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.
(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.
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."
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?"
(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?"
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…"
"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."
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.
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."
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."
"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.
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.
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."
"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)