

    "What―? Are you―?"

    "I'm giving you my agent's number. When you get the job offer, give her a call, and she'll get your message straight to me."

    "I―"

    He didn't get to complete his thought. She placed the paper into his open hand.

    "You and I… We're going to be very good friends, aren't we, Mr. Faba? Now, good night."

    As she happily whirled and strode away, leaving him behind, he recovered from his shock enough to ask, "I thought I…? Was walking you home…?"

    "I'm taking a taxi," she sang joyfully. "I live on the complete other side of the city, dear."

    He processed this, stuck the paper in his pocket, and sighed. "Of course you do…"

    The night was alive with light. Every glinting window, car, and lamp warmed the world with endless promise. She felt wrapped and held, as if the very arms of the city had come down on her. She could have called a cab straight away, but something possessed her, and she ended up walking a few more blocks, just to work the burning out of her lungs.

    >>MEMORY_DISC_2 RESTORE COMPLETED...
     
  6. TheAlpar

    TheAlpar Journey Enthusiast

    Damn, I really didn't expect we'd be getting a chapter like this. Then again, this clears up so much and it puts a lot of things into a whole new perspective.

    It doesn't surprise me that Lusamine's life was like that, nor that she never got along with her own brother. The indifference of his father is also something I would've guessed considering her personality. Also... Leblanc is like the most rich person last name I've ever heard, I love it. Fits them perfectly.

    The whole thing with Lusamine's relationship with Mohn and his own friendship with Faba was amazing and greatly written.
     
  7. Chibi Pika

    Chibi Pika Stay positive

    Hoo boy. While I figured Guzma's return wasn't going to tread the same narrative ground as the last time he returned, I wasn't quite ready for... that. Like him, I was constantly trying to find which parts were genuine and which were an act. Because there are a few parts that seem to ring true. I do believe she genuinely feels devastation towards being abandoned (not that that makes it a good reaction, but it's something.) On the other hand, the convenient glossing over what she did before he left. Yeah... (At least Guzma's becoming much more astute as a result of his dealing with her.)

    I should have realized Plumeria would have some shenanigans in store for the wedding. Having Team Skull crash the party brought some much-needed levity to the whole situation (plus getting to see Nanu's reaction and Bully's ridiculous posturing and Guzma's failtastic attempts to get them all in line.)

    And then... the memories. Even at 19, Lusamine already had all the cold, calculated tendencies she has in the present day, just with an added layer of childishness. Though it was kinda fun to see all that directed at a scumbag like Brooks. But man, seeing her set her sights on Mohn and do anything to get access to him. Both Faba's and her father's assessment was totally accurate. Which makes me wonder if it ever changes. From what we've heard (all secondhand, admittedly) it seems like the love Mohn and Lusamine shared was genuine. I'll be very interested to see how their relationship develops in these flashbacks.

    ~Chibi~
     
  8. dietofwurms

    dietofwurms i see stars

    [​IMG]
    Chapter 25:
    Memory_Disc_2: Ice

    Lusamine jerked awake.

    Her back ached, and no wonder: she had fallen asleep on the chairs in the hospital hall, with no more than a bundled-up coat to rest her head.

    Speaking of: her head was pounding. The scorchingly bright fluorescent lights above her didn't help, and as she adjusted to being awake, her vision cleared and gave her more context. The hallway was quiet for now, just the occasional nurse walking by clicking the linoleum floor with their heels. Lusamine's mouth had gone dry; her hair frayed and tangled.

    As she moved around and sat up, she found her purse tucked safely under her stomach and proceeded to dig through it like a fiend. A cigarette. She needed a cigarette. She didn't have the mental capacity to do the things she knew she had to do―the tasks that drummed through her head like a march. I have to… And then I have to… And then…

    God, she was exhausted. At least she got some morsel of sleep, even if it was the only sleep she'd experienced in the last forty-eight hours.

    She found her cigarette and lit up.

    Outside the window before her, snow fell over Lumiose. Though the winter solstice festival had passed, the string-lights and ribbons remained, adding little dollops of crystalline red, green, and gold on the otherwise barren landscape.

    -

    She went to the bathroom to flush her cigarette, blow her nose discretely in the stall, and try not to cry for the hundredth time. It helped to wash her face in the sink, but looking in the mirror made it worse; she looked ashen and thin, like a ghoul. Unfortunately, she had neither the time nor the tools to apply the proper cover. She brought out her brush to make her head somewhat presentable, combing out the knots and jagged shape of her hair.

    The time was eight-thirty in the morning, so she decided the call would have to happen first. Nikolai could usually be caught in his dorm, if called before his late morning classes. The hospital had a row of phones hanging alongside the front desk in the waiting area, and mercifully, she found them unoccupied.

    Lusamine grabbed the one furthest from the crowds of seated people, and huddled in the corner with the receiver. She dialed and prayed.

    She lucked out: Nikolai picked up.

    "This is Colress."

    She cringed. "I am not calling you that."

    "Lulu?" He sounded vaguely sleepy, but recognizing her voice perked him up. "Is that you?"

    She contained her frustration. "Yes, it's me."

    "Well! It's been a while, hasn't it. I suppose this is about Father."

    Nikolai had never learned the finesse of small talk, in particular when talking to her. She was family, and so she usually let him get away with inappropriate directness.

    "Are you at the hospital now? Is he there with you? Don't put him on; you know I don't want to hear him gripe."

    She lost her patience much quicker than she thought she would. "Doesn't he have a right to?!"

    "I don't need lecturing, Lulu―"

    "It's been three months, and you haven't visited once."

    "I've told you. I'm very busy."

    "Once, Niko."

    She could hear his defensiveness. "It's not as if I'd be any help. Just keep me updated on his condition, and if it takes a turn for the worse…"

    "He's in hospice care."

    There was silence on the other end.

    "They moved him there last night. The treatments…" She shuddered and pressed her hand to the wall to keep herself upright. "It's the end of the road, all right? They're giving him painkillers and that's about it, and I've been here every day, and he's not himself, and god, please, just come visit." By the end of her rambling, she hadn't completely melted down in front of the waiting patients and families, so she counted it as a success.

    Nikolai obviously hesitated, but waffled, "I have a project going on… I probably won't be able to extract myself this week… I can't make any promises."

    Hearing his distinct lack of concern caused a rise in bitterness in her. She complained, "You know he still wants you to run Aether."

    "Oh, please," he scoffed. "Haven't you told him what I've said to you? What a boring, pedestrian task! I have much more interesting work on hand."

    Of course. For all the effort Alban had put forth to convince Nikolai otherwise, the boy had remained obsessed with pokemon battling and never showed an ounce of interest in preservation work. He was probably in the middle of some experiment testing fighting strength, or something similarly juvenile. She groaned. "Perhaps when you come to visit,you could tell him yourself."

    "Fair enough. Now, is that all?"

    "Yes. That's all."

    He didn't even say goodbye. The line went dead in her ear.

    And here, Lusamine had hoped his turning eighteen would have spontaneously grown some manners in him.

    -

    When she entered her father's room, he was sitting up in bed, propped against pillows, and looking surprisingly spry. As he did every morning, he piled letters from well-wishers and official documentation from the Aether Foundation onto his lap, and with his morning coffee at his side, he started to rifle through them. In the several months since checking in, his hair had gone faint-colored and thin, and his cheekbones stuck out sharply in his face. Every gesture he took drained him, which was why he let his shaggy Furfrou roam the room to fetch things and perform other menial tasks.

    The poodle pokemon stood on the floor next to Alban's bed, but had its head resting on his prostrate legs.

    He looked up from his letters and saw her. "Oh, darling. Good morning." He snatched a letter reserved on his side-table. "I have good news," he said.

    She highly doubted that.

    "That Johto doctor I've been contacting… I received a letter from him." He waved it in his hand, jittery with excitement. "He says I might be a viable candidate for that experimental regimen he's invented…"

    Oh, no. Not this again.

    Lusamine hated that he'd come to this. Alban―a man who up until now held science to the highest place, the best skeptic of them all―reduced to calling up snake-oil sellers, witch doctors, crystal-peddlers, and quacks, all promising him salvation. It only took facing impending death to bring out the innate human quality of superstition.

    She curled her lip. "And how much is he asking for?"

    "You have to spend real money to get real results," he retorted harshly. He pushed the letter back onto the table. "I suppose you'd rather I just give up and die!"

    ...And the other, unwanted symptom. The man she always knew to have endless patience now snapped with little provocation. She did what she had learned to do: steel herself and ignore it.

    "A-anyway, it can't… It can't hurt, can it…" Dejected by her lack of faith, he patted his pokemon's white, furry head and went back to shuffling papers. After a moment of enduring silence from her, he flitted his eyes, then nervously lowered them again. "Did you talk to Nikolai?"

    "I left a message," she lied as subtly as possible.

    "You should try again tonight. Until I can take leave of this godforsaken prison, it would be nice to have someone―temporarily―at the Foundation, taking care of things."

    There was so much wrong with that statement that she nearly screamed. She dropped her purse in the chair near the bed, letting its thud speak for her mood. Alban didn't notice.

    "Oh, and… Does Ms. Wicke know about the room change? She's coming by this afternoon to pick up some documents for me."

    "Wicke?" Lusamine had to search her memory for a second, then remembered. The mousy, purple-haired, slightly heavy-set girl in glasses. She had seen her enter and exit his room a few times lately. "Your new baby-faced secretary ?" (She added a sultry accent to the latter word).

    He frowned at her sternly. "Young lady, you may drop that tone immediately. I told you, she's the daughter of a friend. She's also younger than you, so get your mind out of the gutter." He puffed and shook his head at the next envelope.

    "Mr. Belvedere had a mistress who was seventeen."

    Alban lifted a hand, wincing. "Darling, please."

    He started reading another letter with great focus, so she took a seat and folded her hands in her lap. Past his studious, arching posture, she could see out the window to his room, but in the morning light over the snowy clouds and flakes, the outside view burned a bright, overpowering white that hurt her eyes after too long. So she watched him again. Noticed his little tics that were so familiar to her: the way he scratched his upper lip when he was thinking hard, held his coffee with both hands when he sipped at it, and scratched the underside of his Furfrou's chin without looking. Suddenly, an unwanted emotion overwhelmed her, as she realized those things―meaningless, normally unnoticeable things―were, in a future not so far away, going to cease to exist. Her throat clenched. "...Daddy." (She was too old to keep saying it, but she couldn't help it.)

    "Hmm?"

    "Why won't you let me run Aether?"

    He didn't look up. He just breathed in a long, tired breath, and exhaled again.

    "All the hours I put into that place―all the work I've done for you―"

    Alban shut his eyes. "Lucienne…"

    "Is it because I'm a woman?"

    "Don't be ridiculous," he said. The accusation so upset him that he set the letter aside to address her. "I just… worry, that's all."

    Her undercurrent of grief boiled over into anger. "Worry about what? That they won't take me seriously?"

    "That's… a part of it…"

    "I took two years of law school," she pointed out.

    "Yes, I remember―"

    "And then a year in business school."

    He cut in, visibly irritated. "Lucienne, it's not a contest. You don't have to perform for me." He rested his back against the headboard and folded his arms. "I've seen what you're capable of. I admit it's admirable, but… From the time you were little, whenever you received a new toy, you'd play with it for a little while, and then one day, you'd grow tired of it and throw it away. Don't you see? How you grow weary of things when they don't interest you anymore…" He sighed again and looked out the window. "If I gave you Aether, what's to stop you from getting bored of it? And then molding it into something else―making it a zoo, or a circus, or a hotel resort, or god forbid, some sort of battle stadium, or amusement park?" He shuddered, the very thought wounding him. "I named the institute and foundation 'Aether' because the word means purity. Purity of mission, substance, and conscience..."

    "If I'm a flake," she growled, "Nikolai's ten times a flake, but you forgive him for that, don't you? He doesn't even care about Aether, but you'd shove it in his hands over mine, just because he has boy parts!"

    "That's enough!" Alban jerked forward, startling his Furfrou, who yipped and scuttled under the bed at his shouting. "You have lived a life of exorbitant privilege, and I'm not going to apologize for depriving you of this one thing!"

    Lusamine breathed in, feeling the ache compressing her chest, feeling all of her effort crumble in her hands. It wasn't fair. Alban, thinking the argument over, scooted himself into halfway lying down so he could rest his eyes a moment. The thought hit her again, harder, like a slap to the face. It wasn't fair. Her vision went cloudy with tears; she chomped at the inside of her cheek. "I don't―" As if a weight crushed her, her neatly-tucked legs buckled under her chair, and her shoulders sank until her hair spilled into her lap. Her sobbing came out throatily. "I don't know what you want from me."

    Alban brought his hands up to his chest, resting them there. Though his eyebrows wrinkled, he didn't open his eyes.

    "I've tried everything, I've tried everything, Daddy, and you act like it's not enough, like… Like I did something, and you won't stop punishing me for it."

    He frowned and very gingerly rolled his body onto his side to face away from her. "There's no need to get emotional," he muttered.

    Sniveling and weary, she managed to pull herself upright but couldn't for the life of her think of how to respond to such a patently ridiculous statement. The only encouraging element was it sounded very much like him. That was quintessentially Father. He could be standing by an open grave while the casket was lowered into the ground, and he'd scold the weeping widow for being undignified.

    The two of them sat in deathly silence, aside from her occasional sniff and his uncomfortable adjustment on the bed. His shoulders and back were sloped, thin, and dimpled with bones protruding through his shirt. Eventually, after tapping his fingers on the sheets, he tried to transition back into conversation with a bland observation. "It's beautiful weather outside. It's been a few years since we've had a white winter."

    She wiped her ruddied face with her palm.

    "I know I―" He hesitated. His voice got so soft that it nearly washed away with the snow, and his shoulders sagged with regret. "Margot... was such a tender woman. The most nurturing creature I ever knew―and so I always thought… She would raise the children, and I'd… But If I had known I was going to have to raise you on my own… Maybe I should have remarried, I should have…" He couldn't summon the courage to face her. While still turned away and gazing emptily out into the pale morning, he confessed, "I had no business raising a daughter."

    It wasn't that he was too cowardly to face her as he said it; it wasn't that he said this all far too late, after the damage had been done; it wasn't that it did her no good to hear this; nor was it that he, as usual, excused Nikolai of his flaws, as if Alban hadn't hurt him, too. No, what enraged her this last time was the transparency of his purpose. He wanted consolation. He wanted forgiveness. The only time she ever heard him admit he had ever done anything wrong, and he said it out of fear―fear of facing the consequences of his mistakes.

    Lusamine flew out of her chair, unable to contain her disgust. "I don't know why I bother coming here!"

    When she left, she could hear him weakly call after her: "Lucie…"

    But she kept going, and another cigarette later, she was on her way home.

    -

    It was supposed to go like any other fight. They wouldn't be on speaking terms for a few days, but by the next week, they'd be back to exchanging icy greetings, and they'd work themselves up to full conversation.

    They'd make plans.

    They'd negotiate some more.

    The doctors said he had months left, so they had time yet, they had time.

    -

    Then the call came several days later, late at night, almost midnight. She had already crawled into bed on account of an early appointment the next morning. Her bedroom wrapped her in suffocating, endless dark, and her phone rang, and she shut her eyes and refused to get up to answer it; she knew what it was, and the fact nestled in her brain and lungs and heart, but in her paralyzing, childish terror, she thought for sure if she didn't move a muscle, if she just ignored it, the ringing would stop, and fate would stop, and the whole week would reset itself and she'd wake up in a chair outside his hospital room, and he'd be reading letters and drinking coffee―







    "...Miss LeBlanc?"

    ...Had someone spoken?

    Lusamine couldn't feel her legs, but they rested on firm ground, keeping her from sinking down forever. In the whirlpool of muffled sounds, impressions of shapes and colors, she at first couldn't identify the location of the voice, but with focus, details came through the murkiness of her consciousness. Countertops. Nurses and doctors. Signs pointing out different wings of the building. People bundled in coats and hats, drowsing in their seats.

    The pantheon of Aether directors stood some ways off, closer to the hallway. She remembered now. They had come up to her with quaint, polite sorrow, acknowledging her briefly, but they felt no obligation to take their goodwill any further, and so like all deities in her life, they drifted and proceeded to disregard her entirely.

    They wouldn't even look at her.

    "Miss…"

    When the voice emerged this time, she was able to find its source standing to her left. Ms. Wicke. Under the glare of her glasses, she could see the girl's puffy eyes and swollen cheeks.

    "I… I'm sorry to bother you, but…" In her hand, a pile of papers balanced against her chest, and she hastily reached into it to extract a small letter envelope. "He wanted me to give this to you. When he…" Her voice trembled. "I don't think… he expected it to be this soon, but…."

    Lusamine snatched it without an expression of gratitude and opened it.

    -

    Dearest daughter:




    As I reflect on my legacy, I think only of two things: the Aether Foundation and my two beloved children. I have met with Mr. Rhodes to arrange my last revision of my will, and though you will find out soon enough the content of those revisions, I wish to explain them here, so that they will not catch you unawares.

    I am asking Professor Mohn Pavot to resign his position as Branch Chief and take my place as President of the Board. His ongoing passion for Aether's mission will no doubt lead it to a tremendous future, and I place my utmost trust in him.

    As for my children, I see now how I have failed you. In chasing my own dreams, I have neglected you both. As recompense for this sin, this is my last heartfelt gift to the two of you: I am removing the two of you from my will. All of my wealth will instead go to the Aether Foundation, where it will aid the conservation of wildlife and the scientific progress of man for generations to come.

    I know, dear daughter, light of my life, that you will interpret this as a punishment. But I do this precisely because I believe in you more than you can imagine. You are a strong, brilliant, beautiful young woman, and you will no doubt go on to achieve great things on your own. Nikolai, too, I know has the zeal and intelligence to accomplish his goals without depending on an inheritance.



    With all my love…

    -

    Ms. Wicke gaped as she witnessed Lusamine taking the letter and crumpling it into a ball.

    "Miss…?"

    "Of course…" Lusamine stared straight ahead, face drained of all emotion. She had nothing left. Nothing to feel, nothing to depend on, nothing to look forward to. "Of course, he'd take the opportunity to crush me, one last time."

    "What is it? What's the matter?"

    Lusamine threw the crumpled letter at the young woman, bouncing it harmlessly off her shoulder. She couldn't help but start screaming. "What are you looking at, you fat cow! Why don't you go run copies or something useful!"

    "Yes―! I―!" The terrified girl backed away, almost immediately in flight, and stopped only to pick up the paper and miserably tell her, "I'm... sorry. I'm sorry."

    Ms. Wicke hurried away. Silence again. Sweet, bountiful silence, into which Lusamine could sink, allowing her rigid body to be pulled by gravity toward the center of the earth, and be swung by its rotation. She had thought being alone would be frightening, but in those few seconds, it felt like heaven.

    ...What should she care?

    She had what she wanted.

    Her career still existed. Now, she could do whatever she wanted, without worrying about pleasing or disappointing him. She squeezed her eyes shut, forcing herself to envision the open, harrowing future, which she had until now imagined containing Aether, or at least an inheritance to build upon…

    -

    One of the directors interrupted her thoughts and said, "Professor Mohn."

    Her eyes shot open, and she broiled. Yes―show your face. She wanted to find this man, whom Father had continued to dote upon like his own son, all while pretending she didn't exist―this love thief, this cruel traitor who was set to steal what she had worked so hard to earn.

    And Mohn appeared from the sliding doors, face partially covered with a thick scarf against the bitter night weather, donning a thick coat, her favorite coat, the beige suede jacket she met him in years ago, but she couldn't think that now. He puffed with strain from running inside.

    "Professor Mohn," the director repeated, reaching out a hand. "We should talk―"

    "Just a minute." Mohn barely looked at them but with an uninterested glance. His green eyes roamed the room a second before finding hers, and they locked on. Without another breath or word, he came for her, ran at her, really.

    Her heart leaped in terror. She wasn't ready. She hadn't thought it through.

    "Oh, God, Lu. I came as soon as I heard."

    That face. Such a simple, seraphic, gentle face that didn't seem capable of holding malice, and which now, as he panted in front of her to catch his breath, twisted with agony, concern, and disbelief.

    "He's really gone, isn't he?"

    Was he crying? Why was he crying? It seemed everyone around her had tears to shed, while she had none to spare. She started to feel freakish and hollow.

    "What happened? It was so fast. He went downhill so fast―"

    Her brain spontaneously fired off the answer, which had been stated to her before in an equally dull way. "Heart failure. Likely from a secondary infection. There was nothing they could do."

    Mohn, overwhelmed by sentiment, made the faux pas of initiating the embrace, but within the second, she forgave him. His breathing was hot on her neck, while his face, body, and hands, clutching her in a breath-stealing hold, chilled her with lingering frost and wind-swept snow. He whispered and shook. "I'm so sorry. I'm so―"

    Lusamine slid her arms around him, twisting her fingers into the back of his coat. She didn't realize she was weeping until she spoke in breathy, wet sobs. "Mohn. Take me home. Please. I just want to go home."

    -

    Mohn wrongly assumed she meant her apartment, so when he summoned their taxi, he initially gave the driver said destination. She had to correct him: she wanted to go to the manor.

    Since Alban moved out of the manor and into the house at Aether Paradise several years ago, the mansion housed no one other than a minimal crew of part-time staff to dust the rooms, tend the gardens, keep the place presentable, and host any events that he decided should be at the family property. When Mohn and Lusamine reached the front gate, no one stood nearby to open it, so they had to press the buzzer and wait for the groundskeeper to trundle out of bed and let them in.

    The manor lay entirely dark and empty at the edge of the city, looming its castle-like form on the horizon. She thought returning to it might elicit some nostalgia in herself, but it felt less like revisiting an old friend, and more like picking at a corpse; the house's belly echoed emptily, its ribs blanched from the sun. The gardens, dead and draped in snow, offered no cheer to the landscape, either.

    Mercifully, Mohn had restrained his usually-chatty demeanor during this trip, giving her space to think. He kept his conversation minimal and directed it at the groundskeeper, who attended them inside. That was when she learned what the house staff knew: Alban planned to auction off the house and donate the proceeds to his foundation. Of course the move made financial sense; there was no use spending so much money maintaining a house no one would be living in. But Lusamine still felt the personal sting of the decision. As if he did this, too, on purpose, just to take something else from her.

    When she declared her desire to go out into the courtyard garden, the groundskeeper puzzled over the request. "Mistress… it's awfully cold outside, isn't it? And the garden at this time of year…"

    "It'll be all right," she said. She affixed her gloves back onto her hands. "Turn on the lights for us, won't you?"

    Lusamine walked with Mohn out into the courtyard, taking the steps down onto the cobblestone path. The even layer of snow had hardened in the cold, giving it a satisfying crunch where they tread, and under the lamp-lights in the garden, the surface of the snow sparkled like diamond dust. Since he didn't know her purpose in coming out here, he allowed her to take command and lead him toward a stone bench facing a frozen pond. She decided to make this her spot, so she peeled off and dusted snow from half of the bench and took a seat. Her thick coat made sitting on the frozen bench bearable, but it was nonetheless chilly.

    Mohn watched her, thinking whether he, too, ought to sit. In the end, he didn't. He folded his arms against his chest to ward off the cold and breathed out in thick clouds of vapor.

    She shivered and looked out over the yard. It hadn't changed at all from how she remembered it, though she most vividly recalled its spring and summer forms, before the trees shed all their leaves and the flowers were in full bloom. The walkways wound around evergreen hedges, and stone sculptures accented the center of open areas. Above their heads, the clouds rolled away, revealing the pitch black sky dappled with faraway stars.

    "It's so quiet," she said suddenly. It was true. There was no whir of insects or birds, nor the rumble of traffic she had gotten used to in urban life.

    Mohn followed her eyes over the area, thinking to himself.

    The frigid air in her lungs started to feel like water; she found herself breathing harder to get enough oxygen. A memory struck her, and a bittersweet smile reached her face. "Nikolai and I used to play out here when we were still little," she explained. She looked across the icy pond, out to the snow-covered paths and black, bare trees. "That was so long ago."

    "Not that long ago," he teased. "You're not an old hag yet."

    She shot him an unserious glare.

    "Have you talked to him?"

    Lusamine realized he meant her brother and shook her head.

    "You shouldn't wait; he needs to get up here soon," Mohn rattled on. "You two have a lot to figure out…"

    Lusamine's voice turned to ice. "We really don't." When Mohn looked at her in surprise, she explained, "Father cut us out of his will."

    "...What?"

    "All the blood, sweat, and tears he put into restoring our family, and―" Momentarily, amusement overcame her grief. "And now he's dissolved it."

    Mohn looked at her, struggling to read her feelings.

    "Oh, but who can really blame him? His children turned out to be such disappointments. Nikolai never became the conservationist he tried to make of him, and I was never the son he wanted."

    "Lu…"

    She snapped ferociously when she heard the creep of assurance in his voice. "And don't you bother trying to defend him!"

    When the conversation fell into awkward silence, she stole a moment to lift her purse onto her lap and dig through it. As she pried her cigarettes out, Mohn, hearing her bitterness, chose now to take a seat. Just as she had done, he brushed the layer of snow from the space next to her and planted himself down.

    He spotted the cigarette after she fumbled tearfully with her lighter. "I thought you quit," he said, as kindly as he could.

    Fire filled her lungs; the noxious fog from her mouth filtered into the icy air. She then balanced the stick between her fingers and laughed sourly. "...Couldn't stick with it. Can't stick with anything…"

    "Lu," he interrupted again. "I know you loved your father."

    A hateful taste entered her mouth; she twisted her fingers into the length of her coat.

    "You know how I know?" He turned to look at her, trying to catch her eyes, but she refused to meet his. So he nudged her, shoulder-to-shoulder, holding a coy little smile at his lips as he did. "You only get that angry at people you care about." He rubbed his forehead. "Believe me! I had to learn that the hard way."

    Though she wanted to, she didn't chide him for assuming her feelings. After all, he was right. If anyone had earned the right to deconstruct her―through pain and heartache―he definitely had.

    "I like to think I knew your father pretty well," Mohn continued. As usual, he understated things. "I don't know what he was thinking, but…"

    "It doesn't matter," she said. She fluttered her eyes, feeling the unbearable weight of sleep. Under the faint light of lanterns and the brittle breeze, she could hardly keep them open. The pressure of pressing her eyelids shut forced out tears. "It… Doesn't matter. I have nothing now."

    "Don't talk crazy! You have lots of things!" Mohn hoisted his arm upward, wrapping his heavily-coated limb about her shoulders to give her a friendly, encouraging shake. "Geez! You've still got your brother, you've got your career, you've got friends―" When he saw her unsatisfied expression, he paused his shaking but persisted in playing Pollyanna. "You've got us."

    Lusamine could have systematically poked holes in his other points of optimism, as her brother was in the wind, her career had made her miserable as of late, and she couldn't think of a single genuine friend, but the last example caused her to frown. "And who, pray tell, is 'us'?"

    "You know what I mean!" He chuckled nervously, like he'd been caught. "All of us at Aether."

    Aether?

    Lusamine had been wrong. Mohn wasn't the one who stole Father's heart. In fact, as she looked into Mohn's tender eyes, she came to the conclusion that he didn't know the prize he'd been handed. No; her father had taken in not Mohn, but Aether as his child, replacing his biological offspring who defied him at every turn. Her father saw that complex body of bureaucrats, scientists, workers, and directors as a source of certainty and trust.

    At thinking this, the swelling pain of his rejection ached all over again.

    Mohn's face fell. "Hey! What's wrong? Was it something I said?"

    "I don't have Aether," she said. In her shame, she looked away, concentrating on the slowly-crackling surface of the frozen pond. "He wants me to have nothing to do with it."

    "What?" Without looking at him, she could hear his shock with the clarity of glass. Mohn took hold of her shoulder. "But I thought―you said he had come around? You said you were a shoe-in―"

    "I was bluffing, Mohn." Exasperated, she put her face in her hands. "He's always been against me, but I thought for sure I had enough time to persuade him."

    "Then―" The uncomfortable question briefly stuck in his throat. "Then who's taking the helm?"

    Lusamine had a few seconds to ponder how to break the news―or whether she would at all. She dropped the nub of her burned cigarette into the snow beside her.

    "Don't tell me he was still gunning for Nick. No offense―your brother's crazy-smart, but I do mean crazy, as in I'm worried he's going to someday invent a death laser and take over the world."

    Mohn's comedic rattling-on betrayed his fear of her answer; if she was going to reveal it, she'd better do it now, before he unleashed the rest of his prattling stream of consciousness. After biting her numb bottom lip, she whispered, "It's you."

    "It's―" Because he wasn't thinking, he nearly parroted what she said before the words' meaning caught up with him. He froze. Blanched. A sharp exhale whiffed from his lungs, carrying no speech along with it.

    "I imagine it'll be quite the upset," she surmised. "The board will likely tell you when you report in tomorrow. They won't want to waste any time with the regime change."

    "You're not…" Mohn planted a hand atop his head, where he squeezed and mussed his hair. Contrary to what she expected from him―puppy-dog enthusiasm, elation at being picked―he looked profoundly disturbed by the idea. "You're not pulling my leg?"

    "Mohn." She found herself becoming irritated by his lack of gratitude. "Be serious."

    "I am being serious! This is nuts! He never even..." Mohn gripped his chest and appeared to reel in his seat, still wearing a shocked expression. "I-I don't know to say! I didn't expect this in a million years!"

    ...He didn't? Despite being practically adopted by the man, being mentored and watched after, being commended for his work in these last few years? Lusamine had a difficult time comprehending his disbelief. "It isn't that surprising, is it?"

    He turned to face her directly, consumed with guilt. "But you―! You worked so hard for this, how can I even think…?" Mohn put on a look she recognized well: his eyes darted from side-to-side, his mouth twisted, his brow furrowed. It was his chess-game face. Calculating his moves, several steps ahead. "I can't," he concluded, shoulders dropping. "I can't accept it."

    Somehow, his rebuffing offended her even more than her father's rejection; Lusamine bolted to her feet, nearly catapulting face-first into the snow with the force of her standing up. Bewildered, she snarled at him. "Have you lost it?"

    "This should be yours," he insisted. "You'd be a better choice, and the board's crazy if they don't see that. If I refuse to take over―it'll force their hand, won't it?"

    "What has gotten into you!" She launched her shouting at him where he sat dejected on the bench. "How can you turn this down! Haven't you any guts at all?!"

    Mohn got quiet. His eyes lifted, glistening from starlight. "I won't compete with you, Lu."

    Her heart wrenched until it nearly spilled from her chest. "Coward!" she screamed. "Useless, gutless coward! I don't need your charity! Do you think I want your castoff prize?"

    "...I want you to be happy."

    "Well, I'm not!" Rage overtook her, so that she sobbed as she railed into him. "How can I be? Everything I have, every bit of respect I've ever gotten, I've had to bleed for, I've had to fight for every inch, but you? People fall over you, draping opportunities in your lap, and you knock them aside, like they mean nothing! Do you think I'm fooled by your phony, hackneyed shows of humility? You! I see exactly what you are, Mr. Pavot! You're an―egotistical, arrogant show-off, and I'm not going to―what are you doing?"

    Mohn Pavot had fallen. He stood up from the bench for only a brief second, then plunged, landing on his knees in the snow before her. In her shock, she paused her rebuke, and he looked at her, his face full of star-struck wonder. He puffed out a cloud of vapor, broke eye contact, and started rustling a hand into his jacket pocket.

    "Mohn. What are you doing?" her mouth asked again, in spite of her brain moving at light-speed, well into her astonished conclusion.

    "I'm―" He muffled a curse and patted his opposite coat pocket after finding the first one empty. "D-did I―? Aw, shoot, don't tell me I―" Finally, he stuffed a gloved hand into his interior right pocket and breathed a sigh of relief. She couldn't tell if the redness in his face was from the cold or his embarrassment. "Ah-h! False alarm. Found it." He brought out a small, nondescript black velvet box and held it out. The ring inside was modest in size, but to her, it gleamed like the sun.

    "Marry me," he said, and her consciousness swam.

    -

    Five years.

    Five years had twisted by like an errant wind; she had blinked, and there it went.

    Five years since meeting him in the dining hall, since deciding he was worth a hunt.

    It hadn't been the fairy-tale romance she would later claim it to be, but most shockingly, neither had it been the brief, torrid catastrophe she initially sought. When she first dug her nails into him, she thought he would be an amusing distraction. That he would be good for a while, and then, like all men, he'd turn, and they'd break each other. In those first few months together, she held her breath waiting for the crash.

    And to her horror, none came.

    Some surprise mutation, she decided, rendered him immune to her defenses, allowing him to slice through her like she were butter: he saw past her prickly shell, the worst of her attacks rolled off his back. He could tease her, he could tell exactly what she was thinking. He gave her poetry books instead of diamonds, talked about philosophy instead of stock margins.

    When she tried to induce disaster, he'd laugh and forgive her. My little monster, he'd say, his accent still twanging, did you really think you could chase me off?

    So she'd run. Break it off. Tell him it was all over. Sometimes, she didn't even break up with him, choosing instead to leave the country unannounced. Every time―every time it became too good, too perfect, she'd spook and disappear. It was equal parts shame―an inescapable feeling that she'd never be able to reciprocate his goodness―and fear―fear that the closer they became, the more devastating and inevitable the crash would be.

    Over the years, she lost count of the times she ran away, and the times she came back to find he hadn't moved.

    And now, here he was.

    -

    "I broke up with you last week," was the first contradiction she could think to bring up.

    "I know," Mohn said, then repeated, "Marry me anyway."

    She marveled at his strange, idiotic, brazen behavior, and found herself flummoxed to the point of struggling to form words. "Y―When did you―?!"

    "When? Uh…" He gave the ring a sheepish glance-over. "I would be real embarrassed to admit how long ago I bought this…"

    "But―" She could hardly stand it; she wanted to scream. "You had it with you this whole time? Were you planning this all along!?"

    "What? No! I... " Mohn could see his gesture backfiring, so he hurried to defend himself. "This has been in my pocket since… Er…. Well, like I said. Kinda embarrassing."

    "You could have lost it!" Lusamine ranted, suddenly more angry at his lack of planning than the proposal itself. "Or I could have found it, and then what would have happened?"

    "Those are both very fair points, hadn't thought about that, but…" He started chattering his teeth. "...Okay, I know this looks comfy, but my knees are soaking through, and it'smighty cold―"

    Lusamine sighed. "Oh, for heaven's sake, get up." She reached out her arms, helping him up, uttering "ridiculous" as she did.

    He wiped down his soggy pant legs and looked expectantly at her. "So?"

    "You're crazy."

    "Is that a yes or a no?"

    "What are you thinking?" Overwhelmed tears formed at the corners of her eyes. "Of all nights to ask this of me―"

    "I'm sorry." His remorse sounded genuine. "I… I would have done it earlier, but… No matter how many times I asked him…"

    (...How old-fashioned of him, to await her father's approval and permission.)

    "...And I hate it, doing it like this, but…! I can't do this for another minute, Lu. I can't wait any longer. I think it's fair to say I've had the patience of a saint, so as much as I feel like a complete heel…" He shut his eyes, shaking in realization. "I really am a coward, aren't I? Waiting until he's gone…" When Lusamine did not interrupt to assure him otherwise, he sighed and shut the velvet case. He crushed it in his palm and spoke in renewed determination. "But in a way…! In a way, I don't care anymore. I don't care about anything. I just want you."

    Lusamine shuddered and told herself it was the cold. She tried to think of something―anything to stop him. "I told you," she said, throat hoarse, "you mean nothing to me."

    "Yes! You've said that and worse! And you've given me excuses! Every excuse in the book, every way you can think to send me packing, all your dreams and things you said couldn't fit me―you had a career to think about, you told me, you said stuff about family, travel, money, freedom, babies, politics… And I don't care about any of it! It all can go to hell, Lu!"

    More insults rolled off her tongue. "You're a hopeless fool."

    "I suppose so." He laughed weakly and rubbed the back of his neck. "Being in love does that to a guy."

    Lusamine was so affected by his zeal, that she almost answered him, almost blurted out her own, useless feelings. She stomped them down in time to bemoan her fate again. "This doesn't change anything," she lamented. "Even if you refuse the promotion… The board won't ever consider me…"

    Impatiently, Mohn planted his hands on her shoulders. "This is more important than that!"

    "I'm not going to be president."

    "Then be my wife!" Mohn could tell she was wearing down, so he pressed closer, until their foreheads touched. "I don't know the future. But I know―whatever happens―I want you to be in it."

    Lusamine knew what she would say, if she had courage.

    That deep in her heart, she knew too many truths: that she didn't deserve him, that he didn't deserve the agony she'd bring him, that she felt theirs was a star-crossed fate, that accepting this bliss opened them up to unspeakable tragedy in the future. She knew, she knew, she knew. Somehow, she knew it was a no-go, that the universe wasn't done punishing her yet, and she would be a cruel wretch to drag him into her wake.

    But she knew he wouldn't listen, and while her spirit was willing to prolong her self-inflicted torture, her flesh was weak. She was selfish. She wanted, despite not having any right to it, a little bit of happiness.

    Lusamine could hardly see his face, for all the crystalline puffs of air swirling between them. The water under the frozen pond flowed its quiet way, sloped and pushed by the lazy, hibernating flaps of Magikarp tails. The black sky opened and the stars taunted her with blinking bits of doom. Mohn's hands and forehead proved the only warmth in the universe in that moment, with his eyes like fading embers in the dead of night.

    She shut her eyes, and the cold slipped down her throat and back like the winding belly of a snake.

    She couldn't ever hope to fight him off. This insane, handsome, beautiful, brilliant idiot―who swore, against his better judgment, that she was worthy of intimate knowing.

    When she assented, she did it without words, working her gloved hand over his chest, under the scarf, between the buttons of his shirt. His heart thudded away beneath the pressure of her palm. Feeling it made her entire body want to curl up and burn.

    The kiss fell on her, broke open her veins, and flooded them with sizzling electricity. Where her ankles had gone numb from standing in untrodden snow, they now lit up. Warmth climbed her legs, enveloping her spine and limbs with crackling energy. Mohn fixed his arms around her lower back and pulled to give her the momentary sense of weightlessness, like gravity didn't matter, like he was gravity now, and his lips drew her in. She felt dizzy. Almost nauseous from the spinning and fireworks in her head.

    Was she floating? Falling? Her body and heart flipped in the unknown, and for a euphoric, lightning-bolt second, she didn't care to know.
     
  9. Chibi Pika

    Chibi Pika Stay positive

    Oh wow. Finally getting to see Lusamine and Mohn's relationship firsthand... it all fits. It was easy to wonder, throughout the rest of the story, if Lusamine had become terrible after Mohn disappeared. But then we got to see her as a teenager and learn that she was pretty much always like that. And now this ties it all together. Mohn was the only one who could actually keep her in check. The only one who could actually play off her effectively. So of course things became far, far worse with him gone.

    ~Chibi~
     
  10. dietofwurms

    dietofwurms i see stars

    [​IMG]
    Chapter 26:
    Memory_Disc_3 - Air


    "Why do I have to go, anyway? Why can't I stay here?"

    Lusamine shut the suitcase atop the bed, allowing the latch's clunk to disguise the sound of her sigh. She thought the whining would cease by the time the shuttle arrived, when excitement for the trip usually overpowered childish nerves. No such luck. As she pulled the suitcase out onto the floor, she gave Gladion a tired, subtly irritated look. "Because, darling," she said, certain she had explained this countless times before, "this is what we planned. As we have every year. Remember? You had such fun last time."

    "I won't be in anybody's way," he countered, voice beginning to heighten. "I could stay in my room and not bother anyone."

    She read his face. His golden locks had fallen into disarray over his forehead, covering his furrowed brow and intense eyes. He sat slothfully in his chair at his desk, limbs splayed out, as if he were melting out of his seat. Since she promised not to interfere with his dress style while he was on the trip, he currently wore a black t-shirt, because of course he was. It matched his mood well.

    Lusamine put a hand to her hip and tried to breathe in slowly. While Lillie had been a sweet, traditionally-paced child, Gladion was born early and seemed intent on continuing to live ahead of schedule. He became an eloquent chatterbox at one, an avid reader at three, and now, a surly teenager at seven. Lusamine could only hope this meant his actual years of puberty would be a time of cool, refined temperament.

    After pinching the bridge of her nose, she tried to reason with him. "...What kind of mother would I be if I let you hide in your room all day?"

    Gladion sank further in his seat, groaning over-dramatically, as if she was proposing a regimen of torture and not outdoor play.

    "Besides, it's perfect weather this week, and it isn't good for children to be cooped up inside."

    After she placed the suitcase near the bedroom's door, Gladion picked himself up out of his chair and sprawled over his bed to continue his grumbling. He might have gone on like this, but then the door crashed open with tremendous flourish.

    "He-e-ey!"

    The voice and the zeal behind it were unmistakable: Mohn.

    Having come upstairs directly from the labs, he still donned his lab coat and eye protection. His thick gloves had been stuffed hastily into his front coat pocket, and his red-tinted goggles sat atop his head, which made his hair puff up like a lion's mane. The music in his voice was joined with the patter of small feet as Lillie, high-strung as ever, toddled past his legs and into the room. The hyperactive toddler was prim and gussied up, hair braided into neat pigtails, her puffy sun dress bouncing with her springy legs.

    Mohn spotted Lusamine first and grinned. "Hey, hon!"

    "Hello, Mr. President," she returned, speaking in an overly-formal tone. "Able to pull away from your work at last?"

    "Ah, yeah. Sorry I'm late. Real mess down there today." He glanced over at his two children and puffed up excitedly. "How are my little monsters!? Ready for their big trip?"

    Lillie squealed in affirmation and latched onto Gladion's legs, which dangled over the side of the bed. "Yes! Le's go now!"

    Gladion didn't move, but narrowed his eyes at the ceiling with annoyance. He nudged his legs in an attempt to break her hold on him.

    "Get up! Get up!"

    Gladion didn't appreciate getting orders from his little sister. He glared at her. "...Why?"

    "'Cuz we're goin' to the beach!" Lillie clambered up onto the bed and gave the mattress a few, stern hops, jarring Gladion where he lay. "We're gonna eat ice cream! And french fries! Until we're a gajillion pounds!"

    While she jumped about, Gladion growled and planted his hands over his ears. "Ugh. Stop yelling."

    Their mother rejoined: "Lillie, be careful."

    In response to the warning, Lillie made her final bounce astride Gladion and landed on him stomach-first. The whole tousle made Gladion groan and squirm with even more animosity.

    Mohn, seeing Gladion's discontent, frowned. "Aww, what's wrong, buddy? You not feeling well?"

    Lusamine answered for him, "He's just being a bit of a grump."

    "I am not," the boy denied―grumpily.

    Between the couple, Mohn tended to be more successful in consolation and sympathy―to make up for his miserable track record in keeping rules and order. Now, he looked at Gladion, contemplated the problem, and asked, his words swimming with earnest care, "Is something wrong?"

    "...No. I just don't wanna go this year."

    "Well, it's a tad late to call it off now! Come on. Once you get on the boat, I bet you'll feel right as rain."

    Gladion, with sudden urgency, sat up on the bed, uprooting Lillie's weight. He whined, "Why can't we go together?"

    "Hey―you'll be with your sister! And Miss Wicke! Won't that be fun?"

    Gladion folded his arms and gave both parents a stern glare. His young mind had deduced something. "You're only sending us away because you want to kiss."

    "What?" Mohn shook his head in disbelief and clucked, "When has you being here ever stopped us?" He threw his arms around Lusamine's waist and, without warning her, planted a sloppy kiss on her mouth. (Lusamine pretended to be offended.)

    While Gladion cast his eyes away in aghast embarrassment, Lillie shrieked with giggles, climbing down from the bed and dancing around her father's legs, tugging on his lab coat as she chanted: "Me next! Me me me!"

    "Oh?" Mohn released his wife and stooped down, scooping up Lillie with a bear-growl. "Arrgh! Gonna eat ya up!"

    With Gladion and Lusamine looking on―the mother with eminently more amusement―Mohn and Lillie spun, Mohn mock-devouring her arms and face, and Lillie screaming with delight. "No-o! Daddy!" The girl, still giggling and ticklish, pushed his grizzled face from her cheek. She scolded him. "You're supposta kiss me!"

    "Wha-at? But you're so tasty!"

    His daughter gave him a severe look―as severe as a four-year-old could be, anyway.

    "Aww, okay. Where should Daddy kiss you?"

    She thought, and shyly pointed to her mouth first. "Here." And then her left cheek. "And here."

    Gladion, who had up to now tolerated their saccharine routine, huffed at the sight of his father landing loud, paternal smooches. "D-a-ad."

    Mohn must have thought he had successfully dodged his son's complaining; surprised, he looked past Lillie's head. "Huh?"

    "...Don't you want to come with us?"

    Mohn and Lusamine exchanged a meaningful glance. Lusamine wouldn't take the bait, so Mohn was the one who relented. "Of course we do! But your mother's busy, and Uncle Faba and I are doing some very important tests this week..."

    Gladion heard the excuse and thumped the soles of his shoes against the edge of the bed. He cast a dour look and snottily contradicted, "Mr. Faba is not our uncle, so you can stop saying that."

    Perhaps the young boy was hoping that if he upset the right person, he could be grounded and exempted from his vacation. Certainly, he chose the right sore spot: no matter how Mohn tried, he never succeeded in building a bond between his best friend and his children, and that fact continued to deeply grieve him. So though Mohn, a professional bluffer, continued to smile like a dope, Lusamine knew the comment had wounded him, if only a little. She barked at her son. "Gladion. I know you're unhappy, but that doesn't mean you get to speak to your father that way."

    "No," Mohn said. He still smiled not entirely believably, and adjusted his arm beneath Lillie to hold her closer against his chest. "It's all right." To ease the tension, he touched noses with his daughter. "Well, sugar-plum, what do you say we get you going?"

    Lillie lifted her head, staring into him with big, wet, suddenly-alarmed eyes. The realization that she was about to be separated from her parents must have only just come over her. "Kiss me goodbye?"

    Mohn easily read the stalling tactic. "I think I just did, sweetie."

    "Kiss Mommy?"

    "Got her, too."

    She pointed at her brother, who by now sulked his way through the doorway and into the hall, passing off his bag to the attendants carrying their luggage. "And Glad?"

    Mohn laughed. "I'll make sure to get him later."

    -

    The Kalosian sea was calm and blue when the parents waved the shuttle goodbye. Off in the distance, in the direct path of the boat, Cyllage City's coast glinted with its towers and attractions, offering sufficient entertainment for the little ones.

    Seeing the children go caused mixed feelings, but in the company of her husband, Lusamine was able to be honest. Her shoulders slumped. "It'll be good to have a few days of peace, at least."

    A few seconds of nothing but sea-breeze, waves, and gull cries passed. Mohn broke the relative silence with a sigh. "I miss them already."

    "Yes―you would. You don't have to put up with the sass-back all day."

    "Hmm." He scratched the scruff on his chin and mulled playfully, "I don't mean to be petty, hon, but sass definitely carries on the X chromosome."

    He was right―not scientifically of course, but in spirit. And she hated that he was right. Some days, she wondered if her father, from beyond the grave, had sent her Gladion as a form of revenge.

    "Well, anyway, they're still awfully cute," Mohn said dreamily. He waited a moment before coming up from behind her, resting his head on her shoulder, wrapping his arms about her waist to cradle her, and sliding in a question: "So… How would you feel about a third?"

    Lusamine shot him an unimpressed, coy glance. "Oh, is that your plan for the week?"

    "Hey! I'm not gonna hide in the labs all day." He laughed and kissed her neck, eliciting an interested purr. "Speaking of―it's back to the grind for me. What are you up to?"

    "Oh… I think I'll follow you. I want to see what my boys are cooking up."

    -

    They called it the Pinhole.

    It had a more technical name that she never remembered and Mohn never used, but in any case, Mohn cautioned against ever calling it a wormhole, which he insisted was an anomaly of an entirely different caliber.

    The Pinhole―it had the diameter of a quarter dollar, and yet it had taken years of time and massive expenditure of money and energy to create. Mohn talked about it like a third child, even annoying Faba by calling it their "baby," as its birth had been a mutual labor of love between the two colleagues. The Pinhole's nursery, to further the metaphor, was a large, hermetically sealed laboratory beneath Aether Paradise, separated from the outside world with walls of lead to prevent exposure to any errant radiation. (They had detected from its very inception the presence of strange energy signatures, and so they took every precaution necessary). The Pinhole sat at the center of the room, encased in yet another layer of lead, opened only when they administered tests. Most testing was done with remotely-run trolleys on tracks, but it wasn't unusual for either Faba or Mohn to throw on a radiation suit and trek the nursery themselves.

    Lusamine had only seen pictures of what the Pinhole looked like. It didn't have a clearly-defined shape. All she could determine was the hole was very small, very bright, and very delicate. Like a star one could cup into a pair of open hands.

    Although Lusamine didn't have the same scientific background or training as her husband, and so didn't know the fine ins-and-outs of theoretical physics, she prided herself in being relentlessly curious. She vowed to herself not to let any of her husband's projects escape her notice, and even if she could only grasp the underlying concepts in layman's terms, she sought a working understanding of everything. She knew the basics: the pinhole was a small opening in the fabric of space-time, giving them minuscule access to another dimension. They had measured this other dimension's temperature, taken samples, inserted borescope cameras and other recording devices… anything accomplishable with equipment they could slide into an opening less than an inch wide.

    Today, as Mohn often did, he took time out of his presidential schedule to "play" with his old project, though he'd officially handed project-leadership to Faba. It was the least he could do, since he wasn't able to give his friend the coveted Branch Chief title―Alban had been careful in specifying those he trusted with various positions, and Mohn, to Lusamine and even Faba's occasional vexation, was simply too gutless to take on the directors over it.

    The door to the laboratory slid open, revealing the observation wing: a windowless, claustrophobic wall of monitors and equipment. Faba, in his natural state, sat at a computer, poking around energy readings.

    "I'm back!" Mohn declared, only somewhat startling his friend.

    Faba recovered from his flinch and wheeled himself around in his chair, hand still on the keyboard. "Good, I was about to get star―" Faba spotted Lusamine and tripped over his words. "...t-ted. Oh. Madame."

    Lusamine folded her hands in front of her and politely half-curtseyed. "Mr. Faba. How has your morning been so far?"

    Faba bit his tongue, gave her an admonishing look, and wheeled himself back around. He pushed his glasses up against his face. "...Just fine, Madame."

    Faba. In some ways, he hadn't changed from the day she met him. He remained a charmless man, void of charisma, easily cowed, and for all the brilliance that she came to appreciate about him, he had yet to figure out how people worked―how to get people to cooperate with his genius.

    Working under Branch Chief Hawthorne―Alban's aforementioned pick―hadn't done the poor man any favors. Hawthorne was inferior in all relevant ways for the position: less intelligent, a worse planner, and the worst taskmaster. But he was an awful suck-up and egotist, lavishing praise on his superiors and never hesitating to take credit for the work of his underlings. These traits, Lusamine had concluded long ago, must have endeared him to her father. Unfortunately, this made for an uncomfortable arrangement, because Hawthorne generally disliked Mohn, and he hated Faba for his competence, for his willingness to correct Hawthorne in front of others, and most of all, for his absolute refusal to sing Hawthorne's praises and kiss his feet.

    Hawthorne wasn't in the labs at the moment. Lusamine could feel it in the air; outside of his presence, Faba breathed more freely.

    "I assume the children made it off safely," Faba said, attempting small-talk.

    "Yup!" Mohn cheerily took a seat at the other corner of the room, stretching his arms. "Kids are gone! Feel free to cuss up a storm."

    "I'll… keep that in mind."

    "Hey, I got an idea!" Mohn's eyes brightened with unstoppable enthusiasm. "You should come over for dinner!"

    "Oh! Yes! What a wonderful thought!" Lusamine clapped her hands together in an eager gesture. "You'll do it, won't you, Mr. Faba?"

    "I…" Faba slumped over his screen, fidgeting with his glasses. "I wouldn't want to intrude."

    "Don't be silly. It's been ages since we've had a proper meal together."

    Mohn chimed, "It'll be like old times!"

    Faba turned around to look at the two. He saw their strength of conviction and knew he wouldn't be able to fight off the both of them. He made a last-ditch effort at sabotaging the offer. "I don't… mean to be rude, but… What will be served?"

    The couple glanced at one another, puzzled by the question, until Lusamine made her deduction. "Oh, that's right. Mohn told me you were going vegan."

    "I'm…" He let out a brief, irritated breath at personal details being leaked in such a manner. "...Experimenting with it, yes."

    "Oh, not to worry; it'll be no trouble. I'm sure the kitchen staff will be able to throw some… manner of salad together. With nuts and berries... Grass clippings..."

    Mohn interrupted and declared fiercely, "Don't listen to her. She's just intimidated."

    Faba frowned and rolled his eyes. He resigned to his fate. "...Grass clippings it is, then."

    "Great!" Mohn said. "I mean―no, seriously, we'll get you real food, but great!"

    "Yes, yes… Wonderful… Now, Mohn, if you wouldn't mind…" Faba pointed limply at the controls in the corner.

    Suddenly, the president remembered his task. "Oh, right! I'll open the hatch for you."

    With her husband distracted by a monitor screen, Lusamine was free to walk the room as she pleased. She drifted her attention between screens and men, but eventually settled close behind Faba, even placing a hand on his shoulder as she overlooked him.

    He twitched with intent to remove the hand, but never did.

    She watched him work, his fingers clacking over keys at light-speed, his limbs as thin as a bird's. Furtively, she leaned into his ear to speak. "So? Another dietary change? Do you intend to try photosynthesis next?"

    "Very funny," Faba snapped. His side-eye and increased clackiness in his typing communicated his genuine feelings.

    "I mean, really, dear." She reached down and pinched her thumb and forefinger together around his wrist. "Eliminate any more food groups from your diet, and I'm afraid you'll disappear into thin air."

    The intimate touch made him jerk away suddenly, breaking contact. "Please," he hissed. "I'm trying to work."

    Ah, Faba. So easily flustered. She smiled sweetly on him. "Yes, I see." Crouching further close to him had the dual benefit of making him uncomfortable and giving her a better view of his monitor. Security footage of the Pinhole and surrounding rails. From the rather colorless landscape, she could identify the containing capsule for the hole, and a prepared trolley waiting at the outer edge of the room. The trolley was built much like a cannon, seated on wheels, with a metal extension sticking out of it like an outstretched arm, and at its tip was… something. A glass container of some kind. The track it rested on led straight into the path of the Pinhole. "Mohn has buzzed on about these tests. Whatever are they for?"

    Faba's typing slowed. He could never resist a chance to show off, so he readily began his explanation. "The plan is to expand the micro-portal by several millimeters. It won't fix our accessibility problems, but it's an ambitious task. It'll certainly bear some interesting data."

    "What's that at the end there?"

    "It's an ignition package."

    "Mr. Faba! Are you and my husband planning on blowing this island to pieces?"

    "It'll be a concentrated blast," Faba said. "Perfectly safe."

    As they bantered, the small capsule shifted and opened. In the constraints of the grainy computer screen, the Pinhole's luminescence translated into indistinct, white fuzz.

    "Are you staying, Madame?"

    "I can't say no to some fireworks."

    "It won't be…" Faba huffed. "...Whatever. Mohn, I'm sending the package."

    Mohn grunted affirmatively, and with a smooth stroke of his finger, switched his own screen to a view of the trolley. He sat up straight, starting to chew his thumbnail as he watched.

    By pressing and holding a command key, Faba made the trolley shudder to life and begin to inch along the track. The equipment must have been heavy, because it moved sluggishly, but steadily toward its target.

    The two scientists watched with rapt attention, but Lusamine suddenly experienced a thought and snorted.

    Faba dropped hold of the command key and blinked, clearly irked by the noise. "What... is it?"

    "Nothing," she insisted. She waved a hand in front of her face to try and dispel the smile on her face. "Only... It's a bit sensual, isn't it?"

    "Madame…"

    "Honestly! There's a rod, and insertion, and an explosive tip―"

    Faba slammed his hand down on the desk. "Woman! Will you be quiet!"

    With any other man, Lusamine would have been offended. But with Faba… She couldn't help it. She tittered. "I'm sorry! Don't let me interrupt."

    After glowering at her, he did return to the command key, moving the trolley closer by another few feet, but that, too, didn't last. A mechanical problem hitched the machine, causing it the jam and freeze on the track.

    "Oh dear, did you break it?"

    "I didn't break it," Faba rushed to say. "The trolley just… misaligned with the track again. It happens sometimes…" Faba wheeled himself around. "Mohn."

    "Don't worry about it, dear," Lusamine kept babbling, trying and failing to contain herself. "I hear plenty of men have trouble performing―"

    "Mohn, for God's sake," Faba repeated, his voice now stern as well as annoyed, "your wife is making a mockery of the scientific process."

    Without looking up, Mohn asked, "You want her out?"

    "Yes."

    Lusamine put on a gobsmacked expression and placed her hands on her hips. "Excuse me?"

    "A-a-all right." Mohn pushed himself up from his seat and trotted over, swinging an arm about her waist. Though amused, he still employed a parental tone. "C'mon, Trouble. Let's head outside."

    "I can't believe you're kicking me out," she said as he pulled her along. Despite her caterwauling, she wasn't being serious, and Mohn could tell. "It really is unconscionable."

    "I'm sorry, hon, but Faba's word is law down here." He twirled her out into the hall and pinned his arms in the doorway, gazing at her with heartfelt affection.

    She returned his googly eyes by sashaying close to him, pushing against his chest, and dragging a finger down his neck. She mewled, "What's the point of being married to the president if I can't do as I please?"

    He laughed and answered cheekily, "I can think of some exclusive benefits that you enjoy."

    "Oh. Shut up and kiss me, you awful man."

    He obliged.

    -

    Lusamine woke up to find the time was later than she expected. She had fallen asleep in a reading chair, next to a window in the library. The book she'd been studying lay flat and open on her chest, so she picked it up and noticed the light falling on her skin. The sunlight had gone a dark, rich bronze, an almost fiery orange. Evening was falling.

    Strange, she thought, as consciousness bubbled back into her brain. Mohn should have returned for the afternoon to work in his home office. Had something come up? She wracked her sleepy mind. A meeting, perhaps. Or a last-minute change in schedule. Something…

    The remnant slumbering turned the rest of her theories into a fog, but after getting up and replacing the book, the thoughts still stuck to her. She tried to walk it off and went out into the main hallway, expecting to hear the noise of children, but―oh, that's right, they're gone, too.

    The house was so empty.

    Lusamine paced the hall, hearing the clack of her heels echoing far across the floor.

    Then the doorbell went.

    She didn't think much of it. She fluffed her hair, descended the stairs, and only for a second wondered who it could be. It was too early for supper, and besides, the boys wouldn't press the doorbell, they'd let themselves in…

    It was Branch Chief Hawthorne, flanked by several employees.

    The light hit them in such a way that they stood in dark silhouettes looming over the doorway. She couldn't make out their faces, but there was something in how they stood there, not speaking for an eternity of several seconds. The weight of their presence crushed her. Her brain, as merciless as ever, read their body language and threw her into a spiral of dread. Her stomach plummeted; her vision closed in on her. She gripped the door as if it was the only thing keeping her from flinging into space.

    She just barely had the cogency to ask, "What's happened?"

    "Madame, you need to come with us," Hawthorne said.

    A scream snarled up from her throat. "You idiot! You idiot!" She felt herself launch forward, swiping her nails at him. "Tell me right this instant! Who died?"

    And because Hawthorne was a fool with the emotional sensitivity of a rock, he wouldn't answer. He just stayed solemn-looking and grave, stubbornly insisting she had to come with them, that they'd explain everything when they got to the Aether office. She only stopped screaming and pulling on his lapels because dizziness from sobbing overtook her.

    On the long, long walk to the Aether building, through the haze of her confusion and terror, she saw that the place looked… peaceful. Unaffected. It centered her, some, to look upon the ivory walls glinting calmly in the sunset, but at the same time, it produced frantic thought processes. In her head came the calculations no one ever admitted to making: what was the worst scenario? A thread of irrational thinking made her believe, for a horrible second, that she had to choose: your husband? Or one―or both of your children? Or a friend…?

    But of course it was already done, and in the end, the universe didn't honor her choice.

    -

    (Some nights…)

    (Some nights, when Lusamine lies awake, she remembers how he looked in that moment before she left the lab. How he sounded when he dismissed her with a casual, "See ya later.")

    (See. Ya. Later.)

    (His face rounded out with age, softening his cheeks. After more than a decade of marriage, he still had the glimmer of youth, and still had the guts to challenge fate and the universe. He poked holes in it. He laughed in its face. That's why he said it so boldly, so certainly: "See ya later.")

    (The brilliant fool.)

    (In reading the legends of tragic heroes, she learned it was hubris that inevitably conquered such men. Was that his sin? Was it hubris?)

    (And was that sin so great that he…?)

    -

    In the report Aether provided her, they sacrificed tact for accuracy.

    "We don't know all the details yet," Hawthorne had said. "But we know a wormhole opened in the lab, and the president… your husband… went into it."

    The desk before her was empty aside from a manila folder, in which she could only assume they had condensed all the facts of the tragedy into a neat, typed page. The sea of faces dressed in white stared at her, like she was an exhibit, like they were awaiting her response and meant to use it. God, they were probably recording her, ready to use her words in the event of a lawsuit―had lawyers been called? Had the police?

    She could only think in words one at a time. "Wormhole?"

    "Yes, it… It took him. He's gone. Madame, are you understanding me?"

    White noise. White noise. She strained her throat, able to say next, "Faba."

    "Mr. Faba's all right," Hawthorne told her. There was almost… regret in his voice. "He's in the medical wing. After the wormhole closed, the incendiary device must have gone off; we felt the shockwave upstairs. He's got a concussion but he'll recover."

    Groping through the soup of her consciousness, she found one last phrase to slur out into the painful light of unsympathetic faces. "My babies."

    "The children are fine. We just spoke with Ms. Wicke. We didn't… Inform them of the situation yet. We figured you ought to make that decision. Now, Madame, there's a lot we must discuss..."

    She couldn't breathe. She slid her hands out onto the desk, a false attempt at grabbing at the folder, but instead pushed it aside. "Then…" Finally, she lifted her eyes to look into the branch chief's dim, blank expression. "What do we do?"

    "Do?"

    She thought she didn't have any more tears to give, yet here they came again, spilling over her face. "How do we find him? How do we get him back?"

    Hawthorne didn't answer, because there was no answer, and a part of her knew that. But the tantruming child in her didn't; the part that loved Mohn didn't.

    -

    Mohn hadn't died.

    Dying, Lusamine might be able to tolerate. Dying meant knowing. It meant a body, or remains of some kind, and the assurance that whatever made him what he was―his soul, his essence―had been permanently taken away. Dying was ending, and she could accept it.

    But this… The universe had erased him, ripped the very cells of his body out of this dimension. His atoms would never decompose and return to the earth, or water, or stardust. He became a quantum physics riddle: dead? Alive? Both? Who knew? Was he suffering? Frightened? Stuck in a reeling eternity, or dissolved into mush? Was he anything? Nothing? Was he light-years away, or standing right before her, separated only by a thin skin of dimensional fabric? It seemed with every passing hour, her mind came up with a fate more nightmarish.

    Because Aether didn't know what to do with her, she spent the first few days after the accident cast out, in No-Man's-Land, wandering her house without access to additional information. The children remained on the mainland, for now happy and oblivious―she couldn't think of a reason to shatter their last few days of innocence, and having them return to Aether served no material benefit. However, that meant the days rolled together in lonely, meaningless, silent hours, lying in a cold, half-empty bed, watching sunlight slide over the wall and disappear. At times, she drifted asleep and awoke with a start, thinking, I had the most terrible dream, but upon reaching over to the empty side of her bed, she remembered, and every time, she felt the renewed sensation of hot metal skewering her gut.

    So with waking proving too painful, she retreated again into sleep.

    -

    The bedroom was so dark, she couldn't see her hands before her.

    What day was it…?

    Did it matter…?

    The length of her body felt stiff, like it hadn't moved in years. When she pulled up her knees beneath the covers, they tangled in her nightgown, and she had to tug on its skirt to free herself. She thought about getting up. Didn't, for a while. The all-present hush of ocean water managed to leak in through the shut window, and in minutes of sitting in the dark quiet, she heard, too, the patter of rainwater and rattling of howling wind against glass. A steep rumble shook the room, accompanied with a flash, painting the walls and furniture in a sudden, evanescent swathe of blue light.

    The air, repressive and black, made it difficult to breathe, and after sensing the room closing in on her, she rolled desperately out of bed. Her knees hit the floor too hard, but by grabbing the covers, she was able to pull herself to her feet. More light, dancing about the room like manic sprites.

    Dizzy. Nauseous. Starving. She stood facing the window, watching the shadows in her head morph into faces and monsters.

    Lusamine reached her reading desk by memory, taking careful steps in the dark, and between feelings its contents with her hands and the occasional waves of light, she found a nearly empty bottle of wine (which explained the dizziness and nausea) and, of special interest, pictures in frames. She picked one up with both of her hands, squeezing the glass beneath her thumbs.

    By bringing the picture close to her face, she could make out the imagery. Gladion and Lillie. Her children. Those two squirming, crying things―how she wanted to hold them close to her, absorb them back inside herself. In her dreams, she fantasized of dissecting the two, and extracting what remnants there were of Him to cobble together some Frankenstein's monster. Half of their genes, she thinks in these fevers, are his. Half of them. If she could pull them apart―if she could, with some spell or alchemy, rent apart how his and her traits had tangled together in those living mockeries…

    Trembling, Lusamine dropped the picture onto the floor. She had become used to her thoughts occurring without her consent, her mind trailing down paths she would normally never endure. Imagination seemed to carry no more sting, no more horror, when her reality remained macabre and gruesome by comparison.

    She stumbled away, struggling to stay upright. The mirror at her vanity desk startled her by flinging her reflection at her, and she fumbled for it despairingly, colliding with it by throwing aside the chair and standing before it.

    In the black mirror, she could see murky, disembodied pieces: an eye, strands of hair, a stretch of neck, a hand. And the closer she drew to the glass, the more strange they looked, twisting and revolting themselves, like writhing white creatures slithering in her vision. Her breath fogged the mirror, turning the last of any clarity into a faint ghost of personhood.

    She pinned her forehead to the cool surface, pushing into it until the glass crinkled with strain. "Mohn," she whispered.

    The shadow pressed against the glass on the other side. Her heart throbbed.

    "...Can you hear me?"

    The self-aware part of her noticed the slurring in her voice. Pathetic. Useless. She lifted a hand, banging her fist into the glass with a miserable groan.

    "If I died, would I fly to you…? Would we find each other…?"

    Silence. The shadow wouldn't answer her.

    "If I could only… tear this open…" She dragged her fingernail across the glass, producing a whining, painful squeak. "Only a little… Just enough to see you…"

    When it didn't work, her voice failed. Her face sank into the glass, as if she hoped to be swallowed by it.

    "Please," she begged, and her tears swirled like dark sky, "please, I can't."





    "I'm nothing without you."





    -

    Beneath the grumbling night, after a long and terrible silence, she felt the grief in her heart morph into anger.

    She remembered now, seeing her father's grief upon his wife's passing―his weakness, his falling apart, his hollowness. She remembered his disappearing into his office for days at a time. She remembered hating him. She was Gladion's age when it happened―

    And it was happening all over again. Was this her fate…? Was it a curse? Would it ever matter, how hard she beat back against it? Were her, and her children, and her children's children, never going to escape this rampant pillaging of their bloodline?

    ...No.

    If the universe thought it could do this to her, as if she would simply lie back and let it go… It had another thing coming.

    The wind passed by like a ghost, screaming and shaking her window. She snarled into the mirror. "I don't care." To prove it, she dragged her nails slowly across the skin of her forearm, until bright, white paths traced the length of it. "If I have to bankrupt this place; if I have to rend apart the very boundaries keeping this world from the next; if I have to shred this dimension apart―to find him―I will. Do you hear me?"

    At her wrist, there came the first dapples of blood seeping from under her nails. Like perfect pearls, they beaded and swelled, sitting atop her skin―until gravity won, and one after another, they fell, winding in delicate threads about her palm and fingertips. The wind still howled. She took it as an answer.
     
  11. TheAlpar

    TheAlpar Journey Enthusiast

    I am super sorry for my delay on reading these latest chapters!! Life got in the way and stuff.

    Anyway, great couple of chapters to come back to. We get much more of Lusamine's past and with each tidbit we get it becomes incresingly clear why she became the person she did. Her family was messed up, her life, her friendships, everything but her relationship with Mohn, and then he went and left her. It doesn't excuse her actions one bit, but it explains why she ended up this way.

    Amazing as always, I'll patiently await for more :D
     
  12. dietofwurms

    dietofwurms i see stars

    [​IMG]
    Chapter 27:
    Memory_Disc_4 - Water

    Lillie had left the window open again. Lusamine knew this because when she awoke that morning, she lifted her head and caught sight of a Wingull perched atop the bed, pecking at suspect lumps under the covers in a search for food.

    She stifled a cry of surprise and kicked at it beneath the blankets, to which the bird squawked and flapped onto the floor, waddling back for the windowsill. A second attempt at flight successfully led it back out into the open blue sky.

    Lusamine sighed and collapsed back onto the pillow.

    She glanced to her side.

    Lillie, in her pink nightgown, sprawled under the covers without grace, legs close to hers after a long night of the little limbs kicking at Lusamine while she tried to sleep.

    At her other side, Gladion, with more care, had nestled against her side, resting an arm over her stomach to keep hold.

    The Wingull hadn't woken either of them, nor had her kicking at it. Carefully, she reached over Lillie's head and took her pager from the nightstand. She noted the time. In a slim ten minutes, they would need to get up. She decided to lie back and wait. Sleep still hung over her like a heavy cloud, weighing down her head, and a few more minutes of this felt like heaven.

    Since the children were still asleep, she felt safe in uttering the uncomfortable truth: "At some point… We'll have to start sleeping in our own beds again."

    Silence, aside from the occasional puff of drowsy breathing. She reached for their heads and felt their hair tangling between her fingers.

    Grief was difficult enough without having to stay strong for the sake of others. Lusamine had a new position, new duties, new routines… And two children. Children, she realized, who could not be depended on to handle their mourning in a private, controlled manner, nor had the capacity to give her needed personal space. They had to be taken care of, on top of all the burdens she bore already.

    The two responded differently, of course. Lillie, being the youngest, was more adaptable. She screamed the loudest at first when she learned her father was not going to return, and threw the worst tantrums, but after a few weeks, she became accustomed to their situation and reverted back to the sweet, complacent girl everyone knew. She laughed; she played. Lusamine struggled between feeling relief that the event did not traumatize the girl, and resentment that her daughter had moved on when her own grief was still raw.

    Gladion, a hint more mature, had a more complex reaction. Realizing that someone so central to his life could be so easily whisked away had shaken the boy. He transformed into a somber, nervous child, awakened by nightmares and taking the world far more seriously than any little one should. While Lillie toddled obliviously about, largely unaffected by the emotions of those surrounding her, Gladion was keenly aware of the grief in the adults' lives, in particular his mother's. He became more clingy and more watchful. He hovered. Lusamine got to be self-conscious in his presence, because he observed her with such intensity.

    Cloyingly, she pressed them closer to herself. Soon, she would have to get out of bed. She would have to face another day, endure more meetings and power-plays. For now, though… The morning wind blew, punctuated with the far-off cries of gulls.

    -

    As Lusamine prepared to call the meeting to order, she noticed a few empty seats. Hawthorne's empty seat was no surprise, nor were the empty chairs reserved for the board of directors. One seat had been especially neglected as of late, but she overlooked that, too. The collection of important employees, primarily the managers and head of departments, sat at the long table, exchanged pleasantries, and chatted between themselves in a mundane, quiet manner, awaiting the official start. There were mugs of coffee, papers being passed around, and the occasional scribbling of notes.

    Among the whispers of employees, she overheard gasps and murmurs of surprise. Though she couldn't immediately hear the target of the gossip, the truth revealed itself when he arrived.

    Faba entered the conference room.

    Seeing him did not jar Lusamine as badly as it did everyone else; she had visited him regularly in his suite over the last few weeks. But the employees' collective surprise was not unfounded: Faba hadn't been spotted outside of his apartment since the accident (aside from, and Lusamine only knew this in confidence, his desperate visit to the board of directors, where he ranted and pleaded against their choice of presidential candidate). His reclusive behavior had been interpreted as guilt, insanity, depression, obsession. So to appear now, without giving notice, sent everyone into wild speculation.

    Despite the rumors, he looked rather at ease and healthy. He walked in, hands in his coat pockets, eyes avoiding contact. His clothes were neatly pressed and showed signs of care: an ironed dress shirt, necktie, and white lab coat. Without pausing to make sense of the murmuring and stares in his direction, he settled into his seat toward the other end of the table and leaned back, folding his arms in wait.

    Lusamine decided to call attention to his emergence. "Mr. Faba," she greeted. "What a surprise. It's been a while, hasn't it?"

    He didn't answer verbally, but neither did he fidget. He looked at her and blinked coolly.

    "You'll be working in the labs today?"

    "I suppose I might as well, Madame," he answered, deflecting her tone of wonder. "I have plenty to catch up on."

    "Indeed." She couldn't hide her pleasure; she smiled. "We're glad to have you back. Your sabbatical has certainly done you some good; you're looking quite handsome."

    An uncomfortable pause wedged into their exchange. Faba, evidently feeling the eyes of the room turning on him, recoiled at the unwanted attention. "Madame―" His face twisted with a touch of vulnerability, and the tips of his ears started to tinge pink. He tapped a finger nervously as he voiced his request. "I was wondering―if it were at all possible to speak in private, just for a moment, before we start―"

    She cut him off by glancing at her watch. "I'm sorry, we need to get started straight away. We have a guest who will be arriving within the hour, and I don't intend to keep us here long."

    "....Guest?"

    "Yes―we've all known about it, but you have been out of the loop."

    Faba looked ready to stammer something else, so she kept talking, delivering all relevant instructions. As she spoke to the staff for some minutes, Faba continued to eye Hawthorne's seat, noticing its vacancy. He frowned and stroked his beard.

    When the meeting finished, just as everyone began to gather their notes and ready themselves for the day, she stood up and addressed him abruptly. "Mr. Faba."

    He twitched to attention.

    "I know you're eager to get back to work, but I'd like you to accompany me for this business."

    The request clearly baffled him. He tried to think of a way to express his misgivings.

    "It's only that, I'd like a representative for the science department with me," she explained. "In case he wants to get technical."

    -

    Nikolai LeBlanc's arrival at Aether Paradise presented the Foundation with a unique challenge. On the one hand, the man was a son of Alban, a member of the founding family. But on the other, he had never before set foot on the man-made island, and with his recent legal complications, they had to take certain security precautions. Lusamine had provided clear guidelines: don't address him unless necessary; answer his questions succinctly; no pictures; no personal queries. He was to be respected as a guest, but handled like a hazard.

    As Faba and Lusamine ventured upstairs to the helipad, employees scuttled over the floors in a not-so-subtle panic. Everyone scrambled for their places, and once reaching them, seemed to stiffen and hold their breaths in wait.

    Lusamine had not seen Nikolai in years. Their last meeting in person was at their father's funeral, an event he probably only attended because Mohn threatened to fly to Unova and abduct him if he didn't. His presence at the funeral proved… muted. Chilly. She never figured out what exactly he felt―if anything―and as soon as the formalities were done, he hurried off, back to his precious research. Since then, there had been the occasional phone call, but nothing else.

    She wasn't worried. Nikolai might be eccentric, but he was rather predictable, and she felt she had a grip on his pattern of behavior.

    Under the open sky of the helipad, the assigned group stood in attentive rows at a distance from the landing platform. Lusamine placed herself between the rows, and Faba uneasily followed after her. The chopper, at first a distant, mosquito-sized speck, grew in size and gradually came to hover far above their heads. The roar of the machine slicing through air boomed over the atmosphere, and as it lowered, the noise and impact shuddered the platform under their feet. Then, with time, the helicopter aimed its landing, sending rushing pulses of wind against them, whipping up hair, coats, and anything else not pinned tightly to their person.

    From the small distance away, she could see him―a suggestion of him, anyway. Once the helicopter touched ground and the motor sighed release, an Aether attendant stepped out, followed next by Nikolai, who slid easily out under the slowing whirl of blades.

    As he approached, he glanced at a tablet of some kind, then replaced it into his front pocket.

    With age, he had sprung up to her height, gone even more impossibly spindly, and had adopted a certain swagger with his recent infamy. He wore a trim black suit and shoes, and a pristine double-breasted lab coat, buttoned conservatively once over his stomach, allowing its lapels, belt, and bottom flaps to wave about freely in the wind. The dramatic swoop of blue hair added to his over-the-top flair.

    Though he should have gone to Lusamine first―it was only polite―in his typical, idiosyncratic way, he addressed the various attendants instead, shaking their hands and greeting them. As they were used to being ignored, the gesture made them more uncomfortable than included.

    "Ah! Hello. I'm Colress. Nice to meet you. And―so nice to meet you, I'm Colress―"

    He might have gone on to greet the janitorial workers downstairs if she didn't intervene. "Nikolai," she said, calling his attention. Did he really have to insist on going by that moniker? she wondered. Especially now that it's been plastered in the news? "I'm glad to see you've made it safely."

    Nikolai twirled, saw her, and released a pleased sound. "Lulu." He glided over to her, taking up her hands, planting a kiss on her right hand. He threw out a few gushing phrases in French, but his years in Unova had laid ruin to his accent and tones.

    "Your French has suffered," she told him flatly.

    With a ragged, remorseful sigh, he wrapped her hands in his and pressed them to his chest. He put on the most nauseatingly sympathetic voice he could muster. "Oh, Lucie. I came as soon as I could."

    "It's been five weeks," she said, "so I doubt that's true."

    "There's a perfectly reasonable explanation."

    A few seconds went by without elaboration. Lusamine arched an eyebrow. "...Which is…?"

    Nikolai, his bluff called, hastily cast his eyes on Faba. "Hmm―yes―look here! A new face."

    Faba was about to snip at him, but Lusamine made the correction. "He isn't new, Niko," she contradicted gently. "This is Mr. Faba. He's been with Aether since the beginning. He's one of the leading researchers here."

    Nikolai blinked, a blank look overshadowing his face.

    "You should have seen him at the funeral," she added.

    That last detail must have hit a nerve, because Nikolai broke the conversation path and foisted his hand out at Faba. "It's nice to meet you. I'm Colress."

    But Faba didn't take his hand; he glanced at Lusamine. "Your brother is Colress," Faba said, clearly stricken with shock.

    "You didn't know?" The more she thought about it, the more she realized this open family secret had never been discussed with the man.

    "The scientist who joined and controlled that terrorist cult in Unova," Faba went on. "And helped said cult freeze over the entirety of Opelucid City."

    If Faba were her child, Lusamine might have tugged on his ear.

    But Colress gasped and smiled broadly. "Lulu! You didn't tell me I had an enthusiast in your midst."

    Faba curled his lip and grumbled, "I wouldn't exactly…"

    "No, no, the pleasure's all mine!" Colress swooped in at him, this time forcefully taking up his hand and giving it a shake. He leaned in conspicuously to tell him, "But, for future reference, you should remember to include 'allegedly' in your statements: as in, 'allegedly' joined a terrorist cult, and 'allegedly' froze Opelucid City. It's more technically correct."

    Faba snapped back his hand, glowering.

    "Anyhow, I'm not surprised by the confusion. The news media was very reluctant to put this―" (Nikolai cheekily waved at his own face.) "―Gorgeous visage on-screen, and my sister refuses to address me properly."

    Lusamine could no longer contain it: she rolled her eyes and turned, waving for the group. "Let's head downstairs."

    -

    To Lusamine's increasing irritation, Colress continued to give no indication of his intentions. Since announcing his desire to visit, he only vaguely referred to wanting to "see her" and "talk things over," which for a normal sibling might mean emotional consolation and support. But she knew better. From the moment he stepped out of the helicopter, she saw what he was doing: he was sniffing the air, searching for blood. Searching for opportunity. He admired the great white halls of the facility as they walked them, but his regard for the place had a cutthroat, hungry quality to it, like a man approving of an animal about to be slaughtered and eaten.

    When they exited the elevator and stood at the front entrance, just before the preservation area, Lusamine stopped the group and spoke to her brother directly.

    "Seeing as it's your first time at Aether Paradise, I thought you might want a tour of the facility."

    "Oh, that won't be necessary right now," Colress said, slicking his hair back with his hand. He seemed to be counting heads over at the front desk. "That will come in due time."

    Both Lusamine and Faba shot him a confused look. When he refused to explain himself, Lusamine cleared her throat and folded her hands before her. "Nikolai―perhaps you can excuse me for asking, but what exactly did you come for? When you requested this visit, you weren't especially specific in your plans. Is there something you want?"

    He pretended to be shocked by the latter accusation; he set his eyes on her, looking at her more as a stepping stone than a newly-widowed sibling. "I do not want you to worry one bit," Colress purred. "I'm here for you."

    "...Are you."

    "Why, yes! I know how difficult it is for you to accept help in times of difficulty. But everything's going to be all right," he said, and then bowed deeply with one hand at his chest and another firmly wrapped against his back. "Because I, Nikolai, Baron de LeBlanc, will gladly accept the position of President of the Board."

    There it was. Lusamine didn't know whether to be angry at him for his arrogance, mock him for his tardiness, or pity him for his naivete. To appear suddenly like this―with no strategy, no claim, just to throw his name into the ring, five weeks late, no less?

    Faba expressed his disbelief before she did. "Did… Did you hit your head very hard, or…?"

    "Did you think that's all it would take?" Lusamine asked, more diplomatically. "Showing up?"

    "Well of course! Father always intended me to lead the Foundation in his stead."

    "That he did," Lusamine replied, between clenched teeth. "But you might also remember rejecting the idea. 'Boring,' 'tedious,' you called it―"

    "Ah, please! The words of a zealous youth!" He tutted with a dismissive wave of his hand. "You know how it is. We mellow in our age. Besides, I have traveled well, made my discoveries, and led the life of an independent researcher. I daresay I've had enough adventure. It's time for the prodigal son to return to his father's house, don't you think?"

    She decided to let him down easy. "You tarried too long, Niko. The position has already been given to me."

    Colress gawked at her, then at Faba, then at the few employees standing nearby. "Surely you jest." He read their expressions and lifted his hands in an aghast shrug. "What a queer joke you're playing!"

    "There's no joke, I assure you," Lusamine said.

    "My dear sister…" He sighed and shook his head. "While I don't doubt your commitment to the Foundation… Certainly even you can see you are not equipped for such a position. This is a place of research, medical science, and preservation. Not a fashion runway."

    (Lusamine smiled darkly to disguise her feelings; Faba, not so subtly, twinged.)

    "How did you ever convince the Board to back you? Used your feminine wiles, I suppose."

    "I resent the implication," Lusamine replied, though she still smiled glowingly, like everything about this amused her. "They are all happily-married men, I assure you."

    "Don't be so coy―we both know that's never stopped you."

    "You―!" Quite suddenly, Faba, who had until now stood stock-still, burst with repressed rage. In a shrill, hysterical tone, he howled, "How dare you address Madame in such a disrespectful manner! She has infinitely more right to the position than you; you've never even set foot in this place!"

    After he finished, the two siblings stared at him in shock―and Lusamine burst into ringing laughter. Confused, Faba clammed up and looked at her.

    "Oh, Mr. Faba!" she said, placing a hand on his shoulder, "There's no need to be so serious." With the conflict deflated, Lusamine made a decision. She moved, stepping toward the conservation area and motioning for her brother. "I think we ought to take a walk." When her staff, including Faba, shuffled readily, she quickly told them, "My brother and I need a few minutes to ourselves. Would you mind waiting here?"

    Of course it wasn't a request. In a brazen gesture of familiarity, she took Colress's arm, pulling him along and up the ramp toward the glass-walled greenery.

    -

    If there was one aesthetic element inherited from her father that Lusamine worked to maintain, it was his love of gardens. When he first moved to Aether Paradise to work full-time, he ordered construction of the personal garden behind their home, and worked tirelessly to maintain an environmental biome in the main building, in which he envisioned injured, abandoned, or otherwise helpless wildlife could continue to live naturally, without being captured and contained. The walkways over the creatures' homes allowed employees to observe the pokemon, as well as navigate the area without causing too much stress or damage to the habitats. Alban believed the animals deserved a space where they could flourish and live as they would outside, so he transplanted everything from the mainland. The trees, the bushes and grasses, the soils, the rocks, the sand, the flowers. Even the water filling the ponds and pools was imported from the river at the coastline.

    Colress, not complaining about his sudden extraction, walked with her on the platforms, and he looked about, identifying the individuals of various species scurrying underneath the observation deck: small brush mammals frolicking in grass, reptiles lounging on rocks, marine life soaking and swimming in pools. Lusamine stopped them both at a platform close to the center of the room, where they were granted some shade by some tall, proud oak trees.

    She let go of him.

    "Mon petit frère," she said, "let's not fight."

    "I don't think I could take you in a fight," he replied, laughing. He rested a hand on the guard rail. "Nor do I want to."

    "Then what is this nonsense about?"

    "Honestly? I was hoping you didn't want the position."

    Lusamine scoffed. "Oh, I see. You came to take this burden off my hands, is that it? You were going to do me a favor?"

    "What can I say? I try to be generous." As Colress considered saying something else, he was briefly interrupted by the flapping and perching of a red Fletchling on the guard rail, near his hand. The bird twitched, hopped along the rail, and blinked at the unfamiliar visitor. Colress awarded its bravery by greeting it― why, hello, friend!―and sifting through his pockets for an offering. While he searched, he addressed Lusamine again. "I only mean, now that you have two children to think of... Wouldn't you rather focus on raising them?"

    "You have never met my children," Lusamine growled. "Do not presume to know what's best for them."

    "But think of what an advantage it would be!" Colress put a hand to his chest in a show of passion. "If I lived here, I would be so close to my niece and nephew… It would be good for them to have a man around; don't you agree?"

    "There are men enough on Aether Paradise."

    Colress burst into a cheerful cackle. "Yes, I suppose! Like that funny sidekick of yours!" He found a cracker, and broke off a piece of it, allowing the Fletchling to peck at it from his fingers. "You can exhibit some peculiar taste."

    "I know why you're really here," she interjected, voice dipping into a cool, frigid tone. Hearing the sharpness in her voice caused the Fletchling to startle and zip away into the trees. "And it isn't because you've suddenly discovered a passion for charity."

    "You think you know me so well? Let's hear your theory."

    Without hesitation, Lusamine began to explain, "You've been working with someone willing to fund your research, no doubt in exchange for your talents. But your 'patron' has… Shall we say… Gone with the wind." Lusamine watched the edges of his eyes, hoping to see the slightest strain. But he had always been a hard one to fluster. "Your funding has dried up, and you still have projects that require ample money. So, what better place to turn into your personal playground?"

    "You always assume the worst of my intentions," Colress complained. He stuck out his bottom lip in a mockery of a pout. "Suppose you're right; you can't tell me you aren't thinking of doing the same thing. Or have you bought into this charity nonsense after all?"

    Beneath the dapples of sunlight through the trees, for a second, she glowed with ethereal, matronly light. "I've come to believe in the Aether Foundation's capacity to bring good into this world."

    Colress mulled on her statement and guffawed. "You know what I've learned about cults? Their leaders don't usually believe their own teachings... Until they stay in it too long. Then they start to fall for their own rubbish." He clucked at her, disappointed that she, too, was fallible. "You've gone and brainwashed yourself."

    "Perhaps," she admitted. "But it makes no difference. I'm the president, and there's no more to say on the matter." Lusamine didn't keep eye contact with Colress long enough to measure any of his disappointment. She turned heel toward the exterior exit, planning to stride out and leave him to follow after. A rush of satisfaction hit her―the sort that comes from snatching a toy out of a younger sibling's hands and claiming it for one's own. But a creeping, more mature awareness of risk almost immediately dampened her gratification. Sending him away empty-handed would be pleasurable, but also a danger. She paused in mid-step. She took in a breath. Time to swallow a bit of pride. "Yet… As president, I can extend certain gestures. I will set aside a sum of money for your research. Let's call it an endowment, perhaps, in the interest of scientific progress. It should keep you comfortable until you find a more permanent patron."

    Colress lifted his head at her in surprise, looking at her even when she turned her back to him. "You would do that for me?"

    "Of course. So long as you agree to my terms."

    "Hmm. I should have known." He shrugged. "I'm listening."

    "I see through your facade of innocence, Niko. You're a dangerous man."

    It was as if she spoke magic words, lifting the glamour. The boyish softness of his expression narrowed, his eyes dropping to dark half-slits, his mouth curling into a smirk. "You really think so?" (Even his voice took on a dripping, rumbling purr to match the catlike sharpening of his face.) "You flatter me."

    "If you take this grant, you must agree to stay away from Aether―and my family."

    The shadow lifted; the sparkle resumed in his eyes. He clapped his gloved hands together and grinned amiably. "Oh! Well! If that's what you want from me, I suppose I have no choice!"

    Lusamine absorbed his satisfaction with the deal and went quiet.

    Colress could have shut up and taken the money without any more babbling for favor, but she felt him watching her back. Perhaps he was unnecessarily overcome with sentiment, or perhaps he thought there remained some unplucked advantage. He studied her. Then he said, "Do you have regrets, sister?"

    Lusamine remained silent.

    "My former employer liked to say that regret is a fool's errand. I'm inclined to agree, but I'm human, after all. I think often now of our childhood. We should have gotten along better." He smiled again―that bright, sweet, saccharine smile they both inherited from their father. But as he spoke, a hint of genuine lament shaped his grin. "Can you imagine? What a force to be reckoned with, the two of us would have been side-by-side!"

    ...Was he being genuine? Was he playing at something? She couldn't tell with him anymore. She fixed her fingers against her palm, until her nails pressed small welts into the flesh of her hand. "It's time for you to leave," was her only answer. She started to walk.

    When they reached the group outside, she waited for the group to disperse, leaving her only with Faba.

    "You know what I've realized?" She turned to him, seeing his nerves and ignoring them. "We never had that dinner."

    It took Faba a moment to remember what she was referring to. Recalling it pained him, as evidenced by a sudden wince. "Oh." He shook his head, trying to weasel his way out of it. "I don't expect you to…"

    "How about tonight? We have much to discuss."

    Lusamine could see it in his eyes: he was making furious calculations in his head, with no good outcomes visible to him. He would say yes―he would arrive later that evening, with the same, deer-in-headlights look he gave her now―and she would make one more move.

    -

    Faba stared at his glass of water as it rested on the table. He hadn't touched it.

    Faba was not commonly invited by anyone as a dinner guest, for justifiable reasons. He had never been the sort to chat, which made him rather miserable company. He also expressed a modicum of discomfort in eating around others, like he believed it to be a weakness he didn't wish to expose. As a non-social sort, he preferred the isolation of his suite or lab, where he could fix food that matched his ever-more-inscrutable preferences and avoid others' commentary. Lusamine had come to understand this as not simple picky eating, but as yet another strand to his web of neuroticisms. A symptom of underlying complexes.

    It all added up. She liked that about him. His flaws, his eccentricities―they all connected, in neat, categorical terms.

    The light in the dining room had gone dim in the evening, leaving only the candle-like glow of the overhead chandelier. Lusamine sat at the head of the table with a shallow glass of wine, and placed her guest at the seat adjacent to her. The children were eating in the family room, leaving the two of them alone.

    This intimacy and privacy set Faba on edge. He sat stiff-backed and still, waiting for her to initiate either action or speech. To make him uncomfortable, she allowed this to go on too long, sipping at her wine and gazing vacantly at the opposite wall.

    "Hmm."

    That noise alone coming from her throat was enough to fluster him. He gripped the nearest edge of the table.

    "The meal should be ready momentarily," she blathered. The meal actually was ready, but the time wasn't right. She softened her eyes and locked them with his. "So, Mr. Faba. How was your first day back?"

    "I have… Nothing to complain about."

    "I'm glad."

    Faba shifted his eyes. He tried to reciprocate. "How―" Just then, he must have realized asking her a mundane question about her transition might be inappropriate, so he took a hard turn. "How are the children?"

    Lusamine gleamed with a smile. That he pretended to care was a sign of care in itself, to her mind. "Children are more formidable than we give them credit," she said. "At times like these…" Her voice slowed, then soured as her smile fell. "At times like these… Age can be a disadvantage."

    Surprised by her sudden, downcast introspection, Faba searched her expression. He slipped his hands flat onto the surface of the table, like he meant to reach out, or pick himself up, but he did neither.

    "Mr. Faba. Earlier today, you said you wanted to speak to me in private. What was it you wanted to talk about?"

    "Oh… I only... " He took in a breath. "I wanted to congratulate you. As our new president."

    "That's kind of you. It was hardly a herculean effort."

    "So… You didn't, erm―face any opposition, or―"

    "Oh, no. Hawthorne might have thought about vying for it, but he saw it wasn't in the cards."

    "That's, that's good. You deserve it." ...He couldn't help himself, could he? An intellectual he might be, but he didn't have the mental wherewithal to play political games, especially at such high risk. He knew he had bungled his attempt at grabbing power, and he must have felt the axe hovering over his neck, ready to fall when his betrayal to come to light. He overcompensated for his fear, babbling in transparent fear: "I just want you to know, I support you, and I'm committed to Aether under your management, one hundred percent."

    "Oh, Faba." She shook her head in disgust at his groveling. "Don't be silly; I know that already. This isn't really what you wanted to tell me, is it?"

    Faba clammed up.

    "Darling―I'm not dense. I know what's bothering you." Lusamine reached across, placing a hand atop his wrist where it rested on the table. She squeezed, communicating meaning through the pressure that made Faba recoil. She gave him a second to squirm at the ambiguity of her statement―to tease him with the possibility that she knew―then, in a sweet, consoling tone, she whispered, "We found comfort in one another. That's all it was."

    That succeeded in snapping him out of his mopey stupor; he went white with anger, yanking free his hand and shuddering, barely able to form words. "I don't―!" His nostrils flared with bristly exhale. "Madame―I choose not to know what you're talking about."

    Lusamine was not surprised by his hostile response. He had more reasons than she to find the whole matter vile and unpleasant. Still, she frowned. "There are more mature responses, you know."

    "I don't care," he snapped. "It was―" He about bit his tongue off in frustration, then flitted his eyes away and crumpled in his seat. At last, he plucked his water from the table to drink from it. "It was a mistake, and I―wish to talk about anything else."

    She could have pushed the matter. Honestly, though, she wasn't sure it would do any good, and besides, the door out to the kitchen opened. Dinner was served.

    -

    The incoming servant placed the two plates before them, arranged only with a filet mignon at the center of each platter. The meat had been lovingly pan-seared in butter; the skin of it still crackled and steamed, and it rested atop a pool of its own crimson juices, some of which gummed about the crisp edges.

    Lusamine waited for Faba to say something. He didn't say a word. His mouth opened, as if ready to speak and point out her mistake, but just as quickly, he shut it. Surely he knew that she hadn't made a mistake. Surely he knew that she meant something by it.

    She ignored his blanched face and told the servant, "Thank you. But―could you be a dear and get a glass of wine for Mr. Faba?" She looked directly at him. "You can't eat a steak with only a glass of water. We're not barbarians."

    "Yes, Madame, right away."

    Again, Faba stiffened like he wanted to object, and again, he silenced himself.

    With the wine and platters set, and the servants sent away for the remainder of the meal, the two sat in momentary silence. She watched his change in demeanor, as it twisted and revealed his awareness of his predicament.

    She folded her napkin into her lap and redirected the conversation. "Well, you had something to say―and now it's my turn. With you not at work for these last few weeks, there's so much to cover. Where should I start? Perhaps you were already filled in on certain matters."

    Faba said nothing.

    "For instance, I've decided to move Aether Paradise. In the next few months, we'll be navigating the structure to settle in the Alola region. Mohn always had an interest in the place―as you know."

    Though Faba still didn't answer verbally, she knew the extent of his knowledge. Mohn readily referred to the mythology of the local people in Alola: their beliefs in "cracks" in the sky that could bring men to heaven, or send down monsters on helpless tribes. The region's guardian deities, according to their folklore, had many battles with these monsters. The locals even believed in mysterious spiritual energies that could be imbued in pokemon. Though the stories could be dismissed as mere myth, Mohn took on a scientific interpretation of Alolan tales. Extra-dimensional lifeforms, he said. Spontaneous wormholes. Radiation signatures.

    Faba, a careful skeptic, had never been entirely convinced. "That's… a bold move," he said. "And to base it on… rumor and innuendo…"

    "Did they show you? The material sample collected from the wormhole?"

    Faba blinked, almost drowsy with confusion; he shifted in his seat, and then admitted, "Y-yes, they showed me. As well as all the test results."

    "What have they discovered?"

    "They found… That upon retrieval, its surface temperature was forty-two degrees Celsius, which within the hour fell to thirty-six degrees, and has remained there since. It's dense. It's carbon-based. It's currently inert, doesn't respond to stimuli, has very weak energy signatures…"

    "And?"

    Dutifully, Faba completed the statement. "And there's reason to believe it's alive."

    Lusamine tapped her fingers thoughtfully on the table, before picking up her utensils and beginning to slice a small, delicate piece of meat. As she cut, she explained, "In Mohn's notes, I found references to another common story in Alolan folklore: a being known as the child of the stars. It was said to have fallen from the heavens, always asleep… But with love and care, the child awakens again, and in due time, it can find its way home."

    "You think… You think this object might have the means to open a wormhole."

    "I genuinely believe that it is our best hope." She placed a bite of steak in her mouth, chewed, swallowed, and shot him a look. "As you can imagine, my beliefs have caused a bit of a stir in board meetings lately. Hawthorne especially had unkind things to say about my decision to focus on wormhole research. Of course he took the coward's way about it―directing his criticism at you―" She leaned in toward him to share her gossip. "Do you know? The sort of hateful, vile things he said?"

    Faba didn't answer. He continued to sink his eyes into the seared, oozing flesh of the steak before him.

    "He said this whole business was your fault. That you're unstable. A liability. Why, he had the gall, the gall to bring up those unfortunate circumstances―'vacations?' he said, 'try visits to the mental hospital'―I mean, honestly." She shook her head, thoroughly offended. "Now, to be fair… 'Vacation' was never a very good cover story, was it? But he was very rude for bringing it up, and I told him as much."

    Faba inhaled sharply, like he had been struck. He couldn't fully disguise his hurt; his eyebrows stitched and he clenched his fists.

    "You shouldn't let him get to you," she said. "He is a bloviating, small-brained, self-fellating bureaucrat." When Faba didn't jump to echo her statement, she pried. "You don't agree?"

    "He's…" Faba eyed her, suspecting a trap. He deferred, "He's your branch chief, Madame."

    A smile grew upon her face with such joviality that he thought, for a horrifying second, that he'd fallen for something. "I keep forgetting how long you've been gone." A tender laugh escaped her. "No, no! How little do you think of me? I wouldn't disparage my own branch chief like that!" And before Faba could make the necessary logical deduction from her final statement, she said, "My dear, you haven't even touched your dinner."

    As he always did when he knew she was teasing him, he glared at her.

    Then Lusamine stood up. Though Faba startled, she didn't give him time to ask what she was doing; she stepped behind his chair and planted her hands firmly on both his shoulders.

    "What― what are you―"

    "Faba," she said aloud, not calling him but rolling the name off her tongue. "Faba. Faba, Faba…" She slid her hands upward, past his shoulders and about his throat, then slipping past his jawline and ears, eventually applying pressure with her fingers at his sweaty temples. The threat and strange intimacy of the touch made Faba squirm. "How does 'Branch Chief Faba' sound to you?"

    "I… I don't really see how I could be…"

    Impatient that he wasn't keeping up, she rocked his head side-to-side. "Hawthorne's gone, dear; that much should be obvious by now."

    From his pensive silence, she read a conflicting sense of shock and resentment―in that moment, he must have seen this reward not as a show of magnanimous generosity, but as a consolation prize.

    "You don't like the sound of it?"

    "No," Faba blurted, scrambling before she threatened to change her mind. "Of course, it's an honor; I would be honored."

    "Well! I'm glad you're willing. But there's just one last thing." She drifted away, returning to her seat and folding her hands on the table, dwelling on the price she was asking. "There was a time when being an ideal branch chief meant… intelligence, discipline, order, ethics, loyalty." She paused, letting the word 'loyalty' dangle in the air to torment him. "But as it is in nature… When circumstances change, so do the traits needed to survive. I don't need some lily-livered granola-muncher; I need a man."

    "Madame―"

    Lusamine cut him off. "Faba. We are about to embark on a perilous quest. To find Mohn… we need to be willing to do whatever is necessary. No matter the cost."

    "Yes, yes, I… That's true, but…" A beat of hesitation came before Faba's faltering objection. His eyes lingered again on the brown slab of meat. "Mohn… wouldn't want us to… do anything unethical."

    "You're right," she declared forcefully. "But that's precisely why we must be willing to do anything to bring him back. He's the sort who would sacrifice his own life to spare others pain. The world needs men like him."

    "I see," Faba said. He went quiet a moment. "...I see."

    "Then you understand. As my branch chief, you will need to stomach a little blood, a little cruelty from time to time. And if you are a man… Then surely I am not asking too much."

    With a sweep of her hand, she pushed back a strand of hair from her face. In awaiting his answer, she returned to eating, cutting pieces and swallowing, letting the silence stretch on. In those few minutes, Faba sat stupefied, clearly wondering if she was serious.

    But the steak remained, in all its symbolism, seared flesh and fork and knife.

    Lusamine didn't know what it was like for him, but she could see his initial disgust, his shock. At first, he shook a little when he took up the utensils, but once he speared the mignon with the tines of the fork, he tensed with determination. The knife sawed against the muscle. It oozed blood. The timid, bite-sized portion sat at the end of the fork, its meat a rare pink, soft, gorey, and lascivious. He placed it in his mouth, behind teeth―nearly gagged―and had to suck in his breath a few times before gathering the courage to swallow.

    She beamed at him like he had just slayed a dragon bare-handed. She trembled with excitement and leaned on the table, sinking her chin into her hand. "Try the wine," she insisted.

    The wine was not so tall an order. He plucked up his glass and took a drink. While he didn't seem to have any qualms about the flavor, he did sway slightly after partaking in it, like his vision was whirling.

    But she asked no more of him. She placed a hand atop his, to steady him in his light-headedness. "Branch Chief Faba. These next few weeks are going to be very important for us. This change in direction… This newness… And on top of all this, we will have to defend ourselves from outside threats. My brother will not be the last of his kind. There will be others," she said, words weighted with their finality. "Other snakes who will crawl in between the cracks and try to steal what you and I have earned. With the falling of a leader… A transition of power… That is when a kingdom is most vulnerable. But I will beat back the barbarians at the gates. I promise you this."

    Faba looked pale and cold, near fainting. She lifted a silken hand, smoothing a finger across the cold cartilage of his ear. She then moved her hand back, combed her fingernails through his thin blonde hair, and bore her eyes into his.

    "Faba… My dearest Faba… I will always be able to depend on you, won't I?"

    He shook, darted his eyes to the side, then, with intense resolve, sealed his gaze on hers and declared, "Yes, of course, Madame. Always."

    -

    Faba tried hard to be clever. He tried to rebel and assert himself. But Faba couldn't fight his nature. No matter the circumstance, he swallowed back the bile and did as he was told.

    While not a spiritual man, in time, Faba proved as ruthlessly religious as she was: despite everything, he came to believe in her and her gospel. By their blemishes, by their sins, they would bring Mohn to salvation. Why else would Faba tolerate it…? The butchery, the senseless experimentation, the frozen corpses kept in numbered shelves, the robbing of sentience and agency. He did it all for her.

    Over the years, they didn't marry, but in a way, they were married already: married by faith, as a priest is to his god. There would be those who would accuse them of having an affair―silly, ignorant people, who didn't understand how Faba was―but Lusamine didn't shy from that label either. What else could they call it? This binding, this cycle of love and hate, this violence, this loyalty, this impossibly intimate force.

    Une affaire de l'esprit, she called it.

    Because whatever foul act she committed, she could not resist the impulse to dress it in beautiful language.
     
  13. dietofwurms

    dietofwurms i see stars

    Well, I'm not sure how worth it continuing to post will be, but it's not that much effort, sooo, here we go:

    Chapter 28:
    Memory_Disc_5 - Earth


    [​IMG]

    By stroke of incalculable luck, Lusamine had found the nest. It took a few hours of wandering the tunnels of this cave, following the paths of faint luminescent glow. She hadn't prepared as she ought to have; Lusamine was no survivalist, and hadn't fully anticipated the physical difficulties of traversing Ultra Space. Perhaps if Guzma had remained with her, as planned… but with his brawn spirited away by the capricious forces of trans-dimensional physics, she suffered alone. The rocky soil crumbled under her heels, tripping her. The air swirled thickly in her lungs. Her muscles ached. Everything around her pulsated as if alive, from the crystals to the stuffy air to the rocky columns of glistening hue.

    But it had all been worth it.

    Lusamine crouched below the rock before her, lifting herself only enough to peer back over its rim and see the clearing below. In the glow of iridescent obsidian, a chorus of Nihilego danced in a small circle, floating and bobbing in midair, their prominent front tentacles pawing each other. Their music was what had drawn her from so far away; the six beasts were so enraptured with one another, that their song echoed bravely, full of spirit, zeal, and joy. As she watched the innocent, beautiful creatures' jovial sway, she marveled how much they appeared like children. Their notes and squeaks had a mouse-like, giggling quality. Their tentacles searched each other like clumsy, eager hands. And the hems of their backs swished in the midst of their dance like twirling lace skirts.

    Thus far, they remained oblivious to her. She released a short, hot breath, and the scent of her sweat entered her nostrils. Her hands at first went for the handbag filled with beast balls, and through the open slot, her fingers trailed over the smooth, round surface area of the capsules. In a previous moment, she had considered releasing her Bewear and wrecking havoc. If the creatures were at all like pokemon, she may have to weaken them to prime them for capture. However, the very thought of attacking them made her stomach churn. They sang and glistened, like perfect pearls, ringing with innocent laughter. To bring harm to them―! Even of the most negligible kind―!

    So instead, she decided to count on the element of surprise.

    She brought out a ball. It rested firmly against her palm, but she would have to get closer before she could use it.

    Lusamine stood straight and walked carefully around her hiding place, sneaking the best she could in high-heels and on exhausted legs. Tension pounded in her head, but within a few short seconds, she arrived within yards of them, and in a simultaneous squeal of alarm, the creatures ceased their singing. They whirled to face her, moving with eerily perfect synchronicity. At first they gaped at each other in silence, Lusamine enraptured and they, as best as she could tell, startled by the presence of an unfamiliar species.

    A smile crept over her face. "Beautiful… Simply beautiful…"

    The Nihilego, having had time to assess her, glided a few inches closer, still in unison.

    "It's all right," she whispered, suspecting they read her as a threat. She cooled her voice and lifted the beast ball in her hand. "Just… stay still, and…"

    When the beast ball flew, its trajectory swung high and sharply down, striking a Nihilego directly before her. The ball bounced off its bulbous head with a squishy thump, momentarily deforming the beast's bell shape before the slick film reinflated and a blinding light filled the cavern. The ball fizzled; the Nihilego disappeared into it; the ball wiggled briefly in the dirt, and went still.

    The remaining chorus of Nihilego screamed. A few of them hovered uselessly over the spot where their companion had just been, as if searching for it, but the others scattered in fright, floating up into the maze of black stalactites. When she stepped forward in eagerness to collect her prize, the lingering curious ones shied and blinked away.

    In retrospect, she could understand why they reacted in such horror. The poor dears had never seen a human being, and they certainly had never seen any of their friends be captured before. From their perspective, a strange alien had arrived and thrown a projectile that dissolved their peer out of existence.

    While standing over the quiet, shimmering blue capsule, she looked about the cavern and saw its emptiness. Far away, echoing down the tunnels, a collection of sad moans grew and then faded.

    This wouldn't do. To capture one was a brilliant start, and her hands shook with excitement at being able to pick it up and hold it in her hands―but she wanted the others, too.

    A chill passed over her. The sweat drenching her skin began to evaporate and leave her cold and vulnerable. With a shiver, she passed her hands over the flesh of her arms, rubbing warmth back into its surface. It seemed the longer she remained in Ultra Space, the more the environment grew hostile to her presence. The quicker she got what she wanted, the better.

    Still shivering, she released her captured Nihilego. She held her breath. The creature materialized in another snap of light, floating a mere several feet away from her. In its disorientation, it spun in place and squeaked. Its tentacled arms at first reached out into the darkness, but when it turned back around and saw her, it shrank, almost wilting towards the ground.

    At this close proximity, she could see details in its body not apparent before. Its bell had a peculiar pattern to it, little starbursts of light glowing through the brainless dome. The beast's skin was slick with a film of moisture, and as she looked upon it, droplets of ooze began to drip from the three nubs closest to its mouth―probably a fear response. The two low pelvic tentacles dangling beneath its arms had strange bubble-like organs, possibly for sensory purposes, as they wriggled about at the sight of her. And most impressively, its color came into full view: within its white, baby blue, and translucent flesh, she could see the occasional, diamond-like streak of rainbow colors: greens, blues, purples, reds, yellows. The hues danced and flickered, visible only when the light overhead hit the beast in the right way.

    "My…" She breathed in and smiled broadly. "What radiance you have! And you're mine―! At last!"

    The Nihilego rubbed its front tentacles together, like a nervous child wringing its hands.

    "There's nothing to be afraid of," she told it, attempting to soothe it with her words. "You belong to me now. Why don't you call your friends back? I could bring them with me, too."

    The Nihilego didn't respond with any show of comprehension. And why should it? Unlike pokemon, which had lived and evolved alongside humans for millennia, and thus possessed anything between a basic to a fluent understanding of human language, these beasts had never heard anyone speak. It babbled and drooled, puffing up its tentacles and body.

    "Shh. My sweet little one. It's all right. Here, let me…"

    She extended a hand warily at an upheld tentacle, and as the creature continued to sit very still, she managed to make contact, pressing the tips of her fingers into the watery, gelatinous film at the end of its tentacle. The slimy texture didn't deter her; she smiled.

    "See? That isn't so―"

    The skin of the tentacle wrinkled without warning, and a sharp pain shot up her fingers. She shouted in surprise and yanked her hand back. Bewildered by the sudden assault, she sucked in a breath and examined herself: she felt a fiery throbbing not unlike a bee-sting, and a small bead of blood formed at the fingertip.

    The Nihilego's stance didn't alter. Its tentacles still fanned out like wings, and it trilled cautiously.

    "Oh! Oh―" Lusamine shook and gripped her wrist as the pain intensified and began to crawl up her arm. "I'm sorry, my love. You poor beast, I―I must have frightened you―don't worry, look, you hardly hurt me at all, it'll be―"

    With the speed of a lightning bolt, another of its tentacles lashed out and wound about her arm, and before she could let out a scream, she felt a long row of needles puncturing her flesh.

    -

    Body parts.


    She saw body parts, floating in the darkness, disembodied, cold.

    It took minutes for them to coalesce like puzzle pieces into something recognizable. An arm. A throat. A face. The assembly was never perfect, and the light never fully revealing, but in the murkiness of her vision, it was Him. It had his scent. It had his voice as it wrapped its arms around her, and it had his bare skin. Flashes of strobing light timed her vision and sensation of feeling: his hand at her hip, another hand wound about her wrist, lips at her shoulder, toes at her ankle, knee pressed tightly against her thigh.

    It whirled and crashed and devoured with virulent passion, like a fire consuming her, her skin bubbling and melting, muscle slewing off from her bones.

    "Mohn."

    Pain. Unimaginable pain.

    Still, she pleaded, "Don't go. Don't leave me. Don't leave me alone."

    -

    When she fully awoke, she couldn't tell how much time had passed, but now she was on her stomach, face pressed into the rocky soil. The earth's jagged surface cut into her chest, stomach, and cheeks, and her muscles were so raw, that it took all her strength to dig her fingers into the dirt. Her head lolled to the side, her vision swirling and throbbing. Fire traveled from the cavity in her chest, rushing and burning through her veins with every beat of her heart. Her body couldn't fight it; her organs had been turned, now operating as agents of her demise, pumping the venom and corroding her insides.

    Nausea overcame her. She gagged and heaved.

    We see it in you, the voice said. We see… loneliness.

    A slick of oil-like vomit erupted from her mouth, smearing the ground next to her. Her eyes desperately trailed her surroundings, as best she could without being able to turn her neck. The caves, which had previously seemed desolate and frightening, now exploded with swimming color, promise, beauty unending. Paradise.

    At the foot of the cave, her Nihilego rested atop a column of stone and waved its tentacles as it watched her writhe on the ground. Its rubbery, soft flesh appeared to have stiffened; it swelled up with excitement, its arms sharpened, and its streaks of iridescent color glittered with more energy. Perhaps it was the venom eating away at her brain, but she could see it rear up, almost as if sitting upright, and its dripping, saw-blade mouth opened as it spoke to her.

    You want love, it said, the sound of its words drilling from inside her head. We can love you. Lusamine. Share your love with us, be with us.

    Her eyes hurt, so she forced them shut, but somehow, images still burned through her eyelids. There were columns of perfect ebony, fat pearls, diamonds, jewels. Her ears perceived the same musical notes that echoed through the chambers, but now her brain heard them too, close, so close. She heard not one, but multiple voices hissing inside her skull.

    You want Him. We can share Him with you.

    With her fingers ensnared in the dirt, she tried to crawl an inch forward and failed. She moaned. "How?"

    Don't struggle.

    "It… hurts… to breathe…"

    Hurt? What is hurt? You will not hurt anymore. Soon.

    "When… please, god, when…"

    Our essence flows through you now. When it is done… When it has passed through all of you… we can come together. You, and us. Together. Then, no more pain.

    "To… Together…"

    Yes… Yes… We will… Join you to us… And in time, your putrid, ugly body will dissolve, we will expunge the waste, and then we will truly be one. Forever.

    Her brain tried and failed to piece together her thoughts. She only dreamed―dreamed of floating midair, her mind withering, her flesh, hair, and bone melting into soup.

    Free, she thought. She'd finally be free.

    She looked up. Beside her Nihilego, the chorus had returned, six, no, seven of them, lined up, joining their friend. They sang and admired her, and she found herself grinning.

    "You're… back… All of your friends…"

    And then they were upon her.

    Tentacles wrenched on her arms and legs, spilled around her neck, pulled, pulled, pulled, and the pain of poison daggers set in again, shooting venom through her veins.

    You'll never be alone again, the Nihilego promised her.



    Sh̷e ̕fe̵l̨t͞ ̢h͘is it̶s ͠arms a͜ro̵u͠nd̷ he͢r, his ̨i̶ts̡ br̷eat͡h o͘n̢ ̴h͞er şki͝n. If ̢sh͘e͞ reac̢h͟ȩḑ o̵ut̷ i̢nto͝ ̢t̴h͡e gl͘o͏om̢, s̶h͡e̵ ̸co̢u̢ld ͞f̡e̛el͠ his͘ it͠s͏ f̛a̢ce, co̵ntor͠t̴e̴d ҉a̛ņd s͜t͞ra̢nge ̷b̵u͟t͘ p̛u͝r͞ely͡ i͝n͝ ̛love.

    ̡I̕n̶ ͠h͢is i͡ts͏ arm̴s҉,͝ sh̢e ͏wep̢t̷.͏

    "̤͎͍̗̟͇ͅI͈̮̬ ͔̫̲͉̥͢ț̘̟͞ͅho̴̙̟̥̰ͅu͚͚̻g̤̭̘hṱ͉̻̙ ̤̰̺̗yo͔̤ṷ̟̱̕ ͇̭̼̻̦w̳̻̻̜̦̖ḛ͔͈̫̬̻͞r̺͖̰̤̦̞ḛ̯̠̞ ̩̺͖g̶̲̦̤̦o̭̝͔̦̙ͅn̖̩̣̗͡e̸̤.̴͕̖ ̰̹̫͔̜̙͡I͕̻̻͎͈ ͖͖͈͍ṭ̭̱̪͇̗h̰͓̖͚̼̟͉o̰͟u̞̹̘͢g̺̙͡h̛̖̩̮͚ͅt͈̲̯ ͓̦̳̻ͅy̲̹͖̮͇͘o̺͉͍͍͎u̮̪͔ ̤̗̕l̜̪̬̱e͏f͓̤̣͎̮͓͍t͍͕͔̙̗̖͝ͅ ̲ṃ̻̫̝̘̳̯e̳̣̩̹̦ͅ ̬͉̖̺̣̟a̻͚̥l̺o͚̙͔n҉̼͇e̳͈͍̼ ͉̲̲̠f͜o̠̼r̗̫e̟̣̩̼v͓̯̹̟͘e̫̕r."̱̹̖̘̪̳̹͟

    -

    >>A disk read error occurred

    >>Running diagnostic...


    >>ƚqdƧſΓИᙠЯɅƨʏ⅄up¿ɥǟȇȍȩȒƵƌŦŧźŒŔƒɔǧḾḌẦầɔʔỖỗộỚớỜỮỢỠởʩʣɷʞʮꝒꜺꟿꝯꝏꝊꝘꜰ...

    ▮ǧḾ▮¿Ʌ▮▮▮▯▯Иᙠhe "toxin" is in fact a colony of aggressive microorganisms suspended in a liquid of unknown but corrosiveỚớỜỮ▮▮▮▮▯▯▯ to colonial organisms in our world, we can further guess that each individual creature serves a▮▮▮▯▯▯ꟿctive purpose. Perhaps the outer, gelatinous individual serves as the hunter, or provides protection and mobility for the fragile colony, while the Ḿicroorganisms stun and diges ŒŔ▮▮▮ʮꝒ▯ɔ▯▯▯ᒐᒱᓱᗧᗙᘁᏍᎵᎬᏎ

    ▮▮▮▯▯ źŒty minutes, the parasitic organisms attack the prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain highly associated with self-control… after twenty mo… Ầttack the occipital and temporal lobe, triggering intense auditory and visual hallucinatiɥǟȇ… final stage, the parietal regions… feelings of transcendence and detachment…

    Sup¿ɥubjects given immediate treatment in the form of blood transfusion and intravenous fluids seemed to recover from the strongest effects withiᒐ▮▮▮▯▯ ƌŦŧźŒŔƒɔǧḾing post-effects include mild nausea and disorientation, i▮▮▯reased failure rate in self-control-measuring tasks, heightened aggression, prolonged periods of stress behaviꝘ▮....

    -

    Guzma caught her this time. The last time he confronted her in her room this way, he had brought her prized beasts but failed to catch her before she hit the floor. This time, though… He entered the room and raced for her, not wasting a moment to snatch her into his arms.

    Perhaps he noticed her weakness right away. It must have been apparent. She had spent all morning fretting and waiting for him; from the moment she was told the magic words―'he's coming back'--her stomach had bunched into an agonizing knot, and she wandered about her room enacting tedious tasks. She had to look right. She had to be wearing the right dress, the right make-up, the right hair. She shook as timid and anxious as a mouse, and as his arrival grew ever closer, so did the size of the lump in her throat.

    But her shuddering and thready breathing had climaxed when a knock came at the door. She had thrown her arms about the pillar at the end of her bed, gripping it like a madwoman to keep herself from toppling over.

    Her nurse had chided, "Madame, please sit down."

    Lusamine couldn't stand it―not another minute of waiting. "Answer, " she hissed, "quickly!"

    And when Guzma entered, the door shutting behind him, she felt her knees failing. He's beautiful. A messy-haired, stone-faced, gawky-limbed goblin with shoes partially undone―possessing traits she would have disavowed a week ago, but now seemed heavenly.

    So she fell, and he caught her.

    Guzma didn't speak at first, only wrapping his arms about her, but she let out a strangled cry, a mixture of spent relief, agony, and yearning. She sank her face into his chest and looped her arms about his neck, suspending her weight on his broad shoulders.

    "You're here," she sobbed freely. Her tears moistened his shirt, and as she heaved, his scent filled her lungs (an oily, faint musk, with sea-salt and palm trees―until now, she hadn't realized she knew his scent, or that she had missed it). "You came back to me."

    Guzma didn't answer. Instead, he tightened his hands about her.

    -

    Before Lusamine met Guzma, she had only ever experienced one truth: that which left her, never returned.

    But this… This tattered, wounded creature she brought in from the rain… Against all faith, hope, and reason, this creature came back to her. Again and again. He crossed mountains and valleys. He dug deep in the earth to unbury her; he climbed towers to deliver her. Her warrior. Her disciple. Her Leander, swimming the sea in storm and wind.

    In comparing him to Mohn, she at first thought of him as lesser―certainly lesser intellectually―but the traits she initially dismissed as inferior, she soon found held their own, secret qualities. Where Mohn was silk and sky and sunlight, feathers and air, sweet and gentle, like a sonnet or a symphony… Where Mohn could make her feel possessed of ethereal spirit, that everything she breathed was him... Guzma was meat and bone, a carnivore. He made her blood boil, made her flesh crawl. He reminded her how it felt to be unsafe.

    Even now, after Guzma sent the nurse away, physical threat lingered. The pressure from his grasp at her back almost hurt, and once the nurse had left them entirely alone, his hands moved to her throat. He kissed her, roughly. For a whirlwind of a second, she enjoyed this unprecedented forcefulness. But his thumbs pressed against her jugular, and she winced. As panic set in, she unraveled her arms and fixed her hands on his chest, but he persisted in kissing her, pulling on her.

    Finally, she wrenched her lips away by turning her head, leaving him to spill hot breath on the broad surface of her cheek and down the slope of her neck. "Guzma."

    While he didn't reply verbally, he eased his grip, which allowed her to regain her footing. She was able to look up at him then and found, to her surprise, a resolutely blank and passionless expression on him. She wanted to ask what's gotten into you? but feared how he'd answer.

    Her voice croaked, affected still by the swallowing of tears, "Where were you?"

    Guzma grunted. The words out of his mouth were grumbled and baritone: "You know where I was."

    "I was afraid―I was afraid you weren't coming back."

    While she fastened her fingers into his shirt, he showed the first flickering of emotion. His eyebrows stitched together and he seemed to study her with faint signs of pity, disgust, and regret.

    She felt her nerves pinprick. "Darling… Why are you looking at me like that…?"

    And as quickly as Guzma had snared and kissed her, he cooled. His hands dropped. "Look… Miss L…" He shook his head and fixed his voice to make it firm. "Lusamine. We gotta talk."

    Lusamine recoiled. Talk ? What good is talking? Talk is a tool, a dagger, a knife to be drawn over skin―she didn't want talk, she wanted silence and affirmation in the form of passive assent. Hold me. Kiss me. I'd rather you kill me, than you talk at me.

    "It's just… With everything…" His resolve to stay aloof weakened; he touched her hands and scrunched up his face with thought.

    His spoken uncertainty made her lunge for him, until no space remained between them. Out of fear, she pawed at his face in an attempt at uncovering some happiness or enthusiasm, where her own face fell in despair. "What's wrong? Y-you're back. And now that you're back―everything is back to the way it was."

    He snapped at her. "Why are you talkin' like it's that simple?" Though he resisted the temptation to raise his voice, his sudden frustration with her culminated in an impatient shove. Lusamine lost her footing and hold of him, and so stumbled backward, landing into a sitting position on the bed. He huffed. "Don't you got anything to say!?"

    Lusamine looked up at him. He was angry. She held onto that realization for a moment―he's angry ―because she couldn't quite process it. She thought… She knew why… But every time her mind nudged closer to it, it was as if she heard white noise and everything went indistinct and fuzzy.

    After a while, Guzma tired of watching her squirm. "This is stupid," he bayed. "I don't know what I expected, but..." He let out an aggravated sigh and briskly tousled his hair. "Tch."

    When he looked away, Lusamine's heart leaped in terror. He was drawing away again. He had only just arrived, and already, he was stepping back.

    Fortunately, he didn't go far. He lingered near the window, which lay wide open from her earnest watching of the sea, and the air and light passing through it appeared to drain his temper. His shoulders slumped, and after pondering his next move, he spoke again, this time with a gravelly, dejected tone. "Anyway… I read your letter," he said. "I musta read it a million times―and I kept thinking―it's me, you're talking about me. At first I even thought, I'm the one lookin' out at the world and seeing nothing good in it… Because that's… How I felt. But it's you, right? You're the one who ain't happy… And the person you miss―that's not me, either."

    She had almost forgotten the letter and its contents: her writing of it happened in a moment of weakness. And though she sent it, she couldn't remember the purpose of its composition, nor what she expected the result to be―what could she expect? She certainly didn't think he'd turn into an inspired interpreter of poetry. Lusamine envisioned, in immediate terror, the intimacy of his reading of her message. He had picked it apart, line-by-line. Picked her apart, uncovering unwanted things. All she could think to do was tearfully deny his discoveries, as piercing as they were. "That's not true."

    Guzma wasn't moved by her denial. He shook his head, heft sinking his head past his shoulders. "I know you don't want me. And it just―doesn't make any sense, you know? Guess that's why I came back, even though…" He lost his train of thought for a moment, but steered it back sternly with a blunt, "Why do you wanna marry me?"

    Thoughtlessly, she blurted, "I need you."

    "Why do you―!" He spun around and turned on her; his frustration bubbled up again. "You just say stuff, you don't mean half of what you say! It's just what you think I wanna hear, or what you think's gonna hurt me the most―why can't you just be honest? Why can't you tell me the truth?"

    Truth? How could he want truth? Lusamine knew what truth was: truth was a cancer, a limp leg before a hungry predator, a guillotine. All good things end with truth, and she had learned that, stroke by stroke, and run from it ever since. Lie, and get what you want; lie, and people won't see what you are. That he didn't understand this baffled her. She thought she had found a kindred spirit in this boy who knew how to switch affect and pretend to be grown up.

    Guzma must have read her resistance, because he became despondent. "I don't―!" He clenched his fists and confessed, "I don't know what to do. If marrying you would make you happy―I'd do it, but..."

    She scrambled, falling into him and tugging on his jacket. Her protests became petulant, whiny. "But it will! My sweet, beautiful boy―"

    Slipping. He was slipping away, immune to her cries, and between her shuddering gasps for breath, he twisted, transforming again into a faceless, wordless back. His stature became an undefeatable wall, into which she could pour every sob and plea to no avail. She lost it: she lost sight, and taste, and touch. All she could do was claw at the fabric, muscle, and bone of his back, batter him with her fists, beg.



    "Don't you get it? You're all I have left."



    "I'll do anything. Anything."



    "Please."

    "I don't want to be alone."

    -

    "Then perhaps you ought to treat people better."

    The wall was gone.

    (No… Something wasn't right).

    The voice came again, causing her to lift her head from the bed-sheets.

    "What do you expect! It's a grisly chore to be around you! Is it any wonder people flee the first chance they have?"

    When Lusamine sat up, she found her hands tightened into knots in her blanket and pillows resting at her back. Her Bewear growled and adjusted its head, pushing its white muzzle into her lap, and she encircled her arms about its neck cloyingly.

    When she searched out the source of the voice, she found it immediately: standing toward the doorway, hands on his hips, breath puffing with anger, Faba had at last lost every thread of patience he'd ever held.

    "You are a little girl," Faba ranted, "that pries the head off her dollie and proceeds to cry about it. Do you think my sympathies inexhaustible? Do you think I can't tire of feeling sorry for you, when you inevitably bring these things on yourself?"

    It had been, what, four, five days now? Lusamine tried to remember, but her perception of time had clouded. She knew, though, the cause of Faba's rage: since Guzma left, everything… Everything started to fall apart at the seams, and she couldn't bother to try fixing it. Let it all sink, she said. Let the ocean swallow us all up, if this is what fate has in store for me.

    Faba had no more time for her self-pity, which is why he now marched to her room to deliver an impassioned scolding. She cried―pathetically, weakly, as a child cries when caught in its sin.

    Faba's face, normally a bleak color, had turned a fervid red, but despite his anger, he had yet to approach the bed. The presence of her Bewear, who coddled and soothed her with its nose and paws, seemed to serve as an effective deterrent to any looming. "With Mohn gone―you took your pound of flesh from me. That's for certain. And I happily gave it." Faba lifted his hands up in a stereotypically exasperated gesture. "But when your children left! I could hardly stomach it―watching your tears and pouting, as if it was all unfair. A blind idiot could have told you they were profoundly unhappy! What excuse can you possibly have for not preventing it!?"

    She wiped the streaks of moisture from her face and tried to speak, but he wasn't done.

    "And the boy―! Don't get me started―What did you think would happen? Even a masochist like him was doomed to tire of your antics eventually!"

    "But I didn't mean it," she said. Her voice croaked, hoarse from disuse. As she sniveled, she drew up her legs, pushing aside her pokemon for a moment to clasp her arms about her knees and weep. "I didn't mean any of it―he must know that―"

    Faba snorted unkindly. "Whatever you said―or more likely, did ―to make him run for the hills, one thing is for certain, Madame: what you're saying now would be a poor comfort for him."

    "I know... I know..."

    As Faba was not used to his lectures being left so unchallenged, he frowned down at her. She had crumpled into a frail heap of unkempt hair and neglected limbs. "Ugh." He stroked his beard, barely containing his disgust. "...Pity yet to spare, I suppose… Hmph. I wish your father were here to see what a mess you've made. What vindication he would feel."

    "Don't―!" A slice of hatred broke through her grief. "Don't―you bring my father into this!"

    "Well, why shouldn't I? I know exactly what he'd say, if he saw how you've run this place into the ground. 'This is what comes of placing a woman in a position better suited for a man'―"

    "Shut up!"

    Faba scoffed at her indignation. "Don't you have any shame at all? Sitting around, moping and crying―over a boy no less―letting your professional responsibilities fall by the wayside! After all that energy you expended to become president!"

    "You don't know what I've suffered," she said. Her sobs had reduced to sniffling. "If you knew what I've suffered, you'd understand―"

    "Please," Faba growled, lacking all sympathy, "spare me."

    She collapsed, until her face smeared tears into her tangled sheets; she wrenched apart the fabric between her fingers.

    As he watched and pondered her, he kept stroking his beard. "Don't get me wrong; you're not the only one at fault. Mohn had plenty of admirable attributes," he concluded, "but he wasn't perfect."

    Faba may as well have uttered heresy. Lusamine bristled.

    "He let you get away with too much. He spoiled you."

    "You―! You had better watch what you say!" In a weary, flailing motion, Lusamine threw her hand out toward the nightstand, hoping to grab hold of a ready projectile. Her Bewear shuffled backward and out of her personal space while releasing short, concerned grumbles.

    Faba knew what she was doing (he'd been on the receiving end of enough of her rages to recognize each of her methods), but he didn't budge or show the slightest fear. He folded his arms and cocked an eyebrow to complete his scrutinizing look. "I shall speak as I please, Madame―especially if it's the truth."

    She ceased looking for an item to launch at him and instead stiffened upright on the bed.

    "It's time I spoke clearly to you. If the boy returns…"

    "He will."

    Her certainty annoyed him; he winced. "... If he returns―and I pray he doesn't―and if you do marry him, then you've truly given up, haven't you?"

    After hearing him say that, Lusamine stared at him with uncomfortable directness. She saw it, then: the beginnings of crow's feet at the rims of his cool blue eyes, and bags underneath them. She saw age. Weariness. While she had escaped the effects of time by running to every therapy she could, he had limped ahead, enduring the curse of thinning hair and lost vitality. In twenty years, Faba had changed. Chalk it up to life experience or her tutelage, but there was no denying he was no longer the cowed, timid creature she first hooked her claws into. He had adapted into a socially-accepted misanthrope who could be excused for not enjoying social events and bringing his employees to tears during their evaluations. Lusamine had always calculated time as an enemy, and yet in some ways, it was on his side. It made him more self-assured and cruel. Almost svelte.

    Yet… Yet… Underneath, he was well-preserved. In twenty years, his mindset hadn't evolved.

    He interrupted her wandering train of thought. "And so, to my mind," he said, "what connects me to this place is gone."

    "What are you saying?" She didn't expect it of herself, but she started to panic.

    "And here I thought you'd see this coming," he grumbled. "Isn't it obvious? I'm putting in my notice."

    Faba might as well have pulled her beating heart from her chest; as impulsively as a gasp, she cried out, "No." In a dizzy stupor, she brought herself up onto her knees, bed-sheets still tangled up about her legs. "No, no, you can't."

    "Oh, I most certainly can," he countered hotly. Her melodrama did not soften his approach. "Contrary to what you might think, this is not a slave colony!"

    "But you're my branch chief." She said it like she believed the words to be an incantation. "Branch chief. My branch chief."

    "I admit the title grew on me, but to hold it―at the cost of watching you cobble together a freakish life for yourself! All at the expense of your dignity―and his memory―! No, no, there's only so much I can allow myself to endure."

    Lusamine felt her throat turn to dry ash. That last, tiny drop of moisture left… And it was going to vanish.

    She swooned.

    "Please," she said, tears springing back and collecting at her chin. "Please, don't make me choose."

    Faba squinted at her, as if he didn't fully believe her whimpering to be genuine.

    That he seemed to doubt her pain made it all the worse. She buckled over. Her head throbbed with a pain as intense as an iron piercing it; for a blinding second, she couldn't see or think, but grabbed her skull and held her breath, counting down. But as much as everything stabbed into her, there came with it a wave of rapture.

    Because she remembered.

    Of course she loved Mohn first, and he became beasts, and the beasts became Guzma, and in her mind, the three swirled together, her lover-husband-monster. But between her and the three, there had always been the connective tissue that was Faba. He had become mixed up in her amalgamated love, to the point of error, to the point of an ill-fated night during which neither of them had been themselves.

    Over the years, she came to mythologize that night, imagining touches and breaths that hadn't happened, exaggerating the duration, passion, and meaning. And though she teased him with it, and he seemed adamant about pretending not to remember it, privately, she nursed it. Kept the memory shut deep inside herself, where it passively grew, its tendrils sticking out unnaturally at times, until she couldn't stand it. And on lonely nights when thinking about Mohn proved too painful, and Guzma far too abstract and frightening, she would retreat into that one, solitary moment suspended in impossibility. It drove her mad. The conscious part of her knew it was a cocktail of chemicals striking through her neural fabric which inspired these feelings, but biology wins over spirit, doesn't it? It always wins―

    "Don't go." She continued to sob, and her toes curled just a bit as salacious thoughts slipped in unbidden. The words that followed came from her gut, like sickness. "I love you."

    -

    Faba sputtered haltingly for some time. If there were a chair or table available to him, he would have leaped onto it for effect, but in lieu of such a gesture, he threw his hands into the air and shrieked violently. "What in God's name is wrong with you!?" He was hopping mad, close to the point of actually, literally hopping. "That isn't rhetorical―I'm in fact deathly eager to know what has happened to your brain to cause you to think that I'd be swayed by that drivel!" After clapping a hand to his head, he further decried, "Now I'm wondering if you're serious, and I can't decide if that's even worse! Ay-ye!"

    She'd said the wrong thing. Felt the wrong thing. Nothing worked anymore. She beat her fists on the surface of her bed and wailed. "Don't you feel anything? Can't you? We are inextricably―"

    He barked, interrupting her. "You―!" He then calculated his choice of words with mad ferocity, and concluded: "Are a revolting woman!"

    This time, Lusamine was able to grab the glass and hurl it across the room. It smashed into the wall where Faba had stood, bursting in an explosion of twinkling, crystalline light.

    But Faba wasn't there anymore.

    In her madness, she thought for a moment that the shattered glass had evaporated him. That her anger had turned him into air.

    But no.

    Faba was gone. Her Bewear had gone, too.

    She looked about. Her head felt heavy. The room remained silent and empty.

    Where was Guzma?

    That's right. Guzma left. He's still on Mele'mele.

    No… Wait...

    I've confused things. This… is out of order, she suddenly thought.

    At first, the thought made no sense. Out of order…?

    But it crept into her mind again: out of order. This was before. This was before Guzma came back to me. He came back. And he held me―I remember it now―

    The realization fell on her like a mountain.

    She was remembering.

    And these were not mere static images sitting in her brain, nor passively stored histories, no, no. These memories were being projected into her with the force of a plunging syringe. Something, someone, was forcing her to relive these moments.

    And when she had that thought, the scene before her began to sizzle and curl like burning paper. Color disintegrated. Ooze fell from the walls. A thick rope of phlegm struck her shoulder, and she cried out in horror, lifting her eyes to the ceiling quick enough to see the gaping mouth again, its circlets of razored teeth clacking greedily for her. Faba was gone. Guzma was gone. Her husband--her children―the bedroom, the sea, her father, grief, love, everything, all smashed into tiny pieces and flew into the dark like cosmic dust.

    -

    Face-first, in the dirt. She grabbed a handful of soil, but couldn't move.

    He was right, you know.

    She twisted her eyes shut. "I'm not listening."

    Faba's always right; that's what's so irritating about him.

    With great effort, Lusamine stood up, whatever that meant in this empty place. There was nothing but blackness surrounding them, only Lusamine and her beast. The Nihilego had warped, its innocent white-blue since maintaining its sharper, darker form. It hovered a few feet from her, and had also grown countless eyes in its surface flesh, each of them glossy from mucus and bulging in her direction with accusing stares.

    Rage filled up inside her chest. "You cheated!" She flew her fists at it, but wildly missed. "It's not fair!"

    I hardly think it's tantamount to cheating.

    "You put them in the wrong order! And you cut away―you took away the rest of it, just when―!"

    You're imagining things.

    "I remember what Guzma said, right afterward," she went on. She wracked through the painful strands of memory but found it again. "He said that he loved me."

    Oh, I think I'd remember something as unbelievable as that.

    "He said we'd be a family."

    What trite, sentimental rubbish. Did he really say that?

    "Why show me this? Why show me this when you're just going to cheat…?"

    To prove a point: everything you touch―everything you care about, or love, or desire―withers and rots when you grab hold of it.



    She had no words to rebut its claim, so she resorted to fists and screams, launching them at the Nihilego's bell and landing hard. The first few full-force blows did nothing except cause an exceptional clamor, like the bell was made of iron, but as she grew angrier, the transparent bubble buckled, cracked, and then shattered. Inside its head, she could see and hear a howling, hollow chasm, and as she looked inside that endless well of a void, the Nihilego, not dead, spoke again.

    See? You're like us, Mother.

    Look.

    The Nihilego passed its tentacle through her. Her skin rippled like a shadow, and as it curled and shred away, she could see what was underneath. No muscle, no bone, no organs. Only blank space.

    Nothing, Nihilego pointed out.



    And it went on like that: an endless song with a single note.

    Nil. Null. Non. Naught. Nothing. 0000000ỖỗộỚớỜỮỢỠ.



    > delete

    >>Error. Cannot delete file: access is denied
     
  14. Chibi Pika

    Chibi Pika Stay positive

    Sorry for the lengthy absence! Didn't have much time to read during the past month. But I'm all caught up on all the memory chapters, including the sixth one because I cheated and read ahead and also it was short. :p

    This probably goes without saying at this point, but I really love the whole glitchy computer aesthetic to simulate the whole distorted, corrupted thoughts thing going on here. It was a technique I've considered toying with from time to time (in a different context) and it's great to see it done so effectively here. In fact, I just generally love the fact that you've tied all these flashbacks together with the continued effect of the Nihilego venom continuing to poison her thoughts and crank her obsessions up to 11. It's not as if that absolves her of anything, of course--that terrible, manipulative tendency was there all along--but it does a fantastic job of showing how she's a victim in all of this too.

    It was just delightful getting to see Mohn and Lusamine's interactions as a family, especially him as a dad, god that was adorable. Which of course served the purpose of making it that much more heartbreaking when he was taken from them. Lusamine's intrusive thoughts following the incident, especially those related to her children, were especially chilling.

    As a side note, I have no idea whether or not the fact that canonically Mohn is alive is ever going to come up. I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around what exactly that would do to the story. If anything, I'd imagine it would not come up until after the majority of the plot is resolved. (Then again this whole thing is an AU anyway, so he could just not be alive in this canon, who knows.)

    ~Chibi~
     
  15. dietofwurms

    dietofwurms i see stars

    So as a quick note, I have actually finished with the writing process of this story! Which means I'll try to post more aggressively (it has a total of 36 chapters) to get people caught up. I have to assume there are a lot of lurkers on this thread because the view count keeps ticking upward, so ??? but thanks to those who take the time to respond.

    [​IMG]
    Chapter 29: Memory_Disc_6 -
    Quintessence

    >>Memory recovery at 100%

    >>Compiling final data packet…

    >>Resume execution file



    The morning the wedding ceremony was supposed to have taken place, a rattling noise erupted from Lusamine's suite. The door swung open, clanging on its hinges, and slowly, unsteadily, she stepped out. She teetered forward until she landed against the far wall, and she turned her head down the open hall, spotting two grunts goofing around. They, in seeing her, immediately squeaked like cat-stalked mice and hurried back into their quarters.

    She went outside and stumbled for the guard railing.

    She glowered at the hissing sea. With time, she started to walk again, but her heels confounded her in her current condition, so she held onto the railing with one hand and stooped down to grapple her shoes with the other. One heel came off; she chucked it overboard. The other took a little more negotiating, but with a curse or two, she pried the second shoe off, as well, and hurled it out into the water. She watched the breathtakingly expensive article tumble down, sucked up by the treading water in a fraction of a second.

    To her right, a voice asked, "Rough night?"

    When she lifted her head, pushing the bangs from her face, she saw Nanu standing a few yards away. He was slumped over the railing, balancing his form on his elbows and smoking a cigarette. He stuck out against the bright morning colors, dressed in simple black slacks and his usual flip-flops and red undershirt. All that he lacked was his officer's jacket, which must have been stowed in his suite. The look on his face communicated indifference touched, only slightly, with a bit of amusement.

    Lusamine, rather than granting him the pleasure of annoying her, gazed back at him. She thought it over and soon decided to limp to his side. She came within arm's reach, but no closer, before stopping and saying, "Cigarette."

    "Pardon?"

    She did not repeat herself.

    Nanu removed the package from his pants pocket and smoothly extracted the cigarette. He kept his eyes on her as he handed it over. "Didn't know you smoked."

    "I quit fourteen years ago."

    Without any prompting, he got her a light. Barefoot and harried, she dipped the cigarette into the flame, brought it to her lips, and took in as much of the fumes as she could, allowing them to burn her eyes, throat, and mouth. A flash of pain, then relief, came across her expression, and Nanu couldn't help but snort.

    "Remembering why you quit, huh?"

    Lusamine's eyes slipped shut. "It's a filthy habit," she said, before bringing the cigarette back to her mouth.

    A pleasant breeze passed over the two as they smoked and stayed silent. Nanu certainly didn't pressure any chatter, so she felt free to puff and gaze out on the waves, which rippled with late morning's light. At the farthest distance, in the form of pinpoint shadows on the horizon, she could see evidence of the islands; she wondered, absently, about the course the boat was currently taking.

    Over the rush of water and wind, a distant thumping sound emerged. She tilted her head. "That noise…"

    Nanu grunted. "Oh, that's just what the young folk today call music. I'd be lying if I said it grows on you."

    The words fell on her brain, but it took several seconds for her to untangle their implication. She said, still threadily, "Young… people."

    Emboldened by her sudden urge to talk, Nanu rambled, "Yeah, Team Skull is still on the boat. Your kids, too. It's a bit of a free-for-all; I'm just trying to stay out of it." The kahuna took a moment to think on his next move. He eyed her as she leaned against the railing. "So." He swallowed. "Looks like the wedding's a bust. You want my number, or you wanna gimme yours?"

    She turned, smoke whipping from her face, eyes dim and void of any emotion. She spoke without malice. "I find you utterly repulsive."

    He nodded slowly. "...That's a no, then. Eh. Worth a shot."

    She couldn't process his humor, as inappropriate as it was. In her stomach, a sourness wormed its way in, churning through her gut. Memories of dreams that had faded in waking came back to her, like cruel needlepoints fixing to her skin, and she felt crushed from the top down. She wanted to throw up, jump into the sea, and burst into tears all at once. She started acting upon these impulses by pressing herself against the railing, nearly pushing her torso above the top rail, but it wasn't as if she had the strength to actually fling herself across. She did successfully look ill, though, which made the kahuna step back and mutter his surprise.

    "Uh… lady? You all right?"

    The cigarette, which had up until now haphazardly balanced between her fingers, dropped down the side of the boat, mimicking the trajectory she currently craved. She spat at him as one of her feet began pushing against the lower rail, treating it as a step upward. "I don't need your pity."

    "You're drunk," he declared, and before she had a chance to counter his claim, he grabbed her arm and sternly pulled her back. "You crazy bint. Quit monkeying around 'fore you end up in the water."

    She could have slapped him. Would have, if doing so didn't threaten to knock herself off balance and onto the ground. She whirled with a wildness, wrenching her arm from his grip, and nearly screamed her retort. "And what if I did! Would it even matter?"

    He scoffed. "Well, I ain't jumping in after you, if that's what you're asking."

    Lusamine, for a scrambled second, didn't know how to respond to that. She shook, wobbled on her feet, and barely held herself up with one hand on the railing. She turned her back toward him, hoping to hide the pain wrinkling her expression, but the words blubbering from her lips disguised nothing. "And why should you? You'd be doing everyone a favor."

    In her mind, she mistook her self-loathing and dramatics for humility, for a genuine show of remorse. Indeed, somewhere in there, guilt oozed from pores and blackened her spirit. If only one lesson remained from her visions, it was that she had nothing to offer, and fate had made it clear she was never to be happy (and certainly didn't deserve to be). But her bawling still had the cloying, begging quality, meant to draw out pity.

    Nanu was too old and too cynical to fall for it. He dragged out a sigh, milking its length. "Okay," he finally said, expressly unimpressed. He muffled the rest of his words through the cigarette between his teeth. "So we're doing this, I guess. What is it? What's eating you?"

    "How can you ask that!?" Lusamine flung herself around, shouting with all the strength she could summon. Her fist banged on metal. "And… Why―why would I say anything to you? I know… what they think of me. What you think of me!"

    Nanu scratched the inside of his ear absently. "Lady, I don't think anything about you. I barely know you."

    "You…" Lusamine finally faced him, at first thinking he was mocking her. But she found, to her surprise, that he seemed genuinely baffled by her accusation. "It―doesn't matter. I'm not about to―" She started stammering and hated herself for it. She injected as much venom and disdain in her voice as she could. "T-to lay out my sins in confession before some holy man―!"

    The sound of his grating laughter carried out along the deck; despite her shooting him a nasty look, he persisted in wheezing, chuckling, and thumping his chest. "'Holy man!'" He wiped a tear. "Shoot. They'll sell anything to tourists these days. I might be a kahuna, lady, but I ain't holy. Not by a long-shot."

    At that, a silence fell over them. Lusamine pondered a way to slink off without saying much more; she had no interest in starting a real conversation, and expected him to feel the same way. So she angled her herself back toward the living suites. At this rate, going back to bed would be the most productive thing she could do.

    But suddenly, Nanu's gruff, uneven voice barked at her. "Hey."

    Not used to being greeted in such an abrupt, rude manner, she slowly turned towards him.

    "Thinking on it now―" She saw him tapping his flip-flopped heel on the wooden deck. "You and me, we've got quite the interesting connection. Small world."

    She thought she was being flirted with again; she narrowed her eyes at him. "I beg your pardon?"

    In typical, slothful fashion, Nanu slid himself around until he leaned his back on the railing. His elbows rested on both sides of him, and he cocked his head with a curious bent. "Hmph. You never bothered looking into me, did you?"

    'Looking into' him? Lusamine stared. She had never once thought of him as any more than a slovenly, reclusive, small-town officer who happened to be a local ceremonial figure. She had not given him any more consideration than she had any of the other island leaders.

    "It's all right," he said. "I don't exactly stick out in a crowd. Did Interpol ever visit you? After you went public with your beast collection."

    What seemed like a sudden verge in topic rattled her. She put a hand to her hip, feigning a return in confidence. "I don't see how that's any business of yours. Now what's―"

    "Was it two agents? Man and a woman. Girl in purple hair; sharp-looking fella in a trench coat."

    The description struck a cord. She proceeded with caution. "Perhaps. We didn't permit them to interview anyone, so I don't remember them well."

    "Ah, too bad. They're old co-workers of mine. Subordinates, actually. From my time in the force." A strange, uncertain smile tugged on his lips. "Those were different times."

    "You…" She could hardly believe it. She felt inclined, in fact, to think he was joking. "You worked with the International Police?"

    "Oh, yeah," he drawled. "For years."

    "Kahuna Nanu," she began, as she felt a creeping discomfort the more he spoke, "I don't know why you're telling me this."

    "I just think it's funny―how lives cross, an' all. 'Cause, see, it was all on account of Professor Mohn. Your husband published his findings about the wormholes and beasts… What, fifteen years ago? Tell ya, his work got Interpol all hopped up, inspired them to create a UB task force. Made me lead agent."

    Hearing this strange man so calmly mention Mohn made her skin crawl. A gag reflex nearly prevented her from blandly replying, "How… serendipitous."

    "Yeah. It was quite the gig, back in the day. You know what we did?" He paused, not to give her a chance to guess, but to pinch the end of his cigarette and mull on a private, dark thought. "His research… for us, it just gave name to what we already knew. UB's had already been cropping up―they would appear, cause problems, put people in danger… So we tracked, and extracted."

    Though she still felt his train of thought was highly suspect, she decided to oblige his story. After all, this was new information for her and relevant to her interests. "Were you successful?"

    He puffed out a boastful cloud of smoke. "Extremely."

    "How did you capture them?"

    "Oh," he droned, lifting an eyebrow, "there was no capturing involved, ma'am."

    "Then―" A thought caught in her throat. "I see. You killed them."

    Nanu seemed to appreciate her ability to read through his words. He nodded agreeably. "'Neutralized.' That was the word we used. I think we thought it took the sting out of it. But anyway… Yep, every last one we found."

    "I suppose… there was no way around it."

    As if he hadn't heard her reassurance, he pierced the skyline with a thoughtful gaze. "I don't know what kinda research you've put into these beasts, but I imagine you've deduced what we found out, which is the buggers aren't easy to kill. We eventually figured out the best method, but it wasn't clean. Basically, you had to blow 'em apart, had to do it fast and hard, and… God. About half of the time, it wouldn't do the whole job. We'd track it down, find it, and it'd still be writhing around, mostly, but not quite…" When he stopped, she thought she was about to witness some sliver of emotion, some trembling or hesitation. But he remained steel-eyed and ghoulish, voice plain as he explained, "It got to be my job to finish them off… I got really good at it, too."

    Lusamine listened politely to his impromptu confession, but she struggled to understand its significance. She looked him up and down a moment. He showed no outward regret, only looking out at the sea and dwelling on his thoughts. She shook her head. "It seems to me you were only doing as you were told."

    His eyes crooked, sliding over to her. "Lady… Don't get me wrong. I've been through all that rationalizing. And you're right. It was my job. Didn't have a choice. I was doing the best I could, given the circumstances, blah blah blah, but, shoot . You know what I could never get over?" He pulled the cigarette from his lip and let the wind and water take it away; the lingering bits of smoke escaped his mouth shaped in a sneer, and his expression bored into hers. "I enjoyed it."

    Any other man, she thought, would have looked away to say such a thing. But his callous red eyes didn't budge from hers, and all at once, she understood. He was studying her. More than an admission, he meant to measure her disgust, perhaps ascertain how much, if at all, her perception of him would change. A man who killed. A man who took pleasure in killing. Seeing him now, it was actually not too hard to visualize him ten years younger, pulling triggers and revelling in the kickback and silence.

    Lusamine said nothing. And in a natural way, she felt nothing, too.

    He drew back by shuffling his feet away from the railing. She couldn't tell if it was from disappointment or boredom. "You don't gotta tell me what's bothering you. But whatever it is… I can guarantee I've got you beat."

    The anger she felt in that moment―against his presumptuousness, against the envious ease of his disclosure―caused her to utter, in transparent bitterness, "And yet, your society touts you as a role model for children. It just goes to show that even the worst vices are more readily excused when they're held by a man."

    "Hey, sister, you've got me there." Nanu just shrugged. "What can I say? Ain't it a kick in the teeth."

    Her ranting stopped there. His lack of defensiveness rendered it... unsatisfying. A part of her suspected he did this on purpose, just to irritate her.

    While she simmered, he absently started patting his pants pocket, perhaps thinking about going for another cigarette. He stopped only to grumble in assent, "You got one thing over me, I'll say that for sure. You're braver than I ever was."

    Lusamine blinked at him and awaited an explanation.

    "I never had kids. Too afraid they'd turn out like me. You took a gamble―twice."

    Being reminded of her children did not improve her attitude. She sniffed.

    "Good thing is, children don't always take after their parents. Sometimes, in spite o' everything, kids turn out okay. Case in point: you're halfway to crazy-town apparently, but your kids are alright."

    "Alright!?" She snarled. "Those two―!? As if you have any right―"

    "I'm just saying they seem normal."

    After sucking in a breath and considering every flaw she could have screamed at him, she huffed. "I'm… not going to argue about my children with you."

    "Nobody's asking you to."

    In the distance, the music track blasting from one end of the ship switched over; this sudden change snapped her out of focus, and she turned her head, searching down the empty walkway. No one had passed since they started speaking, and this made her worry. "Where is…"

    "Huh?"

    "My fiance."

    Nanu could have disputed her label. Instead, he answered, "Think he's over at the pool. Saw a couple people head that way. You thinking of making up, or what?"

    "I have to…" She began to move. She slid over the smooth wood of the deck, and just barely avoided slipping.

    Nanu noticed. "You know," he said, staring at her bare feet, "you don't have any shoes on."

    "Yes." Lusamine sighed irritably. Did he think she had forgotten? "I'm aware of that."

    "If you're gonna be walking around, you'll need some. Wouldn't want you to get splinters."

    Lusamine didn't have time to stop him before he stepped backward, slipping his feet from his flip-flops.

    "Here."

    Part gobsmacked, part horrified, she started, "Oh, no, I'm not―"

    "They're real comfy," he said. He kicked the cheap pieces of rubber over toward her until they lay flat and prone before her.

    She imagined, for several seconds, just how long he had worn them and how many lifeforms must now reside in those sandal soles. The thought of it made her recoil. "I'm really fine."

    "Don't knock 'em 'til you try 'em." Strangely insistent now, he gestured at them. "C'mon, they won't bite."

    Lusamine told herself it was because she was simply too tired to fight off the kahuna. Gingerly, and with a grimace touching her expression as she did it, she complied. After sliding her toes past the red bands, she stood to rest her weight on them. They were wide for her slender shape, and they were far from flattering, but they had a freedom she was not used to. Compared to the restrictive bindings and precarious balance of high heels, these felt like air.

    "Cute," he cracked.

    She shot him a glare. As she examined him standing there, bare feet on the deck, she wondered if they hadn't merely shifted the problem. "I don't suppose you'll need these back."

    He waved a hand. "Eh. Keep 'em. I got another pair. I always buy a bunch of the same pair; lasts me for the year."

    ...A picture of the bachelor lifestyle, she thought. And he's bragging about it. Truly irredeemable.

    In the bright morning light, she turned herself toward the back of the boat, past where he stood. She decided to walk. The sandals slapped loudly on the floor and against the soles of her feet, but after a few steps, she grew attuned to the sound and feel of loose footwear.

    After she passed him and began approaching the back stairway, Nanu called out one last time.

    "Hey," he gruffed, gently scolding. "Where are your manners?"

    She paused and after a moment realized what he meant. "Oh." The polite, proper lady in her accepted his correction, albeit through clenched teeth. "Of course. Thank you."

    Nanu's eyes sloped at first, but then he grinned menacingly. "Don't sweat it. Us old folks need to stick together."

    -

    As she went, she had to wonder.

    Kahuna Nanu clearly had his theory on the whole affair. She didn't know if he believed in redemption, or whether he shrugged off the whole idea―in the brief conversation, he seemed to leaned towards the latter―but she knew it was all rubbish.

    What did any of it matter?

    Even if she reached down inside herself, past the muck, what part of her bore to be understood? Pitied? Loved? Forgiven? In every memory she possessed, she saw her fate: always grasping, and not ever holding.

    Yet as miserable as her past proved to be, her present seemed to be faring no better. At present, she remained beset on all sides by the fragments of her mistakes. A young man she had once charmed and controlled. Children she had once loved. Scoundrels she had once wielded like weapons.

    Lusamine could retreat, but for what purpose? She couldn't even pretend to have dignity to save; she could only choose to perish privately, or before an audience.

    So, into the public eye again.

    Lusamine clomped toward the ship's swimming pool, bleary-eyed and zombified.

    She regretted not asking for another cigarette.
     
  16. dietofwurms

    dietofwurms i see stars

    Chapter 30: Monsters

    Far, far away―farther than anyone on the ship could see―and behind the outline of mountains on Ula'ula Island, a stormcloud gathered at the rim of the seemingly endless sky. Across the rest of the blue dome overhead, no other clouds blemished the view, as they had been pushed away by the steady breeze of the morning. This left Gladion with very little to admire on or above the horizon; he cupped a hand over his eyes to block out the sharp sunlight, and searched the sea for signs of life, or anything. All he found were the occasional shadows of Wingulls, which had, since Team Skull started dragging foodstuff out onto the deck, begun fluttering close by.

    The music came from the opposite side of the ship. Thankfully. Gladion wasn't willing to put up with the noise this early. Last he saw, a group of grunts had turned to front of the ship into a battleground and dance floor, and spent the morning squabbling over pokemon battles, discovered liquor, snacks, and stolen goods. The dining hall had also since turned into a complete zoo. He and Lillie tried exactly once to go inside to retrieve breakfast―and immediately gave up.

    Behind him, Gladion could hear a scream and a splash. He didn't turn around to investigate; he had gotten used to the raucous cries coming from the pool. But soon, the choice was taken away from him. Wet, plodding footsteps approached.

    "Yo! Li'l G!"

    Gladion sighed. When he turned, he found Nene dripping with pool water and dressed only in soaked black shorts, leaving his pasty, skinny, pre-teen upper body exposed to the sun. The boy was grinning and pushing back his slick, blue hair back across his scalp.

    "The water's a'ight! You still ain't comin' in?"

    "No thanks," Gladion answered, politely but firmly. A group of grunts, mostly boys, had thrown off their shirts and jumped in, but he had more tact than that. "I'm not sure why you're all so excited over a swim. You live on an island. Besides, there's a pool at the Shady House."

    "That pool janky, though," Nene said. The grunt wasn't wrong. Team Skull had never hired anyone to maintain the pool, which led first to the water festering and turning to a green, noxious sludge, then to a crack in the foundation, which drained the water away. All that ever remained was a few inches of rancid rainwater. "This one's nice. I mean, dang, this whole joint is nice. I say Team Skull oughtta take the place. 'Shady Boat,' see?"

    Gladion shuddered to think what Team Skull would do if it tried to run the ship on a route by themselves. The most likely scenario he could think of ended with cannibalism.

    "Well, anyway. See ya! Im'ma jump in again." With a flippant laugh, the grunt wandered back to the pool and left Gladion to reconsider the situation.

    Among the swimmers, there was Lillie. For some reason he could not figure out, she had actually packed a swimsuit, so she happily swam laps. She tried at one point to encourage her Yungoos to swim along with her, but it did no more than give a few frantic paddles, panic, and scurry back onto the deck. Pokemon had, in general, come to overtake the vast open spaces: most of the trainers had released some, if not all, of their partners to play.

    Gladion checked his. Silvally still paced around the perimeter of the pool, keeping a keen eye on the splashing, wrestling, screaming children. Its crest was perked but not flapping, so he could tell this was curious behavior rather than aggressive. He had no reason to worry.

    When he scanned his vision toward the stairs, he found Guzma hadn't moved from the bottom of the stairwell, phone glued to his head. Though Gladion hadn't eavesdropped, he read Guzma's anxiety and anger.

    Abruptly, though, the call ended and Guzma stood to his feet. He ended up skulking over to a small poolside table in the shade, landing in one of its chairs, and contemplating on something deeply. He set his eyes on nothing (and no one) in particular and stared, flipping his phone over and over again in his hand.

    Gladion decided he ought to at least try his hand at intervening. The previous night, after Guzma chased his fiancee to her room, it had taken hours to calm him down enough to talk things through. And even then, not much was decided. Guzma spoke out of denial: still referred to the wedding, like it was going to happen. To her, like they were still engaged. If the phone call had unsettled him in any way, it might be a prime opportunity to shake him of his presumptions.

    So he went over.

    "May I sit?"

    The request was overly-formal, and as such, Guzma shot him a brief, confused glance from across the table. He immediately went back to staring into dead space after grunting, "Sure; I don' care."

    Gladion sat and allowed a polite length of silence to pass before interrogating him. "Who was that on the phone?"

    "Oh… That? That was just…" Guzma, obviously caught off guard by the question, persisted palming and flipping his device lazily on the tabletop. "That was just Mr. Faba."

    "Mr. Faba?" Gladion was stunned. "He called you?"

    "Uh, yeah, like twenty times last night. But my head wasn't screwed on right―didn't check my phone 'til this morning. So..."

    "What'd he have to say?"

    "Nothing. He saw it all on the news. So he's freakin' out, you know."

    Faba? Freaking out? Gladion could indeed imagine. But he couldn't help and spot a hole in Guzma's explanation. "That must have been a ten-minute conversation."

    Gladion expected to be snarled at for butting in on an adult's private concerns―because he most certainly was―but Guzma went quiet, pausing his fidgeting and even putting away his phone.

    "I'm surprised you can stand to talk to him for that long."

    Guzma's eyes, which had until now remained frozen ahead, finally started to move toward the younger boy. "Huh?"

    "Well, he is a pompous blowhard. And massively histrionic."

    "He's―" Guzma frowned. As he was not one who easily defended others, his words came out awkward and unnatural as he uttered, "Mr. Faba's alright."

    "...You can't be serious."

    "What?"

    Despondent, Gladion crossed his arms. "He's Mother's second-in-command. Her minion. Anything she's done wrong, he's had his hand in it, too."

    "I… I know that." Guzma frowned, and with an air of discomfort, he faced forward again and slouched his shoulders. "...I dunno. It doesn't seem like he's happy about it."

    Gladion genuinely didn't know how to respond to such an abject expression of sympathy toward a man he had never considered sympathetic. He especially didn't know what to make of it coming from Guzma . He felt an impulse to start listing the man's sins: the experiments he conducted, the breaking of natural law, the assent to Mother's cruelest demands. But surely Guzma knew all these; in fact, he had only last night confessed to the experiments he had discovered in Aether's labs; so then why the twinge of pity?

    (Gladion thought then about an image prominent in his memory―Lusamine's hands on Faba's throat―and then on suppressed things, which had ungrasped significance when he was young but now burgeoned with painful meaning.)

    But if Gladion had inherited his mother's analytical mind, he had also inherited her inability to face uncomfortable truths. So the boy fumed, "If Mr. Faba is a victim of Mother's regime, then he's a willing one!"

    Guzma, understanding, or perhaps wary of Gladion's bitterness, seemed to take his time absorbing this accusation. He finally shrugged and sucked his teeth. "...Guess he's not willing anymore."

    "What do you mean?"

    "He's leaving Aether."

    Gladion just about toppled the table when he jumped to his feet. He even made Guzma flinch in surprise. "He's what!?"

    "Uh..."

    "That can't be right!" Gladion eyed him with ferocious suspicion. "Are you sure you didn't misunderstand?"

    Guzma started to realize he had disclosed something he shouldn't have. He sniffed and slouched, mildly irritated that Gladion would suggest he was mistaken over such a simple detail. "Nah―he said 'putting in his notice,' or whatever."

    "If that's true…" Gladion turned suddenly morose. He turned away, facing the joyful play of his peers as they continued splashing each other. "Then the situation at Aether must be more dire than I thought."

    "Yeah… I guess… I guess he runs a lot of the place."

    "It's not just that." Gladion fixed a thumb to his chin as he thought aloud. "Of anyone, Mr. Faba has the strongest reason to stay. According to his contract, his body of research is the classified intellectual property of the Aether Foundation. If he leaves, he's forfeiting access to decades of his work."

    Guzma took a few moments to struggle with these new concepts, but soon came to his own judgment. "He never said… But that ain't fair."

    "It's contract law. Not much to do with fairness." Gladion shrugged. "Knowing Mr. Faba, he likely has a contingency plan to ease the pain. Lusamine taught him the art of the deal; he'll find a way to gouge her on the way out." The boy sighed and pondered. "...So, that's it. Aether really is on its last legs…"

    They both went silent for a while.

    Gladion hadn't expected this new pang of remorse; he didn't expect to feel sadness at the thought of the Foundation's untimely death. After all, its leaders and members had made so much of his life miserable. It had touched and corrupted almost every part of his personhood. If ever there existed a place that deserved to sink and never be recovered, to his mind, Aether qualified.

    "That place… it's your family's legacy," Guzma said suddenly.

    And even though Guzma was right, Gladion deflected his point: "My family has a legacy all right, but it isn't Aether."

    After another beat of silence, Guzma started to say, "I'm gonna… I'm gonna try to―"

    A scream pealed out in the distance, cutting him off.

    -

    Since the two boys weren't in the pool, they were more ready to leap to their feet and run for the source of the outcry. A bit of additional wailing brought their attention to the second floor, and though they started to recognize the voice as they climbed the stairs, they were still unprepared for the spectacle awaiting them at the top.

    It was Lusamine in a long, flowing dress, in the midst of a tug-of-war with Gladion's Silvally, which had snared a sizeable wad of her skirt in its mouth. She must have tripped only moments ago, as she was hobbling back up onto her feet and clinging to the railing. Having already screamed, she had resorted now to sharp, angry demands and flinging her free hand at it. Any slaps that landed on its head had no effect.

    "Get―Get away, you horrible monstrosi―let go at once, I―!"

    Gladion nearly feared the worst―that the attack meant genuine danger―and so tried to reach the two of them first to call off his pokemon. But Guzma powered past him using his longer frame, charging for it with full intent of prying it off of her.

    "Hey! Get offa―!"

    Silvally jerked its head around, skirt still in its mouth. For a moment, it and Guzma shared gazes; the young man froze and suddenly remembered he was no match for it.

    "Silvally," Gladion said, cutting through the awkward silence. "Drop it."

    With an obedient shudder, it craned its neck, saw its owner, and acknowledged his command by cocking its jaw open. The cloth furled down and back around Lusamine's ankles. In her relief, she stumbled a few steps backward, nearly falling before Guzma swept in beside her, catching and fretting over her.

    "Heel."

    Silvally, as it often did, stood still for a second as if weighing its options. But with a snort, it reoriented itself, turning for its master and approaching for approval. As Gladion patted its head in reward for its compliance, he glanced past the beast-killer's haunches to see his mother standing pale and shock-stricken. Any part of him that might have revelled in her discomfort was overcome by sudden concern; she did not look well at all.

    Guzma beat him to it by pawing at her arms and bleating, "You alright?"

    She didn't answer. Just lifted a hand to maintain a small measure of personal space. Guzma backed away, visibly agitated, though he didn't look too surprised by her chilliness.

    Gladion instructed his pokemon to sit and then crossed his arms to address her. "You'll have to excuse Silvally's bad manners," he said. "He wasn't trying to hurt you. He still gets preoccupied with hanging cloth―tablecloths, drapery, skirts―"

    She looked extremely uninterested in his excuses. She weakly motioned downward. "I― I only need to sit."

    Guzma didn't need to be told twice; he hurried to her side and helped her down several steps before sitting her on the stairs. She continued to stew and shudder in relative silence, and the two boys shared uncertain glances.

    "Uh…" Guzma stood close behind her. "I didn't know you were up."

    No response.

    Guzma's voice lowered. "You okay? You looking for me? Last night…"

    As he rambled, Lusamine brought a hand to her forehead, pressed her palm against her temple in a pained gesture, and said, "Please… Be quiet."

    He obeyed―though for a second, he looked cross and opened his mouth, ready to say something.

    She interrupted before he could manage to speak. "Get me downstairs."

    To Gladion's chagrin, Guzma didn't argue with her. No, he helped her up and attended her down the steps, holding her gently by the arm and only turning around to snap at Gladion when Silvally started pacing after them, startling her.

    "Hey, maybe control that thing, huh!?"

    Gladion seethed. That she would appear, and suddenly Guzma jumped to her every beck and call―! And here he was hoping Guzma had grown a spine by now. Gladion brushed his bangs aside, briefly considered sniping back, then called Silvally to his side. He watched the couple go.

    Near the pool, Guzma led her to a chair to sit down again and made several more insufficient attempts at starting a conversation. Lusamine seemed only to gaze out at the playing children, who themselves had started clambering out of the pool and found their attention drawn that way. None of them dared approach to cause trouble, though, so they chose to instead gawk from afar.

    Guzma noticed and gave them a warning sneer.

    "I'd like some breakfast," Lusamine suddenly announced.

    "Huh?" Guzma whirled his head around. "Oh. Well… I can get you…"

    With a heave for strength, she pulled herself onto her feet. "I can go myself," she said.

    "What? Where, in the dining hall?" Guzma looked to Gladion to silently confirm his suspicion; Gladion shook his head, so Guzma continued with added certainty, "Uh, maybe you shouldn't."

    Lusamine stared at him.

    "...It's kinda nuts in there."

    For a moment, her expression didn't change, but with the force of each of his words, her face began to contort, her eyes sharpen, her muscles lock. Finally, wearing a look of pure disgust, she growled, taking one, shaken step toward him. "I… paid good money… For the food service… And the use of this ship… So I will go as I please."

    Gladion, standing behind them, cut in. "There's no disputing you have the right to go, Mother. But you might also consider whether it's wise."

    Just hearing his voice set her on edge. Her body stiffened. Gladion nearly thought she'd respond with some kind of nastiness, but she was so perturbed, she couldn't even manage that, and instead shivered, trying to pretend not to have heard him. In any case, she did not absorb his advice. She turned for the path toward the dining hall and began to walk, teetering slightly as she did.

    Guzma watched, then groaned. He scratched the back of his neck as he put one foot before the other, clearly indicating he meant to go with her. "Guess I'd better…"

    "Wait." Gladion slid between them, his Silvally close behind. "You've had to put up with her plenty. I'll go."

    Guzma hesitated, but Gladion looked very placid and certain.

    "Watch Lillie," the boy said as he turned and started down the gallery.

    -

    The mother and son walked away, and Guzma, for a good second, puzzled over that last request. It had been said with clear purpose, so he looked about; the momentary domestic drama had bored the grunts back into their activities, leaving several swimmers still knocking into each other and a small group of boys resting on the ledge, speaking intently and in secret. Chops sat at the center of the cluster with his phone screen visible to all.

    Guzma looked past them and saw that Lillie had emerged from the pool already. She made the short walk to a nearby chair, at which she found her towel and wrapped it about her shoulders, and paused to talk to a female grunt lounging farther away. She must have noticed his talk with Lusamine, as well as her brother's exit, but she showed no signs of concern, instead standing in the warming light of the morning in her white, slim swimsuit.

    He bounced his glance, again seeing the boys. He wondered why they drew his eyes, then realized that instinct was calling him. He frowned. The boys were… A little too focused. A little too attentive to the girls across the way.

    Guzma came up behind them, just in time to hear Chops say, "--Yeah, but I'm tellin' you, give it a few years―"

    Without asking, Guzma reached his long, powerful arm past their shoulders and plucked the phone from Chops' hands. While the boy sputtered, Guzma caught glance of the device's contents: Pictures. Taken surreptitiously.

    "H-hey, paws off, G!" Chops managed to hop onto his feet and snatch it back. "That's private!"

    "What… are you doing."

    "Girlspotting," one of them said.

    "I know what you're doing," Guzma clarified. And of course he did; he used to engage in the ritual plenty, in his day. It was an easy way to overcompensate―to fantasize openly. Anger began to creep into his voice. "But what are you doing?"

    JJ must have caught onto what he meant. He elbowed Chops. "Homie, he's like, dating her mom. That's mad sketch."

    "It ain't sketch," Chops retorted. By now, he fumbled to push his phone into his pocket and hide any other contents. "I'm a minor, so it ain't like I'm a pedo."

    Unsurprisingly, his reasoning did not endear him to Guzma at all. Guzma maintained a steady glare in Chops' direction, and it took only a few seconds for the boy to mumble an excuse.

    "...Whatever. I'm outta here, yo."

    Chops went, but Guzma didn't spare the rest of them his irritated gaze. So, cowering, the remaining boys followed their friend away from the pool.

    Guzma barely had time to feel satisfaction in running them off before a light, young voice surprised him from behind.

    "Mr. Guzma?"

    He almost cussed from shock, but bit his tongue quickly enough to spare Lillie a bit of language. How had she moved that fast? He spun around and saw her standing dangerously close, still speckled with chlorinated moisture and beaming with morning light. "I― ah! H-hey." He noticed her expression of concern. "Yeah? You need somethin'?"

    In a delicate way, she stitched her brow and fixed her mouth into a troubled frown. "Did… You have an argument?"

    Guzma realized what she was referring to when she looked after the fleeing group of boys. "Huh? Nah. It's fine."

    "It must be hard," she said sympathetically, implying she didn't believe him. "They used to be your friends, and now―"

    "Aw, who, them? They weren't my friends." He snorted and shoved his hands in his pockets. "They were beneath me. You know? Underlings, an' all."

    His choice of words made her warm up and giggle. She put a hand to her lips in a motion that not-so-subtly echoed Lusamine's coy manner. "Oh, I see. Gladion says you were a tyrant. Is that true?"

    Embarrassed by her teasing, Guzma slumped and said, "Your brother needs to watch his mouth."

    Lillie didn't seem worried by his implied threat. She trotted past him and seated herself on a pool chair, delicately patting herself down with her towel. Guzma looked at her, looked at the boys disappearing around the corner, and felt the heat of the sun scorch his eyes and face. He didn't try to focus his vision on her, but sensing the boys' interest set him on edge, and seeing her sitting like that, bare-limbed, thin and pale as bone, tiny, brittle, like a porcelain doll left exposed to the world―his lungs hitched with a popping sound. "Hey, kid." He waited until he had her attention. She looked expectantly up at him, so he swallowed. "You… you should watch yourself around those guys."

    Lillie pulled her ponytail to her side, beginning to wring out the water onto the deck. "Huh?"

    "Just… They're trouble, okay?"

    Lillie fluffed her towel back around her shoulders. She shook her head in disbelief. "They've always been nice to me."

    "'Nice'?" Guzma balked at the gravely naive thought. "Guys aren't nice! Guys aren't nice to each other, and they definitely aren't nice to girls."

    Lillie considered his statement, but had her own retort: "Professor Kukui is nice to me."

    "Yeah, but he's―he's married, and so―"

    "And Master Hala. And Mr. Nanu. And Hau's always been…"

    "Ugh! Look! That's different! They're old, and that kid's―I don't know. Anyway, all I'm sayin' is, just 'cause guys act nice don't mean that they are. You oughta be careful."

    Lillie paused to stare at him for an inordinate moment. A weak and bittersweet smile came over her face. "You sound just like Mother."

    She might as well have slapped him across the face. He reeled.

    While he struggled with how to respond, she got up from the chair. "She used to chide me for being too friendly with boys. She said it gives them 'the wrong idea...'? Whatever that means…"

    Guzma about leaped out of his skin. "What!? No! Geez, okay―listen, you've got me way twisted here, that's not what I'm saying―!" Now beyond uncomfortable, he rustled his hair roughly with one hand. "I'm not saying don't be nice, that's stupid. It's nothing you're doing wrong, okay? It's just you gotta know what guys are like. They're―they're just out for themselves, so you gotta watch out for your self. Got it?"

    This advice saddened her. She matched her eyes with his; her dewey, emerald eyes, shone with overbearing compassion. "Do you really think people are so terrible?"

    "Uh... " Guzma was taken aback. He had to furiously recalculate. "I, uh, didn't say 'people,' I said―"

    Lillie, like she didn't hear him, walked to the railing overlooking the sea.

    He stopped himself, considered his options, and followed her until he stood at a polite distance beside her. He kept his hands in his pockets, communicating some discomfort, but she rested the tender skin of her wrists on the metal rail. She watched the waves for a moment, consumed with such intent thought, that he dared not interrupt. In the breeze, her blonde hair, previously drenched and snarled together, began to peel into delicate, silken threads against her face. Then, she said: "Mother used to tell us how dangerous it was out in the world, and I believed her. When Gladion ran away, I was so afraid something might happen to him… And even when life got unbearable, when Mother changed… I didn't run away, because I was so sure that the world would be even more unkind. Why, when I woke up and saw Professor Burnet for the first time…! I was terrified!" She laughed and sighed. "How funny it seems now… And I've met… So many wonderful people since then."

    Guzma marvelled―and fought against a surge of resentment burning his throat.

    To think… That somehow, she had lived up until now spared of the knowledge he possessed. In many ways, he realized, his own life was opposite of hers: he had grown up in a self-assured culture that denied human evil, or, at best, pretended it did not have root in Alola. And by the time he was her age, that notion had been destroyed. He knew and suffered under the vices of his elders.

    Lusamine hadn't lied to her, he thought. The world wasn't safe. The world had monsters.

    "I'm sorry," Lillie suddenly said. "I'm being selfish. Here I am talking about myself―but I don't even know what your life has been like. For all I know…"

    What was she, a mind-reader? Guzma frowned. "Uh, nah, it's fine." After scratching his ear to cover for his nerves, he glanced over her again out of the corner of his eye. She was so young. New. Untarnished. He admonished himself. "Your brother's right, ya know," he said. "You shouldn't come back to Aether. That was just me being…" He chomped down on the inside of his cheek, pondered something, then badgered, "Look, if you could do anything, go anywhere―what would you do, right now?"

    She looked up at him, clearly puzzled.

    "Kukui told me you wanted to travel."

    "Oh…?" Lillie pursed her lips. "I… thought about it. But…"

    "But, what? You want to, don't you?"

    "Well, yes―"

    "Then just do it!" Guzma started to puff up with emphatic zeal, startling her into silence. "You're a little kid now, but life's short. You shouldn't let this crap hold you back!" As quickly as he had been overcome with fervor, he became embarrassed and turned his head. He mumbled, "That's… what I think, anyway."

    The worst thing happened then. She laughed. It wasn't an unkind laugh, or a mocking laugh, but it was bubbly, sweet, and entirely irreverent, breaking whatever seriousness he was trying to convey. She finally stopped enough to say, "I see―you're a very passionate person, aren't you, Mr. Guzma?"

    "Uh…"

    "That's how you got to have so many followers, I suppose."

    Guzma wasn't sure he liked her speculating on his past, but begrudgingly accepted, "Yeah, sure… I guess."

    "Anyhow," she said, changing the subject with an expertise that must have come from her mother, either by genetics or direct instruction, "I'm going to get dressed. Will you wait for me?"

    "...Wait for you?"

    "We'll talk more, okay? I'll be right back!"

    As she scurried off toward the living suites, Guzma stood uncertainly where she left him. He didn't know what to make of her request, but he didn't have a good reason to rebuff it.

    It wasn't like he had other plans.

    -

    Just as Gladion expected, the situation within the dining hall had not improved since earlier that morning. His mother walked well ahead of him, seemingly happy to pretend not to notice his following, and so she had to face the chaos before he caught up. He found her frozen near the entrance, looking over the mess:

    Most tables had been upturned. Paint slathered the walls, decorating them in familiar Po Town tags. Garbage had been left strewn across the floor in the form of empty bottles, dirty dishes, and broken glass. The kitchen staff, to appease the crowd of ravenous, hungry children, had laid out an array of breakfast foods and drinks, but were quickly rewarded for their professionalism by being pelted with pastries and jeered at. The workers now were nowhere to be seen, no doubt cowering behind the locked kitchen access door. This left breakfast to be run by the masses of teens and pre-teens sitting in tight circles at the center of the hall. Naturally, then, most of the food had ended up on the floor, trampled, half-eaten then discarded, thrown against walls, or left scattered on dirty tabletops. The serving table looked like a warzone.

    Gladion, with Silvally close behind, approached Lusamine's side. She didn't so much as twitch.

    For a miniscule moment, he thought the two of them might be sharing a feeling of annoyance. He didn't have any more patience for juvenile foolishness than she did.

    "Well," Gladion finally said, sounding resigned, "Why don't you sit? I'll see if I can find anything that's been left unscathed."

    Lusamine said nothing. At first he thought this meant a refusal to accept his offer. But she eyed a nearby, mostly in-tact table near the front entrance and chose to seat herself there.

    A tiny bit of tension melted. Gladion felt his shoulders relax. "Silvally," he ordered, turning to meet its cool silver eyes, "stay here and watch her." (He meant this to imply that she might need defending―or perhaps, the grunts might need defending from her.)

    Silvally grunted, shivered with anticipation, and squatted, seating itself on the floor by its haunches.

    Gladion crossed the room, ignoring the various staring grunts. He didn't feel like talking. Not to say he ever did. But especially not now.

    He took two plates upon deciding he might as well eat something, too. After a bit of poking around, he was able to uncover some plain, unsullied croissants, as well as fruit that pickier grunts had pushed aside in search for more sweet, doughy confections. Several tin pots contained coffee, which the grunts had also largely neglected, but with both hands full, he would have to come back for it.

    "Hey, Glad."

    The familiar voice reached him from above. He looked up and found Plumeria, arms crossed over the upstairs railing and eyes curious. She donned a black cap (her own) and a fancy coat and jewels obviously stolen from a former wedding guest.

    "Finally decided to show?" She smiled wryly as she said this, but there was a hint of hostility to it, like she knew he was avoiding her.

    Gladion felt his patience withering already. He looked up at her with professional calm. "Good morning."

    A few bandana-covered heads peeked over the railing beside her. Her closest crew. Bully, humbled and bruised in the face, stood the farthest back from the edge. With a smack and pop from her sweet-melon bubblegum, Plumeria flicked her hair and started for the stairway connecting the two floors; by the time Gladion was satisfied with his plates and turned to head back for the table, she reached him and stopped him.

    "Where you goin'? You've been ducking me since last night. Can't we talk?"

    He paused, sighed, and turned around again. He looked put upon. "What do you want to talk about?"

    That was when she noticed the plates in his hands and flitted her eyes over to where Lusamine sat. She deduced―and frowned. "You're fetching food for her? Why?"

    "She's hungry," Gladion said, implying that it bore no other explanation. "Is that what you wanted to talk about?"

    Plumeria sucked her teeth in annoyance. "Don't get smart. What's the deal? Joined the President's Masochist Club or what?"

    Gladion noticed some grunts creeping up to Lusamine to start an exchange. He shifted his feet, readying himself to call Silvally for intervention if he needed it. "You've already disrupted the wedding and humiliated her; I'm not sure why you need me to pile on."

    "'Pile on'?" Plumeria sputtered and scoffed. She put her hands to her hips and needled his expression with a foul look. "Don't tell me you feel sorry for her."

    "It's not―" Gladion realized then he didn't want to argue with her, especially not about his own mother. He exhaled sharply. "My feelings on the matter are unimportant, obviously."

    "Two minutes around her and you go mealy-mouthed again," Plumeria complained, not completely without reason. It had taken him two years to learn to speak more bluntly, and the very atmosphere around Lusamine brought out his old oblique, evasive speech patterns. When Plumeria saw the vexation in his face, she asked, "What are you in a snit for, anyway?"

    "I just..." Gladion grit his teeth. "I wish you had conferred with me first."

    When she realized what he meant, she looked around at her work―the grunts, the pokemon, the havoc being wrecked―and guffawed. "What? Like I gotta ask your permission?"

    "I would have liked some forewarning, at least."

    "You're sore about that? Look, I stopped the wedding, didn't I?"

    "Fine, but what's your plan now?"

    "I don't know." She shrugged and examined her nails lazily. "Hang out. Do what we want. Push that woman overboard, at some point."

    He knew it was a joke, but Gladion couldn't stop himself. He gripped the two plates in his fingers and asked, "Why exactly do you hate my mother?"
    Even though he didn't ask it in an accusing way, Plumeria still gaped and grimaced at him. "Uh―? Why wouldn't I?"

    "I'm not saying she's undeserving of hatred. I just wonder why your distaste for her is so personal. She's done… Many things. But what has she done to you in particular?"

    "You think I haven't made it crystal clear!? She used us! She used me and my kids!"

    A slice of resentment―an old hurt, an old memory of betrayal that he tried to overlook―made him grumble, "You didn't complain when the money was rolling in."

    -

    Before Plumeria answered that, and in fact shortly before they began talking at all, Lusamine had to bear with her own misadventure.

    Because she didn't wish to expend the energy needed to fight her son off, she chose―chose―to tolerate his attendance. She even tolerated the presence of that cobbled-together monster, which she could barely conceive as alive, and which for now sat with cold eyes digging into hers. Lusamine put her hands on her lap, measured its size, and felt the threadiness of her pulse increase the longer it gazed upon her.

    Faba had been very clear with her about the creature's failings: untrainable, he said. Dangerous. Non-responsive to discipline, non-social, irreparably aggressive. The decision to have it and its counterparts cryogenically frozen and stored until further notice had been inspired by his and other scientists' characterizations. Surely, a shambling monster without soul or conscience deserved no other existence.

    It had served as quite a shock, then, to witness Gladion ordering it around and daring to leave it unsupervised.

    The creature tilted its head at her and flapped its head-feathers.

    She sucked in a breath and looked away. If it was about to leap and murder her, she would rather it come as a surprise.

    By not focusing on her freakish guardian, she was able to observe some of the shenanigans of the grunts. The group remained too far away to pose any threat, though plenty of them paid rapt attention to her. They gawked and chewed and watched, like she was a zoo animal on display. But when it became apparent she was not going to dance for them like some trained ape, their interest scattered. The boys and girls had evidently finished eating, as whatever morsels remained on their plates were being chucked in the air for entertainment, with their Zubats and other flying pokemon swooping through the air to attempt catching them. The rest, though, had settled down for the most part, slouched over their phones or posing for pictures.

    Just when she thought they would continue to ignore her, though, a few younger grunts broke off from the cluster to creep toward her. A boy and a pair of twin girls. They looked wary, both of their fellow grunts and Gladion, shifting their eyes and trying to look inconspicuous (and failing). The twins stuck together like glue, but the boy trundled some paces ahead of them and appeared the most intent on spying on her. Eventually, they placed themselves up against the table where she sat. They stood in a row, not speaking, but rubbing their eyes and blinking at her.

    She hoped by sitting still, staring straight ahead, and saying nothing, she might cause them to wander away again and leave her in peace. However, some unspoken desire was on their mind, and they were not about to leave without expressing it.

    The boy, crusty-faced from poor sleep, had a sleek Alolan Meowth wiggling in his arms. It began to paw and claw at the tablecloth while he looked her over and blurted, "Hiya, miss."

    At a slow, creeping pace, she turned her head for him.

    "Hey," the grunt said again. He had started to lose his nerve and had to repeat his greeting. "H… Hey, we was wonderin' something… Ain't there a cake, miss?"

    Her voice was faint and thin. "...Cake?"

    "Yeah, like a weddin' cake. Ain't there one? 'Cuz, we was wonderin', I mean, if you ain't usin' it…"

    Somewhere in the fog of her mind, she came to recognize that look in his face: the hopelessly stupid, vacant look of a child who didn't comprehend his surroundings. She might fancy the grunts enemy invaders, and Plumeria might even think of them in that way, but the foot-soldiers didn't understand this. They were toddling babes, begging for something sweet.

    An image flashed in her memory: big-eyed, lip-licking, entreating faces, chubby fingers tugging on her dress, lisping voices against tiny teeth.

    Before she allowed the image to pass, she spoke in an overwrought, saccharine tone. "...Oh, darling. You mustn't eat cake for breakfast. You'll give yourself a tummy ache."

    The boy clammed up and blushed, and his female companions sniggered at his discomfort. "Yeah!" One girl elbowed him hard. "Watch your tummy, Buzz."

    "Shut up!"

    Because the children turned to one another to bicker, she thought they might leave her be. But instead, after a few seconds of squabbling, they moved from behind the table to draw even nearer. Lusamine lifted her elbows in an attempt to shrink away from them, but her maneuvering didn't deter them at all; they persisted arguing with each other while crowding around her.

    "I'm Buzz."

    Lusamine had to whip her head around to find the boy staring slack-jawed in her direction. She awaited further context for his sudden announcement, but when none came, she said, "Oh, is that right?"

    His Meowth finally freed itself from his arms and fell to the floor, and he folded his arms over his chest. "Uh-huh." He pointed at the girls rather rudely. "An' that's Tiny and Trixie."

    "Yo!" The twin on the left pouted. "Why you gotta spill like that?"

    Lusamine decided that if she was going to be trapped here, between babbling, rude children, she might as well try to tame them with some semblance of adult conversation. She eyed the attendant creature from where it sat; Silvally still trained its eyes on her and them. "If you're going to introduce yourself, you ought to use your real name."

    The boy blinked slowly at her. "Huh?"

    "Your parents didn't christen you 'Buzz,' did they?"

    "What'sit matter?"

    Lusamine was taken aback, but only a little. The boy didn't ask with a hint of rudeness; he appeared genuinely confused.

    Then, before she could think of an answer, one of the twins pestered her. "Hey, miss. Do you wanna know what they be callin' you?"

    "...I have a sneaking suspicion that I don't."

    "It ain't bad!" the girl cried out insistently. She put her hands on her hips to show her seriousness. "Promise!"

    "Yes, yes, very well," she surrendered, but only because they were starting to close in around her. She nervously adjusted herself to sitting at the edge of the chair, in case she needed to extricate herself. The other twin dared to take hold of a lock of her hair, and she had to deftly tug it away. "Now, don't―"

    "Momma G," the girl announced. "I dunno who started it, but that's what they call you since last night―"

    "Your hair's pretty."

    "I can do a handstand. With one hand even! You wanna see?"

    "Can I braid it?"

    "'Cuz―well, we got Big G, and Li'l G, see?"

    While the three children began talking over each one another, whizzing comments and questions past her, she felt her frustration peak. One last time, she pulled her hair away from greedy fingers and prepared to scold them with matronly ferocity.

    But that was when Plumeria found her response to Gladion's cutting remark, and the noise caught everyone's attention. There was a smash of a plate onto the floor, right where Plumeria's hand had smacked it out of Gladion's. Loud, spiteful cursing echoed through the dining hall, and after a few seconds of breathless watching, the pink-haired girl finished her rant, hiked up her fancy coat, and upon seeing the grunts at Lusamine's side, cussed them out, too.

    "Whatta you dummies doing! She ain't your mommy!"

    Plumeria continued to upbraid them until they pouted and slinked away, retreating to another corner.

    With that, the Team Skull boss stalked back up the stairs and disappeared.

    (cont. in next post)
     
  17. dietofwurms

    dietofwurms i see stars

    (cont. from previous post)

    Gladion stood still for a few moments but mostly took Plumeria's tantrum in stride. He left the ruined plate on the floor and brought her the one in his other hand. He made no comment when he reached her table. He just put the plate down and put his hand to his chin, seeming to ponder something.

    Lusamine had been so entertained by the spectacle that she broke her vow of silence. "My," she declared, pulling the small plate before her. "You always did have a way with girls."

    He snapped to attention, surprised by being addressed. Her comment succeeded in irritating him, at least―he tried to suppress his eyeroll, but she noticed.

    Lusamine tore a croissant in half with her fingers and picked at it delicately. She found herself too nervous to properly eat, so she nattered, "I had high hopes for her, once. But she's an awfully rude young woman."

    "She's stubborn, haughty, and self-righteous," Gladion replied. He eyed her sternly. "Sound familiar at all?"

    Lusamine ignored his jab and produced her own. "It just goes to show that good breeding can go to waste."

    Gladion chose silence over retaliation, and she enjoyed its sweetness between bites of bread and fruit. He retreated only to retrieve two cups of black coffee and set them down on the table. His quiet manner as he took a seat across from her could be interpreted as coldness, she thought, but it occurred to her that the way he sat―eyes averted at a polite angle, back straight, hands on his lap―made her remember all the training she had done on him. Silence is golden, she used to tell him when she could not bear to hear his voice. Perhaps he had taken that lesson and others to heart.

    He had grown in those two years.

    Lusamine spent only a moment pondering this, because Gladion cast a glance over at his sitting pet and saw its eager fidgeting. He asked it, "Are you hungry?" and it yapped, pushing itself upright on its hind legs.

    Gladion took one more trip, then, this time returning with a handful of creampuffs rescued from the decimated serving area. He sat again, leaned back, and readied a puff; Silvally chuffed and bounced on its front claws, preparing to spring. Then, a puff flew. Silvally threw itself upright and caught the food easily in its jaws, then swept it into its mouth with its parrot-like tongue.

    Lusamine found she wasn't as hungry as she thought, so she was distracted, and from a modest distance, she watched as the boy and monster played their game. Their interaction was so astonishingly… innocent. More akin to a child and a puppy, than a teenager and his chimeric lab experiment. (She mulled to herself on the details she'd once read on its last rampage―the employees' severed fingers, broken bones, and slashed flesh. That no one died had been a miracle).

    The last puff, Silvally missed; it snapped its jaws in mid-air, the pasty bounced off its nose, and it had to sniff and search the floor to recover it.

    "How―?"

    Gladion turned his head in surprise.

    She only then realized she had actually verbalized the beginning of her question; she closed her mouth and desperately pretended not to have said anything.

    But it wasn't hard for Gladion to guess what she meant to ask. He had noticed her intense focus on the animal. He shook his head. "It took all of two years to get him to this point. When I started working with him, he was too traumatized to function. So I read as much as I could on behaviorism… Worked with him daily… It took persistence and patience. But I gave him what Faba and his employees couldn't." He looked back at Silvally, who had since snarfed down his last treat and wobbled its tail expectantly at him. "We have a bond."

    "Hmph. Now you're sounding like your uncle."

    "How can I sound like him? I've never even met him."

    Lusamine could hear his bitterness and chided, "Oh, there's no need to sound deprived. For all the trouble he causes, he is a horrendous dullard."

    "I always heard he's a brilliant scientist," Gladion contradicted with a shrug. "Why doesn't he work for Aether?"

    "Young man, that is none of your concern."

    Gladion didn't appreciate her lecturing tone; he gave her sharp side-eye, flicked another puff, and said, "I was only wondering―you never seemed that concerned about nepotism."

    When Lusamine opened her mouth, fully intending to inform Gladion that she did not need his opinion on how to run Aether , and was suddenly struck by a realization.

    She felt sick.

    Too much… In her head.

    Had to get away.

    -

    "...Mother?"

    Lusamine jerked herself upward and onto her feet. She didn't look at him as she stumbled toward an exit. She didn't head outside, but instead reached the interior hallway just past the kitchen. In the narrow, carpeted hall, she could hear only the dull flapping of the rubber sandals against her feet; the walls had once been a sleek, pearly white before grunts came through with neon spray paint, thus giving it a fresh, explosive aesthetic. She kept walking, as if by doing so she might escape all that chased her.

    But within a short minute's walk, the hall opened into the front lobby, which glistened with golden light and wine-colored upholstery. Interior staircases that led to the upper floors flanked her on both sides, gaudy and lined with pearl-colored railings. At the center of the lobby, on a small, round platform, there rested a grand piano in all its splendor. Where a musician might have normally sat to play for the pleasure of entering guests, it now remained undisturbed; the occasional grunt had toyed with it at different intervals throughout the prior evening and this morning, but they had each grown tired of it. It was a miracle that none of them had decided to vandalize it.

    A circle of comfy chairs and sofas encircled the piano, creating a lounge atmosphere that would have served adults well. The teenagers had turned it into a lounge of their own: dozing, resting their legs on coffee tables. It was apparent that some of them spent the night there. A few sleepy-eyed children saw her and rubbed their faces, perhaps thinking she was a lingering dream. After a girl uttered something, a few more heads popped up from behind couches like curious rodents.

    Lusamine chose to ignore them and venture for the only object of her interest. Nimbly, carefully, she brought herself to the platform, stepped up onto it, and took a moment to bond with the ebony instrument. Touching its frame brought back a flood of memories, some sweet, some bitter. She had spent endless hours of her life seated before keyboards like this―starting at an early age, at which her father insisted all proper ladies should begin their musical education. But what started as an act of adult coercion had since evolved into an integral facet of her life; music was rhythm and pattern and order, as she believed all things ought to be.

    Now, she looked down at the row of endless white-and-black pieces, reached out with a hand at starting position and pressed down a single key. The note rang out, almost as loud as a booming voice through the relative quiet of the lobby. The sound reverberated for several seconds. She closed her eyes, and the vibration of it swooped through her, capturing every errant energy, absorbing all chaos and compressing it into that single, beautiful, containable tone.

    She sat down.

    The motion that then flowed forth from her fingers came purely from her heart. She had no thought of any particular melody or chords, but felt and acted upon an outpouring of feeling, passion and rage, despair and longing, all booming and echoing through the halls. Her head whirled. She played on, and on, and on, until exhaustion set in, and finally her hands slowed to a stop. She was spent. All the thudding in her brain ceased, replaced with blissful catharsis. She could not tell for certain how much time had passed. But the silence ringing in her ears was deafening for a moment.

    Then Silvally, after sneaking up behind her, barked with rich gusto and she leaped, crying out in surprise. Her elbow landed on a few keys, giving out a discordant clang of sound, and a close-by collection of teenagers broke into laughter at her near heart-attack.

    "Silvally!" Gladion, at least, sounded appropriately cross. "Down."

    Dejected, Silvally took a few steps backward and settled a polite distance away. Lusamine turned around after recovering from her fright and found herself rather surrounded. She had been so distracted by her playing, she hadn't noticed a small crowd of grunts peeking over her shoulder, not to mention her son and pet monster lurking behind her. The slovenly collection of grunts eyed her, like they had just witnessed a miracle.

    "Aww, man. You can really play, huh," one boy nervously complimented while fidgeting with his bandana.

    She was ready to politely deflect the compliment, but noticed to the detriment of her already-shot nerves that a few grunts had started hugging Silvally and leaning their bodies into it, as if it was a toy. They cooed pet names― Silly! Hey, Silly! To her shock, neither Gladion nor the monster complained. It gruffed once in annoyance at having its fur pulled, but otherwise shook its mane and blinked slowly as it suffered a bit of rough play.

    "I think," Gladion said, interrupting her stunned silence, "he wants you to play more, Mother."

    She stared, incapable of speaking.

    When Gladion sensed that this was either unwilling or unable to play, he stepped forward. "It doesn't matter. I can do it."

    Lusamine had no time to rebuff him; he planted himself on the bench next to her. And so he put his hands to the keys and delivered a memorized cantata.

    -

    Gladion always had innate musical talent, but of course, compared to her, he fumbled a little more with the keys, and didn't have the precise timing that she had perfected over the years. His core competency more than made up for his shortfalls, though, especially for the unlearned ears of their audience, and so he carried on to the end in serene confidence. His performance also didn't carry the same overwhelming passion hers did, but it was sweet and cheerful, and had a friendly and genuinely pleasing tone to it that made Silvally wobble and whistle along. Once the piece came to its end, Gladion glanced around and read the shock on the grunts' faces.

    "His taste in music isn't the same as mine," Gladion confessed. He sounded a sliver embarrassed.

    An older boy snickered, elbowed his way past a few others, and thumped Gladion on the arm. "Yo-o, Li'l G, look atchoo! You holdin' out on us! You one o' them baby geniuses or what!?" The boy clumsily plunked his own fingers on the keys, as if to test whether it was really all that difficult.

    Gladion looked exasperated, and Lusamine couldn't help but add to his mortification by sweetly bragging, "Oh, he was a brilliant little boy. He spoke full sentences at one, and was reading whole novels by the age of three―in French and English―"

    (He was sputtering now, turning red, and glaring at her. He put a hand to his face and mouthed sternly, stop.)

    "At six, he entered a youth musicians competition. Most of the candidates were twice his age, and he won second place―"

    "I'm not a genius," Gladion suddenly blurted, over the giggles of the grunts. He scowled at her. "You forced me to take lessons. That's all."

    The older Team Skull grunt shrugged and shook his head, wearing a bitter smile. He rapped his knuckles on Gladion's skull. "S'alright, G. We all know you smarter than us boneheads. Big G was always sayin' that."

    Gladion turned around to face the piano again. He sourly dipped a finger onto a flat note. "Mr. Guzma… is easily impressed."

    (To his credit, the older boy didn't seem able to respond to that. The boy snorted and stalked back into the fold.)

    Lusamine almost wanted to ask what that was about―but she knew better than to think he would share. It seemed to be pecking-order business. Boys being boys, enviously wrestling for power and favor.

    "To be honest, I hated those lessons."

    Lusamine realized then that he was addressing her directly. Even maintaining eye contact. She gave a nervous flutter of her eyelashes and reflected on her own experience. She had very early memories of throwing fits and having to be dragged to the piano bench where her tutor awaited her. "All children do."

    "That's probably true," Gladion acknowledged. His voice finally softened. "I still remember what you told me, though. You said that someday, I would come to appreciate it. I figured that was one of those lies adults tell―" When he saw Lusamine's eyes narrow crossly, he was quick to explain, "But, after all… It did come in handy. There was a piano at Shady House, in one of the back parlor rooms. No one knew about it. I asked permission to dust it off and put it to use; of course Mr. Guzma didn't care, so I would play sometimes. Silvally liked to listen. It was one of the few things that put him at ease, before I was able to remove his control mask."

    Lusamine didn't understand.

    Why tell this story?

    Why submit something so personal to the conversation―with others so close by?

    Did he mean to embarrass her in retaliation? To prick her with guilt? Or excuse her? Or extend an offering of peace…?

    She didn't know whether to pull him into her arms or throw him to ground.

    He stopped waiting for her response. "Anyway. I'm not as practiced as I could be. Somebody found the piano―and smashed it to pieces."

    This part of the story triggered her worst indignation. She rose up to her feet and howled. "How very foolish!"

    The grunts skittered away and cowered. Gladion, as shocked as the rest of them by her anger, leaned back.

    "Is that really the sort of barbarians you've been consorting with? The sort of people who would destroy an object like this!" She drew her hand over the sleek, black frame. "A thing of such beauty… And perfection… And artistic value… Such an object has a soul."

    Gladion was stunned. Not that she chose to defend the piano's honor, and not his―that was to be expected. But her hypocrisy shone out enough to drive him to his feet as well. "How can you even say that!?"

    The grunts started shifting their feet, angling away.

    "You can believe that a piece of furniture has a soul―" Gladion pointed at Silvally, who stared at the two of them in befuddlement. "But he's trash to be discarded!?"

    It was then that Lusamine realized the source of his anger. Of course. He had been no doubt broiling over Aether's treatment of that thing for years. She had waited to hear his nonsensical rantings on it―and now, she was about to receive an earful. Her first attempt was a dodge: "I was speaking figuratively; I think even you can understand that."

    "Can you really tell me that for all that time, you looked into his eyes and didn't see a soul? Or at least some kind of life worth preserving?"

    "You can be so dramatic," she sighed. "First of all, I did choose to preserve it; or don't you remember? I could have had it destroyed, but I'm not that senseless."

    "Don't pretend that was a mercy! You just wanted to keep him alive so you could thaw him out whenever you wanted, to keep torturing him as you see fit!"

    Slowly, surely, the grunts moved to a safe distance, placing themselves behind couches and chairs, but still watching intently as the family drama unfolded. There were whispers and held breath. The presence of an audience, however, didn't slow the mother and son down at all.

    "...All this vitriol, directed at your own mother," Lusamine growled. She frowned then redirected, "Faba looked that creature in the eyes plenty, and he had no qualms about any of it."

    Gladion's hands shook. "Him? You're passing off your moral agency to him? That man barks on command!"

    Gladion had been careless. He had too quickly, too readily exposed a sore spot for her to dig her fingers into. Lusamine clucked and put her hands on her hips, sneering. "Must you leap to the attack at the very mention of him? Honestly, dear. You shouldn't flaunt your Oedipal jealousy so transparently; it's unbecoming."

    The grunts, of course, had no idea what she meant. But Gladion's shaking peaked; he gripped his wrist, face turning purple, and screeched so indignantly, that for a second his normally-even voice cracked. "What!?"

    Everyone went still. Team Skull had seen Gladion angry before. They had seen him scowl, and threaten, and berate. They had never seen him outright lose his temper.

    "How can―!? Y-you're intolerable! It's like you can't conceive of anything that doesn't involve you at the center of it! Why did you even have children!?"

    She hissed, "How dare you―"

    "We were not born into this world to be on the receiving end of your psychoses, Mother! Maybe if you realized that, we could be an actual family!"

    "Oh, is that what you've decided? That it's all my fault? May I remind you that you're the one who abandoned us, on account of your personal hatred towards me."

    "I didn't leave because I hated you."

    "Of course you did! All I ever did was love you, and you repaid me with nothing but betrayal and cruelty!"

    "This! This is why! You take everything as a personal affront! I…" He pinched his brow and released a frustrated, quelling snort. It succeeded in bringing his yelling down to a simmer. "I should have confronted you directly. I see that now. I should have told you what you were doing to Null was wrong―and made you understand. But I was young, and let's be honest, it wouldn't have worked, would it? You would have refused to listen, or taken it as a personal attack. So I took him and ran. To protect him."

    "Fine." She clenched her fists at her sides. "Paint yourself as a hero. If that makes your miserable existence easier to bear―to imagine yourself as the hero, and myself as the monster to slay―"

    "You're not a monster," Gladion said. "It would be easier for the both of us if you were! At least you'd have an excuse―and I would be free to write you off! But you're not! You know right from wrong; you just pretend that shutting your eyes absolves you of everything!"

    If she could have without consequence leapt onto him and scratched his eyes out, she might have. A dark impulse in her wanted to. She didn't have a chance to battle it, though, because Gladion released an aggravated sigh and stalked off toward the dining hall.

    Lusamine looked around herself. Alone on a platform, surrounded by staring youth.

    She tried to appear unfazed as she took herself out the front exit and into the morning air.

    -

    The breeze didn't liven her. In fact, to her now, it had a sickly flavor, almost rotten. Now as she looked at the horizon over the railing, she saw the stormclouds gathering at the edge of the sky, and knew that by the time the day was gone, they would reach her.

    As soon as she recognized the dark rolling clouds, however, she heard an unfamiliar noise that pained her. Laughter. Spritely, bubbly, amused laughter that echoed from above, like ice-cold rain washing down her back. Because she thought she knew this laughter, she spun around and looked. At the upper floor, hanging over the railing with her feet hooked against the bars, Lillie stood with a yellow sundress billowing in the wind. She had her arm up and outstretched, and Lusamine puzzled for a moment over why. But the picture clarified: Guzma appeared beside her, evidently coaching her, even reaching out to grab and position her arm at a higher angle. A slice of bread was in the girl's hand, and as Lusamine stared, she noticed the flapping of Wingulls overhead, some dipping precariously close.

    Lillie was shaking and flinching with excitement. One gull knocked nearly into her face, snapping and missing in midair. She screamed.

    Over the wind, she could hear Guzma scolding, "Quit pullin' back, they won't―"

    Guzma finally took and pinned her arm into an upright position, and the next swoop took: a Wingfull swooped in and snagged it from her fingers while still flapping in mid-flight.

    Lillie screamed, but this time in delight; she laughed like it was the most delightful thing she'd experienced in years.

    And then―Lusamine heard a sound she didn't recognize, because―it was Guzma, laughing too, snorting and undignified―

    She thought on that collection of things: laughter, his touching her arm, her youth, her beauty...

    Lusamine felt a wave of revulsion overcome her. She averted her eyes. She turned hard for the other direction and calculated in her head the best way to reach her room without having to acknowledge either of them.

    "...Miss L?"

    She'd been seen. She had to hurry.

    "Uh, wasn't Gladion with you?"

    "Mother?"

    "Hey― Miss, wait up―"

    Well, she thought darkly, at least one of them was enjoying themselves.
     
  18. Chibi Pika

    Chibi Pika Stay positive

    It was a ton of fun seeing Lusamine and Nanu interacting. I love how none of her comments are able to get under his skin, he's too apathetic, not looking for her approval at all, just sharing his experiences, and in the process getting under her skin. Honestly amazed she took the offer for his sandals lol. I guess she just didn't have any fight left, heh.

    Now that latest chapter. Man, that was a doozy. So many character conflicts coming to a head. Guzma and Plumeria. Gladion and Lusamine. I'm so glad he finally, finally got to tell his mother what he thought of her, while also having to dodge all her attempts to turn it back around on him. Though man, it was something else to see him lose his temper. My jaw actually dropped.

    And I really love the way you've developed the friendship between Guzma and Lillie. While he's not really old enough to be her dad, it's cute to see him settle into a sort of fatherly role with her, and it's really obvious how far he's come since the beginning to the fic. He really does mean well, and want the best for her and Gladion, he's just not great at showing it, especially when he loses his temper. But. I think he's getting there. It's slow, but the progress is there.

    ~Chibi~
     
  19. dietofwurms

    dietofwurms i see stars

    Chapter 31: A Glass Darkly

    The trip back to Mele'mele had changed Guzma. This, Lusamine understood. Before then, he had been not much more than an irritating child who whined and threw tantrums, and whom she could corral with a stern word and tug on the ear. But somehow―whether by some transformation of his, or of her perception, she didn't know―when he returned to Aether, it was as if a decade had passed. He had become quieter, more firm, and more self-possessed. She threw herself at him, full of promises and sweet nothings, but he didn't seem… taken in. It frightened her.

    In the days between his return and the boarding for the wedding, they spent more time together than they had in all of their alleged courtship. Lusamine, still languishing from stress, stayed at home and mostly remained in bed, so Guzma visited often. He talked to the nurse, asking after her; he roamed the house performing duties as she requested; he checked in on her, watched her. He even practiced the art of delegation by dismissing employees who showed up intending to pester her. His previous incarnation would have come off in all of this as dopey, needy, and sycophantic; now he moved with precision and confidence. Like a man. A man, running his household.

    No other being could have inspired such contradictory passions in her. She loathed his renewed swagger, and resented that he no longer seemed intimidated by her. He didn't flinch at her threats. He told her what he thought, didn't mince his words, hurt her feelings, and didn't seem to care. It brought back the worst of Lusamine's contentions with the male sex. Yet, it also brought out primal urges not easily suppressed by intellectual preference. Her disdain couldn't stop the crawling feeling in her gut when he breathed on her, the heat cloaking her face when he kissed her, the shivers down her spine when he coolly dismissed her.

    That's why, even though she was angry, she didn't lock the door to her suite when she stormed inside. She knew Guzma would follow her, and she didn't really mind. In fact, a small part of her hoped for it.

    -

    Her room still had a blanket of morning light coming through the window and covering the bed, so she collapsed onto it face-down and allowed a moment for the heat to soothe her bare shoulders. By the force of her fall, the flip-flops slipped from her feet and onto the floor.

    Lusamine waited, and her patience was rewarded. Guzma pushed the door in, shut it behind him, and plodded over, standing himself next to the bed to look down at her. For a moment, he said nothing. He only loomed there, his shadow darkening her back.

    "What happened?"

    Rather than answer, she pouted and pawed the covers with her fingers.

    He must have contemplated bringing up Gladion, because he deliberately avoided the topic. "Did you get any breakfast?"

    "I wasn't hungry after all," she said. Despite her best effort at sounding pathetic, she came off as sniffy and petty.

    Guzma didn't bother trying to argue with her. He sighed, and the next thing she felt was the sinking of the mattress where he sat. His quiet, polite seating arrangement at the edge of the bed lasted only a few seconds; rather quickly, he landed on his hands and took to leaning directly over her. Just when she thought this gesture of intimacy was out of line, he drew a hand to the side of her face, pulling back her hair around her ear to reveal the pallid surface of her cheek. He stooped downward, barely pressing his lips to her face as he mumbled, "But are you okay? I was―"

    Lusamine tried to recoil on principle. But her shoulders pulled upward, and she felt a series of muscles in her body rippling with excitement. She had to lift her face from the covers to glare at him, eyes red, speaking sharply to counteract her pleasure at his touch. "Oh, what are you doing!"

    He withdrew only a few inches, connecting his eyes with hers, and gave her an earnest, but mildly annoyed look. "I'm just… try'nna make you feel better."

    "If you want me to feel better," she hissed, pushing herself upward into sitting position on the bed, "then find your darling stepson and teach him how to properly address his mother." Lusamine threw her legs over the side, fussed with her hair, and scowled to herself.

    But Guzma lazily blinked at her, not moved by her anger. In fact, after watching her miffed snivelling, a smirk lifted the edge of his lips. He nudged himself behind her, reaching about her waist, and fastened her in his strong forearms. She grumbled unhappily and he teased, "Aww. Was he mean to you?" He had the nerve to chuckle at her, and began stealing kisses over her heated protests. He finally came to rest his chin on her shoulder. "Fine. He's grounded."

    "Don't condescend me," she snapped. She wriggled without much force to free herself, but he kept his hold, and she whined, "You're not taking me seriously at all."

    "I ain't trying to take any of this seriously," he said. "I'm trying to flirt with you, and you're being a you-know-what about it."

    Because she didn't have the physical leverage to slap him, she gave one more heave with her shoulders and snarled, "Try it with Lillie. She might be more receptive."

    This pushed Guzma away much more effectively than her measly wriggling; he let go, stiffened, and uttered in despondence. "...What."

    "You don't think I notice, do you?"

    "Notice what?"

    Lusamine pushed herself up from the bed and faced the window. "Having a lovely time with her this morning, were you? While I was busy being berated and bullied… Yes, I see how it is―if you'd rather spend time with her, then by all means, go ahead!"

    Guzma had gathering inklings of her intense sexual jealousy before―he could remember, if he tried, hearing similar accusations before. But neither then nor now did he understand why it came to light. It was a neurosis he had never imagined to be a maternal trait; he couldn't see the root of it. So instead of interpreting it as what it may represent (insecurity, projection, fear), he became frustrated. He stood to his feet as well, barking at her. "Yeah, you know what! I do like being around her! Because she's actually a nice person !"

    Unlike you was the unspoken.

    But Lusamine knew what he meant and turned to him, practically frothing at the mouth. "You're such a naive boy. She plays sweet and innocent, but make no mistake―she knows exactly how to use those big cow eyes of hers―"

    "Lu." He said it in his new voice: the firm voice. The intolerant voice. The I-love-you-but-you're-nuts voice. His expression darkened. "I'm not trying to bang your daughter."

    "Y-you―!" Lusamine's face paled; she held her arms close like his very words hurt her. "M-must you so vulgar! Honestly!"

    "It's what you're saying, though!"

    And since he was right, after all, she couldn't answer him.

    So Lusamine did as she always did when her opponent failed to roll over and surrender; she feigned injury. This wasn't to say she didn't truly feel wounded―indeed, she felt cut by his willingness to point out her corrupt thinking―but she milked the hurt, letting it sting her eyes as she wandered ever closer to the window. The sun sharpened the glint of her tears, and she dropped her face in her hands. "Please…" Without shame, her voice slid into a high-pitched whimpering. "All anyone does anymore is scold me… I can't… I can't endure it from you, too…"

    Guzma sucked in a breath, ready to launch into a righteous tirade. Then, as suddenly as his voice flared up, its intensity petered out. He dropped his shoulders, gazed at her, and grumbled his resignation. "Lu…"

    (That wasn't so hard.)

    "Stop. Don't… Don't cry, okay?"

    When she felt a hand on her shoulder, she spun around and fell into his chest. She forgot her earlier chilliness, or perhaps decided that she could consent to his touch now that she had the emotional upper hand. Regardless, he didn't complain or resist. He anchored his arms about her shoulders and absorbed the rattling of her sobbing. A long stretch of time passed then, highlighted by the threads of sunlight cutting through the shadows of the unlit suite.

    Then, she stopped. She slid her hands against his ribcage and miserably spoke to a sudden realization: "We were supposed to be married today."

    He responded by awkwardly stroking her hair. She felt his lungs expand with a heavy sigh, and then his grumbling when he attempted to comfort her by saying, "We can still get married."

    Lusamine dwelled on this nonsensical statement and shook her head without unburying her face. "With what? Before whom? Everyone's gone."

    Guzma spoke staunchly. "Who, your 'wedding party'? So what! Those suck-up phonies are gone. Good riddance. You didn't really like any of 'em, did you? And―now we don't have anybody to impress, so we can just do it how we want."

    She crumpled up tighter against his chest. "...It doesn't matter," she said, renewed bitterness weighing her voice. "...And even if we… Oh, what's the point… Anyway, the matter's done… The judge left, didn't he…"

    Guzma let out a grunt of disgust and pulled her up by the shoulders. "What's a judge got to do with this! I'm not talkin' about some piece of paper. I'm..." He must have realized how mushy his reasoning was getting, because in embarrassment, he hid his face in her hair. "The paper, we can get whenever. But we don't hafta swear to a judge―we can swear to each other."

    Lusamine felt unexpectedly touched by his dedication, but her lawful nature couldn't endure even that expression of loyalty. She tried not to melt under the force of the breathing gushing close to her skin. "Darling," she scolded gently, though she didn't push him away. "You're a crude poet… And a fool…"

    If he was disappointed, he didn't show it, either by word or posture. His face remained close to her neck, and his grip on her didn't let up.

    "I'm tired," she said, sighing into his chest.

    "Maybe you ougtta lie down," he answered, like it was that simple.

    Yes, she thought. She ought to go back to bed; she ought to give up on this ruinous day and wait for the next one.

    Guzma took her silence as assent and tried to move with her, but hesitation kept her frozen in place. He eventually had to force her over to the bed by her shoulders, ("here, c'mon") and after seating her and further negotiating her back onto the bed, he found himself once more over her, her big green eyes gawping at him, dripping and honeyed.

    Lusamine, in a sudden desperate swoop, pressed a hand to the back of his neck. She could feel the clench of muscle there.

    "Uh…" Guzma returned her gaze worriedly. "Do you… Need anything?"

    She had to hide her smile, because here they were, entirely alone, her vulnerable frame laid out beneath him, the both of them stirring with strange and abhorrent passions, and he didn't have the guts―or perhaps the imagination―to take advantage of any of it. She could think of several hair-raising suggestions of what she needed , but the dear, sweet, stupid man probably didn't need the heart attack. So she said, her voice weak after all, "Will you stay with me?"

    Guzma should have said no. His expression certainly communicated a desire to; his jaw clicked with annoyance, and he glanced at the door, pondering whose company he would have to forsake if he stayed.

    "Just for a little while," she pleaded.

    "I'll―" Guzma frowned at her. He had to pretend, for her sake. "For a little while ."

    And so―for a little while―the room was quiet, all brightness and shadows of a late morning at sea, and she sank into the plush surface of the bed, remembering now how easy it is to drift into slumber with a warm body next to her.

    -

    That day, Team Skull had come to the realization that without victims for their mischief, the excitement they first felt quickly faded. The only adults available to harass either disappeared or retreated, leaving the grunts to squabble amongst themselves, making their own entertainment with battles, havoc, and vandalism. Some of the older kids found and subsequently dismantled the lounge bar, which by the late afternoon led to a group of drunk, bored, and aimless teens with a growing malaise fumbling about the deck.

    The sense of doom clouding over them made sense; the storm was rolling in.

    Out in the open air, Plumeria had to tie her hair into a tight ponytail and tuck it beneath her jacket to keep it from whipping into her face. The clouds overhead had darkened, stealing the afternoon's sunlight and replacing it with shadowy gloom, and the though rain hadn't started to fall yet, the air turned chilly and moist, dragging mist from the churning ocean waves below. Some of the grunts still braved the weather against all wisdom, hanging from the railings and watching the storm broil, but most had now retreated to inside shelter, either their rooms or other interior spaces.

    Plumeria had just come back from prodding Nanu awake―he had fallen asleep in a deck chair out front after drinking one-too-many gin and tonics. She thought about scolding the foolhardy boys tempting fate by leaning too far off the edge of the ship, but the vindictive, bitter streak in her suggested she leave them to it. Let 'em fall.

    She hadn't come down from the argument that morning. Not a bit. It raked over her skin like nails, and she spent the day on a warpath, stomping and cursing and lashing out at anyone stupid enough to get on her nerves. This, naturally, had left her with little company, so as the last light of day dimmed, she remained solitary and above the fray on the upper floor. She had allowed her Salazzle some relative freedom, and enjoyed witnessing its mischief when it spat tiny, hot, harmless embers on the heads of drunkards below, but even that grew tiresome as the day went long.

    Plumeria rested her elbows on the cold metal railing and as her eyes wandered over the overhead clouds, she spotted something familiar. A Masquerain flapped its wings, whirled its body in zigzag formation, and zipped back, leading her to turn her head and face the center of the ship.

    Far above the resident floor and the navigation crew's quarters, a collection of antenna rested at the very top of the cruise liner, white wires and metal sticking out against the black sky. A skinny maintenance ladder led up to an outlook platform, by which crew could fix or adjust any malfunctioning equipment, or catch sight of ships far-off.

    Guzma was there.

    He had a hood over his head to block the first speckles of rain from his head, and he paced the walkway, seemingly aimless. Then, she noticed his Masquerain again swooping in from afar after circumventing the ship's axis; the pokemon landed, chittered at him, and after he made a dismissive gesture, it lifted off again. He watched it carefully and scrutinized the skyline where it went.

    Because he didn't notice her, Plumeria had a choice to make. She could ignore him and go inside, or she could make her way up there and attempt conversation. As tempting as it was to pretend he didn't exist, she couldn't deny the draw of another fight. Hostility still stung her blood, twitching her feet and hands. And if there was anyone on the ship she felt like reaming out about now, it was him.

    She had to find the stairway up to the navigation quarters first, which took some investigation, then she found the ladder. Only a few steps onto it, however, the door to the navigation quarters popped open; evidently, through the window, a crew member had spotted her and took issue with her snooping. The young man in a crisp white dress shirt, black tie, and broad black coat poked out, shielding his head from the wind with a cap.

    "Hey, ma'am― ma'am!" When she gave him stink-eye, he cowered a little, but was brave enough to continue, "You don't have authorization to be up here."

    Just before she was about to ask, what are you gonna do about it?, a voice came down on them.

    "It's fine."

    The gruff, unmistakable tone had a finality and authority to it she didn't expect. She and the crew member looked up to acknowledge the source of the order; perhaps the crew member hoped to elicit some explanation for the allowance, but Guzma, hard-eyed and tired, had nothing to add.

    The crew member scratched his chin but nodded. "All right. You be careful," was all he said to her before hurrying back inside.

    -

    Plumeria climbed the ladder, but by the time she reached the platform, Guzma had already turned around to face the sea.

    She waited a moment. He didn't turn back to her, even when she cleared her throat and tapped her foot on the opposite side of the railing. Despite her intentions in climbing up here, and despite the irritation she felt at being ignored now, the fact that he invited her made the prospect of battling him less appealing. Besides, even from behind, she could read his demeanor: heavy, distracted, morose.

    Finally, he spoke without looking at her. He sighed and shook his head. "What are you doing here?"

    "I'm bored."

    He didn't like that response. "It's gonna storm soon," he said quietly, as if it couldn't be more obvious. "You should get inside."

    "What about you?"

    He shrugged. "I'm waitin' on something."

    "What're you waiting for?"

    "Mail."

    Plumeria glanced out over the tumultuous sea. It didn't seem like ideal timing for a Pelipper delivery. "Yeah? What kinda mail?"

    After a second, Guzma said, "A 'wedding present'."

    The way he said it almost came across as sarcastic, but she correctly caught onto the insinuation that he was using someone else's words. That made her wonder who would be sending a 'present' after the wedding was cancelled―and who would have the dark sense of humor to call it that to his face.

    She crossed her arms, face laden with suspicion. "Is it expensive?" (It had to be something to merit his anxious pacing along the upper deck.)

    "It's…" He turned only to show the side of his face and frowned. "Kinda nunna your business."

    "Okay," she said. She raised her hands in surrender. "Fine."

    Plumeria almost wanted to say something else to assuage him, but was interrupted when Masquerain fluttered in, landing next to Guzma's hand on the rail. It shivered its wings unhappily and complained; he glanced down and asked, "Still nothing?" It squeaked again, more insistently this time. He felt the faint raindrops dappling his arms and coat and realized the problem. He spoke apologetically. "Too wet out there, huh?"

    Masquerain drooped.

    "...Doesn't matter," he assured it. "Can see from here."

    The wind churned, turning brisk and wild at the elevation where they stood. Masquerain clung to the rail to dry its wings, and Plumeria rubbed his arms against the bitter cold. In the awkward silence, she tried to think of what to say. Nothing seemed right. Even though he stood mere inches from her, it was like he was on another planet.

    Then, to her surprise, he started the conversation. He said, clearly and with deliberate purpose, though still without facing her, "Did you ever think of me as a good person?"

    Because Plumeria didn't understand the weight of his question, she quipped, "I thought you were a huge dork; does that count?"

    He went silent.

    Plumeria realized he didn't want a joke answer, and clumsily attempted to recover. "I don't know―we dated, so I musta thought something about you."

    That answer didn't seem to satisfy him, either. He drummed his fingers and wrinkled his brow, his gaze still fixated on the ashen sky.

    What was bothering him?

    Plumeria sucked her teeth, but a memory sat at the tip of her tongue. She let it out. "Even though we almost didn't, after that first attempt. Geez. I was, like, pretty sure that was the worst first date in the history of Alola."

    The only glimmering he had left of it was on the front steps of her trailer―the moment suspended under the night sky, their lips together. Hearing her describe it now, though, made him shift his stance a little. He moved toward her, facing her.

    "We had hung out with each other a lot before then, no problem; I mean, you were a little stiff at first, maybe, but you warmed up, and I figured we were friends. And then outta the blue you were all―" Plumeria dipped her voice into a mocking baritone to imitate his juvenile drawl. "'Uhh, uhh, do you wanna go out?' I said okay, and then... We went and got malasadas together, and you didn't say a word the whole time. You just played on your phone. I kept trying to start a conversation and you were all 'uh-huh' and nothin' else. I thought I was gonna deck you. Then! You walked me home, and I guess you thought it went pretty well, 'cause you didn't even ask, you just kissed me."

    While she spoke, she kept a close eye on his face, which remained blank. He recalled only snippets of what she mentioned―and in retrospect could explain his rude behavior (diagnosis: fifteen, never been on a real date before, petrified).

    "Uh, you remember what happened with the kiss, right?"

    Did he? The second their lips were together―the rest of it slipped from him. It was so long ago.

    Plumeria looked miffed. "You stuck your tongue down my throat. Or tried to, anyway, before I shoved you off." She grimaced and shook her body with a dramatic shudder. "Ugh! I thought I was gonna puke. I slapped you. Come on, you really don't remember? I called you a sicko. You were all, 'but, but, it's what they do in movies' and I was all, 'boy, what kinda movies you watching!?'"

    As she talked, her disgust turned to humor in hindsight; she burst out laughing at the memory, all while his face contorted with horror.

    "What?" She noticed his crestfallen expression and worried that she had hurt his feelings. She thumped him in the chest with the flat side of her fist. "Hey―don't be so serious."

    "I…" He shut his eyes, shifted his body away, and sighed. "I must've... " He went quiet for a while. "...I was a jerk."

    "Yeah, but I forgave you, right?"

    "No," he corrected. "That's not…" He braced himself with frustration, then announced stiltedly, "I didn't love you." When she took offense, reading it as an attack, he placated, "I'm sorry. I… liked you. I like you. But… not like that."

    Plumeria stood stunned. As much as this was a dagger through her heart, more painful than his later dismissals and jeers―an erasure of all the goodness she ever thought she had experienced with him―the expression on his face communicated incredible shame, unlike any she had seen in him before. And it seemed wildly disproportionate, like he had just confessed a mortal sin, rather than a youthful indiscretion.

    "I shoulda been honest," he rambled. "But I was... running from things, and you were there, so I used you. I used how you felt about me… To pretend like I wasn't so screwed up."

    Plumeria sensed that his blabbing would get worse before it got better. She interrupted. "Guz."

    He sucked in a breath, but listened.

    "So you're saying... " She put a hand to her hip, and fixed a stern glare onto him. "You didn't love me… But you love her ."

    Guzma refused to answer.

    "I'm tryin' to even make sense of that."

    "Well, luckily it's not your problem!" he snapped out of sudden anger. He rested his fists on the railing and tensed his arm muscles, like he meant to take a swing at something. The wind blew his bangs into his eyes, and all at once, his face snared and coiled with grief. But after that one shout, his shoulders slumped and he tilted, nearly knocked over by the creaking sway of the ship. His voice descended until it became almost inaudible. "I don't expect you… To get it, okay?… But I went home for a couple days… and it all just… Got real clear to me, then." His eyes slid shut, and he sank into deep thought. "After everything that's happened… I just… I want one person to be better off for having known me."

    The better part of Plumeria would have assured him in that moment that he had done some good, but she feared he'd press for details, and she wouldn't be able to think of any clear examples. She loved him once― that was the best she could think of, and even that held unclear significance, as that love came entwined with hurt, jealousy, deceit, betrayal...

    It was like he read her mind. "Plume," he pleaded, "you gotta get over me."

    "...What?" She promptly cussed under her breath and scoffed. "Ex-cuse me?"

    "It ain't worth it. Getting jealous over me… You deserve better than that, definitely better than me―"

    "Woah, what? Stop. I am…" She flared her nostrils, fists and mouth tight with strain. When she gathered the words to sputter at him, they unfortunately came out very unconvincing. "I've―hey, I-I've been over you! Okay!?"

    "Then why are you here?"

    "Because I―!" Plumeria braced her arms firmly across her chest. "Because I think you're an idiot!"

    "Lotta idiots in the world, Plume," he said. "You could be hassling any of 'em. Instead, you're here." With a disgusting air of certainty, he rested his chin in his hand and traced the wind's current by following the clouds. He heard her steaming silence and shrugged. "I'm just sayin' ."

    ...Even if he had a point ( even ), she wasn't going to admit to anything, so the exchange stopped dead there and moved no more. Which was just as well, because far off, a rumble of thunder shook the twisting underbelly of sky, and the rain started in thick, intermittent slabs of moisture hitting their faces and bodies. Guzma allowed Masquerain to retreat inside its ball, and the two of them were about to retreat to shelter themselves when a shape took form in the distant blackness. The flapping figure was but a pinpoint at first, but its weaving approach brought it closer and more visible with every pump of its wings.

    The Pelipper gave out a hearty, beckoning call out from the storm, and Guzma lunged for the ladder.

    -

    The typhoon descended on the cruise liner like a ravenous beast, all growling, snarling, howling, with lashing rain and slithering skin. Its arrival successfully sent the remaining grunts scurrying indoors, for it rocked the ship with violent force, threatening to throw any daredevils over the railing and to a most-certain death in the tossing waves. The entire ship convulsed and swayed, dipping and plunging its nose into the oncoming crashes of water; gushing streams spilled over the various railings, creating a wild series of waterfalls descending each level of the ship. Outside, the noise and darkness could have made someone believe the world was about to end.

    Inside, though, in the safety of the sealed, electrically-lit rooms, the exterior violence was but a distant, muffled sound.

    Gladion, for one, had settled himself on his bed with a laptop on his lap. He looked up only when Silvally growled at an errant gust of wind which rattled the far window. He frowned and returned to his work. He tapped his chin, read the text he had just typed, pondered how to adjust it...

    In another room, Lillie watched the pattern of rainfall decorating the glass...

    And yet in other rooms, members of Team Skull hunkered down for the evening, trying to pass the time by playing cards.

    -

    In Lusamine's room…

    A dormant battle ensued. A fight of will, of dreaming, of half-conscious whirlings and imagery; Lusamine imagined Guzma still there, his arms around her, then wandering; she imagined, and felt, those things which she repressed and denied. Had she not read of many emperors and kings, fallen by this…? But self-control went in her sleep, and so she had to endure the bombardments of her longing, beset by her loneliness.

    Besides, her weak psyche meandered, no more devoted capable of clinging to one thought than she was capable of controlling it―Mohn was there too, and monsters, and stingers and teeth. Her veins burned. She could feel her flesh dissolve under Guzma's lips, like sugar melting on tongue―

    She moaned. "Guzma."

    Then she woke up with a start.

    The room was quiet, dark, empty, cold. Though her body trembled with a quickened pulse, she found she couldn't move. Her limbs felt numb and clammy. The walls came into focus and her fingers dug into the cool fabric of the bed.

    (A dream, a dream, just a dream…)

    The whispering started again, like a painful tickle at the very back of her brain.

    Mother.

    She shivered and rolled onto her back. Cold air filled her lungs; the howling and battery of rain outside steepened her chill. Once she felt the emptiness of the bed, she recklessly threw her arm atop the bedsheets, groping in the dark to find him. But he wasn't there. He had gone. By the coolness of the bed's surface, she could deduce he hadn't been there for hours.

    Mother, see? Left you. Even he...

    From the window, a flash of brilliant white light illuminated the room. An explosion of sound from the landing crack of lightning rattled the walls, successfully frightening her with its proximity. But it didn't quiet the voices.

    It's here! It's here it's here it's here―

    "Hush," she hissed, pleading and gripping her skull. "Please."

    Don't you hear it, Mother!? The sky is breaking―!

    And though she knew better, she could hear it, and her heart raced with inexplicable excitement. At this point, with her wedding disrupted and life on its hinges, hearing the apocalypse crashing down on her was a beautiful, welcome affair. If she were lucky, the boat would sink, taking everyone with it, including herself…

    This time, a thin thread of white traced downward from the clouds in clear view from the window. Its shape burned into her eyes, and suddenly, she thought she understood what the little voices meant.

    It's here!

    The sky was breaking. Rivers of crackling energy rent through the fabric of reality; there came an awning sound from the wind, like a mouth gasping for air.

    Lusamine toppled from the bed in her eagerness.

    "I―I hear it, I―I'm coming!"

    As she wobbled on uncertain footing, tossed even more off-balance by the sickly rocking of the ship, the pounding in her head increased in the pace of a war drum. She stumbled, reaching the door. As if from nowhere (and indeed, perhaps, from nowhere), her Mismagius hovered up before her, whispering and chanting its soothing spell. Guzma must have released it upon leaving; she often requested its presence to help her sleep. But obviously, its calming tones had done little to prevent her current torment. The voices still squealed in protest from her brain cavity, and she reached out desperately until her fingers melded with the pokemon's semi-transparent hem of skirt. Its chanting stopped and reduced to a nervous chitter; its red eyes widened at her.

    "It's… all right… Darling…" She pressed her eyes shut to try and drive out the noise in her head. "You don't need… to worry, I'm only stepping outside."

    It warbled, troubled.

    "I'll be… right back. Mommy promises..."

    The outer hallway lay in dead silence, with only the eerie, faint illumination of cabin lighting flicking above. If she could block out the voices now, she might have heard faint chatter from inside the other rooms from restless children, but the wind's howling called to her, and the inward chanting grew ever more persistent and goading. Barefoot― she hadn't bothered putting on the sandals gifted to her that morning―she fumbled back and forth in the hallway, balancing herself on each wall with a hand. In this drunken, zigzag form, through bleary vision and warped consciousness, she reached the door to the outside and had to struggle with it momentarily. The sucking force of the storm forced her to press all of her weight against it, to fight the vaccuum-like seal separating the interior hallway from the roar outside. She groaned, yanked on the handle, heaved, and finally, it flew open with such speed in the wind, that the metal door nearly ripped right off its hinges. An explosion of noise and cold bowled her over; she lifted her arms to protect herself. When she gradually worked up the courage to look, she saw the shadowy form of the rain-pummelled ship, the blackness of the void, the punishing wind.

    Shivering, she nearly turned back. But the lightning came again, reminding her of her prize.

    "It'll be here soon," she told herself. She forced a foot over the threshold, onto the slick, watery surface of the deck. "I'm coming, I'm coming."

    -

    "Mommy, look!"


    A girl ran past the doorway. All Lusamine could hear was the skittering sound of splashing footsteps; she gripped her umbrella in her hand, straining her vision to see…

    Giggling echoed out in the front stoop.

    "Lillie," she found herself calling out, before she could even think the words―as if the words lay in waiting in her throat. A worried, pleading tone emerged. "Lillie, come back inside this instant!"

    -

    Her bare foot trembled in the half-inch of freezing water. But she successfully blinked back the memory, readjusted back to the present, and climbed into the storm.

    The sensation was not unlike being dropped out of a plane. Air tore around her, blasting her hair and dress in every direction. Rain poured down on in her in torrential, frigid sheets, drenching her to the bone immediately. The storm stole her breath, stole all her senses, drowning them in shrieking and clatter and rumble. By some miracle, she managed to lean forward and grab hold of some nearby railing, its metal as cold as ice against her palms. But it kept her upright and oriented her enough so that she began to slide her feet along the deck and towards the stairs.

    Lusamine's body began to lose all feeling, numbed now by the pelting rain and wind. It took all her mental focus to grab at the railing and pull herself inch by inch, closer to redemption.

    It's just over the railing. See it? You have to reach it. Then―

    "Then I'll be home," she agreed.

    The exterior lighting over the deck proved murky and ineffective in the fog and rain, so descending the steps, even with the ship's safety features, had to be done in near total darkness. She could hardly open her eyes without being blinded by water flying at her, leading her to grope helplessly forward, trying ever-so-carefully to feel the steps with her feet…

    Another lightning bolt. This time, it connecting to the waves only yards ahead of her, producing a sound like the world was ending. She felt the ship's frame rattle, her hands slipped, and then her feet, and then―she went backwards, landed on her side, sparing her head from banging onto the steps only by letting her arms take the strike. Metal clanged, and water continued to pool over the steps in waterfall formation.

    Lusamine released a self-pitying moan and heard, to her surprise, a voice of sympathy in the darkness.

    "Mother?"

    -

    "Mommy! Mommy, look!" The girl's dress was soaked through and ruined; she jumped into a puddle with her pink-sandalled feet, splashing in a fumbling, toddler's two-step. "I'm dancing in the rain!"


    How could she do it…?

    How could she, with her father gone in the cosmos, still dance? With wild certainty, like the world still had goodness yet to burst from its seams…?

    Lusamine's umbrella fell from her hand.

    -

    Out of the storm, like a spirit, Lillie appeared.

    Much like the ghosts of fairy tales, she stood in a halo of light and in a white dress which flowed in the wind. From the top of the stairs, she gazed down on her mother, face twisted with fear and concern. In that moment, Lusamine had lifted the weight of her throbbing head to see this figure, and upon seeing it, shuddered in horror. That gangly, unseemly monster―that thing, destined to torment her forever―what did it want with her? Lusamine groaned again and began to fix her feet back beneath her.

    "Mother!" Lillie's feet drummed down the steps; her hands grabbed at Lusamine's arm to help her up. "Are you alright?"

    "Oh…" Lusamine pulled herself free of her daughter and clawed for the railing again. She spoke sharply. "Go away."

    "Wh-what on earth are you doing out here!? It's dangerous!"

    As if to prove her right, the ship shook with the force of a stern wave crashing into its side. A dark, crushing hammer of water swallowed the lower deck, drowning it momentarily until gravity forced the flood back over the edge of the ship.

    "You c-could be―washed out to sea, like this! Come inside, please!"

    "There's no need." Lusamine began again toward the lower deck, this time with more confidence. "I'm going… where I can't be hurt anymore."

    Lillie lifted an arm against the rain. "What?"

    "What a relief it will be for you," Lusamine snarled. She didn't face her daughter then, only gazing out into the gloom. "You won't have to worry… You won't be able to hurt me anymore; no one will." (She could hear it more clearly now: the chorus, the humming call of her loves). "I'll be where I belong."

    "Mother. Stop." A small, trembling hand grabbed at Lusamine's forearm. "You're scaring me. Let's go inside."

    "You stupid girl!" Lusamine slapped the hand away. "Can't you hear it!?"

    Despite being a few steps above her, Lillie cowered at her shouting.

    In her craven exhaustion, Lusamine swung her arms in a wide, violent gesture. "The heavens are opening! The sky's rolling away, and―the singing, the singing, they're coming for me, understand? They're coming to take me back to where I belong!"

    ―What was that look of sheer terror in Lillie's face? Like she was witness to some bizarre, unfamiliar lifeform emerging from its cocoon.

    As Lusamine ranted, she felt more and more estranged from her body. Her head swam. "I've been very fair, haven't I! I've given this world more than enough chances, haven't I! But it won't do! It can't bring me happiness, not even a little bit―so I'm not staying, you hear me!" She tried to take the next few steps down; Lillie, ever-desperate, snagged her dress to restrain her. Another thunderclap at close proximity made Lillie scream, and Lusamine rejoined by shrieking and pushing the girl down onto the steps. "Unhand me! You―!" The revulsion she felt was so powerful that she had to stop and begin howling and sobbing. "You can't stand it, can you! You can't even stand the thought of me being happy!"

    "...Mother…" Lillie, resting her hands on the steps, puffed with strain and shock. She brought her knees together in a small, cowardly way at first, but her blank, terrified look started to turn and bunch up with frustration.

    But Lusamine could think only of paradise, her paradise, filled with crystals and the choral lovers. The more she dwelled on it, the more enraged she became. "I searched all the multitudes of the universe―I found the one world where I could love, where I could be loved, and you had to tear me away from it!"

    "Why…" Lillie's voice rose, filled with courage and righteous anger. She leaped to her feet and returned fire. "You're not making any sense! Why did you think you had to search? Gladion and I―we were right there! And we loved you!"

    Lusamine felt something bubble up inside her; she thought it was hatred, but once it stung her throat, it erupted in the form of derisive laughter. "Loved me?" She sneered with as much force as she could bring to her numb, rain-streaked face. Droplets flung from her face as she sputtered. "You can hardly keep your lies in order! First you say I'm 'terrible,' now you say you 'loved' me; or did you love your terrible mother!?"

    "Do you want me to apologize for saying that? Because I won't! You really are terrible!" Lillie breathed out clouds of exertion now, shivering from cold and fury. "In fact―I often wish you weren't my mother at all!"

    Perhaps her daughter meant for this comment to hurt her, but Lusamine was so transcendent in this moment, nothing of this dimension could possibly bring her down. She shut her eyes, absorbing the roar of the storm, and turned toward the sea. "Well," she said, speaking quietly and emotionlessly, "that won't matter in a few minutes. As you can see..." She waved at the black, crackling sky, like the truth was self-evident. "My paradise is coming back for me."

    Lillie finally understood. "You mean, if an Ultra Wormhole opened up right now, you'd jump into it without a thought?"

    "There's no 'if,'" Lusamine insisted. Her eyes searched the horizon with the excitement of a child. "It'll be here soon."

    "You'd do that?" Lillie still sounded disbelieving. "You'd just―go? And leave everyone and everything behind?"

    "...Of course. What do I have here?"

    Now the young girl was annoyed. She put her hands to her hips and scolded emphatically, "Don't you consider Mr. Guzma's feelings at all!?"

    ...What was Lillie's obsession with the young man? Suddenly, Lusamine could remember much of their last confrontation, when the girl asked her a nearly-identical question, though for a different set of circumstances.

    "He really cares about you. He puts you before himself, again and again… I've seen it, and I still see it now. And so when I heard… You planned on getting married, I thought you'd changed. I thought you'd opened yourself up to those feelings. But you're ungrateful and selfish as ever!" Lillie shook her head. "If you had any sense at all, you'd go to him now, thank him for putting up with you, and beg his forgiveness!"

    Guffawing, Lusamine started down the stairs, hurrying for the lower deck's railing. The voices trilled like maniacs, buzzing with encouragement. "I don't have time for your drivel," she cried. "I have to go― I have to―"

    From then on, Lusamine could hear Lillie only faintly out from the storm. The girl persisted in pursuing her, trying to convince her to turn around and back up the stairs, but Lusamine knew her destiny, and was not about to be robbed of it again. She fell forward, landing on farthest railing, head perilously facing out over the riled ocean waves. Mist rushed up in the wind as the battery continued against the ship's frame; when she breathed, she breathed in salt and fresh rain, tumult and fear. As suddenly as she stood there, leaning hard over the railing, the ship dipped low in its rocking, heaving a pained metal groan.

    It's here!

    It was true. Far above Lillie's hysterics and the frothing maelstrom, a pure light broke out in mid-air. It came with no grand announcement or sound, not like the tearing of thunder or the cracking of stone, but it fizzled, drawing a line of billowing luminescence mere feet from her.

    Joy swelled up in her chest. She eventually stepped up on the lower bar to give herself more reach. The metal was slippery and freezing against her bare soles, but she didn't care.

    Lillie panicked. "Mother! Get down from―"

    Lusamine extended her arm out, pulling on the length of her whole body to reach it. The precarious balance she found made her legs wobble, but it was so close, she could feel it, the opening… Deliverance…

    Out from the void, music began again. The light, which moments before had no suggestion of shape, now took form. One of Nihilego's arms dropped from the sky.

    Lusamine nearly wept with relief; she waved her arm at it, pleading for its attention and simultaneously jeering Lillie for her lack of faith. "You see! You see now! It's come back! Oh, lovely… Beautiful thing! I'm here! I waited!"

    "What are you talking about? There's nothing―"

    The watery tentacle outstretched, threading out of the darkness for her hand.

    She stretched, stretched her own arm until her muscles felt ready to tear apart.

    It… Nearly touched her… It twisted, unwound itself into white, translucent fingers, wrapping about hers… They were warm and electric, eliciting in her a gasp of ecstacy...

    "Mother! Stop! You'll fa―"

    And the wave, which Lusamine had not noticed until that moment, and which towered over them in the form of a tremendous, starless night sky, crashed down on their heads, swallowing all sound, all breath, all passage of time.

    -

    Water.

    Lusamine never noticed before―but it had magical, time-altering properties. It slows time down. Freezes it in place. In water, time cannot get away.

    So when the wave overtook them, the water seized those few seconds, suspending them into an eternity.

    In the first second, there was the sound of rushing water throwing her back, knocking her head onto the deck. Her skull bashed against the wood, disorienting her, and for that second, she thought she was free-floating, swallowed up.

    By the next second, she found she couldn't breathe, and all around her the black water came to a standstill, murky and chilled. The salt stung her eyes; she flailed briefly, but her limbs were trapped in the thick empty suspension, and as the universe went deathly silent, she became aware of the force wrapped around her wrists. They stung like cold iron, and held her tightly, throbbing from where her arms had been wrenched by the wave.

    Then… Then the world went as quiet and still as glass. In her confusion, she nearly thought she'd succeeded and been thrown back into paradise. There were glimmers of light, strange colors, and breaths she could not siphon through her throat. And for a time, it remained like that, cold and solitary, nothing but a black, shimmering void surrounding her. A part of her knew this would not last forever; in fact, it would not outlast the very next few seconds, so she had to treasure this death-like peace while it still held her.



    An image bore before her.

    It had the ethereal glow and appearance of a holy relic. It was seated, its gold hair unfurling like flame, eyes shut, face darkened by the water. In this reflection that floated out of the blackness, she saw the features she loathed most about herself: fragility, slightness in frame, ghostly pallor, fear… The more she gazed upon it, though, the more she spotted the discrepancies of this reflection, its imperfections… Before Lusamine's mind could recover from the throbbing of striking her head on the deck, she had to sort through she discrepancies like a madwoman and attempt to piece them back together…

    Lillie's hands were about her wrists, clinging to her in a vice-like grip. Even as the next second crawled forward, receding the waters and sucking them back over the ship in full-force, the girl held on by pinning her arms and legs around the metal railing. Lillie remained safe and secure as a result, but Lusamine's body skated over the wet deck and thudded unceremoniously against the guard rail as the sea attempted to flush her over the edge like free-floating debris. Lillie would have cried out, if water hadn't still scooped over their heads, stealing their voices for another terrifying second. But quickly, the water drained away, uncovering their battered and wearied selves clinging like wet cats to the guard railing. Time unfolded. Noise, too, resumed: the sound of Lillie's gasps and coughing up salt water caused Lusamine to attempt sitting up.

    Lillie still held onto her wrists.

    -

    "Mommy!"


    Lillie's rain-dappled face beamed up at her. Lusamine ought to scold her―running around in the rain like that―but seeing her smile like that…

    "Mommy, dance with me!"

    The girl pulled her by her thumbs, as her hands were too small to wrap around hers; yet the strength in the little one managed to drag her out under the clouds, where rain sprinkled her back and the two of them whirled about, faster and faster, until grief couldn't catch them.

    -

    Both of them choked on brackish fluid before their lungs and eyes cleared. Lillie, spent and reeling, nonetheless was the first to push her sneakers underneath her and force herself to her feet. She gave Lusamine's arms a stern tug to bring her up, too.

    "We have to go," she pleaded.

    (Lusamine gazed weakly up at the sky. The light was gone, as was the Nihilego. Had it ever been there?)

    "Come on! Get up! Before another wave comes!"

    Contrary to Lillie's intentions, this fact almost inspired Lusamine to stay. Another wave. Another chance at darkness, at being washed away from the world. But the pulling was insistent, and she was too tired to fight it any longer.

    When they reached the stairs, she managed to climb halfway to the top before collapsing face-down on the steps. She rested her cheek on the plank, letting rainwater moisten her shivering lips. Lillie must have feared she had passed out, because she cried out, bent down, and gave Lusamine's shoulders a vigorous shake.

    "Mother? Mother!"

    Lillie thwarted her best efforts at drowning in the shallow puddle by grabbing her shoulders and rolling her onto her back. She tried, too, to sit the woman up, but she had exhausted herself through this small physical feat. Fortunately, the splash of cool drops to Lusamine's tongue stirred her; she blinked in the rain, moaned, and pulled herself upright.

    Sitting on the steps, she saw Lillie's face again, this time clearly. The girl was obviously weary, soaked through, shaking with cold, so that her face was even more pallid than usual, and her lips trembled. Droplets slid and traveled down her cheeks, accentuating the smooth shape of her face; her green eyes shone out, cleaving through the darkness. She had a face of kindness, of undeserved mercy...

    Lusamine felt like something―or someone―had socked her in the gut.

    So when Lillie tried to ask her what was wrong, all she could do was hug her knees to her chest, rock herself, and break into suddenly unrepressed weeping.

    "I can't stand it," she blubbered. Like a whining child, she rubbed her cheeks with her hands, even though the rain disguised her tears and wetted any drying the gesture might have accomplished. "It just isn't fair!"

    Lillie could have said something, but instead stood silently over her, her wet skirt flapping in the wind. Lusamine dropped her eyes, now unable to look up at her.

    "What gave you the right!?" She slapped a puddle in the midst of her tantrum. "I just wanted to see him again, I j-just…"

    After saying something that ridiculous, Lusamine steeled herself for the appropriate reprimand. What else should she expect? That was all anyone had to offer her anymore, and Lillie had shown her predisposition to it already. The insults that Lusamine had earlier dismissed as weightless now crushed her, and so she wallowed in self-pity, awaiting more abuse.

    But Lillie said nothing.

    She stood still for a while, listening to and observing her mother's overly-dramatic snit, then sat down next to her.

    The storm yet blew, and the rain yet fell on them both… When the ship rocked, Lusamine grabbed at the railing to keep herself from falling over; Lillie would simply adjust her knees to keep balance. And in silence they remained. As it had before, the water around them ensnared those following moments, drawing them into what felt like hours upon hours of sitting and not saying anything at all, between Lusamine's perpetual, immature sobbing and Lillie's wordless contemplation.

    Below them, the distortions of light, false reflections, and echoes of colors danced over the sheets of rain. Lillie scuffed her sneakers on the steps, aside the near-frozen bare feet belonging to her mother.

    Without warning, as the worst of Lusamine's outbreak subsided, Lillie reached over without looking and grabbed her hand. Somehow, she did it without communicating any gentleness or affection, but had a stern, chiding grip, like a parent about to lead its child off the wrong path. Their hands were cold and numb together, but Lillie squeezed life into them. "Momma," she whispered, "it's okay to be afraid."

    Lusamine wanted to retort. She had her retort at the ready, in fact. But when she tried, it hitched in her throat, and her throat tightened to prevent any second attempt. Her shoulders slumped.

    These fingers were not of warm ecstacy; neither did they promise anything, neither did they vow to take her to paradise. They stayed, though. Even as thunder rolled its clamor overhead and the inky canopy of clouds rippled and moved at the gale.

    So she held on until Guzma found them like that, two shivering wet creatures crouched in the rain, clinging to one another.
     
  20. Chibi Pika

    Chibi Pika Stay positive

    You know, I feel like the opening to this chapter perfectly puts Guzma's character development on full display. Here we've got Lusamine--fully aware, by the way!--that her pity parties are 100% about getting what she wants from him (hey, it was at least a little bit ambiguous before.) And he's just... not even fazed anymore. I mean, just look at how she tried to twist things on him with Lillie! The idea would have freaked him the hell out before, but now he doesn't even dignify it because it's just so ridiculous it's not even worth his time. Also "I'm not trying to bang your daughter" is the greatest line ever.

    (Also, I've read ahead, so I already know what the Pelipper mail is about, but I let how you set it up here and let the reader wonder about it without calling attention to it.)

    I love how chilling Lusamine's hallucinations were towards the end of the chapter. And man, I can see why you'd been building up this storm since the last chapter. It really is symbolic of the way all these heated emotions have come to a head. And as the storm passes, I can see it taking a lot of that baggage with it, and clearing the air for everyone to finally begin moving forward.

    ~Chibi~
     

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