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Beasts and Beauties [Sun & Moon]

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

  1. Umbramatic

    Umbramatic The Ghost Lord

    Disclaimer: This review is of chapters 1-16.

    Well, I saw this, I said "canon character fic? Focusing on Guzma? That's two things I like" and was promptly hooked.

    First off this is a fic about canon characters and I absolutely love your interpretations of all of them. But lets get to some in particular!

    Lusamine... Dear God Lusamine. I sensed her manipulative nature from the start, but it wasn't until she tore Guzma from his friends at Team Skull that I was like "oh this [BLEEP] needs to go down" and it only got worse from there. You really have this whole abusive relationship thing nailed really well, and it's nice to see a fic that eschews death and destructon over being purely psychologically unnerving. I hope Lusamine gets her comeuppance at least.

    Also? Guzma you poor, sad manchild I love you and want the best for you and want you out of this abusive relationship but stop making horrible decisions.

    Also also? Poor Lady. I'm willing to bet Guzma fixates on them because they remind him of Lusamine, which is... yikes.

    One thing that threw me off, though, is the transition between the hospital scene with Lusamine and the entire rest of the fic. It didn't really do much to indicate Lusamine had recovered, and that initially led me to believe we were in flashback territory. Me being stupid I might have missed something but it might be worth it to make that transition smoother.

    But yeah nitpicking aside this is a great fic that balances comedy and drama well and also that has forced me to never look at Lusamine/Guzma pairings the same way again, and I hope I find time to read the rest of it.

    (Also, as a big Colress fan, I found it amusing you made him and Lusamine siblings. The impossible hair must be genetic!)
     
  2. dietofwurms

    dietofwurms i see stars

    Hi!

    ...

    I gave up! Then I forgot about the thread! Then other stuff happened and @Chibi Pika told me to finish posting SO--

    There's only three more chapters after this, so I'll wrap this up quick.

    --


    Chapter 32: Ephemeron

    Guzma was furious.

    Lillie hardly knew what to make of Guzma's anger; he didn't so much as ask what the matter was, instead snagging them both by their respective arms and dragging them up the stairs like naughty children. He barked orders and admonishments in such quick succession that neither could follow what he said, but the two women wordlessly complied with the direction he pushed them in, hurrying themselves through the open door and out of the rain. Once inside, they panted, dripped, and waited as Guzma pulled the door shut and whirled around.

    "Are you crazy !?" He fluctuated between hissing and yelling. Though he had only been out in the storm a few moments, he was nearly as soaked as they were, and seemed sore about it. His black hair flopped over his head like a mop, and he pulled anxiously on the leather strap of a bag he carried over his shoulder (Lillie realized then that the bag was unfamiliar to her). "Whatta you doin', sitting around in the storm like that? Coulda gotten―" He struggled to think up a likely scenario that would justify his fury. "―Struck by lightning, or something!"

    Now, it seemed, was not the time to bring up that they had narrowly escaped being washed out to sea.

    "And… You don't have shoes on," he added crossly, upon noticing it.

    After a moment of gasping for breath, Lusamine said, voice flat, "Yes, dear, I know."

    "God, Lu!"

    Lillie, still clinging to her mother's hand, begged, "Please, Mr. Guzma, don't yell at her."

    "What? Why? Was it your bright idea!?"

    The girl puffed up and frowned. She could see well enough that Guzma was flustered, but after being treated with such polite kindness all morning, she hadn't expected to so promptly have her head bitten off.

    Guzma finally grunted and smeared his wet hair back with his hand. "Never mind. Just― just― just―" He stammered, he was so lost in frustration; he waved wildly at the door to Lusamine's suite. "Get in the room. Let's go."

    The two hesitated.

    "Both of you," he clarified. "Go!"

    -

    Inside the suite, Lusamine and Lillie continued to stand about awkwardly, trailing rainwater wherever they wandered together. Guzma barged in after them and went for the closet, from which he began digging out linens. He finally threw a muddled pile of towels into Lusamine's arms, then topped it off with a bathrobe.

    The woman was so weary that she didn't move quick enough for his liking; he snipped at her, as if it really bore explanation, "Go get changed." Guzma watched Lusamine drift for the washroom only a second, then got grabby with Lillie, taking her by the arm and giving her an impolite shove in the same direction. "Hey―you go help her."

    "What?" Lillie took offense and turned on him. "Why?"

    "Well! You're both girls, aren't you!"

    "I'm perfectly capable of dressing myself," Lusamine said calmly.

    After seeing that her words had quieted their squabble, she disappeared into the washroom. Guzma meanwhile pulled a few more towels free, putting one around his neck and flinging another in Lillie's direction.

    "Here."

    The towel landed against Lillie's chest; she scrambled to grab hold of it. As she took it into her hands and pressed it shyly to her dripping locks, she found she couldn't stop her hands from trembling.

    Guzma didn't copy her careful drying style, instead roughly scruffing his towel over his head until his hair went wild and undignified. He combed it with his fingers to bring back some semblance of seriousness so that he could interrogate her. "Alright," he said, "You gonna tell me what happened?"

    She squeezed some excess moisture from her dress onto the carpeted floor. "I only… I found her outside."

    "And?"

    "I followed her."

    Guzma still didn't look satisfied; he stared at her, awaiting the rest of her explanation.

    "She was saying things… She wasn't making any sense at all…"

    Lillie expected some form of surprise or defensiveness from Guzma, but instead, he absorbed this information peacefully, like it confirmed prior thinking.

    "Mr. Guzma. Is something wrong with my mother?"

    He turned away, feigning shock at the question. "Whatta you mean?"

    The obvious dodge didn't inspire confidence. She huffed. "You know what I mean. Something's going on, isn't it?"

    Rather than answer, Guzma pulled the leather strap of the satchel off of his shoulders. He placed the bag on its side onto the table. "I need you…" He paused to think. "...To get outta here. And―send your brother."

    "Gladion?"

    "You got another brother I don't know about?" he snapped. "Yeah, him! I need to talk to him. It's important."

    But Lillie, after scouring her thoughts for any reason why she should be excluded, came up short. She shook her head, pleading, "Can't you tell me?"

    This sudden and unwelcome turn toward whining set Guzma off; he lumbered closer to her until he nearly loomed, his eyes dark with frustration, his fists taut on both ends of the towel hanging from his neck. With not much more maturity, he said, "No, 'cause I don't feel like it―and I said go get him, so―" He motioned a rude, dismissive gesture at her, directing her eyes to the door. "Go."

    Ordinarily, Lillie would have deferred to anyone bold enough to make demands. But today, she'd had enough. She stomped her heel and huffed up at him. "If it's something to do with my mother, it's my right to know!"

    Guzma looked fully exasperated; he had neither the patience nor the intellect to argue this point with her, so he resorted to a stern, condescending retort: "This ain't a discussion or a debate, girlie! Look, you can leave on your own, or I can pick you up and throw you out―how'd you like that, huh!?"

    Lillie flushed with anger. "I don't understand how one minute you can act like a gentleman, and the next you act like a big bully!"

    Even though Lusamine emerged then from the washroom, donning the robe and looking yet fazed, even vaguely traumatized as shown the slow, uneven blinking of her eyes behind knotted cords of wet blonde hair, the two persisted in bickering as if she didn't linger several feet away. For those few moments, she watched them―and also noticed the mysterious satchel Guzma had brought with him.

    Suddenly, Guzma lost his remaining temper. He sucked his teeth, lifted an arm, and made a false-start swoop with his hand, feigning an attempt at back-handing the girl. Lillie flinched, which he took as a victory. "You oughtta count yourself lucky," he said, sneering. "If I were your pops, I'd be liable to whu―"

    Lusamine interrupted with a sigh. "Oh, honestly..." With Guzma glaring at her, she approached the girl and wove an arm around her shoulders in a mock-show of protection. In a faint, fragile tone, she chided, "Are you so used to threatening children...?"

    Before Guzma could answer her, the woman faced Lillie directly.

    "I'm sorry, Lillie…" The apology initially shocked them both, until further context emerged when she offered a tired smiled and pushed Lillie's wet bangs back with her fingers. "When he worries over me… He can get so very excitable..." Lusamine scooped her arms about Lillie's shoulders, pulling her into a soft embrace. "...It's alright… He doesn't mean it, of course."

    If Guzma was confused before upon finding them sitting and holding hands, this arrangement confused him even more; he puzzled over the uncomfortable intimacy between the two, and opened his mouth as if to say something on that matter, but couldn't quite bring himself to do it. So he shoved his hands into his pockets, shifted his eyes and feet, and waited.

    Lusamine stroked the length of her hair in a way that seemed brimmed with meaning―a movement long-practiced but since neglected. Lillie shook, as if ready to burst into tears.

    "Alright," Guzma finally said. He sighed and found courage to act on his discomfort by pulling on Lusamine's arm to unwind them. "Alright, alright, c'mon. 'S time to go."

    To his surprise, the parting was reluctant; he had to tug with more force than he anticipated. After they parted, he, with as much paternal authority as he could muster, urged Lusamine to return to her bed and pushed Lillie for the door.

    The girl turned mid-push, like she couldn't bear to go. Her eyes lifted up at him, glassy and welled-up with tears, and her voice choked. "M-Mr. Guzma, I―" The remaining words lodged in her throat and wouldn't budge.

    Her tears were... indecipherable to him. He couldn't even tell if they were meant for him, for Lusamine, or for something else entirely. This fact both annoyed him and softened his tone. "Quit cryin'," he scolded half-heartedly. He continued to nudge her on her way out. "You ain't hurt." Now that she wasn't resisting anymore, it took only a few moments for Guzma to direct her out the door; he stood ready to shut it behind her, but added, "Go get fixed up, huh? And then get your brother."

    That he repeated his request brought back her ill mood. She nearly protested.

    "Please. See? I said 'please,' even."

    Lillie turned a tired, defeated expression on him. After a moment's contemplation, she gave up the fight. "You'll take care of her?"

    It was a silly question, meant only to stall him; he shooed her away.

    -

    Now that they were alone, Guzma snapped right into playing the role of a busy and fretful nurse. He placed Lusamine under the blankets before retrieving more from the linen closet to pile atop her; he draped wet items as he could find them over chairs and tables. When he saw she had settled in but still shivered, he asked if she was warm enough.

    Lusamine had started to become lucid, and showed this by curling under the covers and purring a cheeky, "Oh, I don't know―why don't you warm me up?"

    "I'll make some tea," he answered, deftly avoiding her innuendo.

    "...Hmm." He had retreated into the kitchenette, so she uttered out of range of his hearing, "How very domestic."

    Fortunately, Guzma had the night before figured out the kitchen arrangement, and from practice, he knew how to prepare tea the way she liked. With minimal banging and clanging of cupboards and pans, he was able to draw up a kettle and put it on to boil. He waited. He peered around the wall divider that maintained privacy between the kitchen and bedroom; in his few minutes of tinkering, she had gone terribly quiet. His fingers drummed the countertop.

    Then, across the suite, she let out a soft giggle. "...Hiding under the bed, were you, darling? You naughty thing."

    Guzma ventured out and saw that her Mismagius had emerged from hiding, now that the drama was over. It chattered and cooed over her, fluttering its purple skirt as she reached up to tickle its face. Guzma eyed the Mismagius with visible annoyance. "I told her to watch you," he said.

    Lusamine turned up her nose in defiance. "And so she did."

    "Yeah! She watched you walk right out the door, no shoes on or nothin'."

    "Oh, but…" Lusamine cupped its face in her hands, saw its red eyes blink back at her in muted sorrow, and quietly retorted, "She isn't yours. It's not your right to scold her."

    Guzma was about to open his mouth and argue, but thought better of it. He noted the double-meaning of her complaint. After swallowing a small bit of shame for his earlier blow-up, he gazed coolly at her. "Why'd you go out, anyway?"

    Lusamine, unhappy with the question, sank until her voice was muffled by the blanket. "I only wanted some fresh air."

    "In the middle of a storm."

    "I'm a grown woman," she said. "I can decide for myself what sort of weather I can tolerate…"

    "Lu. Did you see something?"

    No response.

    "...Did you… Hear something?"

    Mismagius floated upward in excitement, chattering something frantically in response to Guzma's question. It couldn't communicate its message, however, which was just as well, as Lusamine hissed at it―' hush; tattletale! ' Aloud, she answered, "I haven't the foggiest what you mean by that."

    Because Guzma knew she was lying, he readied himself to call her out―but the kettle whistled, and he shook his head, shuffling back for the kitchen.

    -

    Gladion almost didn't come. Could anyone really blame him? Though not proud of how he felt, he had very nearly given up on the whole affair; the idea of seeing his mother again for any reason turned his stomach. But when Lillie appeared at his door looking miffed and distraught, he told himself, one last try.

    So he went. He knocked on the door, and Guzma peered through. The man's head of hair was still tellingly moist, adding to Gladion's impression that something catastrophic had gone on. Guzma also looked a little surprised and relieved to see him―he must have somehow guessed at Gladion's reluctance to show.

    "Lillie said you wanted me," Gladion said. He thought a moment, then added, cocking an eyebrow, "To be exact, she said 'that big moron asked for you'--what did you do to make her mad?"

    For the first time, Guzma realized that Lillie shared certain things with her mother. He ignored the comment and propped the door in invitation.

    Gladion, though, didn't seem eager to leap forward; he eyed the man suspiciously. "What's this about? Is it Mother?"

    "Yeah, yeah―c'mon, get in."

    "I'm not sure I should," Gladion said bitterly. "Seeing as she thinks I'm in love with her."

    Guzma only half-heard and consequently misunderstood Gladion's snipe. "Huh?" The elder boy shook his head in despondence. "Quit being weird! I need your help with something."

    Help? The word triggered even more suspicion. Gladion craned his neck to see around the corner, but couldn't spot any obvious signs of ambush. He kept his cautious manner and crept inside.

    The open floor suite gave him a clear view of the living area and bed, so it took no time at all to find himself face-to-face with his mother. Lusamine had brought herself to an upright seated position against the headboard, her skin an unhealthy pale hue, her hair tangled and stringy about her shoulders, her eyes dark with exhaustion. In her hands, she carried a delicate white china cup full of brew, which somehow seemed too heavy for her, as she had to put her full strength into pulling it to her lips. A sip of hot tea later and she spotted him in return. Her eyelashes fluttered unhappily. "Oh." Her tone dipped to a frigid temperature. "What are you doing here?"

    "...If only I knew."

    Guzma hurried to Gladion's side, motioning earnestly for him to keep moving.

    "Guzma. Do you intend to bring everyone through my suite before the night's over?"

    "No," he replied stupidly. Again, he tried to urge Gladion toward the kitchen. "Keep drinking your tea."

    She sounded tired and on the verge of irritated. "What's he doing here?"

    Realizing she wasn't going to let up until she received a satisfactory answer, Guzma paused, scrambled for his options, and chose. "He's…" Guzma clapped his hands abruptly on Gladion's shoulders. "He's here to apologize."

    "I―what?" As Gladion looked up at him, baffled, Lusamine gave Guzma an equally surprised look. "That's not―"

    But Guzma persisted with a firm nudge to his arm. He lectured, sticking a finger in his face as he did, "Uh, yeah, you are. You're gonna say you're sorry for how you talked your mother today."

    "...You've got to be joking." In fact, he was so sure that Guzma must be pranking him that he nearly laughed. He had to give Guzma credit―it wasn't the most convincing act he'd ever seen, but he was putting full effort into the stern-father role. Gladion balked. "You don't know what was said. You weren't even there."

    "Doesn't matter! Whatever it was, you hurt her feelings, so apologize!"

    Gladion stiffened. He didn't even look at her, instead cementing his gaze on this new, physically dominant challenger. Unafraid, he planted his hands on his hips. "Like hell."

    From across the room, in a comically gentle fashion, Lusamine tutted, "Gladion―language." She placed her teacup aside, rubbed her forehead, moaned a little, and continued in an exasperated way, "Guzma, darling… I understand the sentiment, I really do, but is this really necessary now? I'm very tired..."

    Gladion turned in a huff for the door. "This is ridiculous. I'm leaving."

    But with a desperate swing of his arm, Guzma snagged him by the hood of his shirt, catching him before he could escape. The smaller boy fumbled backwards after the grab caused him to lose his balance; he struggled briefly and snarled epithets, but the size and strength discrepancy meant the battle was brief. Guzma hoisted him toward the kitchen, but not before informing the mother, "Lu, I gotta talk to your son, okay? Stay there. Drink your tea."

    She didn't look up. "Yes, dear."

    "--Let me go !"

    Just prior to gliding into the kitchen, Guzma grabbed the satchel from the table and threw it over his shoulder. He shut the sliding door behind them.

    -

    In many ways, Gladion was the child that took after his mother the most; Guzma knew this from experiencing both of them at length, and at no time were the similarities more vivid than when they lost their temper. When either mother or son took offense, they let you know, and it could be a challenge to recork that bottle.

    "...Drag me around like I'm some kind of toy, if you need me to go somewhere, you only need ask, there's no reason to put your hands on me…!"

    Guzma took the satchel from his shoulder and placed it on the countertop next to the sink. He snuck a peek through the sliding door. Quiet. Still. He hoped this would provide the privacy they needed, but the kid would have to quit yammering first.

    "...Honestly offensive, sticking your nose in private family matters that have nothing to do with you, and telling me what I should be doing, it's just none of your business…!"

    Guzma interrupted his bloviating by sharply rapping a single knuckle against the top of Gladion's skull. This succeeded in shutting him up, at least momentarily―Gladion yelped, gripped his head, and prepared to launch into another indignant screed, but Guzma cut him off. "Relax, dork. That's not what I wanted you here for, anyway."

    As Gladion scowled and rubbed his scalp, Guzma returned to the satchel. He unclipped the buckles and opened the leather flap, then delicately pulled out a metal case. That got replaced onto the kitchen table, and there, Gladion realized that he recognized its design. Aether transported medication and biological samples in cases just like this one. Because Guzma didn't say anything, Gladion chose to wander closer and glance past his arms; his former boss popped the case open, shuffled some papers he must have read earlier out of the way, all to reveal a sizeable, sleek injection device.

    Once Gladion saw what it was, he felt dozens of questions swell in his chest. A strange feeling of dread fell over him.

    Guzma meanwhile whirled around and gesticulated nervously. " Okay, so…" He fidgeted with his pockets and looked appropriately embarrassed when he admitted, "Here's the thing. I don't do needles."

    "What...?"

    He puffed out some air. "You know. I don't… like, take to 'em, I mean I'm fine holding 'em and seeing 'em so long as they aren't being stuck to anybody, but see―look, you can't tellanybody this, or I swear I'll kill you―once they start going in people, I get all dizzy in a bad way."

    That was the most roundabout way Gladion had ever heard someone confess to a rather common phobia. It gave context, though, to other behavior: it explained why Guzma had always deflected questions about his tattoos (which now, everyone knew, had not been real), as well as why, despite his alternative fashion sense, he'd never gone for piercings.

    "Anyway, uh, 'cuz of that, I need your help with this." In a motion so quick that Gladion could barely follow it with his eyes, Guzma snatched the device up in his hand; it was small enough to fit in his palm, but it had a vaguely-weaponized design (barrel, trigger, hand-grip, chamber) that made its wielding imposing, almost threatening. "So, basically? I'm gonna pin her, and you can..." Suddenly, he started shoving the injection device in Gladion's direction, meaning to hand it off. "Look, it's easy, you just pull on the trigger thingy―"

    Like he was warding off a vile evil, Gladion lifted a hand and held the device at bay. "Wait!"

    Guzma, showing some sense, paused and backed off.

    "First of all―absolutely not, and second―what is that?"

    "I can explain after."

    "No, you can explain now." When Guzma clammed up, a deduction struck Gladion that made him seethe. "Is… Is this what you were colluding with Mr. Faba over? A plan to drug my mother against her will?"

    "It's not―!" Guzma hurried to replace the device, lest he damage it inadvertently. He shut the case and lowered his voice, motioning for Gladion to lower his as well. "...'Drugging'! Okay! It's medicine!"

    That Guzma didn't deny it told Gladion everything he needed to know. He fumed, "Mr. Faba is not a physician, and he has no right to prescribe Mother any form of medication, so whatexactly is going on here?"

    After some uncomfortable silence and shifting his feet, Guzma stole one more glance out from the sliding door, chewed the inside of his cheek, and decided he had no choice but to confide. He placed his hands deep in his pockets in his usual show of apprehension. "Your mom's sick." He maintained eye contact, no doubt expecting Gladion to express some surprise or other emotion.

    But Gladion wasn't impressed. "And?"

    "And! And that's it, what else do you want me to say?"

    "You're going to have to be a lot more specific. Sick in what way?"

    Guzma hadn't anticipated needing to explain in this amount of detail; he shifted even more nervously as he fumbled with where to start. "It's―it's complicated."

    "Fortunately, I have time."

    Guzma looked about the kitchen. He saw no reasonable way to force the issue out of hand, so he conceded in the only way he could think of: with a heavy groan and a motioning for the kitchen table. When Gladion obliged and took a seat, Guzma's new hospitality training kicked in. He eyed the tea kettle. "Uh, you want tea?"

    "I'd rather just get on with it."

    "...Right." Guzma froze in thought, then shook. Despite not being a habitual tea-drinker like his fiancee, he desperately wanted something to do with his hands, so he poured himself a cup and gripped the tiny piece of china inelegantly with his oversized fingers. Then, he sat.

    -

    "It's 'cause of what happened in Ultra Space," Guzma finally said. He hadn't drank his tea yet, but tapped his fingertips on the table surface around it.

    "...You mean the encounter with the Nihilego?"

    Guzma cocked his head to the side before remembering that Gladion hadn't been there. "Uh, yeah, that. See, they got this nasty poison in them―I got hit with it, knocked me out for a couple days… But she got it worse than I did. Like, five or six of them got to her… I guess she was down for a couple weeks. And even when I got there, after catching the beasts, she was still way out of it…"

    "This was all months ago," Gladion noted. "Are you suggesting there are some residual effects?"

    "...It's more like… It's still in her."

    Gladion wondered if this was conjecture on Guzma's part, but it sounded rehearsed, like the man was reporting findings that weren't his own. Gladion's thoughts went in wild directions; he couldn't decide what question to voice first. In the meanwhile, he weighed the evidence and shook his head in astonishment. "I hope you can appreciate how unbelievable that is."

    Guzma misread this as an accusation. "I'm not lying!"

    "Aether has an excellent medical team. How could her doctors have missed something so glaring?"

    "They didn't." Guzma lowered his voice again, now paranoid that they could be overheard. "I talked to her nurses. After we got out, they helicoptered her back to Aether, right? But she woke up, and wouldn't take anything. Her doctors told her what she needed, and she just wouldn't…"

    This, of what Guzma had said so far, made the most sense. Gladion remembered her disposition when she returned to Aether Paradise, crippled and barely conscious from the ordeal she suffered in Ultra Space. Upon seeing that her son had seized temporary control of the foundation with her absence, she reamed into her subordinates (in particular Faba, whom she labeled a weak-hearted turncoat for capitulating so easily) and ordered him to leave. Gladion pleaded with her. Let me take care of things, at least until you recover. But Lusamine was not interested in help.

    "I don't know why she did that," Guzma continued sorrowfully. "But she hid it from me. Hid it from everybody."

    "All right," Gladion sighed. "How long have you known about this?"

    Guzma thought on his answer with care. "It's been… Maybe a week. When I got back from Mele'mele, and she was just like before… All out of it, y'know? I thought there's gotta be more to it… So I looked around best I could without her knowing."

    Gladion wondered if Guzma had really been so astute, or if Faba had helped him along. Certainly, the scientist's fingerprints were all over the medical technology currently resting between them on the tabletop. To confirm his suspicions, he threw out the name: "And Faba?"

    "Mr. Faba?" Guzma frowned and clutched his tea cup. "He, uh, helped. I mean, he made this―" He pointed at the medical case. "It's antitoxin for the Nihilego poison. He thinks it'll help."

    "'Thinks'?"

    "Dude," Guzma barked, rankled by his skepticism, "he just finished it this morning. It's not like we had a lotta time to test it, okay?"

    "...I see." As signs of Guzma's agitation increased, so did Gladion's worries. It wasn't even Lusamine's condition that worried him the most; seeing Guzma eyeball the case like it was some sacred object, a point of redemption… Gladion folded his arms tightly against his chest. "You might have told us earlier."

    "Um." This proved a difficult point. Guzma fidgeted. "I didn't… I didn't wanna freak ya out… Originally I was gonna tell you when we got back to Aether…"

    After a moment's thinking, Gladion realized what he meant. "You were going to let us move back in with our mother without knowing!?"

    "Hey, I kinda thought the problem would be dealt with by then," Guzma said lamely.

    With a rub to his forehead and a groan, Gladion chose to move past that infuriating point. "What sort of supposed 'symptoms' is she suffering from? Of what I've seen of her, she appears to be her usual… Unpleasant self."

    Guzma did not exhibit any desire to speak on that. He chose that moment to funnel tea into his mouth and stay worriedly silent.

    "...Seems to me whatever 'symptoms' you're seeing could easily be aspects of her personality."

    "Hearing voices ain't personality," Guzma said firmly. "Seeing things that ain't there ain't personality."

    Hallucinations. Guzma had let that much slip. But Gladion shrugged, his tone cold. "Maybe her conscience is catching up with her."

    "You can't say it's normal."

    "I'd never call Mother 'normal...' I won't deny that a part of her problem is some sort of illness, but that's it―a part. "

    All of Gladion's skepticism at last drove Guzma to his last nerve; the man brought down his fists on both sides of his teacup, rattling it and the table. He hissed, distraught: "But you don't think she deserves a chance to get better!?"

    Gladion was taken aback, but sadly not all that surprised by the outburst. Despite everything she had put him through―and Gladion could only guess at what Guzma had endured at the hands of his mother―the man still had that dopey, loyal demeanor of a kicked dog. Gladion tried to let him down gently. "I've known this woman all my life. Certainly longer than you have. I don't know what you're expecting… But if you're placing your hopes in some wonder drug… you're setting yourself up for disappointment."

    Through a pained moment of silence, the tension felt ready to peak. Gladion almost suspected he was about to be assaulted for his honesty. But slowly, Guzma's expression changed. He cocked his head to the side and looked into the deep well of undrinked tea. "I'm not stupid," he mumbled. "I know she's not gonna… Magically become a good person. She's not gonna wake up tomorrow and all of a sudden…" (An unsaid thing rested at the tip of his tongue; he wouldn't say it.) "...She's still gonna be messed up. But even if it's almost nothing―it could be just one percent of what's screwing with her―isn't it worth it?"

    Gladion almost― almost ―let himself feel touched by Guzma's reckless, childlike belief in doing the right thing. Gladion hadn't expected it from him. This man had made his living as a cynic; as the boss of Team Skull, he had preached vehemently against the values that had preyed upon him as a child: notions of self-sacrifice, putting others before oneself, doing right even when it hurts. Do what you want, he had countered. Forget the suckers; take what you want for yourself; if you don't get anything out of it, don't bother.

    ...Had it been a veneer? Or had Guzma changed that much in his outlook?

    In any case, the reality of the situation soured any of Gladion's positive feelings. He didn't buy this sob story. Did Mother's manipulation know no boundaries? Was she so cunning and vile, that she would neglect her own well-being to ensure others would take care of her…? Or perhaps she clung to the illness because she liked how it felt, nor liked how it eased her cruelty? She would sooner allow her brain to melt than give her fate over to anyone else, or permit anyone to leave her…

    And Guzma, the boy thought, was no better. An idiot who was enamored with the thought of being a hero, despite having neither the wits or the means. The man figured out Lusamine was ill, and still tried to invite her estranged children back into the household. He still went ahead with the wedding, in spite of―or was it because of?―his discovery.

    Gladion wanted to scream in his face. But what good would that do? Guzma was too much like Lusamine; he took criticism personally. He played the victim. He would sulk and retort and pretend that he had the best intentions, and promptly shut out any wisdom Gladion had to offer.

    So Gladion swallowed and said in plain honesty, "I get the sense you mean well. And of course, if there's something truly wrong with her, I'd like it resolved, but… This isn't the way to do it. You can't use this to excuse her. You can't force her to get better." Miraculously, Guzma remained silent and attentive, so Gladion jumped at the chance to further plead: "If you think it's worth it, then convince her."

    -

    When the two emerged from the kitchen, their demeanor had changed. Gladion walked in front and Guzma followed after, his posture slumped with resignation. After Gladion left―and he did so wordlessly―Guzma was left with a troubling quiet stirred only by the occasional whine of the storm's wind.

    He thought, fixing a fingernail against his front teeth.

    Lusamine had yet to call for him, so he plodded across the suite only to find she had nestled against a pillow and fallen asleep. His gut crawled. Rain pounded the exterior walls and windows like angry fists.

    He checked his watch, but he already knew it was late. He sighed.

    Instead of shaking her awake to interrogate or argue with her, he circulated the suite, shutting off lights and replacing the medical satchel over his shoulder. Finally, he reached the bedside area and shut off its overhead light. He had planned on leaving discreetly, but the bag at his hip bumped into the end table and rattled the table and lamp. He lunged to steady it too late; Lusamine sucked in a heavy breath.

    "...Guzma?"

    He muffled a curse.

    She rolled to face him, mumbling; he would have thought she was babbling in her sleep, except that she said, "Are you leaving already…?"

    Guzma turned the lamp on, rather than continue the conversation in the dark. The warm light fell over her face, giving it a more healthy, vibrant color than before; she blinked slowly up at him, now seeing the concern etched in his face.

    "You were talking for so long," she mewled, stretching and yawning under the covers. "I must have drifted off…"

    Though he hesitated, he gave in to the impulse to reach out and brush a few strands of hair from her face. He let his fingers linger a little at the warmth of her forehead. "If you stayed asleep like this earlier, we wouldn't'a had all this trouble."

    Lusamine accepted his griping as a small joke; a hand poked out from the covers to cover her mouth as she smiled. "Oh… I suppose that's true…" She noticed his pensive look. "Were you discussing me?"

    His eyebrows furrowed.

    "It's alright… I know there's not much else for you to talk about…"

    In his panic, he glanced at the end table. Her teacup was empty―at least she did that much. He also saw Mismagius' pokeball, which implied she had tired of its company and put it away. That worried him more. He fixed his hand at her brow again and asked anxiously, "How you feeling? You got a headache or anything?"

    "I'm not at death's door," she scoffed. "You needn't fuss over me."

    "Then I better go," he concluded, drawing his hand back. "Let you get your beauty sleep, huh?"

    Contrary to his suggestion, however, he didn't leave straight away. He stood over her a while, lips taut together, eyes watching her, fingers picking at the bag's leather strap.

    "Guzma... ?" Lusamine let her head fall to its side; she breached the silence with a dim smile. She mistook his apprehension for something more flirtatious than he intended, so she cooed, "Why are you looking at me like that…?"

    "Uh-h." Guzma fumbled for the lamp's switch. "N-nothin'. I mean, it can wait. I'll―see ya tomorrow. 'Night."

    When the blackness of night fell upon them again, she expected, or at least wanted, the reassurance of a goodnight kiss. But he had other things on his mind. He shuffled back through the dark like a passing shadow at her feet. And once he was gone for good, she was left to travel down paths of memory, still sizzling like faded lightning bolts across her scalp. They tickled and stung.

    Her eyes traced the window panes, looking out where the midnight sky churned with storm-clouds and rain. The fractal patterns swirling in the din might have escaped someone else, but she followed their fray and calculated the breaking off of particles and moisture.

    She shut her eyes at last.

    In sleep, other shadows chased her down.

    -

    That following morning, the clouds hadn't fully broken, nor had the gloomy atmosphere lifted. The breeze turned biting and cruel in the storm's aftermath.

    But in spite of the sunless awakening, Lusamine felt better. She was able to, with more strength than usual, sit herself up and climb out of bed. If she tried to think of the events of the previous night, they felt distant and obscured, like fading dreams. Even the emotions tied with them―the deep despair, the loneliness, the desire to throw herself away―felt alien to her now under the milky light of the overcast sky.

    In these months, Lusamine had gotten used to the pattern of nightfall accompanying hard swings in mood. As much as the turmoil disrupted her life, it always melted away with proper rest; now that she finally slept, she could dust herself off and march into the day with some confidence, even some cheer.

    She went to her luggage and began to draw out as assortment of dresses to choose from.

    Her wedding was cancelled.

    That thought snapped through her brain, but she was determined not to let it bother her. She spent all yesterday stewing on it, and what good had that done?

    The festivities had been interrupted, that was true. But Lusamine had not reached her current position by dwelling on minor deviations from her plans. As she looked over her wardrobe, she took stock of her standing advantages: she had the cruise ship, with which she could do as she pleased; she had the crew and all the services they could provide; they had liquor and food aplenty; the grunts were rowdy, but not beyond taming…

    And Guzma.

    She still had Guzma.

    When all the dust settles and they return to Aether Paradise, his dogged loyalty to her will not change. A lack of a wedding is not a lack of a marriage, not when she can summon judges and lawyers at a moment's notice.

    The situation was an inconvenience, a bother, a strain on her psychological health―but not unsalvageable.

    Of her dresses, she chose the most scandalous.

    -

    Because so little had changed since yesterday, many of the sights she witnessed were bold echoes: Nanu, not looking at her, puffed a cigarette over the railing; the occasional pokemon and grunt shot out into the open, only to skitter away at the sight of her; and the dining hall, once she arrived, looked like it hadn't changed at all. Children had congregated there with nothing to do, and so returned to their prior act of trashing breakfast and abusing the staff. For a moment, Lusamine actually felt a hint of gratitude and wonder that the kitchen staff continued to put out meals, despite their efforts being so thoroughly wasted.

    As she stepped over an abandoned crepe, she felt all eyes on her. And why shouldn't they be? She smoothly adjusted the black, sleek dress where its cut rested high at her thighs and low at her chest; she strode on pronounced heels with confidence. With a flash of a cherub-like smile, she meant to tell them that all their antics could not touch her. If she sought pleasure―pleasure she would find.

    One grunt, passing too close, was greeted with a pat on the head and a purr. The boy hurried away in alarm.

    "Good morning, dears."

    A whole table of boys gaped at her and reduced their commentary to whispers. The rest of the children in the hall steadily gave her their attention, though the chatter did not fully fade, as they noticed her change in countenance and knew it meant something. After glancing about, Lusamine determined that neither Guzma nor her children were nearby. That would suit her just fine, for the time being.

    "I hope you all had a restful night."

    She stood at the front and center of the hall, clearly taking a position of authority. It agitated them. A number of them turned their bodies back to the tables, where they had already decimated some breakfast foods.

    Undeterred, she tapped a finger to her lips in thought. She came upon a decision. "I need to speak with 'Buzz.' Is he here?"

    The grunts looked about uncertainly, like they were pondering the ethics of handing over one of their own.

    "He's not in any trouble; I only need his help," she reassured them.

    This comment confused them more, but it did finally rouse a snicker, murmur, and thud as a sleepy boy trundled out from the group, followed by his Meowth. His hair stuck out, uncombed, and he overall looked rather unimpressive; he squeaked in his disbelief, as if he knew this. "Who, me?"

    She voiced impatiently, "Yes, yes. Come along now."

    Buzz had to contemplate whether to comply, and earnestly searched his friends' expressions for their opinion on the matter. They seemed neither perturbed nor worried. He shrugged and scratched the back of his head. "Uh. What for?"

    "I told you already; I have a task for you."

    She said it with such brazen confidence that he couldn't argue against it. At her beckoning, he followed her to the kitchen.

    -

    (continued in next post)
     
  3. dietofwurms

    dietofwurms i see stars

    (cont. from previous post)

    All children, Lusamine knew, crave the same thing. No matter the pretensions of rebellion they put on, they want direction.

    So Team Skull did not worry her. They might be rambunctious, wild, and destructive, but after two days stuck on a ship, their aimlessness was palpable, and she was ready and willing to use it.

    The boy called Buzz was a prime example; she merely had to hint that she had purpose for him, and he went for it, lulled by her apparent authority and her promise of meaning. He pounced at every bit of attention she gave him; he jumped at every dictate.

    "Get those plates stacked."

    "Be careful with those."

    "Now, fetch those dessert forks… The small ones, not the larger kind…"

    "Are you ready with the cart?"

    ...

    "...Lady?"

    She looked up. In all the busyness, she hadn't heard a peep out of the boy, nor out of the lone chef who let them in and currently stood by, looking disapproving of their activity. The grunt had just finished lifting a tray of cutlery onto a cart, and after admiring the subject of their work, he scratched his ear nervously.

    "I thought you said eatin' cake for breakfast was bad for you."

    She counted the plates to ensure they had enough. "Ah… So I did… A motherly fib, dear. Even if it were true, I think Team Skull will risk the stomachache, don't you think?"

    He accepted her explanation. He sounded pleased. "Yeah… You right." He paused, fidgeted again. "Uh… It's real pretty."

    Buzz meant it as a well-meaning compliment, but it stung more than would like to admit. Lusamine had to convince the chef to release the cake from the locked walk-in cooler, as the pastry was by far the most expensive food item on the ship, but after wheeling it out, she could hardly stand to look at it. The work that went into it. The planning, and design, and decisions, and… Its towering stature, its ivory, smooth royal icing, laced with intricate designs that could only be appreciated up-close, leaves and vines and flower petals, painted with the most fine gold accents―the entire piece was drenched with beauty and delicacy.

    She almost took back her decision. But it was no use. She was certainly not taking it home, and leaving it on the ship meant relinquishing her control over it; if she let go of it, the crew would decide its fate, not her.

    Better to make the best of what she had.

    -

    By the time Guzma arrived, dressed only in a white t-shirt and jeans to signify how much he cared about his appearances anymore, he entered the hall in time to witness the peculiar near-aftermath. It actually took him considerable time to take in and process the sight:

    Most already had their dessert plates in hand, and so had returned to their tables to either pick at their food with forks or, after flinging the cutlery to the floor, consuming it with their fingers. The remaining youth crowded near the cake but dared not touch it; Lusamine had claimed enough control of the grunts to enforce sufficient line formation and behavior. She held the cutting knife, after all, and the implied threat along with it.

    Still, the kids didn't appear afraid. They were giggly and loud. They poked one another and argued and groped for their treat, dodging the playful swipes of a Meowth hiding beneath the cart. One boy even appeared to have been enlisted, as he was busy handing her plates.

    Lusamine didn't notice Guzma approaching, but a few of the grunts in line did. Frozen, they eyed him, like they thought they had been caught in something illicit. He passed his glance over them and sealed his gaze on her back. He puzzled for a while, then spoke.

    "Morning."

    Her shoulders straightened and she turned around. Bewilderingly, she flashed him a warm smile, frosting-laced knife in hand. "Oh! Good morning."

    "What's, uh…" Without smiling back, Guzma looked her over. "What's going on? I stopped by your room. I was about to―"

    "It was going to waste," she blurted aloud. As soon as he started to speak, she felt a rush of words overcome her until her hands shook. "I can't stand anything going to waste, you know, and―I know I should have waited for you, and I would have, so we could cut it together; but the children, they were hungry and rather impatient, I didn't think you'd mind―"

    She didn't realize how quickly she was speaking until Guzma lifted his hands in surrender. "Hey! Alright! Fine. It's… fine." He lowered his hands, but resumed staring at her like she was some alien lifeform. His voice suddenly edged with concern. "Are you feelin' okay?"

    (What had he spotted in her…? To make him say something like that…? She felt herself trembling and stiffening.) "Of, of course I'm feeling―"

    One of the grunts in line became impatient with the couple and interrupted them with whining.

    "O-oh, just a moment, dear, I'm sorry…"

    When Lusamine returned to the cake serving, her hands were noticeably more shaky. She handed a slice to the complaining grunt, but then dished up another and turned around to Guzma.

    "Here. You ought to have some. You're the groom, after all."

    He took it but didn't seem persuaded. He squinted at her, nearly ready to say something to her face, though he didn't get it out before she went back to her task. He sighed and relented. "Careful, Miss L," he warned, joking but not concealing his wariness. "Feed 'em once, and they'll follow you around like puppies."

    "Oh?" She didn't look up, instead continuing to cut slices for plating. "Speaking from experience?"

    He snorted. "A bit. Look, I'm gonna sit. Come with me?"

    "When I'm done."

    Guzma shook his head, sighed, and found a nearby empty table where he could sit. He didn't eat, but watched her keenly from afar to track her every move.

    Word must have reached other groups of grunts on the ship, because soon after, a new crowd of teens and their pokemon breached the hall, sniffing and prowling for food. They spotted the cake and descended on it and Lusamine like a roving pack of animals, and Guzma almost felt the urge to stand and come to her aid, but he caught sight of Gladion among them.

    He waved to him frantically to draw his attention and, once he got it, direct him to his table.

    Gladion did approach, but he didn't drop his bewildered gaping at the scene. He didn't have his Silvally out for once, but a sharp-eyed Weavile followed him. Its red feathers fanned out in a cautious display. "Mr. Guzma, what…?"

    "Just be cool," Guzma exhorted. "I don't know why either."

    Gladion finally turned toward him. He screwed up his eyes. "Did you convince her to do this?"

    "Nope."

    "...You don't look very happy about this."

    Rather than reply, Guzma grumbled and shifted himself toward the table, hunkering down to pretend to eat.

    Gladion tried to read his posture―got nothing―and was about to excuse himself when an unexpected hand touched his shoulder.

    The boy leaped right out of his skin and scurried around, ready to fight.

    "Oh! Goodness."

    When he saw it was his mother, his instinct to defend himself only heightened; he nearly tripped as he fumbled a step backward to create more distance, as she had appeared far too close behind him.

    His nerves, though, didn't affect her composure at all. She stood very still, perhaps a little more pale than usual, her hair flat, her face carefully crafted with cover and blush. She was far over-dressed for the occasion, and in heels, she had returned to a height safely taller than her son (without them, he was close to outgrowing her). Rather than give him a look of contempt, as he had come to expect of her, she appeared startled, even a bit touched with fear.

    "Well…" She attempted to smile (but failed) and drew her hand back. "Aren't you jittery this morning…"

    Befuddled and in shock, Gladion couldn't get words out. He finally saw the plate in her hand with a neatly-cut slice of cake at the ready.

    "...Would you like some?"

    It was an innocuous yet completely baffling offer. Gladion at last was able to scoff and cock an eyebrow at her. "It depends what's in it," he said, implying he wouldn't eat anything she had the chance to contaminate.

    Lusamine turned her head to examine the cake and pretend to think on his question with care. She then said, "White cake with a strawberry jam filling."

    He was uncomfortable with the bland tone in her answer. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Guzma trying to avoid notice and shovel food in his mouth to look occupied. The boy waffled. "I think I'll pass. I'm not much for sweets."

    Guzma hastily swallowed and gruffed, "What, are you watchin' your figure or somethin'? Have some cake."

    Though Gladion was about to snap at him (Guzma had gotten, he decided, all too-familiar with him as of late), the joke slacked the tension enough that Lusamine was able to pop with a small, breathy laugh. She placed the plate on the table. "In case you change your mind. Or perhaps you can give it to your little friend, here…" She bent down and gave the Weavile a daring, but gentle scratch to its forehead.

    She went for it so quickly that Gladion didn't have a chance to stop her, and by the time he would have been able to tell her off, the touch was over and she moved toward Guzma.

    Her fiance, defeated, allowed her to stand behind him and wind her arms about his neck while he sat; she burbled sweet talk and placed kisses on his cheek, adding up to a rather disgusting, flagrant display of affection.

    Guzma didn't look swayed, but he didn't shove her off. He eyed his cake piece and assaulted it with bored jabs from his fork. "Not in front of the kids, huh?"

    She mewed, squeezed around his shoulders, and stroked his jawline. "Darling, when I'm around you, I can't help myself."

    Though Guzma rolled his eyes, there was a small crack in his facade; his eyebrows twitched and he joked, voice thin, "Yeah―that's me―irresistible." He finally noticed Gladion's transparent look of condemnation and choked out an excuse. "Hey. You better get back over there, Miss L; can't trust those boneheads with a knife."

    "Yes… Quite right. I almost forgot." She smiled, dizzy with whimsy, and floated away like a leaf caught in the wind.

    -

    Gladion stared at Guzma long and hard. At the table, his Weavile had begun poking at the edge with its claws, groping curiously for the unattended cake slice. Gladion relented and gave up custody of the treat. He then sat, but couldn't sit still; he turned his body to look over his shoulder. He watched his mother buzz about, making offerings to the children and other hungry creatures, and appearing quite calm.

    "Okay," he said, turning back to face the older boy. He spoke flatly. "What did you do with our mother?"

    Guzma, exasperated, massaged his forehead with a pained and sour expression. "I didn't ―" He slumped and sighed. "When she gets bad… She gets like this sometimes, the morning after. Warm an' fuzzy as a Torchic. Everything's great, loves me, loves everybody, it's all rainbows." With a dour face, he mangled his cake with his fork. Bitterly, he added, "It'll pass."

    "Euphoria." The word jumped from Gladion's lips; he pondered it a second. "It's another symptom, you mean… So she's still sick? The treatment didn't work?"

    "Huh?" Guzma locked gazes with him, then winced. "Uh, no― No, didn't get around to it yet."

    "You didn't do it last night?"

    "I'm about to do it," Guzma grouched. "Why do you think I came down here!? She ducked out of her room 'fore I could get to her."

    Even though it had been Guzma's idea, and Guzma had sworn his allegiance to the plan the night before, Gladion was not entirely surprised that the man had chickened out. Guzma likely knew he didn't have the rhetorical skills to convince Lusamine into a treatment she'd eschewed until now. He must have spent the night agonizing over his strategy… And now she flitted about like a butterfly: no substance, just beauty and paper wings.

    Perhaps this was Guzma's plan all along. Wait until she's too weak or feeble-minded to put up a fight.

    Gladion decided to force his thought in a different direction. "How often is she like this?"

    "Uh... Definitely not every day. Maybe… Every couple days. Lasts the morning, usually; she gets cleared up pretty quick."

    "She looks content."

    Guzma didn't agree; he grimaced. "...Weirds me out, t'be honest."

    "Has that occurred to you? That the treatment will put a stop to these episodes, too? It might take away some pain, but it'll take away the only bright spots. The 'warm and fuzzy' as you call it."

    Apparently, the conundrum did not bother Guzma at all, because he immediately answered, "I don't care. I want her to be herself."

    Gladion thought, Even if 'herself' is intolerable? Guzma seemed to have more pure values than he did on the matter; if Gladion could find a drug to render the woman docile and sweet, he might put in for a lifetime supply.

    -

    For the remainder of breakfast, things were actually exceptionally calm. Their hunger sated and their attitudes eased, the grunts chattered, some lingering at the tables and others slinking their way out. If Lusamine's purpose in all this was to buy favor, then her efforts had at best mixed results, with assorted children greeting, pestering, and avoiding her. And despite their ravenous work, the cake had not been consumed in its entirety, so the pastry, maimed and marred, was abandoned at the front of the hall.

    But contrary to her earlier promise, Lusamine didn't return to Guzma once the serving finished. In fact, she didn't serve herself. She planted the knife deep in the open flesh of the cake, burying the entirety of the blade into the soft body. Her trembling from earlier only grew, and she snapped her hand back suddenly, as if the knife's handle had become too painful to hold.

    Without a word to anyone, she tried to leave in secret. She only failed because Buzz was still with her, and the boy noisily questioned her when she reached the door and slipped out.

    She got as far as the railing before she stopped to catch her breath. The cold air hissed over the bow of the ship and freckled her face with misty moisture. The clouds still smothered the overhead sky in grey and gloomy form, but sunlight began to peak through the cracks, sending threads of white, ethereal light down on the sea. The surface of her arms prickled in the cold.

    A warm hand reached her and smoothed out her goosebumps. "Hey."

    She knew the voice. The waves rippled with the dim spots of light, and she felt mildly dizzy at watching them. So she shut her eyes and answered the question he didn't ask. "I had… a queer feeling, all of a sudden."

    "Yeah?" Guzma's hand moved up toward her shoulder, where her skin also started to turn rigid with chill. He didn't ask permission, but pressed close to her side in an attempt to shield her from the worst of the wind. "You okay now?"

    "It passed." Instinctively, her body curled inward, allowing herself to be absorbed into the shape of his arms. "It's going to be a beautiful day. The clouds will be gone soon, with the wind… And the sun will be out…"

    "Sounds… uh, good."

    She turned her head to look at him. He wore a perplexed and still concerned look, so she put a hand on his. "You were right," she explained. "We have no one to impress… We ought to enjoy what we have for now. We can make do." As she spoke, her words tensed, like she was more trying to convince herself than him. "I've hosted worse guests than these. We'll throw a little something―bring up everyone's spirits a bit."

    "...Oh. So you were…" Guzma took her suggestion and accepted it as well-meaning, if a tad delusional. "A blow-out party, huh?"

    "At this point, what else can we do?"

    He didn't want to damper her induced optimism, but he couldn't leave it unchecked, either. He sighed. "Lu, you oughtta know… The captain says we're heading back to Aether. We'll get there by tomorrow morning."

    "Then―" The time restraint alarmed her. She hurriedly feigned enthusiasm. "Then we don't have much time. We should open our presents."

    "Presents?"

    "Of course," she rambled desperately. "They're locked away in the staff's quarters; they should all still be intact."

    This was the first time he'd heard about them. But Guzma could think of few things he dreaded more than the thought of sitting and sorting through an endless pile of expensive, wrapped baubles that neither of them needed. "Yeah, we could," he said, making a face that conveyed his feelings, "or, we could do anything else."

    "Our guests spent a lot of time, thought, and money―"

    As the thought struck him, he interrupted: "You know, actually… I got a present for you."

    She looked up at him, moon-eyed. Surprise made her utter softly, "I don't need anything from you."

    "Don't knock it 'til you know what it is," he told her, forcing a smile as he did. He was trying to stay upbeat to prolong her good mood, which he hoped to use to his own advantage.

    She played along. "Oh… A secret, then. Will I like it?"

    "Well… I think you need it."

    -

    Lusamine sat in utter silence.

    Because there it was.

    And she didn't, wouldn't, couldn't understand it.

    It took only a few minutes for Guzma to retrieve the leather case from his room and meet her back in her suite. Guzma had her sit in a chair, and he sat on the opposite side with the coffee table between them. He dumped the leather case there in the center and, without actually opening it, explained everything in his unscientific yet unambiguous style.

    Too many feelings passed through her as she listened: disgust, a plummeting in her stomach, nausea, anger, despondence.

    Above all, she felt grossly misled. When he first said he had a gift for her, she expected something personal, maybe even intimate. But this was beyond intimate. This was… violating. Guzma had rummaged through her blood without permission. He had come to grand and overwhelming conclusions about her health and mental state. And Faba, too, no doubt had peeked at her medical records in the process of aiding and abetting her fiance's violation of privacy. If he wasn't already leaving of his own accord, she'd have the scientist's head for it.

    She felt a powerful urge to cry; her eyes pricked and swelled, but she blinked them back in pain. The cloud of sweet comfort that had followed her all that morning melted in the heat of the breaking sunlight. The room was dark and her heart was dark and even he seemed more like a shadow than a person in that moment.

    ...Words were spoken. It took a second for her to realize that the words were actually addressing her, and actually meant something.

    "So, you understand it all, right?"

    Guzma was looking straight at her, all hope and strain. He kept waiting for her to have an answer to his questions, but she was lost in a fog and couldn't hope to stitch words together. She noticed then her hands rested on her lap, and they felt like useless stumps there, just mounds of strangely-shaped flesh that she couldn't manipulate in any way. Acid in her throat. Jelly legs. Fuzzy head. Nothing worked.

    When Guzma realized she wasn't going to reply to him, he kept going. "Why wouldn't you let them treat you before?"

    Instinctively, Lusamine drew her arms about her stomach. Still, she said nothing.

    "You were sick," he insisted. "So why…"

    "I'm not sick."

    Guzma stopped, stunned by her first words.

    She couldn't hold back the bitterness she felt; she seethed and sank into her seat. "You… You're the ones who are sick."

    "Uh…" Guzma, realizing now that she did not speak from a stable mindset, hesitated to argue too strongly. "What are you talking about?"

    "Simpleton," she said, sneering. As she withdrew, she pulled her feet from the floor and crouched with her knees against her chest. Anger shook her voice. "Is this what you think of me? A poor, sick madwoman? You don't even know what you're talking about. You say you want to 'cure'? 'Treat'?" She lowered her tone to a hateful whisper. "But you mean 'kill'... That's what they meant, too: to kill them."

    "'Kill'--?" In his alarm, he reached out to touch her; she recoiled and pushed him away, and he panicked. "I don't―who's 'they'?"

    And before she could filter her thoughts to be precise and vague, she said what she really thought, slurring between tears: "My darlings. My babies."

    -

    Guzma misunderstood, especially because she clutched her stomach as if in pain when she cried, but his confusion last only for a fraction of a second.

    "The… the toxin…"

    -

    Her dark company; the inner chorus of voices that came to her in the night and never let go. The doctors told her they had potions that would wipe the little ones out, but what kind of brutes would endorse such cruelty? They weren't hurting anyone. They filled her empty spaces and wriggled through her veins. Besides, even though they cried out loudly at first, drowning out her thoughts, over time they quieted, crept into corners, and didn't make much fuss.

    …Didn't understand. Those barbarians didn't understand what it's like, to be a mother.

    ...To be filled with squirming, throbbing life, only for it to force itself out, to leave her empty, hollow, alone. And not only that, but she had to endure that pattern of agony more than once: again, and again...

    ...And again…

    But now, she had another chance to give life by leasing out her flesh and blood and hosting the defenseless, to be Mother to All.

    -

    Guzma, as a man, of course didn't comprehend it, either. He spoke breathlessly. "They're not babies, Miss L."

    "No, they're better," she snarled. She groped about, sobbing, but couldn't find any object firm or large enough to use as a weapon against such slander. "There's no leaving with them; no heartbreak."

    "They're parasites! How can you pick poison over your actual kids!?"

    Almost as immediately as he yelled it, he regretted the tone he had taken with her; Lusamine sprang to her feet and lashed out, first by swinging her fists and missing, then by retreating to her bed to collapse and weep.

    For a time, Guzma allowed her to exhaust herself, rather than immediately risk being swung at again. He thought the best he could on the matter, but he was no expert in psychology, and he had no way to pick apart her resistance. He did, however, circle about the coffee table and drag the leather satchel along with him. He got to the bed and considered comforting her, but instead gave her a few more moments to find calm. Once her breathing steadied, he stood over her and thought aloud. "You keep talking about how you wanna have kids with me. But what's gonna happen? When you got a baby inside you, along with all that poison? What'll happen to our―"

    She interrupted his astonishingly sound logic with a pitiful moan. "How can you be so awful? Why do you do this to me? Why do you torment me? I give, and I give, and you're never happy with me..."

    "I want you to get better."

    She planted her face deep in the bed cover and sniffled. "You want a sweet, quiet, weak, obedient doormat of a wife, who just does as she's told."

    He sighed and ignored her maligning. "...I want you… To stop doin' this to yourself."

    With that, and no more additional explanation, he tossed the satchel onto the bed, rifled through it, and presented the injection device within easy reach.

    "C'mon, Miss L," he said. He didn't want to plead, but this was what he was resorting to. "It'll be easy, and then it'll be over. And then…" He hesitated. "We can talk about our getting married."

    Guzma didn't feel good for pulling on that string to get cooperation, but it worked. It was like he had zapped her back to life; she stiffened and rolled her face up at him, her expression puffy and hopeful.

    "Please?"

    Despite her earlier protests and complaints, in truth, her allegiance to her hosted colony had waned in recent weeks. The oncoming wedding had played no small role in this; Guzma's constant presence made theirs all the less significant. And now, Guzma wore such a heartfelt look full of loyalty: how could she deny him anything? She would cut off her own arm, if it meant the swearing of his love. The last, sputtering gasp of her euphoric state, before it was obliterated by too many waking hours, pushed her to sit up teary-eyed and cooing. She groped at him and pulled on his shirt, until he took the hint and sat down next to her so that she could succumb to her messy passions. "Oh… Oh… Darling… Anything… I'll do anything..."

    (Anything to make you love me; anything to prevent you from leaving me.)

    Lusamine had to administer the antitoxin herself; Guzma was too cowardly to even watch. There was hesitation, even a faint impulse to deceive―he wasn't looking, she could fake it―but by the time the injection device was in her hand, something blackened and bitter had nestled in her heart. She was able to use it, this hate, this sudden desire to wipe out a path of fate, and direct it like a punishment against herself.

    A gurgling at the back of her brain suggested: you deserve to be alone.

    It stung, but only for a second. A chill swelled at the injection point, and when that passed, her anger bubbled back up from her stomach. She threw the device onto the floor as if it had betrayed her, and she fell back face-down onto the bed again.

    -

    In her tantrum, she imagined the serum would burn the life out of her. That in a flash, there would be pain, rush, and revolution. But nothing happened. The seconds trailed by and she felt no different.

    Somehow, he read her confusion and reassured her, "Mr. Faba said it might take a couple days for it to really do its job."

    Of course.

    How silly it all seemed now. Like a passing dream, with its laws and logic melting away in the clear light of morning. She could have spent her days chasing after the evanescent joys and ecstasies promised by the little creatures bouncing through her bloodstream; she could have pursued those painted images and smokey paths to their dark end. But they lacked substance against the hard, warm impact of a daughter's hand or a lover's face.

    Nevertheless, the decision had fatigued her. She could hardly move, even as Guzma busied himself picking up the device and cleaning away the small, scarlet strand of blood at her arm. To distract himself from his nerves, he nattered, "Yeah, in a couple days… You'll be back to normal, you'll see."

    Even if that was true, she couldn't hope to remember what 'normal' felt like.

    Guzma hoisted her up against her weakness and exhaustion, eventually propping her against his seated body. She slumped into his shoulder and chest. She thought for a moment that sleep would steal her away, as grogginess fell on her without much warning, but he stimulated her with a tense squeeze at her hand and a reminder. "Do you still wanna marry me?"

    Her eyes slipped out, past him and out the window where the light danced free. She hadn't expected that question to come out in that way, but her answer came effortlessly out, without searching or agonizing. "You know that I do," she murmured.

    "But…"

    Lusamine felt his body deflate as a long breath left him.

    "You know... we shouldn't get married, right?"

    The floor fell out under her.

    She flailed wildly, air roaring around her; she tried in vain to grab hold of something, anything, to stop her from plowing into the center of the earth. Nothing. Nothing.

    "I…"

    Her palms hit gravel at landing, shredding into ribbons.

    "I don't know." Was that the best she could come up with? When everything was falling apart? She floundered. "I thought you wanted it. You don't want it…?"

    He rejected the premise. "Want to … It's different than should."

    She felt sick. He had tricked her. It wasn't fair.

    "Just think it through. If we marry, you know how it'll end. Don't you?"

    ...The truth was, she didn't. She didn't allow herself to imagine their future together in any material way; she kept her imaginings symbolic, abstract. A poem. A picture on a wall. A silhouette. If Lusamine ever tried to consider the day-to-day realities that she knew marriage bore, she couldn't.

    Guzma went on, keeping his voice plodding and unemotional. "We got a lot in common. And not the right kind of things. I realized that… We're both nutcases, if we're being honest. We got problems… And when I think about that, I think, we won't last two minutes."

    "All this," she wailed. She buried her fingers into his chest, but in her grief, she was too clumsy to find her grip. "After all this, you're going to abandon me!? Just like the others, just like everyone―!?"

    "No!" He gripped her arms to still her and morosely shook his head. "I can't leave you. If I left… It wouldn't change nothin'. You'd blame me, you'd stay the same, you wouldn't face up to anything… You'd be all alone, and worse off for it."

    For a glimpse, she thought she saw her future coalesce. Hope returned.

    Then he broke it. He looked right at her, even cupped her face with his hands in a rare show of gentleness, and broke her hope: "You gotta be the one to tell me to go."



    ...



    "If you ask me to stay and marry you, I'll do it. But you know it's not right. You know."







    "So I want this―to be up to you."



    Lusamine fought with every bit of her strength to untangle herself from him. To get away from him, as far as possible. She had to swallow down the bile and crash her elbow against the end table to steady herself. Her vision blurred until the entire suite seemed no more than a smear of clashing colors, red and white and gray and gold, ashes and blood. Finally, she seized a tea cup, intending to throw it in a petulant show of force, but its brittle china crumpled in her fingers before she could even aim it.

    She shouted in the direction of him, though unable to see him through the convulsions that buckled her over. "You think you're giving me a choice!?" She screamed. Now her hand bled and shed little pink crystals of shredded china. "What sort of choice is that? I say 'stay' and you get loom around me, holding my moral failure over my head forever―! 'Stay' is damnation―it's eternal punishment―"

    But Guzma, rather than sounding alarmed, or intimidated, or disturbed by her outburst, sounded strangely detached. "Twist it however you want," he said. "I don't care. But you have all of today to think about it."

    "Today! Today! Today, you've killed me! It isn't fair!"

    Guzma wasn't listening. She heard his heavy footfalls moving for the door. Though she couldn't sit up, she tried to crawl for him.

    "It isn't f-fair!"

    No one could hear her now. Guzma was gone. The dark company were quiet.

    Outside, the sunlight at last broke free from the clouds and poured its iron-colored gaze on her prone back.
     
    Chibi Pika likes this.
  4. Chibi Pika

    Chibi Pika Stay positive

    Man, I think my favorite thing about this chapter is how well it shows how much Guzma has matured. I know that's going to sound silly in response to a chapter that literally opens with him being anything but. And when he's flustered and freaked out, he slips back into old habits, true. But outside of that, it's amazing how much he's grown. His willingness to acknowledge that he and Lusamine would be terrible for each other. His willingness to help Lusamine get better. Not because she's a good person, but because he knows she's not, but thinks she at least deserves the chance to have that be under her own power. But despite this, he's not fazed by her attempts to twist things back on him, and not fooled by shows of kindness, as he's all too aware that she hasn't apologized for anything.

    Also yesss to Lillie standing up to Guzma and making her demands known. It didn't work out in her favor here, but it was still great. And my apologies to Gladion, but him being flustered and indignant will never stop being funny.

    And that ending. His knowing that leaving Lusamine would just send her down another spiral of self-pity, just like when her children left. But telling her that she has to make him leave. Every time I read that line I'm just like "Guzmaaaaa... you've grown up." He's still got a lot of rough patches. He still slips into being a bully, like Lillie said. But in so many other ways, he's grown up, and I feel that's worth celebrating.

    ~Chibi~
     
  5. dietofwurms

    dietofwurms i see stars

    Chapter 33: Warmonger

    Under the force of the punishing storm the previous night, the swimming pool's contents had been contaminated not only with rain, but with the crashing waves of ocean water spilling over the edge of the ship. The pool stood filled with a murky, brackish fluid suspended with particles and minerals, so naturally, no grunt chose to swim in it that morning. Even if the pool-water had still been its crystalline former self, the sun had yet to fully warm the water and poolside paths, rendering the pool area even more inhospitable.

    However, while the humans shunned it, some pokemon found the waters more tolerable than before. Guzma's Golisopod, in particular, as a sea-dwelling creature, immediately took to it. It wallowed into the salty pool, chittering and scooping its clawed arms past the other water-types who had taken up residence. It sang a happy tune at a chance to bathe, creaked its dried-out scales together, burbled its mouth into the top surface, and in time, chose to sink to the very bottom of the pool, until it faded into a cloud-grey, indistinct figure sleeping beneath the splashing creatures above. It went rigid in meditation and let out only the occasional bubble as a sign of life.

    As the pool brimmed with animal play, the grunts, most of them the trainers of the aforementioned pokemon, ambled restlessly about the poolside lounge, seated in chairs and trying to pass the time. Guzma was among them, but didn't give his attention to the pool or the attending grunts. He planted himself at a table and waited.

    He looked irritable, with his arms crossed and fingers tapping his forearm―and he had good reason. He awaited the start of a previously-arranged meeting, and neither of the intended participants had arrived yet. Five minutes late. Guzma had been trained in timeliness enough to now be annoyed. He checked his watch, saw some grunts tilting their heads at him, and scowled at them until they turned away. As he waited, he made a mental note of the weather, which had, with the wind and sun, wiped the expanse free of clouds and finally began to bore some gentle heat on the world. If this kept up, the afternoon and evening would unfurl into a pleasant one, free of the sticky humidity that had crushed them the first night, and softened by the balm of sunlight and salty breeze.

    They could celebrate outside, at the rooftop floor. Celebrate… Something.

    Gladion arrived from upstairs, plodding down and across the deck slowly, much like a child reluctantly accepting the beckoning call of its parent. This resistance was new to Guzma; when he was Boss and Gladion was a contractor, the boy knew better than to dawdle when summoned, and especially knew better than to show an attitude about it. Guzma no longer held a position over him, but Guzma was, to his own mind, in some de facto authority here.

    Guzma waited a few seconds, and when the pace he witnessed proved not to his liking, barked, "Hey, hurry up!"

    Gladion apparently did not appreciate being lobbed with rude demands. He put his hands in his hoodie pocket, heaved a sigh, and carried on at about the same speed. Behind him, a gaggle of girls began to descend the staircase and send the noise of whispers and giggling downwind.

    "Where's your sister?"

    Upon reaching the table, Gladion started pulling out a chair. He gave his answer after a few seconds of icy silence. "She's coming. I found her, like you asked me to." Gladion said this like it was the fruit of some tremendous, burdensome toil. He dropped his shoulders and warned, "And before you say anything, I already told her."

    "Told her wh―"

    Guzma heard it before he saw it. The girls' laughter mixed with footfalls; grunts on either side popped up onto their feet, some moving, others just calling out with jeers and whistles. Guzma swung his head around to find the object of their attention and found himself briefly perplexed. From afar, he saw three girls―one girl in a white dress, which he thought was Lillie, and then another girl in a dress close to Lillie's style. After a moment of thinking he was seeing double, he realized both of these girls had cropped, dyed hair. Not Lillie.

    But the third girl, locked in arms with the other two and swaying with amusement, was the cause of the grunts' commotion and the true source of Gladion's sour mood. The third girl was Lillie―she had the long blonde hair and snowy face. And she wore Team Skull regalia, complete with a silver chain around her neck.

    "What―" Guzma's face fell and he struggled to form words. "What's she think she's doing!?"

    Gladion sighed again. "I don't know. She said she 'traded clothes'―it's some sort of girl thing."

    "No… No, no…"

    "Like I said. I told her already."

    At least Gladion shared Guzma's distaste for the sight; Guzma didn't need to spend any further time debating the issue with the boy. So he jerked up onto his feet and launched himself at the growing crowd. Several grunts, mostly boys, had gathered to comment and share their approval of her wardrobe, but those gawkers were quick to scurry away when Guzma approached.

    The two girls at Lillie's side remained, but eyed him like he was an uninvited invader. Guzma identified them: the twins. He knew them from back in the day―of course they'd be the ones to mix her up in this. Guzma cemented his dour look on Lillie, who had, up until this moment, seemed both amused and flattered by the attention. She immediately sobered when she saw his expression, but she didn't dare say anything, so the twins flanked and shielded her.

    "Um," Trixie said, admiring her polished nails and pretending not to feel the tension of his presence, "like, what do you want?"

    Guzma may not have been their boss in a long time, but he still remembered the body language and tone. He remembered how to loom over them with the sort of scowl that dissolved the fiercest of opponents. Despite their resolve, the girls shrank a little under his shadow. "I'm not gonna even ask which o' you numbskulls thought this up," he growled, making a point of including Lillie in his scrawling gaze, "but the costume party's over."

    In an unexpected outburst of bravery, Lillie pinched her brow and spoke up. Her cheeks puffed and flushed with indignation. "What, this? It's just for fun."

    "Yeah! Why you bein' so serious?" Tiny complained.

    "'Cause Team Skull gear's not a joke, and it ain't funny, neither." He finished his reprimand by thrusting his thumb over his shoulder in a pointed gesture. "Go get changed."

    "Hey!" Trixie pushed past Lillie's shoulder and stood between them. "You ain't Boss no more! Just 'cause you older and bigger don't mean you get to boss her around."

    "No," he said, staring the grunt down with arms folded against his chest, "the fact that I'm marryin' her mother does."

    Tiny gasped. "Aw, pullin' the dad card on her! That's messed up, G!"

    Because Guzma could see Lillie wasn't freely complying, and because he tired of the twins' antics already, he started brushing the girls aside with his broad hands to extract Lillie. They resisted by whining, so he snipped, "T'n'T, y'all gotta scram."

    "What!"

    "Nah!"

    He barked. "Now!"

    Whatever sound that came from his throat along with that command triggered a trained response in them; they jolted, shied, and mumbled defeated apologies as they abandoned Lillie to his wrath.

    Guzma looked at her as the girls disappeared down the deck. Lillie had his fists taut at her sides and met his eyes with only a faint flickering of hesitation. Perhaps she didn't understand the faux pas; Guzma understood the weight of her sin, and so did Gladion, but she stood her ground, as if his persecution were unfair.

    "Gladion said you wanted to meet with us," she said, voice hushed. She was trying to dodge the issue. "I came here as soon as I..."

    "We ain't meeting with you dressed up all stupid," he retorted.

    "It's not stupid!" Lillie planted her feet. "A-anyway, you said this meeting was important! If it's so important, then―"

    "It can wait. Go put on something normal."

    A few yards away, Gladion had settled into a chair facing the pool and not moved an inch. Lillie glanced past Guzma's towering form to give the back of Gladion's head an annoyed and betrayed glare. "I don't want to."

    "Doesn't matter! 'Cause it's not a request!"

    Lillie didn't say it, but her expression clearly stated: make me.

    Finally, Guzma straightened his back to temper the intimidation factor (didn't seem to be working, anyway) and furrowed his brow. Where had the timid mouse gone? He could remember her squeaking and cowering those many months ago, when he saw her for the first time at Aether Paradise. At the time, she was a captive, and showed it, too, in body language and speech. Since coming onto the ship, she had exhibited some echoes of this frailty, but after the previous night...

    Of course. Their last interaction had largely involved yelling, accusations of bullying, and a passing threat of corporal punishment.

    "Kid…" He scooped his hand past his forehead and over his scalp as he sucked in a breath. He just barely restrained himself from blowing a gasket. "I get it. You're still mad at me. Right?"

    Though Lillie didn't answer, she flitted her eyes to the side. She crossed her arms over the silver chain to complete her picture of unhappiness.

    "Well, get over it," he said sternly. "'Cause bein' mad at me doesn't mean you get to wear that."

    "You don't get to tell me what to wear."

    She had a hair's breadth of a point, which forced him to sputter and rearrange his thinking. The girl appeared pleased to have stumped him, so he shot back: "But―!" He stuck a finger in her face and put on a nauseating, sanctimonious tone. "You're a kid, and I'm the adult. I know better than you."

    Lillie released a heated breath of frustration, but found something in his words to latch onto. She mimicked the tight, parental verbiage with which she had grown up: "'Children would all be much happier if they'd only listen to the adults around them.' Is that it?"

    "You―! Ugh! Listen! You don't get it! Wearing that, it's…" Guzma, failing to reason with her, resorted to manhandling. He took her arm, ignored her protests and struggling, and marched her toward her brother. Gladion heard them come closer but didn't turn all the way around, as if he sensed Guzma's intent to involve him and dreaded it. Guzma, as suspected, addressed him. "Man, back me up on this. Please."

    "Back you up!" Lillie yelped. "Gladion, tell him―he hasn't any right―"

    Gladion, horrified at being chosen to mediate, wisely chose his path. He put up his hands in mock surrender. "I'm going to remain a disinterested third party here, thank you."

    Before the two could both express their outrage at his lack of courage―he could see it develop in both their faces―Gladion played a mediator of another sort.

    "Anyway, all this arguing you're doing is giving me a headache. Perhaps we should conclude our business here with whatever you wanted to tell us, and then you can continue to harass my sister."

    Lillie didn't appreciate his dry joke, but Guzma snorted and accepted his terms.

    "Fine." He pushed Lillie toward the other chair. "Siddown."

    While she visibly sulked and sank into her seat, Guzma took in the sight of the two children side-by-side. He wrestled internally for a time, scratching his chin like he had something deep and impossible to express on his mind, and he paced a few steps before them.

    Gladion tapped a finger on the table in his boredom. "...Mr. Guzma?"

    "Don't think I'm done with you," Guzma warned abruptly, pointing at Lillie. "'Cause I'm not." (She gave him an annoyed glance in return). "Now, uh, here's the deal… This is… A quick family meeting, here, 'cause I'm busy organizing stuff for the party―"

    "Party?"

    Guzma heard the implied distaste in Gladion's question and cut it down. "Yes! Party! It's what your mom wants, and―anyway, this has gotta be real quick. You know we're gonna be back at Aether Paradise tomorrow."

    "Yes," Gladion said.

    "But we're not staying there," Lillie clarified.

    "Yeah! Good thing you aren't!" Guzma overdramatically planted a hand to his forehead. "You two play off like you're all cute and innocent, but you got attitude problems! I couldn't put up with it, honestly."

    Gladion looked over to his sister, mouthing in horror, "'Cute'?"

    "--So! That means you're heading off, and I wanna know what you plan to do with yourselves."

    The siblings sat in deafening silence. Lillie twirled the chain around her finger and Gladion scratched his ear.

    "...Don't y'all talk all at once."

    Gladion sat up to speak warily. "It sort of depends, doesn't it? What are you going to do?"

    "Me?" Guzma cast a look of anxious doubt over his shoulder. "Me and your mom… Don't worry about us. We're figuring things out."

    That sounded awfully cryptic.

    "She's taken care of," he added, with more meaning sent Gladion's way. "So?"

    Because Lillie didn't seem eager to pipe up, Gladion shook his head and answered first. "I don't have any plans, other than returning to Ula'ula. I'll probably need to find a new line of work; Ms. Plumeria didn't say it, but I think I'm fired."

    "What! What did you do!?"

    The anger was poorly directed, and Gladion pointed this out: "Are you really going to chew me out for leaving a gang?"

    Guzma hesitated, thought on it, tilted his head like the thinking hurt him, and relented, "No." He sighed. "Okay. Jobless and homeless. Great. How about you, girlie?"

    Since the beginning of the discussion, Lillie had sank further in her seat, eyeing a vacant distance and picking at the frayed hem of her white shorts. The boys nearly thought she wasn't going to answer at all, but she eventually did in a weak and hurt voice. "I don't know. Keep training with Master Hala, I guess…"

    Guzma steamed. Their responses proved listless and aimless; these two bright, young creatures of promise, at the budding of their youth, with intelligence and strength at their disposal, and they wilted already. The Team Skull uniform on Lillie might have been put on as an unserious joke, but in that moment, it seemed to Guzma a ghastly premonition. Of all people, he knew the paths that lost children took. He felt the strong urge to take hold of them both and shake them out of it. "Seriously? That's it?" He threw up his arms in despondence. "Would you two show a little backbone!? A little ambition!? Geez! I don't wanna have no loser stepkids!"

    Gladion quipped with a raised eyebrow, "Right. Whatever will your new friends at the country club think? ...Can we go now?"

    Though Guzma wanted to argue, he couldn't think of what else to say. He didn't have the means to throw himself into a motivational speech. So instead, he fumbled at defeatedly dismissing them. "Ye― no." He caught himself. "You can. She can't."

    Perhaps Gladion should have more forcefully stood up for his sister; certainly, she expected him to. But Gladion had a foreboding feeling―an intuitive sense of what Guzma had in mind to tell her. He knew he shouldn't be there for it. And in any case, he knew she wasn't in danger, for all the bluster and empty threats that Guzma levied at her. Gladion met her eyes, saw her offense, but washed his hands of it. "I'll leave you to talk," he finally said, pushing himself from his chair.

    "Yeah, we're gonna have a talk, all right," Guzma said, now more weary than angry. He ignored the faint look of defiance Lillie gave him. "But first, you're getting your butt upstairs and changing out of that."

    -

    Out on the open deck at the front of the ship, grunts had gathered to form a ring of competitive pokemon matches. It was a last resort at moving the hours that early afternoon, as they had overheard and sensed planning going on at the rooftop deck. Crew members, feeling more secure with Guzma attending them, began the process of moving chairs, tables, lights, and equipment; grunts kept a close eye on all this, but didn't touch. They didn't want to fight their former boss, but perhaps, too, they began to realize the folly of biting the hand that offered to feed them.

    In the meanwhile, then, they waited, sparred, made bets, and challenged one another. There were the sounds of thudding feet, roars, squeaks, sputters of fire and water, cries of elation and loss.

    Nanu had eaten his lunch and warmed with an early dose of wine (as it was all that was left in the lounge bar), and watched a few battles before feeling the shuffle of his restless feet. Plumeria hadn't appeared at the impromptu tournament, and Gladion had decided to join in and throw his frustrations into a few matches, so Nanu had no company and no obligation to keep any.

    So Nanu started up the steps toward the residential suites, with not much in mind except to check into his room and clear his head. Maybe watch some television. But with heavy steps, he fought against worn joints in his quest to reach the top, and upon climbing to the second floor, he saw Lillie.

    Lillie sat at the top of the steps and a little ways down the deck, legs dangling over the edge of the railing, her arms resting on the metal bars. He could tell it was her because of the long, blonde pigtails billowing in the wind before her. She watched the fighting going on down below with remote interest, and so didn't see him as he arrived at the top of the steps.

    For once, she didn't wear a skirt and blouse; today, he saw that had on a pink tank top with Beautifly wings stamped on its back, and she drummed white sneakers on the ledge of the railing. A Pichu also dozed on her lap atop some khaki shorts. Nanu noticed all this because, while he had known her on occasion to wear sportier things, the frilly style definitely remained her preference. It was odd. Just odd enough to catch his attention.

    He began to walk for the door (didn't see any reason to trouble her), and he heard a sniffle.

    Nanu thought momentarily that he might have imagined it, but no, again, there it was, a sniff, and now the girl lifted her hand and rubbed her eyes with the back of her pearly wrist.

    Uh-oh.

    Nanu, despite liking her enough, tended to avoid her because he simply had no defenses against her. She was the sort of sweet, pretty thing that could melt the harshest crank into a soft, gooey grandpa; one bat of her eyelashes, and even in his worst moods, he crumpled. In that sense, Lillie was even worse than Acerola, who already had him around her little finger. Acerola bounced with such cheer, that he couldn't hurt her feelings, no matter what he muttered at her. Lillie, on the other hand, plinked about on fairy feet and trembled like a wounded deer, so that he feared even the gentlest of teasing would slay her. He had to be delicate with her, and that was rough on his nerves.

    Hearing the sign of emotion made him wince and consider slinking by. He couldn't be expected to be everyone's therapist, could he? He'd given enough poor comfort for one lifetime.

    But in the end, he wasn't as sneaky as he thought he was. When she twitched at hearing his footsteps, he resigned to his fate and trotted over.

    "Oh―!" Lillie hurried to dry her eyes. "M-Mr. Nanu, I didn't see you there…"

    Before she had a chance to turn her face away, he spotted a puffiness in her eyes. Seeing her in tears was the sort of sight that would drive any red-blooded male to heave up a pitchfork and vow retribution. He bit the inside of his cheek. "Lilypad, something the matter?"

    "No."

    Since his question failed to get her to fess up, he scratched his scalp and grumbled. "Anything I can do?"

    "It's really nothing." She was not convincing at all. She pressed her hands under the Pichu's plump and drowsy paws and watched it as it yawned itself awake.

    "I ain't gonna twist your arm, little one, so if you're not gonna share…"

    Lillie, craving his company after all, blurted out in a hurry, "It's just―After Mr. Guzma..."

    "Huh? What did that hoodlum do to you?" He placed a hand in his pocket, like he meant to search for some implement of torture. "You need Uncle to whup him for you? 'Cause say the word..."

    Lillie, through the redness of her eyes, let out a soft but not fully committed laugh. "No, no… He didn't… Do anything. We only had a fight, and..."

    "No fists went flying, I hope."

    Another restrained laugh. "No."

    "Who won?"

    That question, at last, cast away her amusement. Her nose wrinkled and her voice fell. "He cheated."

    "Oh-hoh," Nanu said. "Is that right?"

    She must have contemplated sharing more details, but she hesitated, brought her Pichu tighter across her stomach, and tried to appear unmoved. "A-anyway, it wasn't really the fight… But after that, I started to think it all over to myself, and I feel…" A long moment of tense silence followed. "...I feel so useless."

    The frustration in her voice tumbled back into a hopeless tremor; Nanu watched as she turned herself away to hide her face, but she couldn't disguise the tightness in her shoulders or the anguish in her rambling. Over the edge, her white-shoed feet tapped into each other in a nervous, shy way.

    "Everything is still so wrong," she said. "I wanted a happy ending. I know that sounds foolish, but I really did. I wanted everything to get sorted out and fixed, so that everyone would be okay… And now I don't know how that can happen. I have all these choices I could make, but they're all horrible… What do I do?"

    She wasn't asking him. He could tell by the way her eyes fell and traced back to the battling down below. In time she brought her Pichu before her face to meet its sleepy face and repeat her question.

    "What do I do?" The Pichu's ears sagged in concern. She frowned at it. "I just don't know…"

    "Hmm." That was all he could think to say for the moment. Nanu looked out at the fight as well and saw the last few seconds of Silvally pulverizing a grunt's Golbat, all while Gladion made wild gestures and verbal commands. Strange. The boy could be so subdued in person, but in battle, he got to be a bit flashy and over-the-top for Nanu's taste. The kahuna then wondered why Gladion was busying himself with meaningless fights when his sister so obviously needed guidance and consolation, but… Gladion was a kid, too, and likely feeling the same, creeping uncertainty. He just buried his in the throng, while Lillie cradled it alone. "Well," he finally piped up, providing the only upbeat thought he could imagine, "you got all today to figure it out, huh."

    The crowd roared and jeered. Lillie put a hand on the railing, and instead of thanking Nanu for pausing on his way, she became absorbed again in the spectacle: limbs and teeth and whipping tails. By the tilting of her head, Nanu assumed it must have all triggered some thought in her, but he had no hope of ever finding it out.

    He glanced upward. A white, decorative banner flew out and loose from a pole at the rooftop deck, whipping about like a long, ghostly serpent in the now clear sky.

    Time was ticking.

    -

    The front deck had been scuffed, burned, crunched, scratched, ripped, and left without the shine and polish that had been so carefully been applied to it by the crew. The wood looked splintered, worn, and discolored, like it had been raked with innumerable blades and pounded by hammers. In some places, holes had formed; one railing had been knocked and bent. Only one crew worker tried, for a measly second, to suggest they take it easy, but this employee was harrassed until he fled the scene, never to make another peep. The grunts had revelled in this freedom to fight as they pleased, but after a while, Gladion began to suck the joy out of it.

    Gladion shared many characteristics with his partner, some of which he freely pointed out, but one trait in particular showed itself now. They were both born for battle, and much more than that, they were born to take on enemies much greater than themselves. With this purpose unfed, both he and Silvally had grown restless and impatient at facing a roster of clumsy and ineffective trainers. It seemed that for each opponent they swept without effort, the more they stomped and paced the deck, snuffing in search of a challenge.

    The grunts tried to appease Gladion by battling him one after another, but it did no good. The initially playful competition had warped him into a bloodthirsty, irritable creature. He'd win, tap a finger on his arm, and put on a cross expression that clearly meant, was that it?

    So as the bloodbath continued, a small group of grunts, showing uncommon wisdom, split apart from the battling and ventured for the pool, as they remembered spotting there one known antidote for Gladion's combative spirit.

    "Yo, G!"

    They came at the right time. Guzma had paused his party-planning to usher his Golisopod out of the pool and give it a firm, long-overdue polishing; at the poolside chairs, he stood on his feet over the monstrous creature as it sat on its haunches, hunching its shoulders over to give its rocky scales the spread needed for Guzma to get to its hard-to-reach nooks and crannies. He had a wetted swimming towel―all that he had available―and rubbed the chlorine, salt, and grime away until its scales gleamed under the sun. Golisopod chittered and whistled happily at the attention and thus sat very still in compliance, even allowing Guzma to shove it about and maneuver its head or arms as he worked.

    He heard his name and tried to ignore it. He shook his head to himself as if he could wish the voices away.

    "Big G!"

    As the steps approached close behind him, Guzma knew he could not avoid it. He released a snort of irritation and patted Golisopod's shoulder. He turned and saw Nene flanked by a few other familiar faces―JJ, Zazi, Chops dragging his little brother in tow. In the time that had passed on the boat, most of the grunts still loyally donned their uniforms, but certain flairs had been neglected or put aside, so of the group, none of them wore their hats, and their bandanas had fallen from their faces or been discarded entirely. Seeing their faces and heads so clearly lessened his bitterness all of a sudden; they looked almost like what they actually were, which was a wandering band of dumb kids chewing gum and searching for adult guidance.

    Nene positioned himself before them and stuck his hands in his pockets to appear indifferent. "Howzit?"

    Guzma wanted to get the conversation moving along, so he skipped niceties. "What do you want?"

    "There's a tournament goin'," Zazi said.

    "I can hear," Guzma replied, motioning for the air where the sounds of battle echoed from the front of the ship.

    "But you ain't comin'?"

    "I'm busy."

    The grunts scoffed at this excuse, and Nene spoke for them: "You ain't busy."

    "Okay―I'm not interested." He threw the towel over his shoulder with a resounding thwap. "Better?"

    "Aw, c'mon! You gotta help us out."

    Even though this didn't rouse his interest, he had to ask, brow raised, "With what ?"

    JJ interjected, "Gladion's wiping out everybody."

    "...How's that my problem?"

    Exasperated, Nene whined, "Whatchoo me-e-e-an ? Ain't you wanna fight? He thinks he's all that―don't you wanna show him who's boss?"

    Chops elbowed him with meaningful force.

    "--I m-mean!" Nene stammered to correct his slip-up. "Aw, you know what I mean."

    "I'm not fighting him to save your egos, man. If he's the strongest, then he deserves to win."

    Nene―brave, stupid, unthinking Nene―sniffed and complained, "You ain't change at all. You still always take his side."

    Guzma stiffened. The other grunts, before he even twitched, started to take a step back, and they were right to do so, because without saying a word, Guzma put his hand to the towel at his shoulder and as quick as a flash brought it down on Nene's head. The blow couldn't have been very painful, but it had force enough to nearly knock Nene off his feet, and it made a wet, heavy, smacking sound when it made contact.

    While Nene sputtered and reeled, the other grunts hesitated enough to merit Guzma yelling at all of them: "Piss off! Get outta here!"

    They scrambled; he swung the towel a few more times, managing to land but two measly blows on Nene's head and shoulder before the boy got the hint and hurried away. He puffed from exertion and watched them go; at a distance, they turned to taunt him.

    "Lame-o!"

    "Jerk!"

    "Loser!"

    "Boring old fart!"

    He took their insults in silence, but once they disappeared around the corner, he turned to his Golisopod to utter, "Friggin' brats."

    Golisopod chortled and stretched its claws. Over its shoulder, he noticed the stray group of grunts at the poolside gawking at him; he huffed and steamed, now a bit embarrassed that his temper tantrum had been public.

    "What you lookin' at!?"

    The grunts hastily looked away.

    "Tch!"

    ...He could never get away with anything, could he? He scratched his scalp roughly, scowled, and failed to find anything nearby to break. He compromised by kicking over a pool chair, tossing the towel on the ground, and ordering Golisopod to follow.

    "...Whatever. I got some time to kill, don't I?"

    He stalked for the scene―fully intending to stay a spectator.

    (cont. in next post)
     
  6. dietofwurms

    dietofwurms i see stars

    Of course it didn't work out that way.

    He approached from the rim of the crowd, but suddenly the bodies parted to allow space for a fainted, rotund Raticate to roll into view, stopping thankfully just before it might have tumbled overboard. It landed close to Guzma's feet, however, which led all eyes on him; furthermore, the parting of the crowd opened the view to the trainers who battled, so that a female grunt and Gladion alike were looking right at him. The expectation filling their eyes made him take a step back.

    Things were weirdly silent. Gladion's opponent timidly came forward to return her Raticate and merge back with the spectators. Silvally, at the center of the ring, chuffed and stomped its forepaws when it saw Golisopod, as if it made its own conclusions.

    Gladion crossed his arms. "Hmph. Finally. An actual challenge."

    "Woah, hey," Guzma said, lifting his hands, "I'm just here to be the responsible adult, okay? Gotta chaperone you punks."

    Over the number of cries of indignance, Gladion kept his composure. "I have a hard time believing that. When's the last time you had a full-out battle?"

    Because Guzma wouldn't answer, his Golisopod warbled impatiently over his shoulder. Guzma shot the bug a glare. Traitor. "I can't be long. Got things to do."

    "It'll be brief," Gladion promised. "Five minutes. That's all I need."

    Guzma cocked an eyebrow at him and snorted. Either Gladion really was that conceited, or he was playing up the arrogance to goad Guzma into battle. Certainly, the kid shouldn't have reason to be so cock-sure―he had yet to win a fight with the former Skull boss. Guzma considered blowing him off after all, but Golisopod, who had indeed been aching for a fight for weeks, hustled past him and found a place in the ring. Yips of excitement came from the crowd:

    Yeah, G!

    Crush 'im! Bash 'im!

    Beat 'im down!

    "Ugh." Guzma trudged through, elbowing grunts on his way in and settling with his hands deep in his pockets. "Alright, alright. But kid gloves are off, got it?"

    Gladion looked offended that he would even suggest taking it easy. "Well―good."

    "And I don't have my full team on me just now. Only this bonehead."

    "I've only had to use Silvally so far anyhow. A one-to-one match will do."

    With negotiations done and pokemon in place, they needed only to start. They took position; Gladion called Silvally back only to slip it a few treats for refreshment and murmur some direction.

    Then, with the grunts looking breathlessly on, they nearly made their first command.

    A cry came out over the wind.

    "Wa-a-a-ait! "

    The boys, flummoxed, looked about for the source of the shout. Soon, the distant sound of sneakers pattering on metal steps led to someone navigating and squeezing past a wall of grunts.

    "Excuse me―sorry―coming through."

    They recognized the voice, and their intuition proved right when Lillie, nearly out of breath, elbowed her way into the center clearing, brushed herself off, and made a few spritely steps to take her place alongside her brother. She looked serious with a wrinkled brow, but also nervous, like she hadn't thought any of this through and made the decision to appear at the very last second.

    "You haven't started yet, have you?" she asked between puffs. She took their silence to mean no. "I-I would like to join in, please!" She even brought out a pokeball to show her seriousness.

    Both boys gawked at her.

    "A double battle," she explained. She motioned for Gladion. "W-well, double on our end, anyway… But I'm sure it'll still be fair. Won't it?"

    She looked at Guzma with an encouraging smile. He stared back stunned. Then she looked to Gladion. She expected him to be at least somewhat grateful for the offer to help, but he scrunched up his face at her, like she was out of her mind.

    Now she was annoyed. She put her hands to her hips. "What's the matter?"

    Her brother began to say, "Lillie… Are you sure…"

    "Of course I'm sure!"

    Gladion rubbed his forehead and sighed. "I'm only saying you're new at this."

    "I can help! O-or at least, I won't get in the way!"

    "Let the girl battle," Guzma announced. "Least it'll be interesting."

    Gladion might have argued harder against it, but with the two of them against him, he decided against wasting any more time. "Fine. Pick your pokemon, Lillie. Just… Make it good. I'd actually like to win this."

    She did not appreciate that tone. She stuck her nose up at him. "I'll pick who I like. Why do boys have to be so competitive all the time?"

    "It's! A competition! It's supposed to be―!" Gladion swallowed the rest of his rant and grunted a frustrated huff as he turned back toward their opponent. "I'm ready if you are, Mr. Guzma."

    "Wait a second! Should I use Clefairy, or…?"

    -

    Guzma had never witnessed the two have a proper sibling squabble, and it was both entertaining and a bit of a relief. So they weren't two perfect saints after all; they could be just as petty, disloyal, and rude to one another as regular children.

    In the end, the battle itself reflected this disjointed partnership; it was a hectic, fast, and divided affair. Lillie barely had time to release her Clefairy into the ring before Golisopod and Silvally charged one another and bashed skulls, causing a thundering smash of metal and bone to echo across the deck. The ring of spectators widened as fears of collateral damage suddenly became a great concern; Golisopod smashed and slashed with its claws, Silvally screeched, bit, and clamped with its powerful talons, and the two monsters wrestled with ferocious intensity. The two boys shouted their orders with such quickness and volume that Lillie couldn't follow what was going on. In the first minute of battle, her Clefairy lingered near her feet, clearly nervous and undirected.

    From there, it became a mess of thrashing, throwing, bashing, and yelling. The only pause came when Golisopod managed to take hold of Silvally's throat and smash its head into the floor, denting the wood and disorienting it. So while the chimera panted and reeled, Golisopod shifted its body to face its second opponent.

    This fight proved not so violent. Lillie, suddenly faced with a battle, did what first came to mind: ordered her Clefairy to run. And as it ran, skipping in floating steps around and around the Golisopod, who warbled and tossed its head in confusion, it cast a spell in its desperation to avoid contact, granting it speed and obscurity. This succeeded in keeping Golisopod from landing a hit, for a time, anyhow―the large crustacean threw its claws at the blur of pink shadow and couldn't manage to strike―but after a while of skipping and evading, it became clear this was the only strategy Lillie felt comfortable employing. She never ordered an attack, and the Clefairy fled and scurried in ever-heightened despair.

    The technique could not last forever. The Clefairy tripped on a stray sweep of Golisopod's arm, lay prone on its belly, and was about to receive an exacting blow from Golisopod's claws.

    The claw crashed onto the floor―but Clefairy wasn't there. It had fizzled into white ether; Lillie stood with her pokeball in hand, visibly trembling.

    The Golisopod dumbly squeaked and pawed the spot where the Clefairy had vanished, but the human trainers turned their eyes to Lillie. The grunts roared, scandalized.

    "What are you doing?" Gladion demanded. The anger in his voice was palpable.

    "I just―"

    "You can't withdraw a pokemon to avoid an attack like that! It's against League rules!"

    "S-sorry! I know! I panicked!"

    "What are you withdrawing for, anyway? You can't swap out! We're doing one-to-one!"

    She flushed and shot back, "You never told me that!"

    In the heat of the fight, Gladion couldn't remember whether that was true; he frowned and glossed his mistake over. "Send your Clefairy back out."

    Even though this should have been a simple command, Lillie hesitated, seemingly thinking something over in a fretful way.

    "Or―" He bounced on his toes with impatience, and then uttered snottily, "Don't. It's not as if it'll make much of a difference..."

    Guzma had been quiet during all of this, and rather restrained, too. He hadn't mocked or even smirked at Lillie's floundering or Gladion's frustration. But after Golisopod trotted back to his side of the ring, he listened to the grunts whisper and chuckle their doubts about Lillie's place in battle, saw Gladion's anger at her grow, and witnessed the increasing embarrassment and hurt in her face. She had gone out on a limb, taken a risk… And messed it up.

    Guzma gnawed the inside of his cheek, inhaled, and decided he was going to have some fun after all. "Hey!" He called across the ring, his eyes on Gladion. The command in his voice brought some hush over the battlefield; he pointed scoldingly and razzed, "I didn't raise you to talk to your sister like that!"

    The laughter that came in waves around them did what he intended; the attention came away from Lillie and onto him, as well as onto Gladion, who didn't take the joke well. The boy paled and shot Guzma a deadly look. "Very funny," he said. "But how I talk to my sister is none of your business."

    Guzma snorted and took advantage of the crowd's tickled mood and Gladion's miscalculated attempt at sassing back. "Tch. You better watch it, kid. I dunno how it is Kalos, but in Alola, we spank our kids."

    The battle threatened to end there, with all the racket and disruption that exploded about them. There was howling and screeching and shrieking, like the grunts had turned into animals with no hope of civilization. Gladion only barely held it together by keeping his mouth pinned shut as his face deepened in color, even when one grunt leaped into the ring to shake him by the shoulders and shout deliriously, You gotta kill him now! You ain't takin' that, L'il G, you gotta ice him―

    He shoved the intruding boy off, sputtered a curse to throw off his humiliation, and cast eyes of pure murder on his opponent. "That's enough!" His yelling didn't break through the cacophony yet, which was a mercy of sorts, because he was so angry that his voice cracked. He swallowed to steady his voice and pinched the Z-Ring at his wrist. "I'm ending this now! Silvally!"

    In the time that had passed, Silvally had shaken its head, stood up on wobbly legs, and recovered from its shock. At hearing its master's voice, it arched attentively.

    "Activate the Electric Memory!"

    To those who remained unaware of Silvally's nature, the stiffened posture and strange whirring that erupted from its head alarmed them; its eyes rolled back into its head, the mechanical latch at its cheeks moved a notch and clicked, and it blinked hard, suddenly stirring with a flash of golden, iridescent color at its sclera, crest-feathers, and tail. Sparks of electricity shuddered from its metal jaws. Its entire body vibrated and sizzled, muscles tense with a pulsing energy that threatened to let loose any second.

    Nearly everyone took a solid step back, including Lillie, who still clutched her pokeball and hadn't found the nerve to re-release her Clefairy.

    Guzma stayed where he was and eyed the Z-Ring. He saw a flash of a yellow crystal. Ah, he understood. Gladion's plan was to overwhelm him with type advantage in the form of a Z-Move. Not the most creative strategy, but it was likely to work. Golisopod was still in fighting condition, but it was wearied, as he could see by the lolling of its tongue and foaming at the mouth. Guzma had a choice. Either try and beat him to punch with own attempt at a K.O., buckle in and try to endure it… Or…

    He saw Lillie off to the side and dejected. He saw Gladion clawing like a spitting cat for a chance at victory. Guzma frowned and thought: this is stupid.

    He didn't expect that thought, but it became clearer as he rolled it about in his head. He hadn't come here to massage Gladion's ego. Neither had he come to show him up. Win… Or not win… What did it matter just now? This whole fighting spree had started because some kids were bored and wanted to have fun, and Gladion had to muck it up by making it about proving something.

    Show him who's boss.

    "Goli."

    Golisopod, who had up until that moment kept its attention sealed on the readying form of an electric Silvally, turned its head toward him. It looked upon him with black eyes full of trust, as it knew his words would hand them victory at the greatest odds.

    Confident now, Gladion set his fingers to the Z-Crystal and readied his stance. With a shout, he called on Silvally to begin its charge, and the chimera howled in eagerness and, spewing threads of white-hot plasma, reached a far enough distance to barrel its way to the enemy.

    Then Guzma gave Golisopod a surreptitious order―and the unexpected happened.

    Golisopod, far too carefully and slowly to be a victim of an actual collapse, bent its haunches, leaned over, and settled onto its stomach. At first, the spectators thought this to be a strategy of some kind, but then the creature stuck out its arms, sank its weight onto the ground, and played dead―tongue comically hanging from its jaw.

    Silvally, startled, charged forward a few more paces, slowed its steps, then paused. The energy surrounding it wafted into nothing, evaporating like smoke. With only the yellow gleam to its secondary features remaining, it bent its head to sniff at the prostrate bug's face.

    Gladion dropped his hand in flustered confusion.

    The watching grunts at first rippled with nervous laughter, but they, too, came to scratch their heads and, once they thought they realized what this meant, protested and booed.

    Gladion yelled, "What are you doing?"

    "Aw, man, look at that," Guzma said, shrugging in defeat and wearing an unconvincing look of disappointment. "Guess my partner's out of commission. Too bad."

    With Silvally's attack path interrupted, it reverted out of battle-mode―it grunted and let out a puzzled bark, then waggled its rump and tail as it paced back-and-forth and stomped the deck with its forepaws. Its pleas for play were ignored, even when it nudged the Golisopod and nipped at the air.

    Gladion ignored his partner's silly behavior and directed his anger at Guzma. "You can't do that," Gladion said hotly. "I was about to win!"

    "Whatta you talkin' about! You did win! Look at him! You wiped him out!"

    Golisopod, for a second, lifted its head to meet Guzma in the eyes; he motioned for it to lay back down, and so it plopped back onto the deck, tongue out. Silvally vibrated with excitement at this small movement but was still unable to coax the creature to get up, so it flumped onto its stomach and lay nose-to-nose with the bug to watch more carefully.

    "Silvally! It's faking! Attack it!"

    Silvally stood up on its legs and gave its master a querying look, but before Gladion could convince it, Guzma stepped in between the creatures.

    "You calling Goli a liar?" Guzma stooped down to crook Golisopod's drooping head upward and shake it. "Huh? Say that to his face!"

    "Be serious!"

    "I am serious," Guzma grunted. "Battle's over." With that, he returned Golisopod to its ball and checked his watch. "And that was way over five minutes."

    Between Gladion's complaining and the disappointed groans of the spectators, Guzma decided he had succeeded in pulling the rug out from under them. Good enough. He considered simply turning around and leaving the scene, as grunts already started to file away in protest, but he could tell the boy was still worked up and ready to fight, so he took a few paces past Silvally and over the opposite side of the ring.

    The blonde boy did not submit in the least as he approached; to the contrary, Gladion stepped in and demanded, on the verge of petulance, "I want a rematch!"

    "Aw, shut up." Guzma suddenly planted a hand on the boy's head. The size difference meant that his palm and fingers could just about enwrap Gladion's skull, but Guzma didn't use this advantage too unkindly; he gave the boy a stern, chastising tousle and shake. This ruffled Gladion's hair and caused enough physical discomfort for the younger trainer to yap at him, which only served to amuse Guzma more. He drew his hand away and flashed a nasty, dominating grin. "Quit your bellyachin', brat. It's just a battle."

    Gladion made choice threats under his breath and swore vengeance, but for the moment busied himself puffing and trying to fix his bangs. This allowed Guzma a chance to look to Lillie. She looked an impossible mix of crushed, relieved, and astonished.

    "Your brother's a doofus who takes stuff too serious," Guzma told her. "You know that, right?"

    "Excuse me?" Gladion had rearranged his hair and apparently thought this meant he had a right to butt in.

    "You heard me," Guzma snapped. He made a threatening swipe at him, like he meant to muss his hair. "Anyway, I'm sure he's sorry."

    "I…" Lillie was--almost touched? Certainly she didn't expect Guzma to try and comfort her. But she looked down at the pokeball in her hand and tucked it away in defeat. "It's fine. I wasn't… Any good."

    "Yeah, that was a total disaster," Guzma agreed. Lillie gave him a startled, hurt look and he amended, "Jus' bein' honest. Geez. I thought you were training with Master Hala. What's the deal with that?"

    Lillie hopelessly shrugged. She ended up staring at her feet, which twisted together on the floor. "Maybe… Maybe I'm not putting enough work into it…"

    The crowd had dwindled almost entirely, and quickly at that, so only a few stray grunts remained to watch them. Guzma wondered if he ought to ask more prodding questions, because it really was baffling to him, that with all this time she hadn't progressed as she should― and Gladion interrupted his thinking again.

    "This is really entirely unfair."

    "Oh my god." Guzma had a sudden impulse to chuck the boy overboard. "You're killin' me, kid! Are you that friggin' bored? Listen! If you ain't got anything else to do with yourself, I'll put you to work. C'mon." The tall boy swung himself around and started for the stairs, but Gladion wasn't easily cajoled.

    "...What kind of work?"

    "Work! Carrying things. Putting stuff places. You know."

    This sounded charmless and dull, so Gladion negotiated. "And then I get a rematch."

    "Sure! Whatever."

    "...That's not very reassuring."

    Lillie asked, "Can I help?"

    Guzma measure her willingness skeptically. "I guess, if you want… You can do something girly, maybe? Like decorating? I dunno. I'll find something."

    "...This is all adding up to child slave labor, isn't it."

    Guzma just shook his head, heaved a groan, and rubbed the back of his neck as he made his way up the stairs. "Quit playin' with me. I swear. Menaces to society. I can't take it." They dawdled in their indecision, so he barked at them, rescinding his implication that any of this was voluntary. "Hurry up an' make yourselves useful!"

    Gladion, for his part, hesitated, rolled his eyes, but ultimately pretended to trudge up the stairs of his own volition.

    Lillie followed close after him, drawn by the possibility that she could be of actual use to someone and not just get in the way, or ruin things... Besides, the prospect of the three of them working together for a common goal, rather than at one another's throats, gave her a sense of ease and purpose. The warm sun of the early afternoon finally calmed her nerves. She breathed easy. The breeze knocked her hair from her face and dried the remaining stress-induced tears.

    She looked up, thinking about the party--Guzma had mentioned it was meant for Mother, as what, a peace offering? Maybe giving Lusamine a kind and thoughtful gesture like that would inspire something new, she thought… Or inspire something in them.

    A knot still remained in her stomach.

    Upward, toward the suite wing entrance, Lillie thought she saw a pale head with golden hair looking back at her. But she blinked, and before she could decide whether it was real, it had gone.
     
  7. dietofwurms

    dietofwurms i see stars

    Chapter 34: En Rose

    Lusamine could not hide forever.

    Or rather, she could hide forever, but it would not be a feasible plan. Not if she intended to retaliate appropriately against the indignity she suffered.

    She at first thought she would make Guzma rue the day he thought he could manipulate her so. Guzma wanted her to choose, did he? Then she would choose. But the choice would be a bitter one, and she swore she would find a way to crush him with it. Perhaps she ought to renew every bit of loathing she felt, heap abuse on him, treat him like the wretch that he is―how easy it would be, then, to banish him from her sight. Or she could seduce him all over again, be as sweet as roses, and charm him so perfectly that he will take it all back and beg to stay with her. Then she can enjoy his watching his expression when she destroys him.

    However, these choices, the more she dwelled on them, felt increasingly tired and unoriginal. These were tactics practiced by a heartbroken, overlooked, or misused teenager. They could have been a salve to the pain of a boy asking another girl to the school dance, but they would be pitiful fixes for a marriage in shambles. Besides, Guzma would see her plot coming and ignore it. She'd played her hand too soon; he knew her techniques too well.

    So for a time, Lusamine hid and wallowed in her misery. No one came to her room to bother her; Guzma had evidently found other activities to occupy his time, and no one else on the ship had reason to search her out. In the hours that slipped by without event, her suite's morning color faded into an ashen pallor. Far away, and even in the suite corridors just outside her room, there came the steady wave of now-ubiquitous sounds of children: giggling, chatter, vulgarity, complaining. Footsteps and doors opening. She covered her head and did the best she could to ignore these reminders of her current state, but no bed coverings could block out her knowledge of what she faced outside.

    She came out of her room only once that afternoon when the ruckus got to be unbearable to the point of shaking the entire boat. She caught sight of the finishing act of a pokemon battle between her children and Guzma―and what a sight it was! The spectacle roused the entire ship into such boisterous braying and stomping, that she feared the whole vessel might be knocked off-balance. In the end, she couldn't tell who won, but only saw the three meet furtively and hurry away together.

    To make plans, she thought. To plot against me.

    ...It was their fault. She knew that. Had known it. Her marriage plans began to unravel the moment he gave those two any time at all. He trusted them more than he did her.

    With those defeatist thoughts swirling in her head, she slinked back into her room and returned to her bed, which now served as an altar to her suffering.

    Thump-thump-thump. A laugh, a pokemon cry, something fragile breaking.

    Lusamine threw a pillow over her head to stifle a self-pitying sob.

    -

    By the end of the party organization, it became clear to the Aether siblings and to the ship's staff that Guzma was not entirely sure for whom he planned the event. Most of the decorations and style had been cobbled together and refashioned from discarded wedding materials: white linens on tables, flower arrangements, dinner plates and silverware, amber string lights suspended between poles and dangling against the deepening blue skyline. It seemed awfully formal, considering the majority of the intended guests. That it had class was no real credit to Guzma, though―he left the detailed decisions to the hosting crew and guided them only with generic requests, such as "make it look good."

    It ended up appearing much like the wedding reception that would have been. The tables were lined in rows, and open space at the opposite half of the rooftop deck remained open as a dance floor.

    (Who's going to be dancing? Gladion privately wondered. He hoped it wasn't the grunts.)

    Afternoon started to lean into evening hours, casting longer shadows over the floor and richer color where the sun broke through clouds low in the sky. With nothing else left to do, Gladion and Lillie had seated themselves at the edge of the deck, Lillie in a chair she had pulled away from a table, and Gladion, more aloofly, on top of a liquor crate. Things were nearly ready. But before Guzma returned from whatever last-minute fussing he was up to, Gladion slid open a crate beside him to free a beer bottle for himself. He cracked the cap off.

    Lillie only lifted her head a moment at the noise, saw what he was up to, and chose not to comment.

    "All right," a voice said over the lingering breeze. Guzma, having finished a quick chat with culinary staff, trailed back over to them. He walked casually, shoulders slouched and hands in pockets, and paused before them to report, "Just waiting on food. I'm gonna go round up people―and hey, what is that ?"

    The reason for Guzma's sudden spike in indignation was Gladion's rather brazen decision to start drinking the beer in front of him. The boy blinked at him, examined the bottle sarcastically, and said, "I believe it's called 'beer.'"

    "Quit playin'. Whadda you doin' drinking? You're like twelve."

    "Thirteen," Gladion corrected crossly. "And that's a judgmental tone, considering you're the one who gave me my first beer."

    Now that he mentioned it, Guzma did have a vague, distant memory of handing the new recruit a bottle and belting out a laugh when the child made a weak, gagging attempt at drinking from it. "Well, yeah, but―that was just a joke."

    "Yes. Hilarious." Gladion tapped the crate underneath him with the heel of his shoe. "You had me carry three cartons of the stuff up here. I think I've earned it."

    "You…" Guzma paused, ruminated on his logic, then sighed. "Okay―fine." He amended, as to not seem like a pushover, "You can have one."

    Gladion just rolled his eyes and took another glug.

    "Um…" Lillie hesitantly raised a finger to get Guzma's attention.

    Guzma threw eyes on her, aghast. "What! Don't tell me you want one."

    She shied. "Oh, no… I don't do… that. It's gross, anyway."

    "Aw, see! That's smart! Glad, why can't you be smart like your sister!?"

    Before Gladion could snipe back―and by his frown, Lillie could tell he meant to―the girl ignored Guzma's teasing and piped up with inordinate hope. "Will Mother be here too?"

    "...Huh?"

    "Are you going to get her?"

    Guzma flattened his brow and tightened his mouth. Great uncertainty clouded his expression and his verbal answer, which came out to, "Uh, maybe. We'll see." He squeezed his neck and avoided looking at them as he thought it through, and eventually added, "We'll get there when we get there."

    From atop the crate, Gladion gave the party set-up one last glance. For him, the arrangement still didn't add up. He grimaced. "You aren't doing all this to woo her, are you?"

    "'Woo' her!" Guzma sucked his teeth at the boy. "Whatta you talkin ' about! She's already 'wooed,' isn't she! Consider her very wooed !"

    "It's just… The whole thing's coming off as… conciliatory. All things considered."

    "Well, whatta you want me to do! Chuck rotten fruit at her!?"

    "I want you to not marry her."

    "That's not up to you," Guzma said. (He neglected to say who it was up to). In any case, he ended the conversation.

    Although Team Skull would normally shun such a transparent, desperate attempt at mending things, the fact was the children could always be lured with the promise of food and drink. So despite their suspicions about Guzma's motives and their vague distrust of any party he had arranged, they started to file their way upstairs after their former boss passed word of dinner and free liquor.

    When the grunts arrived, they weren't sure what to make of the disconcerting rows of tables, the clean glasses and dishware, or the attempts at decoration. Some of the ship's crew, wearing suspenseful, intense looks, lined the outskirts of the rooftop deck to keep an eye on the event, but for quite a while, there was no need to worry. Team Skull was not in their element and thus not ready to throw things into chaos.

    While they awaited the rest of the grunts, the present kids wasted no time tearing into the beer, scooping bottles into their arms and finding places to sit, snort, and cuss. Their pokemon frolicked under the white linens flapping in the breeze, the creatures zipping beneath the tables and snapping at one another in play. Already, the energy threatened to bubble over and rip the scene to shreds, so Guzma, upon spotting a grunt poking at and nearly tipping a glass vase, stormed over and made his expectations known.

    "Break anything," he snarled, "and nobody eats! Got it!?"

    The grunts, seated in both chairs and on the floor of the deck, mumbled, whined, and gaped up at him in disbelief.

    "Day-yng, G, why you so pressed?"

    "Yeah! Chill!"

    Guzma glowered over the growing throng of partygoers. They filled seats and clicked their silverware on the table as they felt boredom and hunger creep up on them. He saw more grunts climbing the stairs and was mildly surprised to see Plumeria arrive; she had stayed out of sight that day, not bothering to attend her kids during the battle competitions or other mischief. She looked sour… but willing to give anything a shot at bringing up her mood.

    Bully, as usual, climbed up after her, pretending to be a loyal cohort; Nanu wheezed and brought up the rear far below.

    "Can we play music?"

    Guzma, distracted, didn't even bother to check who asked. He just shrugged. "Sure, whatever." A few grunts subsequently began to rifle through and take command of the sound equipment, bickering as they did, and Guzma turned his focus on the new arrivals. "Plume!"

    She looked up, now at the top of the stairs and meeting his eyes. She appeared surprised at being so casually addressed.

    But Guzma suppressed any lingering resentment, asking with strange earnestness, "Can you keep an eye on them? I'll be back in a few. Just… Don't let them bash anything too bad."

    Plumeria lifted an eyebrow at him. She might have questioned his idea of negotiating terms with his wedding crashers; at a quick glance over the event, she, too, read a stuffy atmosphere. She would sooner turn over the tables herself than defend them against the horde.

    "Food'll be here any minute," he promised.

    "...Ugh." She sighed and dropped her shoulders from their prior defensive position. "All right, all right. Uncle!"

    She didn't need to yell; despite his slow movement, Nanu had already caught up and was puffing behind her. "I heard," he said. He winced when loud rap music suddenly boomed out from the sound system, and had to raise his voice to say: "And if you think you're putting me on babysitting duty, you've got another thing coming."

    -

    Though it had been many, many hours since Guzma last entered Lusamine's suite, he wasn't entirely surprised to find her position unchanged. He had given the door a feeble knock, waited, heard nothing, then breached the entrance anyway, and saw that she had her face planted against a pillow on the bed. She lay so still that from afar, someone could have mistaken her for dead, but a subtle, steady flow of breathing lifted her shoulders and back.

    He almost didn't want to disturb her. He watched her for a moment as the room darkened. The very last of the day's light had waned, and at the last second, Guzma pawed for the light panel to make out the space more clearly.

    The lamp turned on, but Lusamine didn't flinch or move.

    "Miss?"

    He sighed and approached the bed. When his presence didn't evoke a response, he escalated by sitting on the edge of the bed, which jostled the mattress just enough to make her shift her arms.

    "You hungry?"

    If Lusamine were honest―and really, when was the last time she'd been honest with anyone?―she would say she was starving, as she had not eaten since breakfast. But she was also nauseated and overwhelmed, her flesh clammy and hands trembling, so her appetite would not win out.

    Guzma fruitlessly tried to read her body language in lieu of any of the verbal sort. "So you're not?" He hesitated. A warm, broad hand clasped the chilly flesh of her arm and stayed there, as if to defrost her. "Why don't you get up?"

    She squirmed, a sound of contempt lurching from her throat. "Why bother?"

    "Lu." After a moment, he chose to console her, rather than scold her for her unhelpful attitude. "You'll feel better."

    "How can you be so sure of that…?"

    "Well, it ain't like lying here's helping, is it?"

    Because his argument was sound and she couldn't think of a way to answer him, she rebelled by crumpling even more stubbornly than before.

    "I'll carry you," he warned.

    "Do that, and I'll―" She meant to say 'scream,' but before she could finish her threat, he decided to follow through with his. His arms scooped down, seizing her about the waist and hoisting her up like baggage; as she had alluded, she released an indignant shriek and clawed for the bed, digging her nails uselessly into the sheets to fight against him. Of course he yanked her free, but in the midst of her flailing with her elbows jutting into his sides and heels landing blows at his ankles, he nearly lost his grip on her. He recovered enough to make a grab for her legs, though, until he had her captive in his arms in a bridal carry. "Put me―! Down this instant, you inbred!"

    Guzma let out a harsh bark of a laugh and spun for the door while she kicked and protested. "What, this ain't romantic for you?"

    "Stop it!" From where she lay draped in his arms, she had vantage enough to grapple for his neck. She felt anger enough to choke him, and she managed to snare her fingers at the base of his throat, but in grabbing him, her strength and resolve came unglued. With a shudder of weakness, she managed only to pull herself up and place her face at his shoulder, and from there, she moaned in a pitiable, small voice. "Please. I don't want to go."

    And so just as quickly as he had tried to pass it off as a joke, he slowed and stilled, creasing his brow. In a strangely intimate and comforting gesture, he fixed his hand more tightly at her back until he almost cradled her. "Why not?"

    "I can't."

    "But your kids are out there."

    "How's that relevant?"

    "Everybody's waiting for you," he implored in her ear.

    "I doubt that," she snapped back.

    "Okay, I'm waiting for you."

    "You!" In defeat, she crumpled her features into his shirt, leaving it sticky with tears. "You want to get rid of me."

    "No." He squeezed his grip and put on a stern edge to his voice. "That's not what I said."

    "It's what you meant!" Though she had only seconds ago complained about being held against her will, now she encircled her arms about his neck to bring herself consolation. She muffled her sobs. "Oh, just go! Go and enjoy yourself while I rot away here! What good practice it will be! You know everyone would be much happier for it anyway!"

    If she meant to elicit compliance, she failed; if she meant to elicit sympathy, however, she suffered a small victory, as Guzma sighed, allowed her to slip down onto her feet on the floor, and made his best attempt at comforting her. "That's not true," he lied. He thumbed away a mascara-laced tear. "Hey, listen. It's your party. Your wedding. If anybody's got the right to be there, it's you!"

    Lusamine cast a doubtful, doe-eyed look on him.

    "Look―it'll be good. It'll be a good time, and―if anybody messes with you, I'll pound 'em into dust, okay?"

    A childish promise. The sort of vow a teenage boy would make for his new beau. Somehow it didn't bother her. Somehow―it seemed so ridiculous that she had to be pleased by its genuineness. Yet it struck her as an odd time to express that kind of loyalty. Her pleasure gave way to a bitter frown.

    He saw her hesitance and put a hand to her shoulder. An errant slip of his finger on the bare flesh of her arm gave meaning beyond friendly comfort; she trembled. "One last night. And then after…" A strained silence hung above them. "After, you can decide."

    When he said that, she felt all of it over again: the fear, rage, hopelessness, the illness swelling in her gut.

    He didn't waste a moment to let her stew in it; he seized her by the hand and declared it was time to go.

    -

    Because food had arrived and Team Skull were desperately hungry, the event started off smoothly. Nothing inspired compliance quite like the promise of food―grunts who normally balked at authority regressed to childlike obedience, standing in line, waiting their turn, even mumbling their please and thank you's when old training kicked in. For now, so long as they kept chewing and filing into seats, they wouldn't be trouble.

    Plumeria, then, didn't have to supervise too much. She ushered the food line some, barked a few orders, but within a few minutes she decided further assistance wouldn't be needed. Nanu picked his seating spot already, nursing his beer at the empty table furthest from the grunts and thudding speakers, so to thwart his isolation, she snagged a plate for herself and headed for him. On her way, though, she passed a table of younger male grunts where Bully had converged, and she noticed that they shoveled their greens onto the deck, where their pokemon scurried to eat it up on their behalf.

    She paused to put a hand on her hip and play mother. "When's the last time any of y'all ate a vegetable?"

    The boys looked up, saw her, and groaned.

    "Aw, quit geekin', sis," one grunt answered.

    "Chips are a vegetable," Bully said, thinking he was helping.

    She settled a glare on him.

    "What! They made o' corn, aren't they!?"

    "And potatoes," another said.

    The collection of them wore grins now and sniggered.

    "Ketchup with my fries, yo. That's two right there!"

    Plumeria, chagrined, shook her head. "Y'all dummies are gonna get scurvy, I swear."

    "Girl, mind yo' business," Bully told her, voice drawled with whining. "Big G ain't never fussed at us about what we eat."

    Plumeria could have taken offense, even chewed him out for mouthing off in front of the other grunts. He was subordinate to her as they were. But tonight, she felt at ease, so she merely smirked and explained, "That's 'cause he ate like crap, too. Where do you think I learned about scurvy, huh? Had to get him to the doctor when he broke out in hives."

    As they laughed, Plumeria turned away; Bully, surprised, stopped her. "Hey, where you goin'?"

    "Grown-ups table."

    Bully followed her trajectory with his eyes, spotted Nanu, and grunted an acknowledgement. "Huh. Yeah. So, Plume. When's y'all's wedding?"

    "Euugh!" Chops gagged. "Don't do it, Big Sis! Them babies gonna come out gray-haired!"

    Plumeria just shot him a warning, withering glance and tossed her head. It would do no good arguing with them; boys will be boys. Within moments, they would be cackling about something else entirely.

    Besides, Nanu welcomed her, and within a few minutes, she eased into banter and forgot all about it.

    -

    The couple arrived hand-in-hand and time suspended itself.

    The music, which was a mixture of thuggish chants, taunts, and boasting, didn't pause, despite how poorly it matched their appearance from the stairwell. Guzma wore a careful, serious look along with his conservative clothing style, all of which added together to make him seem at least a decade older; Lusamine, edging reluctantly along in her high heels, scanned her surroundings with a clear sense of nerves. Not all of the grunts paid them any mind, but a select few scurried after them like ducklings, squawking for attention, in particular from their new maternal figure. They called her and tugged at the end of her skirt, like they expected her to unwind from her partner and dote on them. In fact, she almost did. Before Guzma finally cussed at them and chased the grunts off, Lusamine gave a boy a pat on the head and let one girl cling to arm and babble at her.

    Plumeria allowed herself a sliver of amusement at the spectacle, but it faded when Guzma locked eyes with her.

    Oh, no.

    And true to her dread, he started for her, dragging his dainty, porcelain doll of a fiancee behind him.

    Plumeria tried to bury her horror by looking at the floor, but Nanu, tipsy from sequential beers and generally more open-minded anyhow, greeted them when they approached.

    "Hey, lovebirds," he burbled. He pointed for the chairs across from them. "You gonna sit?"

    Plumeria's fists tightened as she felt the overwhelming urge to knock him upside the head. But she didn't have a choice to even open her mouth to object; Guzma mumbled his assent and seated Lusamine at the table. To Lusamine's credit, she looked just as uncomfortable with the arrangement as Plumeria did, though she said nothing.

    Then Guzma did an even worse thing: he left to retrieve food.

    Nanu didn't seem bothered or concerned, though that was likely a side-effect of his drinking; he tilted back his bottle, scanned the skyline, and seemed to find amusement in private thoughts. Plumeria did her best to shovel food and pretend the woman wasn't there. Lusamine, sensing how unwelcome she was, sat glass-eyed and silent, enduring stares and the unrelenting thud of the grunts' music.

    Out of boredom more than out of discomfort, Nanu broke the silence. "So what's the plan?"

    Lusamine jumped in her seat, saw Nanu looking at her, and paled a little.

    "You know. After the wedding? You could adopt all these gremlins; that'd give you something to fill your days."

    "Ah―" She fluttered her eyelashes at first in confusion, then in gentle amusement when she realized he was joking. "Y-yes. It certainly would."

    Plumeria released a singular, disgusted snort to express her feelings on the matter.

    All of a sudden, Lusamine found strength to continue the half-hearted conversation. "How about you, Officer? Do you have plans?"

    "Me? I'm too old to have plans."

    "And you? What's in your near future, young lady?"

    It took Plumeria an incredibly long, drawn-out second to notice that Lusamine had shown the gall to address her with a question. The girl drew up her eyes, darkening them with with a low, hateful blink. She swallowed the food in her mouth and answered, "Hire Guzma a divorce lawyer."

    Pleased by the fact that the girl spoke at all, Lusamine at last overcame her numbness and offered a sweet smile. "You have those? Lawyers crawling about in Po Town… I suppose I wouldn't be shocked. They are disgusting lowlives."

    "A-men," Nanu crowed.

    Plumeria glowered at him, as if to say, Just whose side are you on!?

    But Nanu must have known what he was doing; he smirked at her and drank his beer.

    Thankfully, the conversation ceased in time for Guzma to reappear with Gladion and Lillie reluctantly in tow.

    "...But do we have to?"

    "Yes."

    "If I'm going to sit here," Gladion said, "I'm going to need another beer."

    "No you don't." With a free hand, Guzma scuffed the hood of Gladion's shirt. "Quit bein' a drama queen."

    Nanu, reading the additional bodies as an ever-growing intrusion on his privacy, eyed them as they settled into seats and nearly said something before he thought better of it. Thus, with no more interruption or protest, the whole lot sat for supper: Nanu and Plumeria on one side, Gladion and Lillie tucked on another, and Guzma with his arm around a tolerant Lusamine's shoulders.

    Though Guzma had orchestrated this arrangement by force, he did not readily confess its reasoning. Despite time passing, the awkwardness didn't lift, so they ate in pensive silence, clinking their forks against china and shifting their eyes in a desperate attempt not to engage one another.

    Guzma at last shot a glare around, attempting to understand their body language before abruptly yawping, "Why's everyone so quiet!?"

    Plumeria snorted and stuck a bite of food in her mouth; the children shared looks; Lusamine sighed; Nanu, of all of them, had the gall to answer him: "You ain't very good at reading situations, are you."

    Guzma glowered.

    "Don't get me wrong. I'm not complaining."

    "Okay, G, enlighten us. What's with the powwow?" Plumeria asked, raising an eyebrow in suspicion. "Like, you got something you wanna say?"

    "No," Guzma said. All of a sudden, the frustration marring his expression crumbled. He dropped his hands. "No, not really, I…" When he read their faces now, he could see their confusion more clearly; he struggled to put words together. "It's just, this is our last night, and… Tomorrow, everything's gonna be different. We're all goin' different ways, and it might the last time we… Anyway, I get it, y'all don't really like each other, maybe you don't even like me all that much, but it doesn't matter because, because you're all important to me―"

    The discomfort at the table only exponentially grew as he rattled on, so Lusamine attempted to save them all some face by touching his arm and whispering in falsely-cheerful manner, "I think… You've had one too many drinks…"

    Like a rolling boom of thunder, his fist struck the table, shaking the plates and glassware and successfully startling all of them.

    He roared. "Can I just! Be serious for one minute of my stupid life!?"

    His fiancee recoiled. The rest of them assented through silence. He was clearly shaking and puffed from exertion, but relaxed when he saw he was not to be challenged.

    "Alright! So! I'm gonna need everybody to just chill and pretend to get along!"

    After a bit of uneasy shuffling, the quiet resumed. Guzma took that time to replace his arm at Lusamine's shoulders, cross his legs, and eye them as if they were a pack of miscreant children about ready to squabble.

    "Glad."

    Gladion twitched his head up.

    "Talk." The order was spat, not said.

    "...Uh… About?"

    "I don't care," Guzma vexed. "Anything. Just talk."

    "Um…" The boy plucked at his food, saw the trepidation in everyone's faces, and decided to fight back. "So about that battle―when's our rematch going―"

    Guzma broke; all his dire attitude flew out, replaced with a more relatable, and certainly more familiar, air of petulance. He threw up his hands. "Ugh! Never mind. Lillie! Your turn."

    -

    The night burned out at last, having started with a powerful, scorched red bronzing the horizon before succumbing to black smoke. As the last of the sky's blue wrinkled away and the last of the stars showed their timid faces, the luminescence of the decorations came into fuller view, casting blonde, milky light over the ship. Despite the fact that the grunts didn't change their behavior (especially as the food disappeared into their hungry maws), and despite the continuing lack of real conversation aside from Lillie's patient babbling, Lusamine could feel her muscles relaxing a little. The harshness of the day slept; tomorrow began its proud, forward stride.

    If she shut her eyes, she could feel the subtle rocking of the ship above the inky waves of night. She nearly dozed off when Guzma gave her a nervous shake.

    "You okay?"

    "Oh…" She leaned back into his arm. "I'm alright."

    He made note of something and mumbled privately into her ear, "You didn't eat much, Lu."

    Because her stomach still self-assaulted and churned with noxious juices. Not that she would say that.

    But though she didn't say anything, somehow he knew. He took her by the wrist and interrupted Lillie, who was in the middle of describing her training with Hala. "We're gonna take a minute," he said.

    He stood and brought Lusamine with him; both of them pretended not to notice the slackening of tension once they wandered away from the table, and they weaved between errant grunts until they reached the railing, at which he let her stand and suck in the dark, empty air.

    Lusamine stood with her arms outstretched and her lungs subsuming air to the point of dizziness. Behind them, the grunts had taken to dancing to the racket they called music, and the cacophony filled her head with jarring crunches noises and hammers on nails.

    Guzma stroked her hair and watched her suffering. "Anything I can do?"

    "...The music is giving me a headache."

    He jumped. She needn't breathe another syllable; he marched over to where the grunts were attempting a new dance set and made his claim, declaring that it was "time for adult music."

    And so within seconds, the music clicked off, fizzled white, then washed in again like a lapping wave against soft sand. Instead of electrical thuds or harsh, combative lyrics, there came a twinkle of jazzy piano, the croon of sensual brass, the tisk-tisk-tisk of cymbals, and the silken warble of a clarinet. Upon hearing it, she felt like she had fallen into the distant past; she recognized its perfect balance of sweetness, passion, and melancholy, the way both singer and band could summon the bitterness of past loss and a hope for present longings. It brought her mind back to countless other dinner parties, at which such music was drowned out by grown laughter, the pop of sparkling champagne bottles, the click of heels, and the clean clink of silverware.

    Here, it competed with the complaining of obstinate thugs and pulling of chairs and dropping of items on the floor. Hardly a romantic venue. Still, Guzma pulled away from the sound system, ignored the plaintive whines of his former fellows, approached Lusamine, and watched her expression carefully to gauge her response.

    "Is that... good?"

    She held her breath for a few more chords, but came to only exhale and not answer.

    His expression changed as a thought occurred to him. "Hey." Guzma stood before her and proffered a hand. "Dance with me."

    "Dance?" She was shocked. In her momentary disbelief, she glanced about at their surroundings, which had not changed: children and teenagers. She noted their growing ogling at them and backed away against the railing. "...Everyone's looking at us."

    "So!? You like havin' people look at you."

    She flashed him a mildly offended look.

    "I mean―you know. You like attention. Can't deny that."

    Guzma may have been right to suggest her highest fantasy was sparkling pristinely in the spotlight, but he wrongly assumed this did not hinge on other factors. Her ultimate nightmare scenario, indeed, was not of being ignored, but of being unprepared for the spotlight―of it shining on her in a moment of weakness. She did not want her humiliation and shame broadcasted. And she felt sharp misgivings at the thought of waltzing with a partner who meant to leave her, and before an audience of slack-jawed delinquents, at that. A dance of defeat. What choice would the children have but to mock her? Pity her?

    "C'mon." Guzma still had his hand out and began to bounce impatiently. "I promise it won't hurt."

    ...Unless he hadn't practiced his steps well enough; then it just might. She frowned and puzzled over his earnestness. Guzma couldn't be called shy, as he often called attention to himself in ridiculous ways, but like her, he resisted doing anything potentially foolish in front of others. The prospect of embarrassment usually paralyzed him.

    He begged some more, then grabbed her when he tired of pleading. She didn't fight it, but allowed herself to be swept up against his chest. His solid, powerful hands pressed at her back and eventually cradled the softness of her right hand into his palm; her ear rested against his breast to hear the rattling of his heart and lungs; without much seriousness, he pulled her out into the middle of the floor, swaying her the best he could to the rhythm of the thrumming cello. She spun. Blood throbbed and swelled in her head, drowning her in a sudden influx of dizziness.

    Suddenly, she snared his shirt between her fingers and pleaded, "Not so fast. Not so…"

    After hearing her desperation and feeling the clamminess of her palm, he complied, slowing their movement to a sluggish, dreamlike rocking. Abruptly, he snorted and cried, "Ah, shut up," which she quickly realized was not addressed to her, but to a pack of jeering boys. Their giggles punctuated the musical strains, but Guzma seemed happy to otherwise ignore them.

    She thought she might pass out in the warm cusp of his arms, where her toes barely crossed the floor as he dragged her about. He could lift her so carelessly that she felt weightless, almost suspended.

    She could take no more.

    She crushed her face into the fabric at his chest and sobbed. "...Why are you doing this to me?"

    Confused, he stuttered their dance to a standstill. He waited for her to lift her face and explain, but when she wouldn't, he worriedly touched her shoulders. "Doing what?"

    "If you loved me, you'd make this easy."

    "...'Easy'?"

    "Can't you see? How much you're hurting me!?"

    His fingers twisted in the skin at her arms. He murmured, "I just… I just wanted to do something nice for you…"

    "Nice? Nice!?" At last she wrenched her face away, glared up at his puzzled expression, and snarled her words. "If you want to do something for me, then say that you hate me. Tell me the thought of me makes your stomach turn―"

    "But I don't…" He chewed the inside of his cheek. "I don't feel that way."

    "How can you say that!"

    Guzma paused to look both ways past his shoulders; he uneasily returned her icy gaze to attempt, "Miss, you gotta chill. They lookin' at you―"

    Indeed, true to his word, the lazy chatter of the grunts had disappeared, replaced with a tense, morbidly curious silence.

    But Lusamine didn't care. Anger stabbed at her temples, stung her eyes, scraped her throat. She bristled and hissed. "Are you so addicted to being abused? Does it give you pleasure?"

    Against the budding starlight, his face remained dark and cool as obsidian. His eyes watched her but he didn't even twitch his lips to speak.

    She snaked her hands up to his chest. Wearing a cruel sneer, she teased her nails against the fabric of his shirt and purred too softly for anyone else to hear, "Tell me. Does it get you off, Guzma?"

    He should have broken. He should have lashed out and punished her, just as the familiar cycle went: the game she played with everyone. I'll scratch you, and you scratch me back .

    Guzma, though, simply put his hands on hers, twisted them away until their joints pinched in pain, and sank his eyes into hers like he meant to swallow her up in his shadow. He didn't make a face to imply disdain or wrath, but his uttering spoke for itself, as it came out crisp and daring over his lips: "There ain't nothing you can do to hurt me anymore."

    Like he had plunged a knife into her, she yanked her hands away and threw herself back, nearly losing her footing as she did. She whirled around. All their faces seemed to be locked onto hers, blank and terrifying as the gaze of the moon. She clawed at the air as if she could wipe their appearance away, or at least stir up the darkness to ripple them out of view, but they remained, judging, peering. She grabbed hold of something solid and cool―too late, she realized it was a crystal vase―and without thinking, hurled it in the direction of her attacker. But Guzma knocked her arm and the vase went fumbling and crashing onto the floor without any forward trajectory. Water and flowers and billions of sparks of glass splashed at her feet.

    Yipes of excitement came from the crowd.

    She screamed, even attempted to clobber him though his arms easily deflected her. "I thought there could be something good in you, but there isn't! You're a monster! You're worse than a monster!"

    Guzma didn't answer. Wouldn't. He just wrestled her arms still and gave her a look of disappointment, as if she had failed some test.

    That was when all the sickness caught up with her and she had no choice but to turn, crunch the broken glass under her feet, and run.

    "Hey, no fair!" one grunt whined as she went. "How come she gets to break stuff an' we can't?"

    Guzma shoved the kid aside and went after her.

    -

    She hit the stairwell, didn't take it―turned a sharp left and through a glass door, and then made it as far as the navigation wing when her stomach flipped and revolted. She stumbled inside, ignored the startled looks of the crew members, and promptly vomited into an available garbage can.

    As if the humiliation of that wasn't enough, she heard Guzma approach from behind, sigh, and weave his fingers through her hair to pull it back and away from her face. She didn't wish to tolerate it, but the second wave hit, and she held the rim of the can in a death-grip as she emptied her stomach. He rubbed her back in tight circles, in a manner that suggested he knew it was a thing one should do, despite not knowing why or how to do it. It succeeded in recovering some of her strength, at least, so that she could begin to stand more firmly on two feet.

    She heard the exchange of voices and queries fly over her head. A few grunts stuck their head in the door but were chased away by Guzma's verbal warnings; a few crew members ventured close to see if they could be any help; and finally, her children caught up to similarly gawk at the spectacle. She wanted to sink into the sea and never resurface.

    "...Is she all right?"

    "She's fine," Guzma said.

    "Is she seasick?"

    "She's fine."

    Gladion, after a moment of thinking on it, asked, "Is it a side effect?"

    "He's poisoned me," Lusamine abruptly wailed. She gagged on the powerfully revolting taste scorching her throat.

    "Nobody's poisoned you," Guzma scolded. He continued to rub her back and eased his words back into assurance. "Mr. Faba said you might get nauseous; you'll feel better in a second."

    She moaned, but despite some hitched breathing and suddenly weakened knees, the worst seemed to have passed.

    ("Mr. Faba?" Lillie asked.)

    ("I'll explain later," Gladion hurriedly dismissed.)

    The whole lot of them acted like this was an emergency affair. One crew member fetched her water, another found a cloth and wetted it to hold against her forehead, Guzma dragged her limp form toward the chairs lining the wall, and her children, unsure what to do, guided him and even maneuvered her limbs when she was spilled upright into a seat. It was a whole lot of fuss that Lusamine might have normally enjoyed receiving, if it weren't for the horrible indignity of it all.

    She flopped, sticky with sweat and all a-flush, tilting with only just enough strength to sit up. The water was accepted happily, but only tentatively sipped at, and the cloth touched her forehead like a delicious, heavenly kiss, washing away the last of her dizziness.

    After Guzma dismissed the helpful crew, she cracked her moisture-dabbed eyes open to see a row of concerned looks she hadn't asked for. She hissed. "You can all drop… Those unconvincing, worried faces…"

    "Miss, are you all right?"

    " You ," she said, narrowing her eyes at Guzma, "did that on purpose. Just so you can play the hero."

    "You were stressin' yourself too much," he countered.

    The plastic cup in her hand flew and clipped his leg, splattering the remaining water at his feet. "And what could possibly be the source of all that stress!?"

    "Mother," Gladion said, "calm down. You'll get sick again…"

    "This man is tormenting your mother! Why don't you do something about it!"

    The dramatics finally got to Gladion. The boy put his hands to his hips and gave her a firm, unamused glare. "I highly doubt that's true."

    Lusamine threw back her shoulders and head against the wall and made sounds of irreparable woe. "He's abandoning me! Leaving me to die alone!"

    Understandably, Guzma was a bit put-off that their private, intimate conversation about the possible future of their relationship would be so wildly, inaccurately, and thoughtlessly dragged out before her two children. He fumed. "Would you stop !"

    "He's trying to assuage his conscience with all these gestures. Isn't it obvious? He knows he's guilty."

    Gladion was about to cut in with a rather cruel, indifferent assessment of the situation, but Lillie, suddenly full of compassion, reached out and placed a hand on her mother's knee. She pleaded quietly, "Mama. Let me help."

    Lusamine twisted her leg away like she was a germ. Disdain crossed her expression. "...You? Help ? How could you possibly do that? What use are you to anyone ?"

    Guzma stepped forward. "All right," he grunted, taking Lillie's shoulder and prying her back, "forget it. Let's just go."

    "Yes," Lusamine taunted. "Do go."

    But she failed to draw him into any further combat; Lillie gave a pining look over her shoulder, but allowed Guzma to lead her for the door in silence.

    When the door opened, Guzma paused in the doorway and noticed Gladion still standing firm before his mother. "Glad."

    "Give me a minute."

    That also elicited no response from Guzma other than a skeptical look. He sighed, and the two disappeared back out onto the ship's deck.

    -

    Though Gladion could have started his planned appeal immediately, he stood with the patience of a saint, his hands folded behind his back, his eyes trailing along the blank wall of the hallway. If he was waiting for her to say something, then she was determined to let him continue; she squeezed the last of the water droplets from the cloth at her forehead and shut her eyes to sink into meditation. His presence proved annoying, but not disruptive. She could stay here. Hide from the noise and the staring from her guests. Hide from fate.

    He watched her carefully in spite of it, a fact she only discerned because whenever her eyes flitted open, his studious, iron gaze was upon her. That, too, she tried to ignore.

    A minute or so passed. He decided not to stall any longer. "Mother. I know you may not want to hear it now, but time is running out. I have a proposal to make."

    She felt her lip curl. "Oh?"

    "I've been following Aether Paradise. The circumstances there aren't good. Its new direction has jolted investors; donations are down. Employees―including, apparently, top brass―are jumping ship. It seems to me new leadership might be in order."

    "New. Leadership." The two words bounced back-and-forth in her brain. She scowled. "I see. And I suppose you have a suggestion."

    "A suggestion… A request."

    Because Gladion had floated this particular idea before, she silently awaited his reiteration.

    "Let me run Aether."

    She stiffly turned away and gurgled, "...What a joke."

    Like he hadn't even heard her, he tapped his chin with thought and elaboration. "Of course there would be stipulations. This isn't a request to be your son again; I would want legal independence, my own living quarters, control over my own finances…"

    "What makes you think you can manage any of it? You're merely a child."

    "I'm your son. You raised me to be ready to hold the Foundation. Or are you suggesting you failed?"

    "You…!" Had she the strength, she would flown at him and taught him a lesson in getting smart; as it was, she clutched her skirt and growled. "You… You and your Type: Null… How alike the two of you are… All the intricate planning that went into you, and what became of it!? Both of you were monumental failures!"

    "I think it rather depends on your perspective."

    "You could have been like your father," she roared. "You could have been so much more!"

    The transparency of the comment made Gladion fold his hands and blink at her. "Instead, I turned out like you." His stern expression softened with strange sympathy. "That must have been disappointing."

    She nearly shrieked. In lieu of throwing anything else and screaming, she punctured her palm with the edge of her fingernails. Pain rolled in with thick slabs of tears coursing down the slope of her cheeks. She couldn't hope to respond to his harsh utterance of truth, so she resorted to whining again. "It isn't fair ," she sobbed. "You don't know what you're asking of me. Aether is all I have left. It would be easier to ask for me to carve out my beating heart for you."

    "This isn't a robbery."

    "No, it's murder !" She collapsed into her seat and threw her face into her hands, and she wailed, overwhelmed with grief. "How can this be? How can my own child be so awful and cruel ?"

    Gladion had no marveling or disapproval left. At that moment, he felt he had seen and heard everything from her. He put his foot down. "You think I'm your enemy. But you've always been your own worst enemy, Mother. On the one hand, you want people and pokemon to be your playthings―but on the other, you can't help yourself, can you? When you love something, you slave over it. You make improvements, build on it… You bring out its strengths, and then those strengths come back to bite you." He dwelled on this fact for a while, then began listing examples: "You could have spoiled me, but you pushed me instead. I grew stronger for it… Strong enough to push back. Lillie, too, in her own way. Perhaps you thought you were crushing her, but she learned to stand up for herself. And Guzma… You trained him well, didn't you? Now, he doesn't even need you. Then there's Faba―" He stopped there, figuring she got the point. "Children grow up. Relationships change. People move on… That fact is not a personal slight. Maybe you ought to learn to appreciate rather than resent it."

    Gladion found it impossible to tell how much his mother had heard, and even more impossible to tell how much she had understood.

    She gave some hint, though, when she complained, "And what of me? What happens to me?"

    He shrugged. "You might try your hand at changing, too. Who knows what might happen." He almost let himself smile, but kept himself serious so that he could plead, "Promise me you'll consider it."

    Lusamine went stone quiet.

    He took it, at best, as a willingness to try. "Well… I can see you have plenty to think over. I'll… I'll leave you to it."

    -

    Life, or death?

    Meaning, or annihilation?

    Her foes put these before her and acted as if they represented true choices, rather than traps meant to snare her into compliance. And by each choice, they pushed her to destroy another part of her.

    As she sat entirely alone now in the hall, with only the shadows of people moving outside the windows, casting their undefined shapes on the wall, she could not summon any more anger. All that was left was self-pity, coming in the form of dribbling tears.

    She gripped her stomach and cried out to no one.

    "Is that all there is? Is that my fate forever? To cut and cut and cut away at myself, until there's nothing left!?"

    No one answered.

    Outside, just visible under the faint glow of the display lights, she could see Guzma and Lillie. It took some careful watching to discern that they were dancing. The music hadn't been changed over from the smooth jazz, so the two were alone in their revelry; perhaps Guzma wanted to cheer Lillie up. In any case, neither dance partner seemed to be taking the activity very seriously, as he flung and spun at rather dangerous speed, and she screamed―then laughed―then screamed again.

    Like a hungry worm, the thought of Mohn burrowed into her brain, and it took everything in her not to vomit once more.

    She stepped outside. The wind threw her hair about, momentarily blinding her, but she was able to maneuver it until it billowed as a steady, gold banner against the breeze. The dark had swallowed up everything; there was little to see but the suggestions of light coming from the celestial bodies.

    A woman's voice, distorted by the speaker's blaring, sang of sweet love amidst the passionate swelling of strings.

    Lusamine took hold of the railing like it might save her. But the tune weakened her knees, and her head rolled, her body swayed to the plucking of her strings. A smell wafted over the air, indiscernible, and she felt a sudden mad, animal desire to strip off all her clothes, and stand naked and open to all the elements.

    Every bit of curling, knotted blackness in her began to jerk and unwind itself.

    She didn't want things to untangle. By the very binding and twisting up of everything inside her, she felt safe, woven into place, like nothing could ever budge or change.

    Change. That was the smell passing over her. Sickly sweet, dangerous, and tinged with uncertainty. It drowned her in possibility and filled her lungs. She couldn't escape it. Even if she ran now as fast as she could, it would catch up to her, knock her down, and show her a thing or two about the folly of eternity.

    If she could bottle up the essence of this night, its pearly moon and dewdrop stars, its salty breeze, hissing waters, and vibrant song, and bottle it all up into an elixir to be kept forever, she would. But all she had now was fickle memory, which would surely corrupt the details, confuse colors, faces, and words. This night would never happen again, and she would never truly know what it was.

    One by one, the cords untangled and went hissing over the edge of the ship, only to plunge into the black waves. And once it all went away―what could possibly be left?

    -

    Over the next few hours, the party resumed without her. There were fits and spurts of drama and intrigue. Arguments and jokes. Different dances and music. At one point, some grunts arrived with full-size display fireworks that they had liberated from some storage area, and Plumeria had to play the role of stern mother before anyone could blow the ship to smithereens.

    "No. Somebody's gonna die. Or lose fingers."

    Nanu unhelpfully said, "Aw, let 'em at it. Losing limbs builds character."

    (The grunts, hearing this, decided to do something else.)

    But upon nearing midnight, activity began to wind down. Despite their bragging of their ability to party all night long, most of them were children, after all, and they started to lag and droop as the early morning edged in. Full of food and liquor, and spent of their excess energy, they draped over chairs and floors and vehemently denied being tired. Even when eyes were rubbed and yawns got longer, or when heads lolled heavy, they didn't move to vacate the premises.

    It took executive action to shoo them away.

    "It's time to go, y'all," Plumeria said.

    They moaned.

    "C'mon, c'mon. I ain't sayin' you gotta sleep, just go to your rooms or whatever. It's lights out. You know the drill."

    So began to trailing of feet down the stairs. Plumeria circulated the rooftop deck, spotted slumbering or distracting bodies, and shook them awake. Nanu didn't help and hurried out of sight; he had sworn off babysitting. Guzma, then, as the only other person who could remotely qualify as an adult, took to shaking off young people's sleep as well.

    Gladion and Lillie had nodded off―the boy with his head on a table, and Lillie, clutching her snoring Yungoos, conked out on her brother's shoulder.

    Guzma briefly thought blackmail material , then let the amusing thought go.

    "Hey!" He shook both their heads, successfully mussing their hair and startling them awake. "Up 'n' at it. We're outta here."

    Gladion, for a second, looked entirely stupefied by his surroundings. He blinked away the grogginess gumming his eyesight. "Huh?" He glanced left, then right. He saw mostly empty seats, as most of the grunts had left already. "What time is it?"

    "Obviously way past your bedtime." Guzma disregarded the expected withering look. "We're goin' downstairs. Come on."

    Lillie yawned and rubbed her eyes, but refused to open them, like she thought she could cling to her blissful sleep a little longer by staying in the dark. She whined, "Can you carry me?"

    Guzma appropriately balked. "No. Nobody's carrying you, ya spoiled princess. You gotta walk like everybody else."

    She released a complaint in the form of a mumble and groan, but within a few seconds of being conscious, she gained the strength and faculty to find her own footing and trudge vaguely zombie-like after her brother.

    Guzma tracked back to the navigation hallway which had gone dark and left Lusamine to doze off in her chair. Guzma had seen her venture out earlier in the evening, but she never came close to mingling or rejoining the festivities.

    She looked so peaceful, slumped over where she was, that he almost didn't want to wake her, but she couldn't well spend the night like that. He shook her by the shoulder, and she slid her eyes open in a graceful movement, like she had stirred from a pleasant dream. She looked up at him, doe-eyed and spent.

    "Time to go," he told her.

    Lusamine scraped at the very bottom to return with a sliver of humor. "Bedtime?"

    "Yeah."

    "So it's over?"

    He began to wonder what these questions were really about. "Uh, yeah."

    "And I missed it," she said, sounding a bit sorry.

    "Uh-huh. Okay, come on."

    She held up limp, pathetic arms and pleaded, "Help me."

    Guzma started by lifting her by her arms, but she wound them about his neck and began to tug herself upward, at which point he realized what she meant by 'help.' He rolled his eyes and compliantly scooped her up beneath her legs and balanced her at his chest. "Spoiled," he uttered.

    Before he hoisted her outside, she fixed her nails against the thin skin of his neck and circled. He paused only because he recognized it as a gesture of contemplation.

    "So… You decided?"

    "You already know my answer," she said bitterly.

    "Then…" His chest compressed with the release of a sigh. "We'll have to… Work things out for tomorrow…"

    "I don't want tomorrow to come."

    "Well, uh…" Guzma hesitated. "There's no delaying the ship―"

    "No, no, not what's happening tomorrow―I don't want tomorrow, the day, the very idea of it…"

    "Oh." He thought long and hard on that. "Uhh, I can't really do nothin' about that. I think they got legendaries that can control time out there, but they ain't in Alola, so…"

    Was he teasing or being earnest? Either way, she felt her heart swell, and overcome by it, she buried her face in his shoulder. "You're a sweet boy."

    "Mmm." Guzma grunted and didn't sound happy. "If you say so."

    Lusamine put a hand to his boney cheek. He had corners and flesh, softness and roughness. The strength of a bear ready to crush her, but without the malice that would drive him to it. He was―infuriating. And addicting.

    She didn't understand the meaning of letting go. But she knew fairy tales: the stories of princesses who loved beasts too much, and tethered them to their thrones until the beasts turned and devoured them. The wiser ones feel the tension in the chains and cut them loose before it was too late.

    She told herself that―to lie and say she was afraid, and not courageous. Because it was easier to be afraid than brave.

    -

    "Guzma."

    "Yeah?"

    "Have you ever traveled overseas?"

    "Nope."

    "That's a shame. Alola―is a beautiful region, but there's so much in the world to see."
     
    Chibi Pika likes this.
  8. Chibi Pika

    Chibi Pika Stay positive

    Chapter 33:

    Ahaha, Golisopod was adorable in this one. Snoozing in the salty pool and chittering while being polished and being oh-so-convincing while paying dead. Gotta love Guzma throwing the match to cheat Gladion out of the pleasure of winning, too. ;P

    I felt bad for Lillie when both Gladion and Guzma were grilling her for wearing Team Skull gear, though. :< Let her have her fun! Even if the reason made itself clear soon enough... the fact that Guzma knows better than anyone what that lifestyle leads to. That moment when he's suddenly worried for their future, because he's seen the path that aimless youth can so easily follow...

    Chapter 34:

    Oh my god, Gladion. xD Just. The most overdramatic.

    I had to quote this entire exchange because hot damn... I think this is my favorite exchange in the whole fic. Especially following on the heels of the opening scene, where Lusamine was debating charming Guzma all over again so that she could regain that semblance of power and control over something in the midst of utterly losing control over her life in one fell swoop. But she knew he'd see it coming. And then this.
    [​IMG]

    And finally, I loved the bit where Gladion cuts to the heart of Lusamine's problem: that she's her own worst enemy. She can't handle the thought of not being in control of something once she's set her sights on it, and that's why she reacts so miserably to change in any form. Whether in herself or in others. And that bit where she wanted to preserve that night forever, because it would only change with memory, and because afterward her life would never be the same... It's just the perfect exploration of what we saw of her in canon, what with freezing Pokemon to keep them perfect. This chapter just completely captured the essence of Lusamine's character in all her self-sabotaging ways, and I loved it a lot.

    ~Chibi~
     
  9. dietofwurms

    dietofwurms i see stars

    Chapter 35: Aloha 'Oe

    Mohn, more than anything, loved fireworks. If he were given the authority, ability, or resources to do so, he would have set them off every night and sat on a hill just to watch them streak the sky and thunder their brilliance over the world. He loved the color, the splash, the way the noise billowed out in a wave that could knock you off your feet, all the controlled chaos, the stench of gunpowder that lingered in the aftermath.

    Lusamine tolerated his childlike fascination with such displays, though she preferred any other sort of spectacle. Fireworks, she argued, were far too noisy and ephemeral. One second they consume the world, the next they fizzle into nothing. There's no time to analyze or ponder anything. There's no studying it. Give her a grand painting, an instrumental performance, a dance, or a poem. Give her a thing that lasts and can be recorded and kept.

    Mohn argued that was the beauty of it. That it is only there a second before it flies to your memory.

    But she couldn't accept that.

    And when he went―



    How she lived out that agony over and over.

    She embalmed, preserved, froze, and mummified everything that she loved. Better to kill a thing than to lose it. Better to have its shape and form suspended in crystal, amber, ice, so that she could admire it forever.



    Still, she dreamed of fireworks.

    They alight his eyes and set her tongue aflame. He tastes like sparks and iron, the hot hissing of copper chloride.

    -

    The taste of sulfur still lingered on her lips when she awoke.

    It was too early yet to get up and move around, but it felt too late to drift back into sleep. Sunlight had just began to break over the horizon, leaving the room in a deep, enriching morning blue, and the ship rocked in a lullaby sway. From under the covers, she peeked her eyes out into the room, but not before she sensed the weight of a body next to her.

    Her memory sizzled. Her hand pressed atop the lump and confirmed it to be alive and breathing, so with quaking breathlessness, she peeled the top layer away to reveal her company.

    Soft, small, slumbering, pale, golden locks. An angel. Lillie curled beneath the comforter, resting on her side and so deep in sleep that she didn't so much as twitch as Lusamine uncovered her.

    She watched for a little while as the girl's arms rose and fell with intake of breath. Then she let the cover fall back over her.

    Upon sitting up, Lusamine came to remember the events of the previous night leading up to this sleeping arrangement. Lillie chose to join her here; Guzma and Gladion, by now, must be asleep on their respective couches.

    That they all piled into the same suite together had been a decision made last minute, and not by the consent of all involved. Guzma brought her here and they remained in the suite alone for some time, before Gladion and Lillie arrived to pound on the door and invite themselves in. Lillie gave the more innocent reasoning of we thought we'd keep you company!, but both Guzma and Lusamine could see other thoughts brewing in Gladion's expression. Like he knew what was up and wasn't having it.

    It didn't matter. The children bantered and argued, temporarily energized by their invasion, but they barely touched their heads to their pillows before they were out again.

    Despite everything, having them there… Having them occupy space made sleep come easier. It made the suite feel lived in, and it brought a sort of comfort she couldn't remember ever feeling before.

    Lusamine lay down again and oscillated between fits of wakefulness and slumber, until the dim and sleepy colors of the room bled into the brilliant fabric of dreams. It was a thud from the kitchen space that eventually brought her back into the real world, where now the morning began to warm the sea with light. She listened before she got up. Footsteps pounded the floor, circulating the living room and then tracing the formation of the kitchen cabinets. They had the heft and gracelessness of a certain young man.

    She sat up and reached the floor with her feet. It was only when she took a few steps that she realized how light she felt, like she was walking on air. The sluggishness and sickly feeling had faded like dew. In fact, this feeling was so alien to her, so new, that it spooked her. But the transcendence faltered after a few moments, bringing her back down to earth and settling her into a normal state. She felt again the typical, small pains, irritations, aches, itches, and worries that all living things must suffer perpetually.

    On bare feet, she ventured toward the kitchen. She passed through the living room space first, where one couch had upturned blankets and pillows to signify its sleeper had gone off, and the couch opposite was still occupied by her son. She didn't pause to pester the sleeping boy, or even steal a touch of his hair.

    Instead, she watched Guzma.

    He rustled through cabinets, evidently searching for something; he didn't notice her, as her footsteps had been silent over the carpeted floor.

    She decided to alert him to her presence with a soft-spoken, "Good morning."

    He startled and turned, clutching a tin can of coffee grounds. His nerves lessened only slightly at seeing her, and he returned, a bit too loudly, "Morning." He hadn't shaken off all his sleep, as his eyelids still lay heavy over his stony eyes, and he moved with the deliberate, slothful pacing that meant every shift was being forced on a body that craved collapse. He blinked with curiosity and set down the can. "You look good."

    She stared at him, eyes round with sudden sorrow.

    "I mean, you look better. Than yesterday. You feel any better?"

    "I don't know," she answered honestly. "Perhaps."

    The cryptic answer drove him to fidget and draw out another can from the cupboard.

    "And what are you up to?"

    "Just seein' what's in stock here. There's coffee stuff―you want coffee?" Before she could answer, he craned his neck to see the children slumbering the morning away. "They gotta get up," he complained. After making this observation, he nearly pushed past her to shake and holler them awake, but she, anticipating what he meant to do, snagged him and talked him down.

    "Don't," she pleaded. She rested her head on his arm. "Let them sleep."

    "They gotta pack."

    "You know they hardly brought anything. And there's time yet." She gave him a cooling smile. "And, oh, look―they're so peaceful."

    He was not impressed. "E'erybody looks peaceful when they asleep, Miss L. Even you."

    "You just want to get rid of them because you're planning horrible things with me." She teased now, and Guzma looked down from where he towered over her in height; in her cheekiness, she whirled about and seized him around the waist.

    He didn't resist but didn't relax either. "That what you think?"

    "You were a little cross when they appeared last night."

    "'Cause Glad thinks he's slick," Guzma muttered.

    "He's only looking out for his mother's honor."

    Guzma snorted. Absentmindedly, he rested his wrists over her shoulders and so for the moment, they slumped and looked out over the suite together. "He needs to stay outta grown folks' business."

    The bottoms of her naked feet felt the chill of the tile while Guzma stood in socks; somehow, for Lusamine, this minor state of undress was enough to make the situation feel intimate. Their toes were close. His hands were heavy, and his breaths hot over her scalp. To distract herself from the dizzying proximity, she gossiped. "Gladion has always been very opinionated about the men who've courted me."

    "Yeah? He chase them all off?"

    "Chase? Oh, no. He didn't manage that." She dwelled on her memories as she watched him sleep. A smirk tugged her lips. "He bit one."

    "He―what? Bit?"

    "Yes, well, that was years ago. And that one deserved it, anyhow."

    "He ever bites me, and I'm havin' him put down," Guzma said. He took hold of her arms and pushed them off to unfasten himself, then returned to the counter to assess their breakfast options.

    His pulling away brought back the wave of emotions she had put off until this second. She reeled and had to put a hand on the entranceway to keep herself stable. The ship would be landing in a few hours. Everything would be over. Her mouth fell open to pour out her lament, but it stopped in her throat, lodging like a stone between her stomach and tongue. What right did she have to complain? Only after he put the hot water on did she find words to say. "It's so easy… To talk… As if… Nothing's the matter…"

    The frailty of her words made him turn again; her vision clouded as tears welled up, and she fully expected that when he saw them, he would lavish her with assurance and comfort. But he looked at her, brow furrowed, and watched her until tears overcame her. And even then, he didn't move. He had his hands in his pockets and he muttered, "That's 'cause nothin' is the matter."

    Like a child, she smudged her cheeks with the palms of her hands.

    "Things'll be different. But you gotta get better. And―" He averted his gaze. "I gotta get better. That's the whole point."

    "And what if…" Lusamine's chin bobbed where she swallowed down a knot of grief. "What if nothing changes?"

    "I don't know," he said sharply, as if he disliked the question. "Things gotta change eventually."

    Guzma couldn't have thoroughly investigated this theory, but it struck truthfully enough that she found some small solace in it. He still didn't make any move toward her, however, so she remained alone, barefoot, and wiping tears, longing for the world to revolve and go quickly, so that the pain of growing would end or pass by entirely. For that time, mere feet from him, she felt more alone than she had in years, like an ocean lay between them.

    Then he sighed, breached the sandy shore where grief lapped up at her, and handed her the first cup of coffee. The steam rose up to her face, kissing her.

    -

    The ship blared its horn over and over, blasting like a tantruming beast until it sent the entire population out to the main deck. The collection of newly-awakened Team Skull grunts crowded first at the stairwell, but made their way to the railing looking toward the ship's crowning destination: the tall, white obelisk of metal and ideals, Aether Paradise. The pillar crested over the shining waves as the first sign of human life they had seen on the ocean in two days, and the children actually expressed some enthusiasm at seeing it. Finally, something to break the monotony.

    Plumeria and Nanu, as they had most of this particular trip, stood close together at the railing and mulled on some matters, though they didn't have much privacy. A crew of grunts occupied either side of them, pushing on their arms to sidle in and get a better view. Nanu put up with this better than she did; he ended up with a girl's head under his elbow, which he used as an armrest, and two boys crunching up against his other arm. To celebrate the end of the cruise, Plumeria as well as the others now donned their full Team Skull gear again, draped in bandanas, chains, and skull-cap hats. It seemed none of them were quite ready to grow up.

    "Guess this is it," Plumeria declared, forcefully shoving a boy's head away from her.

    "Yup. That was…" Nanu scratched his chin in thought. "Maybe the second best wedding I've been to."

    Plumeria, amused and intrigued, asked, "What was the first?"

    "Well, uh―" Nanu noted the presence of minors. "That story's a little R-rated."

    Nene poked his head out. "Hey, that's the white-hats' place," he noted. "How we gettin' back to Po Town?"

    Nanu scanned the foundation and pointed to a collection of black-and-white boats docked at the island. "I think those are your rides."

    Chops had sharp enough eyesight to identify their designation and squeak, "Hey, who called the cops!?"

    "Nobody had to call," Nanu said, leaving out the implied 'idiot.' "They've kept an eye on us this whole time."

    "They gonna have to catch me!" Chops brayed. He puffed his chest and began waving his arms in typical thug fashion.

    "No, they are not." Nanu fixed a tired, serious glare on them. "You jokers are gonna line up all proper and orderly."

    "Aw, c'mon Uncle―"

    As best he could, Nanu boomed his voice for all to hear. "Anybody runs, I thump 'em when I catch 'em. Sooner this is over with, the sooner I get home."

    "We can outrun you, old man," one girl jeered.

    He pulled his lip up into a nasty sneer. "Better pray that you can."

    They believed his threat, but as they had no intention of testing him, they freely giggled.

    And so, over the deck of the boat, while Nanu cringed and fruitlessly tried to stave off the noise with his hands at his ears, the chanting, hooting, yapping, and howling continued: "Yeah, boy! Back to holdin' it down in Po Town, yeah!"

    Team Skull was so busy and so raucous that it didn't notice the Aether family―or the best approximation of it available―coming down the stairs to join them.

    The wedding couple strode forward first. Lusamine and Guzma walked with a strange mix of warm and cold body language; arms resting business-like at their sides, posture relaxed but not leaning for one another. They did not touch, but they still moved together as one unit of sorts, taking the same pace and making the same turns. Their dress spoke most loudly of their contrasting paths: Guzma resorted to putting on casual, comfortable attire, even with a hood flipped over his mussed hair, while she donned an obscenely attention-grabbing blue dress that hugged about her curvaceous form, fanning across her belly and breasts with lace and sequins. It screamed of crisis and desire. It did not, it seemed, have much of an effect on the boy.

    Gladion and Lillie made their way down, but not in time to intercept a wave of grunts catching sight of the couple and turning to harass them.

    "Mama G!"

    "Yowza!"

    A few boys pursued Lusamine with wolf whistles; Guzma bristled, but she pretended not to notice.

    While a small crowd formed around the woman, it was Tiny and Trixie who once again wrestled their way to the front and made a point of forcing their presence on her. The twins oohed and pawed at her dress, made faces and stuck out their tongues when Guzma tried to intervene, and proceeded to ask invasive questions of the clearly exhausted woman.

    "So this is it? But there wasn't a wedding!"

    Guzma was about to bark his answer, but Lusamine planted a gentle hand on the girl's shoulder and leaned downward. She spoke in a careful, sweet way. "I know. I'm afraid it won't be happening."

    "Aw. What a rip-off," Trixie groaned. "I ain't never been to one. I was gonna see the white dress and the flowers an' the―"

    Lusamine stood up straight and marveled at the foolish prattle. The girl must suffer from a lack of linear thinking―how could she have possibly anticipated the wedding ceremony to go on unabated with Team Skull mucking around? Did she imagine the vows to take place while the grunts rioted in the back row?

    "You'll have to do the wedding later?" Tiny asked.

    "Yeah! When you have the real thing, you can just invite us," Trixie said, pointing to herself and her sister, "an' not these other rude boneheads."

    Suddenly, Lusamine felt real, genuine pity for them. Children always imagined things mended so easily.

    "Miss L." Guzma wrenched a few kids aside and took a place next to her. He towered over her and said, in a vaguely whiny tone, "You ain't gotta tell them all our personal business."

    "Oh, I know, but..." Lusamine glanced up at him, her face supplicating, her hands searching. "The poor things have their hopes up."

    "'Poor things'?" Guzma arched a glowering eyebrow at her. "They busted up your wedding. You don't hafta feel sorry for 'em just 'cause they're dumb."

    "HEY!"

    "Mind your own!" Guzma snarled back, reaching out to push at the twins, though they scuttled and side-stepped him.

    "Can't we be honest?" Lusamine stole a glance past Guzma's ample frame, and saw Gladion and Lillie settling at the railing. "We already told the two."

    "Whatta you talkin' about?" Trixie cut in, incensed that the couple was gossiping without her.

    Lusamine made up her mind, and so without Guzma's blessing, clarified, "You won't be missing out; there isn't going to be a wedding at all."

    It took only a few seconds for the twins to piece it together.

    "ARE YOU BREAKING UP!?"

    The screamed question crashed through the crowd like a ricocheted bullet; it elicited silence, then muttering, then loud, unrelenting speculation, mixed with expressions of shock and even grief. Plumeria might have initially planned Team Skull's invasion with the thought of sabotaging their romance, but the grunts hadn't intended on splitting a celebrity couple. It seemed that despite their outward shows of resentment, they had gotten attached to the whole idea.

    Trixie in particular looked crestfallen and almost in tears.

    "...Oh dear." Lusamine glanced back at Guzma, but as she had failed to heed his warning, he did not give her any sympathy. She would be digging herself out of this one. She lifted her hands in surrender. "Well, that is… It's complicated, and we're still sorting that out."

    Trixie interpreted this as a euphemism, clasped her face and wailed. "But you're so cute together-r-r!"

    A ripple of laughter echoed through the boys; the girls either joined in the giggling or cooed words of reassurance. Guzma could not huff and roll his eyes hard enough.

    As Trixie was held and comforted by her twin, she whimpered, "It ain't our fault, is it!?"

    Better to tell a simple lie than to try and explain an overly-complicated truth. "Oh, no, dear, not at all," Lusamine told her. Suddenly, her motherly instincts overtook her. She reached out and pulled the girl into an embrace, chiding the girl in an exasperated, amused fashion. "Good grief. Come here; don't cry. There, there. What a funny little creature you are..."

    "What's with all the racket?" From the busy mix of preteen and teenage bodies, the kahuna elbowed his way toward the adults. He had just lit up a fresh cigarette, and used puffs of smoke to deter and blind anyone violating his personal space; he caught sight of them, saw the dewey-eyed girl clasped under Lusamine's willowy arms, and grunted an ashen cloud before his face. "Making these brats cry is my job, lady."

    "Kahuna Nanu. Good morning." Lusamine sloped her face and eyelashes downward, sinking herself into contemplation. "And so.... Home at last… I suppose… I suppose police must be awaiting us, given the circumstances here."

    "Uh-huh."

    "They won't be pressing any charges, will they?"

    Nanu lifted an eyebrow at the woman and pshawed. "What do I look like: judge, jury, executioner? I haven't a clue."

    "But surely you can speak up for the children. After all, I permitted them to stay, and no one was hurt."

    The request struck him. In his disbelief, he eyed Guzma, but the boy looked similarly puzzled by her extension of empathy. Nanu attempted to read her expression to spot the signs of madness, chemically-induced or otherwise, and though he couldn't be certain, she did have a peculiar glow about her. He would have made a quip― what are you, on drugs?--but decided against it, at least in front of the kids. "I'll―uh," he mumbled, scratching his scalp, "talk to Hitchens. It's the islands; they'll only get slapped with community service or something, anyway."

    The Team Skull grunts, overhearing this, did not take this as a gesture of mercy. "Community what?"

    -

    When the ship lodged into Aether Paradise, fitting its monstrous structure against the dwarfed landing dock, it became even more apparent how prepared the island was for this arrival. Attendants in bright white coats lined the walkway and formed a wall; on close examination, the travelers could see Faba and Aster waiting at the rim of the dock, chatting (bickering?) about something; several cops milled about, including Officer Hitchens lounging at some railing near a police boat. Adults stood everywhere, like they anticipated invasion.

    This, combined perhaps with Nanu's earlier threats, dampened the enthusiasm the grunts might have had for a possible riot, which meant, aside from the typical running and shoving and cussing, deboarding Team Skull did not devolve as much as it could have. They filed down the stairs first, and rather forcefully at that, until they gathered in a tight cluster across from the police presence. They lingered, shoulder-to-shoulder, as if still contemplating whether to fight.

    But Hitchens lifted himself off the railing and lumbered toward them. He did not look intimidated by their tough, arm-crossed stances. "Here we are again," he sighed. He tapped a pen on the clipboard's surface. "All right; line up."

    "You gonna hafta cuff me!"

    With an unenthused grunt, Hitchens gestured for the awaiting police boat. "Nobody's getting cuffed. Line up and I'll get your names."

    At that moment, Bully decided to endear himself by making a last-ditch rebellion effort. He pushed his way to the front and dug out a pokeball from his pocket. "Yo, battle me, copper!"

    "I'm not battling you." Then Hitchens reiterated for the third, strained time: "Line up."

    Officer Hitchens was simply not cooperating with their threats; they fumed. But before their tempers could flare into something worse, their kahuna appeared.

    "Hitch." Nanu at last made his way between them, hands relaxed in his pockets. "Fancy seeing you here."

    "Nanu. I see you survived, huh, old timer?"

    "Yeah, and I may as well save you some headache. When we get back to Ula'ula, you can sign the kids over to me."

    Appropriately, Hitchens frowned and tightened his gaze. "To you. All of 'em."

    "It'll just be simpler that way; trust me. Unless you wanted to babysit."

    This proved to be a compelling argument. Hitchens put a hand to his hip, pondered the conundrum, then gave up with a nonchalant throwing up of hands. "Whatever you say. Here." He shoved the clipboard into Nanu's chest. "Write down their names. Real names. Then they're all yours."

    Bully scoffed. "He ain't know all our names."

    With a sniff and a smirk, Nanu slipped his red eyes in Bully's direction and clicked his pen. "You'd be surprised, Pace Ortiz."

    The boy went silent, then sucked his teeth, threw his head, and stepped back, wearing a scowl. "Dirty ol' snoop."

    The rest of the grunts, entertained, took to parroting this newfound secret word: Pace, yo Pace, hey Pace!

    -

    As all this went on, Guzma landed his feet on the pier and saw Plumeria standing by.

    Of course she'd be going with the grunts eventually, but for now, she looked content to look onward, seeing Nanu cut deals and the grunts make drama. For once, she didn't seem amused, but preoccupied, her arms cradling tight about her torso.

    Guzma knew that stance and face well. He saw plenty of both before their relationship fell apart. They stood as omens.

    His heartbeat went thready, but for the moment, Lusamine brought her children down the steps and forward to some employees, engaging them in some chatter irrelevant to his immediate interest, so he stole time to jut himself forward and meet her.

    "Plume."

    She blinked like his voice had just missed her, but the wind carried it back, so after a second, her head turned. A delicate stream of pink hair passed under her chin, and she fixed it behind her ear, a gesture that made his memory roll back like a tide.

    He hadn't planned out what he meant to say at all, but he felt he ought to say something. He started with the obvious. "H-hey."

    For a torturous, head-pounding second, she pierced her eyes into his and would not answer. Was she picking him apart? Drawing resentment up again? Preparing to rip him to shreds?

    She dropped her gaze. "Hey."

    Compressed air whistled through his nostrils. The coldness hurt, but he rambled on, popping his knuckles and fishing them through his pockets like he was a fidgeting teenager all over again. "Uh, so. I probably won't be seeing you for a while."

    "Yeah?"

    "Yeah."

    Plumeria fixed her eyes on the islands. It was then he noticed she had gum rolling about inside her cheeks, because she blew a quick bubble and sighed. The nerves were palpable. "You're not marrying her."

    "Yeah. We're… Goin' separate."

    "You aren't gonna be letting me take credit for that, are you?"

    "It's complicated."

    She hid her disappointment behind a shrug. "Eh, figures." Though she made an effort not to meet his eyes, she darted hers toward him in short, curious fits while maintaining a chilly stare out to sea. "You still gonna be here? Be a kahuna and―"

    "No," Guzma blurted. He raced to put his thoughts together. "I― I mean, I'm not really sure." He regretted not having any more to tell her, at least not yet. He had things to settle first before he could decide on anything. He forced some enthusiasm to ask, "So… How 'bout you? What're you gonna do?"

    Plumeria popped her gum and shrugged yet again. She looked out again at the grunts, her eyes filled with an undercurrent of affection. "Somebody's gotta watch these dummies."

    Guzma narrowly avoided expressing dismay. Just as he had with the Aether children, he had labored under the idea that he could seek out inspiration for his own future by gaining insight into her hopes and dreams. She, he thought, would have something to say. Some desire to move on and mature.

    But he corrected himself in his silence. She had always cared about Team Skull more than he ever did. He had reigned as the top-down boss, all hard knuckles and threats, but she was their Big Sis. She couldn't dream of untangling herself now.

    So as much as he wanted to tell her to think bigger, he realized it was her decision, not his.

    "...Okay." Guzma fidgeted with his watch. "Well, before ya leave, I better talk to―oh."

    Plumeria broke her ambivalence to smile when she noticed what he had; Nanu had already boarded a boat and shut himself up inside. The grunts started to fill in, too, eager to join their grumpy overseer, and she took it as her cue. She turned away and readied to step toward her ride. "That's Uncle for you," she said wryly. "I'll tell him you said hey."

    "Tell him―" Guzma latched onto her arm to stop her from leaving, though after receiving a nasty glare, he jerked to release her. He then hesitated before finding the courage to mumble, "Tell him thank you, too."

    "Ugh. You're such a mushy dork," she scolded. For the first time in a long while, she teasingly shoved him at his chest. "Why don't you write him a love letter and keep me out of it?"

    That succeeded in poking his old side awake; he stiffened with a challenging step forward, put on a spiteful, ogre-like expression, and sucked his teeth at her.

    But seeing him like that just made her guffaw aloud. She almost left him like that, but just before she took off for good, she turned around one last time to look him over. He stood paralyzed by her unexplained examination, like he was afraid that speaking or moving would give away some weakness. A thought clicked in her head, though, after a short moment. She seemed to be in wonder.

    "You really are different," she said.

    Guzma clenched his fists. He thought this was a parting shot.

    "I'm not saying it's all bad, you know," she clucked at him. "See you around, G."

    Guzma felt an impossible urge to chase after her, to say a million more things. Then the grunts gathered around her and Lusamine, far on the other side, called out to him, and the moment closed shut.

    -

    Faba, when the ship first arrived, had taken one look at the looming ship with Team Skull grunts hanging over the railing and sighed. "It appears I made the right call in not attending, at least."

    The scientist pretended to be unconcerned and detached from the whole affair, but he had fretted the days before the ship left, fretted still as the ship departed and took its course, and fretted all the more when he knew it was to be arriving back at Aether. In preparing the serum to be delivered by air, he survived on barely any sleep and perhaps even less food; once the Pelipper took off with the completed product, Aster had to threaten to tie him down if he didn't immediately go to bed.

    So he fixed his hands behind his back and squeezed them. He could not quite make out Madame's face from the crowd, and it flayed his nerves.

    Aster, though, didn't notice his partner's anxiety and let out an unmanly squeal of excitement. "Ohmigosh! Little ones!"

    "Aster, please contain yourself."

    "But they're adorable! Are they staying?"

    "I hope you're not suggesting Aether adopts a ship-full of urchins. I'd sooner drown the whole lot."

    "Don't say that!" After a bit of fussing, Aster looked out at the crowd dreamily. "Oh, this just reminds me how much I want kids of my own."

    (Faba muttered darkly, "Then I'm afraid you've chosen the wrong path in life.")

    "...I heard that."

    "Hmph." Faba brushed some invisible dust from his shoulder. "Anyhow, that's what the police are here for. They'll be removing the hooligans, thank goodness."

    Because it took so long for the grunts to file down the stairs and to the boats, and because Lusamine, Guzma, and the children each became engaged in conversation elsewhere, the two scientists had to wait and twiddle their thumbs. They could see how the woman had drifted down, clinging to the Guzma's arm, and how now she stood with her children shockingly near her. It all seemed unnatural.

    "Do you think…" Aster, gaining some sense, lowered his voice and leaned in the murmur, "...That it worked?"

    Faba glanced about. No employees stood close enough to overhear them, so he felt comfortable lifting the whispering tone. "I can't think of a reason it would fail; the formula was simple enough. We'll find out soon in any case."

    "I wonder if we'll be able to tell. If it'll be―noticeable."

    "I told the boy not to expect miracles."

    "And did you tell him how you made it?"

    The Branch Chief looked at him, puzzled. "Why would I do that? He wouldn't understand any of it."

    "But!" Aster brimmed with a smile. "It's sort of poetic, isn't it?"

    "Not in the least. It was a standard vaccination development method."

    "You used his blood," Aster pointed out.

    "I―" Faba frowned at him. "That is not an accurate summation of the process." If the brown-haired ditz tried to put it that way to Guzma, the boy might get the impression that he'd jammed his fiancee full of his blood. The scientific reality was more mundane: Faba had vials of Guzma's blood in storage, from when the boy had first arrived at Aether; he determined that the blood contained antibodies to fight off the toxin; these antibodies were successfully extracted and used to create the serum. Of course, any of these steps might have failed to occur or succeed depending on a whole host of factors. "It was luck. Luck on a maddening, astronomical scale."

    "...Or fate?"

    Faba scoffed and gave him a withering glare. "Don't get cute."

    "Oh-h-h? I'm cute all of a sudden?"

    The tablet in Faba's hand suddenly felt very much like a weapon, but fortunately for the constitution of Aster's skull, at that moment, the family had regathered and fast approached.

    Lusamine had Lillie by the hand―or rather, Lillie had clasped onto hers, and she chose not to redirect her. A small etching of pain made its way to Lusamine's features, tightened the rims about her eyes and curvature of her eyebrows, but she forced some shows of pleasure. With Guzma and Gladion behind her, she could look ahead, see Faba and Aster awaiting them, and oblige a difficult, weak smile.

    Aster, in his usual naive way, smiled back; Faba watched her with narrowed eyes.

    "Branch Chief Faba," Lusamine said, voice drawn out and exhausted. She dropped Lillie's hand, slid over to him as if walking on air, then took his hands into hers in a solemn, loving way. So many thoughts fell on her at once, that she shut her eyes to give herself space to process all of them. "So much has been decided. Oh, I hardly know where to start."

    Faba's nerves suddenly spiked. He cast his eyes on the children and poorly disguised his irritation. "Yes, I see… The young masters have returned."

    "Yes, yes, isn't it nice?" She dropped his hands to fold her palms together in a serene show of approval.

    (Faba gave no comment.)

    "But more importantly, I suppose, we've indefinitely postponed our marriage." She still couldn't allow the word 'cancelled' loose from her lips, but this euphemism worked just as well.

    Faba heard her, squinted, and gave a sideways glance over her shoulder and at Guzma, as though to get a read on his feelings on the issue. Guzma, seeing his inquiring look, shrugged―which Faba tried in vain to interpret while Lusamine rattled on.

    "Furthermore, I've decided to take a sabbatical… It's high time I allowed someone else to run Aether in my stead…"

    Faba took immediate, keen interest in this declaration. "Is that right…?"

    "Yes. Of course I've already picked my successor―"

    Faba opened his mouth to interject.

    "Gladion." She turned to her son and reached out to touch his shoulder. Despite a sliver of resistance, the boy allowed the temporary contact. "I'm going to speak with the directors of course, but I trust they'll approve it."

    "That's―" If one watched close, one could see every stage of grief pass through Faba's expression in those few pained seconds. Finally, through clenched teeth, he wheezed an insincere, "... Wonderful."

    While the rest of them did not buy his bluff, Lusamine expertly pretended not to notice it. She glanced down at her son. "You have many plans for the place, don't you?"

    "I have a list," Gladion said curtly. He also said this while looking Faba in the face.

    Before Faba could explode with indignation and start a full-fledged argument, Lusamine sighed, fanned her face, then shadowed her eyes with her hand, shielding herself from the now blistering rays of light coming from the midday sun. She turned and murmured for her daughter. "Lillie, dear… Let's head inside… I'm afraid I've been in the sun too long already…" Lusamine read the others' faces, and seeing they weren't ready to move, told them, "Don't dawdle too long, now. Most of your complexions can't take it."

    The women went; the men stood alone.

    Gladion and Faba spent a long time eyeing each other, simmering in the sun with a long-standing feud that the two other men could not fathom. They both stared and contemplated whether to fire first or wait for their foe to show their hand, but as they calculated their move, time stretched on and left their companions troubled.

    "Uh…" Guzma finally couldn't take the silence anymore. "So―"

    Faba cut him off and went straight for the young boy. Snidely, he said, "If I knew you were going to take advantage of a sick woman's momentary weakness, I would have made different plans."

    Gladion frowned. "Yes; if you had come to the wedding, you could have taken advantage of her first. Is that what you mean?"

    Aster's jaw fell, and he lifted a finger like he meant to say something.

    But Faba barked, "Shut up, Aster," and continued to rave. "What makes you think Aether can be run on a youthful whim? This is complicated business, far more suited for an adult!"

    "This decision wasn't a sudden impulse," Gladion assured him.

    "No, sir," Faba seethed, "I imagine it was not."

    "Okay, now―"

    " Aster."

    Gladion lifted a hand to request silence and attention. "Mr. Faba," he began, trying to sound diplomatic. "I've spent a lot of time considering what I'd do with you. Some options were less generous than others."

    "Spare me," Faba replied. "I don't intend to stick around to witness this regime change."

    "Ah. That's right. I heard about your plans―but as much I loathe to do it, I have to ask you to reconsider. After all, I'm willing to let you keep your position; I'm going to need your experience and knowledge of the science department if I'm to properly gut it."

    "Y-you―!" That the boy had the nerve to start threatening him already rankled him; his teeth and fists clenched. "I'd rather hang myself!"

    But before the two could launch into an undignified catfight, Guzma forcefully wedged himself in between them and faced Faba. He hulked over him and hissed, "Man, will you chill? I vouched for you!"

    Faba sputtered, huffed, and put his hands to his hips. "What!?" In a show of disbelief and anger, he started waving his hands about to match his sarcastic braying: "And I suppose you think I ought to genuflect in appreciation for this mercy!? After hauling thismalcontent here for the purpose of making him my superior!?"

    "Uh." Aster sidled in next to him, waving a hand in surrender. "For the record, I'm cool with it."

    With a furious growl, Faba directed the clipboard in his hand over Aster's face, as if to erase his presence from the conversation. "Anyhow, I fail to see why I owe anything to you."

    Guzma, without warning, reached out a hand and planted it on Faba's shoulder. The pressure he applied was probably meant to be coaxing, but for a brief second, Faba thought he was going to faint. The young man pleaded with dire seriousness. "Mr. Faba―! I know this wasn't your plan, but you gotta stay."

    Faba tried to maintain resolve. He kept a stern, unmoved expression.

    "...Please? We gotta fix Aether, but if we're gonna do that, we need someone who's really smart who knows how stuff works around here―!"

    "There's no call for flattery," Faba interrupted, now uncomfortable. He then tried to brush Guzma's hand away, but his meek attempt didn't work. At last, the scientist relented, heaving a tired breath and declaring as loftily as he could, "O-of course, as I can see my talent and expertise are desperately needed, I can remain here for now, until such a time when it's more convenient for me to..."

    Forgetting himself, Guzma clubbed Faba over the shoulder with his fist, meaning it to be a friendly gesture, but more successfully causing Faba to startle and cringe. Guzma failed to notice this, however, and turned to Gladion, sounding vindicated. "See! I told you."

    Told him what!? Faba wished to interject and demand to know what sort of slanderous gossip Guzma had been spreading about him.

    However, he lost his chance. Guzma, thinking the issue resolved, hurried past; Gladion shrugged a nonchalant I-guess-that's-all shrug and followed him. This left the scientist with only two options: stew in the sun or report to his new master's side.

    "Heavens," he muttered, gesturing fiercely at Aster and summoning him alongside him as he went, "strike me down."

    When everyone reached the elevator―as Lusamine had not entered the platform yet, leaving it open for all six of them to board at once―she seemed tickled at seeing them all together. This amusement translated into an observation: she noted it was about tea time, and they all ought to have a little something. They shared uncertain glances, but they were too hungry (and too wise) to object.

    -

    It was strange, being home.

    Stranger still, the thought of this place being "home."

    All of them had their pieces to collect, segments of the island to claim as their own. Gladion could remember the long hours walking the halls of Aether Paradise, living in its gardens and walks, chasing Lillie down corridors, being scolded by staff when he wormed his way into the wrong rooms. This place had all the joy and horror of being young, tinted in white and scrubbed without mercy.

    Then he found his old room.

    Lillie, next door and poking around her own room, no doubt experienced a similar emotional churning as he did, but for him, this had been an untouched space for over three years. To him, this seemed to be ancient history, and he was thus shocked to find it not caked beneath mountains of dust, nor fossilized like a long-abandoned temple. It had been cleaned gingerly and regularly; the books and clothes he left scattered across the room in his abrupt leaving now sat in appropriate shelves and drawers, and the toys were sorted away.

    Toys. Even the word sounded foreign to him, after years of not having the resources or energy to engage in play.

    Aside from the size of the bed, a person could have been fooled into thinking this room was meant for an adult, not a child. It had the same repressed, sterile feel as Mother's room, especially now that the child was no longer hear to lay waste to it. He wandered over to the desk, plucked an old workbook from the shelf, and thumbed through it. Old handwriting filling in answers to word problems. Since then, he had faced real problems, hadn't he? The sort not solved with simple equations. Thinking on it now, he had been woefully unprepared for the world.

    But his mettle had been tested, and he got through it. He could not suppress a flutter of excitement at that thought.

    "Ahem."

    Gladion turned―and found Faba in his doorway.

    "May I come in?"

    Through a sliver of apprehension, Gladion answered, "Yes."

    Faba stepped inside and held a formal stance just inside the doorway. "Young master―"

    "That's 'Mr. President' now, isn't it?"

    Faba's eye twitched. "As I understand it, that won't take effect until the Board of Directors meets―but technicalities aside, I have something for you." The scientist rummaged around in his pronounced coat pocket and produced a sleek clamshell case. He offered it, and when Gladion took it with a cautious air, he explained, "I recovered these from the cryogenics lab."

    Gladion, hearing that, felt his heart skip a beat. He gave Faba a coarse, disbelieving look, then fumbled to open the case to reveal its contents: two premier balls, white, shiny, freshly used.

    "Seeing as you've raised the first BK prototype with such, er, success, I thought you might wish to try your hand at raising the other two." Faba interpreted Gladion's skeptical face and immediately resorted to making excuses. He raised his hands in exasperation. "Well, it isn't as if they were doing any good sitting in storage. And after all the blood, sweat, and tears that went into that project!"

    Gladion silently placed the case on his desk… but still didn't like it. Faba only ever extended kindness to him for one of two reasons: to lull him into a false sense of security, or get into his good graces in return for a favor. Gladion stood firm, folded his arms, and made his guess. "What do you want?"

    "'Want'?" Faba feigned offense by placing a hand over his heart. "Young master, what makes you think I want something?"

    "I'm not interested in playing your games, Mr. Faba. Only an hour ago, you were against my presidency."

    Faba just about shrieked in his own defense: "And so I've had an hour to think it over!" When he saw Gladion's unappreciative gaze, he swallowed and scaled back his yowling. He tugged on his beard nervously and made his best appearance of deep contemplation. "Yes… Y-you see, it occurs to me that, like it or not, we're going to have to learn to work in a professional context, aren't we? And so I, as the adult, really ought to be the first to extend my willingness to… Oh, how should I say it… Put the past behind us. For both our sakes."

    "Hmm." Gladion scanned him harshly with his eyes, as if to spot any exposed weaknesses. "I suppose. Though it's mostly for your sake; if we can't get along, I can always just fire you."

    "And what a loss for you that would be!" Faba barked, voice strangled with strain. His face purpled and his jaw clicked, but he successfully kept himself from screaming. He sputtered a moment, then corrected himself: "A loss for the Foundation is what I mean, of course."

    In spite of everything, Gladion knew Faba had a point. If Gladion meant to lead the foundation, he would have to be able to work with a variety of people, not only employees who were automatically loyal to him. He would have to start putting the value of their work over his own comfort.

    As the boy contemplated his future, Faba hurried to bow out and dismiss himself. "Anyhow―please, should you need anything at all, do not hesitate to ask."

    "...Mr. Faba."

    Obviously, Faba hadn't expected a request to come so quickly; he startled. "Y-yes?"

    Gladion sucked in a breath. "...I know…" This did not feel natural at all, but he compelled himself anyway. "...I know what you did for my mother. I don't know yet what difference the treatment will make―but it's relieved some of her suffering, and so I thank you for that."

    Faba hurried to face the doorway, but he twisted one hand about the other's wrist, squeezing and tensing it behind his back. "Oh," he said, as if he had forgotten, "th-that? That was―a pittance, really, I threw it together with hardly a thought..."

    (For a man who lived for recognition, he fell to pieces at the faintest praise.)

    "Your father―" Faba hesitated. "He would… Be glad of it, at least."

    The comment brought an awkward moment of quiet, which Gladion broke. "One more thing, Mr. Faba. I'm going to reach out to Ms. Wicke and invite her back into the fold."

    "Wonderful. And?"

    "Well… I was wondering about Mr. Aster? He's a new hire of my mother's, isn't he?"

    Faba shifted nervously. "You mean…"

    "I want your opinion on whether he'll be necessary anymore."

    "Oh!" Faba began flailing and wringing his hands. "Oh, oh, goodness, Master Gladion―no, no, Professor Aster's fine where he is, a true asset to the department!"

    Gladion was baffled by both Faba's answer and the zeal behind it. At the docks and at lunch, he had gotten the distinct impression Faba felt exasperated by this new employee. He arched an eyebrow. "So no complaints?"

    "None, sir."

    "Hmm." (Gladion mumbled to himself, "That's new.")

    Just when their conversation dwindled, the adjoining bedroom door opened, and Lillie appeared moments later in Gladion's doorway. She had to sidle her way past Faba and skipped in bubbly fashion before her brother, her face and eyes radiant.

    "Gladion! Isn't it…?" She struggled to find words for a second. "Seeing our rooms again… And we're both here… It's really hard to believe."

    "Strange times," Gladion said. He didn't exhibit any of her enthusiasm.

    "How's your room?" Lillie looked about the uninhabited space.

    "It's in fine condition, but I won't be living here. They're working on clearing housing for me at the employee compound." Gladion then noticed that Lillie had a stuffed animal clutched in her arms―an Eevee. He remembered that she had a veritable army of plush animals that she must have left behind in her escape; it seemed now she had spent some time getting reacquainted with all of them. "How's your packing going?"

    "Oh, I'm done."

    Gladion's brow furrowed. "So quickly?"

    "I looked through my room… I had thought I'd pack some of my old clothes, but I don't need any of it. And… Well, when I get there, I can always buy new clothes, can't I? And there'll be all sorts of new fashions there."

    Faba tutted, surprising them both. "I don't suppose you'd like to think about all the impoverished little girls who could only dream of having a closet filled with beautiful dresses to choose from."

    Lillie flushed.

    "Don't mind him," Gladion said flatly. "I'm sure we can donate your clothes to charity or something, if you don't want them anymore."

    "Oh, wait!" Lillie turned from embarrassed to distressed. She clutched at the stuffed Eevee's chest until its seams threatened to burst. "I didn't say I didn't―some of them have a lot of sentimental―oh, please don't go throwing my things away while I'm gone!"

    Gladion tried to resist the urge to smirk; for all Lillie's endearing traits, she did have a streak of entitled materialism in her. "Calm down. I won't." He looked at the Eevee plush. "Are you taking that with you? You know most trainers don't run around with dolls."

    "I'll do what I like," she puffed.

    "...Mr. Faba? Did you need something else?"

    Faba jerked to attention; the boy calling out his lingering surprised him, so he brushed off his coat and acted as if he meant to still be standing there. "Ah―no. But if you're done here, I'm going back downstairs, and you may wish to follow me."

    Lillie asked, "Is that where Mr. Guzma and our mother―?"

    "The last I saw of them was down in the training room. I believe that he is playing with his pets."

    Faba needed to say no more.

    -

    The beasts had missed him. At least, Guzma thought they had missed him. Their moods and thoughts proved as cryptic to him as ever; when he released a cluster of them and allowed them to roam freely, their attention indeed snapped to him. They waved their rubber arms, their tendrils, tentacles, and throbbing limbs; they leaped and growled and made their way for him. But it was impossible to tell how much of their excitement was due to seeing their trainer after too long, or seeing the bag of treats he had in his hand.

    After several long seconds of being manhandled, pushed, clawed, and protested, Guzma grabbed a handful of beans and threw them onto the floor. The beasts squealed and pounced on them with predatory ferocity.

    He sighed, but wasn't entirely serious when he declared, "Oh, I see how it is."

    They warbled, then turned to growling and scrapping one another for a chance to eat. To keep them from breaking out into a bloody fight, he tossed a few more handfuls, and so the group whistled cheerily and spread across the training room floor.

    Guzma sat on one of the metal benches lining the training space and watched.

    Each carried on their own behavior, like nothing of significance had interrupted them. Xurkitree wobbled about, scooping its food with its fingers, stepping easily over the bent forms of other beasts; Buzzwole scuttled about and stabbed at its targets with its beak-like mouth; Pheromosa daintily crouched and gathered hers in her hands first, then preferred to eat in small bites like a proper lady; the two Kartana zipped over the floor in swoops and narrowly missed each other.

    In his watching, and in his seeing their personalities at full display, he fidgeted with the crinkly paper bag and tried to think. In fact, he hadn't thought much about the beasts in some time; other matters of personal importance had overrun them since he first left to Mele'mele. He had not completely dismissed his doubts, in any case. He still read their movements as robotic somehow, automated, lacking in transcendence beyond bare instinct. Yet, he could neither help but still be enraptured by Lady's beauty, by Zap's awkwardness, by Big Guy's brash showmanship. He felt charmed by their traits, and simultaneously tricked.

    Which lead to the question: what to do with them?

    Something wet touched the back of his neck. The first speckle, he didn't notice; then another thread of moisture clung to his skin, and a soft, slippery membrane applied pressure to his scalp.

    Guzma cursed aloud and lurched, narrowly avoided falling on his face. He jumped to his feet, dropping the bag as he did, and whirled around.

    Inches from his face, the Nihilego suckled on air and dripped mucus from his pulsating mouth-nubs.

    "Hey! I told you―!" He fumbled a few steps backward, caught his breath, and eased himself out of a heart attack. "Geez! D-don't sneak up on me like that!"

    It trilled, unaffected by his scolding, and rubbed its two, fleshy front tentacles together in a gesture he had come to believe could mean anything from nerves, pleasure, hunger, or shame. The tentacles squished with mucus; he realized then that it had been drooling down his back, and in disgust, he tried to smear the viscous phlegm off his neck. At least it had the courtesy of covering him in the translucent, benign stuff; when frightened, it had the habit of exuding rancid, oily goo that stained clothing and burned the skin.

    From a comfortable arm's length away, he examined it. As usual, it had been too shy to venture out and mix with the others to find food.

    Swallowing a complex blend of trepidation and annoyance, he asked, "You hungry?"

    It squeaked and wriggled its arms like an eager toddler. Its mouth became ever-stickier with slobber.

    As horrifying as its appearance was, it could be sort of… endearing in a gummy, gooey, slimy sort of way. It didn't stop his heart from racing, or his head from tracing back to unpleasant memories, or his skin from crawling. But considering that when he first captured the creature, he could barely manage to look at it from afar without wanting to crawl behind a rock and pass out with fear, he would take any positive feelings he could.

    Guzma reached down, scooped the scattered remains of the treats back into the bag, and stood straight with a bean between his fingers.

    With more suckling noises, the Nihilego eyed it, hovered impatiently, then began to paw at his hand.

    Then a voice from an open door startled it; it cowered and puffed up its flesh.

    (cont. in next post)
     
  10. dietofwurms

    dietofwurms i see stars

    (cont. from previous post)
    -

    Lusamine could not step any closer.

    It had taken only a word to break the lock imposed on Guzma's access to the beasts, but with so much to be done, she had been caught up discussing other matters with employees in the testing labs. She had to give assurances that no one would be rendered unemployed, as frantic rumors already took flight after the announcement of her stepping down. After finishing a last talk, she returned to where she left Guzma in a training room, opened the sliding door, and found an alarming sight.

    Not only did the pack of hungry beasts carousing over the floor give her pause, as she had never allowed herself much direct contact with them, at least not without plenty of staff about, but new horrors froze her in her steps.

    There it was. The source of many muddled symbols in her head; the thing that to her, meant beauty, and death, and dreams, and nothingness. The Nihilego puffed its bell, floating just before Guzma's face, and as she continued staring at it, she felt familiar pain piercing her arms, which only sharpened to unbearable intensity when she saw Guzma's hand wander close to it. She wanted to scream, but her lungs and throat locked up.

    She could only manage to call his name, like she would a child about to touch a hot stove.

    "Guzma."

    Guzma dropped his hand. She felt the fear drop just as quickly, but he looked confused by her outburst of concern.

    How could he not be thinking the same thing? They two, of all the people in the world, should know what that creature meant. Teeth, venom, fear―

    "...Yeah?"

    All of a sudden, she felt very foolish. Stop acting like a frightened child. "Oh, I― you surprised me, with―" Desperately, but still not willing to step out of the doorway, she lifted a hand and gestured for him to approach. She blanched. "Are you…? Sure you ought to be so close...? To that…?"

    "Huh? Aw, no, look. It's fine. She's―she's not dangerous." He didn't sound fully convinced, because in fact he wasn't, but he put on a brave face for her sake. He ignored Lusamine's continued, thin breaths of worry and turned back for the Nihilego, bean in hand. "Look."

    In a manner that at least appeared fearless, he let the beast clumsily grope his fingers with its brachial tentacle, snag the treat, and bring it to its babbling mouth. The food disappeared in silence into its jellied stomach.

    "You just gotta not scare 'em. They sting when they're scared and confused, y'know? But she knows me, so we're, uh, cool."

    A little too well, it seemed; as he spoke, it began to invade his personal space again, pawing at his empty hand in search of more sustenance, then gumming its mouth nubs on his knuckles. He recoiled, but not out of pain.

    "She gets mouthy," he said, nervous and frustrated by the creature's misbehavior. When he saw Lusamine remain unpersuaded and far away, he further nattered, "It's okay, she can't even bite, her teeth are like, really tiny. It's like, it feels like wet sandpaper or something."

    "...Guzma."

    Guzma must have realized his words would never convince her, because he left them behind. Instead, he strode up to her, took her by the wrist when she tried to yield, and tugged her toward it. Ignoring her sharp, terrified intake of breath, he insisted, "You don't gotta be scared."

    Lusamine had no time to object. In a split few seconds, they stood before the wiggling beast. While she stammered and tried to find words to protest, Guzma foisted a bean in her hand.

    "Go on."

    She stepped back in vain, clutching the treat toward herself, which only served to excite the beast more. It lifted its arms at her, puffing, swelling, drooling thick ropes of phlegm. Very much hungry.

    Guzma got impatient and even pushed on her back to pin her in place. "Just hold it out."

    "I can't."

    "Yes you can," he said. He forced her hand forward by gripping her shaking wrist and pulling it up. "Open your fingers and she'll take it."

    In abject terror, Lusamine strained backward, but Guzma stood behind her as a formidable wall; her shoulders and head pressed against his chest, until it seemed he had enveloped her. His fingers still clamped about the tender skin of her arm to hold her still, and so with the Nihilego floating before her, reaching and threatening to absorb her fist if it did not release what it wanted, she unfurled her fingers one by one.

    She felt the stickiness of her sweat as her palm opened. She held her breath. Her brain screamed and anticipated the raking of thorny blades, but the tentacle swept over her harmlessly, soft and sticky as a dog's tongue. An unpleasant residue remained on her palm, but the bean had vanished.

    In disbelief, she pressed her eyes upward to meet its face. It stuffed the bean in its mouth and whistled. The bell receded in size, almost deflating, and the drooling subsided, and to express its irrepressible joy, it released a titter and squeal, then twirled around, tentacles swaying like tassels. She found the more she looked upon it, the more it was robbed of its symbolism. This was no god, no spiritual vessel; it was a peculiar animal, imperfect and unconcerned with its own meaning, garbling its material wants.

    Guzma grunted a laugh, which Lusamine could feel at her back; whether he laughed at her, or the beast's ecstasy, she didn't know, but in any case, he seemed pleased.

    -

    Lusamine asked Guzma to sit her down, and he did.

    The thin metal bench proved to be as comfortable as she imagined, but she settled in, and as if to ease her discomfort by sharing in it, he planted himself down, too.

    The beasts finished their food, so they milled across the hard rubber floor, scrabbling and showing off.

    Everybody had their plans.

    It had all happened so quickly. In one night, everything had seemed to turn upside down, and though none of the paths came as a surprise, it still shocked Lusamine how immediately it had all come upon them.

    Gladion had his new role before him.

    Lillie, encouraged by her training and inspired by a desire to become stronger, would be going to Kanto to start a new journey.

    The two children spent all their free moments chattering busily about their plans, their dreams, their hopes. Lusamine had no choice but to find their enthusiasm contagious, although her own fate was simpler―she would remain at Aether Paradise to assist in its reordering.

    Guzma…

    When Lusamine turned a quiet head to read Guzma's face, she found him hardened in a way that almost frightened her; she kept looking at him expecting to see the same softness and stupidity from when she first met him. The boy who clung to walls and tripped over his words in her presence, and wouldn't dare to touch her.

    She swallowed then cast her gaze again on the monsters, pretending that she hadn't been looking at him after all.

    "These beasts… What pitiable fates have befallen them…" She folded her hands in her lap while her expression sank. "Thrown here from another world… Maybe they've adapted some to their new home… But they'll never truly belong here. And I suspect… They wouldn't belong in their world anymore either."

    Guzma stayed silent. His eyes remained forward and narrowed.

    "Where do they belong?" The thought exhausted her; she sighed and planted her forehead on Guzma's shoulder. "Not here… Not where they came from… Then where must they go?"

    He knew what she meant, and he demonstrated this not through words, but by bringing a hand about her back, smoothing his fingers along the fabric of her dress, and stopping where the sleeve did, until his ample palm clasped her opposing arm. He held her for a moment and plucked at the delicate blue seam.

    She thought she might sink into him. But the door opened and a familiar, nasal voice drifted in the air.

    "--And here they are, as I said―oh, good lord, they're everywhere."

    Because Faba had barged in with children in tow, the couple were forced not only to separate hastily, but Guzma had to chase down and wrangle his beasts, as the arrival of three additional visitors drove them into a manic state, as if three new, shiny toys had wandered into the vicinity. He maintained his mantra ("They're not dangerous; they're just dumb!") all while they knocked him from his feet and narrowly missed trampling him, but he was able to end the hubbub by returning them to their balls and staggering to his feet.

    "We didn't interrupt any fun, did we?" Faba had the gall to ask.

    "Not at all," Lusamine replied, voice silky smooth. She didn't sound like she had the energy to be offended by his attempted rudeness.

    "Girlie, shouldn't you be packing?"

    "I am," Lillie told Guzma. "I mean―I did."

    "Oh." Guzma juggled several beast balls in his hand in an effort to keep them from falling to the floor, but as he contemplated matters, he began to attach them to a belt at his hip. "Geez… That was fast…"

    Lusamine stole his comment to lodge her own complaint; mewling and over-dramatic, she placed a hand to her cheek. "My little girl has grown up too quickly. It really is terrible." She saw Gladion roll his eyes. "And my little boy, too, of course."

    The new president put his hands behind his back and, in a desperate move to get his mother away from cooing about her babies, redirected the conversation. After seeing Guzma with his beasts, he asked, "Are you taking them with you?"

    Guzma latched the last ball to his belt and straightened, brow furrowed. "'With me'?"

    "I assumed you have plans outside of Aether."

    "That's―" Guzma paused to read their collective looks of curiosity. "Uh, one option? I still kinda work here, don't I?"

    "You realize I have some say in this," Gladion said. "If you're an employee here, you'll be working under me."

    "Oh. Yeah, guess so. That's kinda crazy." Guzma only dwelled on this a few seconds before resorting to mockery. "How do you want me to address you, huh? Mister Prez? Prez Junior? Mini-Prez?"

    Gladion caught one look of Guzma's wolfish grin and crossed his arms. "...You're fired."

    "Alright, alright! Sorry."

    "I'm not joking." Gladion kept his voice steady and unemotional. He plodded out his logic, giving Lusamine plenty of time to interrupt him, though she never did. "You can't be here and you can't hold your current position. Aether has to refocus on preservation and protection; your job covers neither. Plus, the locals seem to find the whole 'kahuna' business sacreligious, and we need them in our good graces again."

    It was hard to argue with that. No―impossible. For a time, the aptness of Gladion's assessment left everyone silent: Lusamine avoiding Guzma's eyes, Lillie gripping the handles of her backpack and looking on in sympathy, Faba plucking at his beard in thought.

    Guzma scratched his head but didn't argue. He mumbled his thought process aloud. "Okay. Okay, then… Guess it's back to Mele'mele then, huh."

    Aghast at the man's lack of creativity, Gladion cut in hard. "There are other options, you know."

    "He's right," Lillie said. "A strong trainer like you… You could do anything you want. You could travel, like me…"

    "Ah." Lusamine, surprising them all, let out a sharp, gasping vocalization and lashed out a hand, seizing Guzma by the forearm and squeezing almost to the point of torture. As they all gawked at her, Guzma especially, she had to ease her hold, snap back into the posture of a proper lady, and struggle to control the shiver in her words. "I see now."

    "Madame?" Faba cocked an eyebrow at her, and when no one else dared question her, he asked impatiently, "Do you have something you'd like to share?"

    Lusamine hands searched her wrists, where the feeling of his fingertips still lingered. Images flickered: Nihilego lapping her palm, dancing, gulls flapping the wind while Lillie laughed―they strained her with sudden heartache, mocked her with their strange convergence.

    "Lu?"

    With the thoughts tearing through her insides, she squeezed the blue veins of her arm and said, "I see. You should go with her."

    There was only one way to interpret what she meant, but the statement flew so over their every expectation they had, that each of them independently thought she had misspoken or they had misheard.

    But she hardened her resolve and explained as if she heard their skeptical thoughts, "And why not? Lillie's never traveled before, and neither have you--isn't that right? What a time you would have together…"

    Guzma, alarmed, lifted his hands. "Woah, uh, wait―"

    Gladion seemed to share Guzma's apprehension, but before he could voice it, Lillie jumped in. She could have been offended at the offer, could have balked at the idea of being handed an attendant like she was a child in need of supervision.

    Instead, she leaped and pushed past her mother, standing before him and shaking with renewed enthusiasm.

    "You could!" She balled and tightened her fists at her backpack straps. "And! You could teach me everything you know about being a trainer!"

    In spite of her eagerness, Guzma was more exasperated than flattered. He frowned, pulled a sour look at both of the women, and lamented, "I ain't looking to be some full-time babysitter."

    "'Babysitter'!"

    Lusamine calmly disregarded Lillie's indignant outburst and murmured for Guzma to hear, "I know it isn't what you planned… And perhaps you don't think you're suitable… But I happen to think you'd make a fine teacher. Besides, I would rest easier knowing you were with her."

    "Mother." Gladion waited for their attention to fall on him before he spoke deliberately. "I don't mean to imply he's untrustworthy," he said, looking to Guzma before addressing her, "and I think I see how it could work―they would balance each other out a bit―but do you really want to trust him with this?"

    "Oh… But I do. Very much." Standing close beside him, she placed the tips of her fingers at his wrist. The touch went unnoticed by them, but he could feel their prickling against the wiry hairs atop his arm. Her eyes, dewy and luminous, lifted to meet his, and in a smashing spark of a second, it was as if a veil lifted (a thin veil, as thin and delicate as rice paper). She communicated something impossible in those eyes, at that moment; she leaned in close, concealing her action by stepping toward him, and clasped her small fingers about the width of his. She came close to smiling.

    Guzma felt goosebumps flare up his arm.

    Seeing the googly eyes between them, Faba just barely restrained himself from gagging. He threw his eyes up to ceiling and groaned. "Well, then!? No need to hold us in pointless suspense."

    "I―" Guzma sank his gaze into her eyes, saw Lillie imploringly staring him down from the side, and shuffled his feet, feeling rather cornered. In time, he huffed and threw his shoulders, pretending not to cave into their demands by declaring, "If I do this, that makes me the boss o' her, right?"

    "Absolutely not." Lusamine spoke gently and with a touch of good humor, then gave him an affectionate pat on the chest. "Her assistant, maybe. Remember she has her own job to do."

    Lillie, in unusually poor sport, stuck out her tongue at him. "Ha."

    "Now, now, let's not be unladylike…"

    "If I ain't the boss, what's the point!"

    The girl dropped her teasing to plead. "The point is to travel! See new things! And you'll be able to help me get stronger―won't you just say yes already!"

    "Alright! Fine! Geez." He sighed and wrapped an arm about Lusamine's shoulder while the young girl skipped around them; he griped, strategically close to Lusamine's ear, "Already as bossy as her old lady."

    A steely, but also secretly-amused glare later, the woman returned: "Young man… You'd better get going. There isn't much time; she's leaving today."

    "Tch. You getting rid o' me quick, huh."

    She didn't find that quite as funny.

    -

    The beasts were to go with him.

    That's what she decided. Whether she did this as a way to make amends, or because she would not be able to stand the sight of them with their handler gone, she didn't say, but regardless, the decision did not weight lightly on her.

    Guzma lined the blue balls into the transfer panel, and they lay neatly in rows, awaiting upload; after that, they would sit in the server and await future use. For a moment after shutting the panel, Guzma glanced about the small laboratory, its blinking screens, its monitors, its measuring equipment, and felt a conflicted sense of worry and relief. Relief―because the beasts would be spared the prodding and wires. But worry, too, because only then did he come to realize taking them meant no more research. He could be robbing the foundation of insight. They wouldn't know any more about the beasts' abilities, strengths, weaknesses, biology, functions; he would have to figure these things out on his own, and he felt all the more unprepared for that responsibility.

    His hand hovered over the console. The rest of them had gone ahead and were about the reach the elevator.

    Maybe…

    His fingers tapped on the console's frame.

    Maybe they don't belong with me.

    He thought about empty eyes and faces. Their unnatural behavior. The way they moved and consumed, hardly touched by his words.

    If he let himself, he could dismiss them as monsters.

    But then he thought about Lady, and the opal eyes that stared back at him when he touched the smooth, pearly carapace of her cheek.

    Like so many things, he chose. He chose to take a stab at faith and believe in something that he could not put into words.

    He made the transfer.

    -

    The heat of the day hadn't softened at all, which left the staff sweltering in their white uniforms out on the dock. The only mercy came in the form of a steady breeze passing over the glistening sea, pulsing the waters with westward wind. The choppy waters swayed the shuttle tethered to the docking area, and far off, just at the rim of the sky, the boat's much larger counterpart, which had departed hours ago, began to disappear around the bend of Akala Island.

    The sea sprawled empty and open in every direction.

    "Mr. Guzma."

    Guzma blinked.

    Before him, Gladion stood with purpose, and Guzma could guess it. He had already seen the boy offering his parting words to his sister, and from where they both stood now, they could see Lusamine taking her turn with her daughter. The woman affixed her fingers at the girl's head, murmured meaningful things, and did her best to show strength. Long strokes fell along the back of Lillie's hair.

    "I suppose I should wish you good luck and travels," Gladion went on. He already had his arms crossed at his chest, and he looked annoyed that Guzma continued to look over his head at the women. "But more importantly, you should know: you hurt her, and I will kill you."

    He knew Gladion meant to be serious; the kid was allergic to levity, especially now that he was about to adopt an adult role. But getting a threat from the shrimpy kid was too much. Guzma couldn't help it. He snorted a laugh and violated hierarchical standards by knocking and grinding a knuckle into the new president's scalp. "Man, whatever, Prez Junior."

    The boy yelped, wrenched himself out of reach, and glared nastily at him. Within seconds he was fixing his hair and ignoring Guzma's snickering.

    Then, over the salty breeze, there came a sound of a twosome bickering.

    Faba had earlier made it known to everyone that he had "things to do" and didn't wish to "waste any more time," and thus excused himself when the shuttle was said to have arrived and the travelers ready to go. Though none of them were surprised by his opposition to partaking in the last farewell, Guzma felt a sliver of regret in letting him slink off without another word.

    Now, though, Faba appeared―in the midst of a heated argument with Aster. They hushed their fight as they approached, however, and they stopped before them, Aster stuffing his hands in his pockets and smiling sweetly, and Faba, pink-faced from exertion, drumming his fingers on his crossed forearms and putting on an expression of disgust.

    "We came to say goodbye," Aster said to answer the questioning looks on Gladion and Guzma's faces. He waited a beat. Shifted his eyes. Then, when the silence became unbearable, he elbowed Faba, trying to be subtle about it.

    The scientist, flustered, rattled to life, adjusted his glasses, and rambled hurriedly. "Yes! Well! I decided, after all, it's only appropriate that the branch chief be present for your departure."

    Guzma was in such an unusually good mood that he dared to grin and jape, "Aw, you gonna miss me, Mr. Faba?"

    "Ugh." Faba let out a hefty scoff and scowl, then looked him square in the eyes like he meant to evaporate him with his gaze. "Mark my words, Guzma," he seethed. "You are the most exasperating creature I have ever been forced to endure, and I've neverbeen happier to see someone leave for good―!"

    "I know," Guzma deflected. Before the scientist could either recognize or defend himself from the gesture, Guzma pulled him into a brief, bone-cracking embrace, accompanied with a painful thump on the shoulder-blade with his fist. "It's okay, Mr. Faba; I'll come back an' visit."

    It took a moment of cringing and struggle for Faba to regain his standing; mercifully, the hug ended with all joints in place, and the hulking young man must have found closure, as he quickly turned away and started for the shuttle. Gladion, hiding a smirk, followed after.

    And so, dusting himself off, Faba complained, depleted now of his bluster, "A handshake would have more than sufficed."

    No one heard him but Aster, and Aster was unkind enough to laugh.

    -

    Lusamine thought…

    Lusamine thought she would have no more words left. No more tears.

    But when Lillie boarded the shuttle with her belongings, and Gladion said his last words of goodbye to his sister, and Guzma approached her, his face full of contemplation, she felt a resurgence. The sting returned to her eyes. She had a million things to say all at once.

    In the bright afternoon, the color in him stood out: the brown shades in his unfurling black hair, the shock red of his jacket, the wheat hue of his skin, the blinding white of his sneakers and undershirt, the ashen blue at the rim of his gray eyes. She felt most at ease thinking of him like that in the moment, like a pallette, a creature of combined tones whom she did not have to face.

    But he broke the spell.

    "This is it, huh, Miss L."

    Guzma hoisted a duffel bag that probably outweighed her over his shoulder.

    "I told you…" He blinked in the sharpness of the direct sunlight. "That I'd do whatever you said. That I'd stay if you wanted."

    "I remember," she said. Her voice was so thin that the breeze nearly broke it.

    "So you're sure?"

    Why did he feel the need to torture her like this? If she obeyed her impulses now, she would have flung herself at him in a rage. "Yes, of course I am. You should go."

    She feared that he would call her out for her obvious reluctance, but her gently regarded her, thought for a moment, then shook his head with a sigh. He remembered something then, as shown by the lifting of his normally crumpled eyebrows. "Oh. So, hey. When I went through my stuff, you know, looking for what I wanted to bring―I found this thing, I'd kinda forgotten about it, actually, but…" He cut off his own train of thought. "Here, lemme just show you." Balancing the bag at his back with one hand, he used the other to fish through a few pockets (hitting a few empty ones as he did) until he at last recovered the object in question.

    In his hand was a brilliant blue stone the size of his palm.

    She knew what it was, but he needlessly explained, "It's a Dawn Stone."

    Under the direct sunlight, its star-shaped refraction almost blinded her.

    "It was a prize for a championship I won as a kid. I carried it around as a kinda lucky charm, but…" He flipped it over in his palm thoughtfully. "I don't really need it anymore."

    In a gentle, promising gesture that lasted only a second, he took her hand and passed it to her palm. The stone rested its weight there, cool against her skin.

    "I want you to hold onto it for me." He paused, then exhorted, "Don't lose it."

    Before she could still her tongue, it leaped from her with shocking earnestness: "I won't."

    Neither could decide the right course of action for a second. A handshake would be too formal; a kiss too intimate. He pulled her into a hug, but even that came across as clumsily familial, firm and fast, lacking the sensuality she had grown used to.

    "Well…" He fumbled to take up her hands, clutching over the stone-covered palm and cream-colored backs of her hands. They radiated with warmth from absorbing the piercing sunlight, and in fact could already be seen tinting pink. It all became too vivid, and the words caught in his throat. Then he said, a little too seriously, "See you around."

    "...That's an awfully funny thing to say in these circumstances."

    "It's just―" He winced. "It's just what we say around here. Anyway, unless one of us drops dead or somethin', we'll run into each other again."

    "How astute of you," she said. She covered her amusement by weaving her free fingers into his. "I see. Yes… Suffice to say, the world is small."

    Guzma looked ready to say something else― something meaningful, maybe. But Lillie had been on the shuttle for some time and, holding the railing and bouncing with excitement, she cried out, "Mr. Guzma! Hurry up! "

    The boy didn't look back at her, instead rolling his eyes. "Like I said," he told her. "Bossy."

    Lusamine, feeling him start to pull away, suddenly reverted to maternal fretting. "Now, don't fight."

    Guzma groaned and tousled his hair, responding with the sarcasm of a son answering his mother's lecturing. "Okay."

    "And take care of each other… You may not think it, but the both of you… Need to be taken care of…"

    "Yeah, yeah. I'll watch her. Kanto boys are scrawny; I can bash 'em if I have to."

    That talk served more to spike her blood pressure than ease it, but she let it pass. "Stay in contact. Of course you can call anytime, but letters, too…"

    "We'll send ya postcards," he assured her. His voice shifted to concern when she showed no sign of calming down. "It'll be fine. Don't stress about it. You just focus on getting better."

    Lusamine's eyes flitted with surprise and unrestrained moisture. She hadn't expected the worry to be directed back at her.

    "I mean it," he said. "Get better." To hurry himself, he didn't hesitate or ask permission, but put his hand to her face, brushed her hair aside, and planted a kiss on her forehead.

    She felt the world dim. His lips were warm, but heartbreakingly brief. Rockets whistling up her throat; ash and sparks; a shower of light. Then it was over, and he began to hustle away.

    "Guzma."

    He paused to look over his shoulder at her.

    At first, she couldn't think of what she meant to say. Or rather, which thing to say―she still had so many words swimming in his stomach, each a different flavor. Her tongue went sticky with anger and terror and worry. She gaped at him, saw his innocent affection, and thought it very foolish. She imagined (wrongly, although to her credit, not without good reason) that she had been the cruellest figure of his life. All that unthinking savagery, and still, he paddled back to her.

    "I―" She clutched the Dawn Stone and pressed it against her ribcage until she thought it might crumble into dust. "I don't understand you."

    "Uh―" Guzma's expression warped with embarrassment; he didn't know what was going through her head, so he took to awkwardly searching for a response. He offered a wave and nervous chuckle. "Eh-heh. Yeah. Hey, me neither."

    That was the last thing he said to her before getting on the boat.

    How stumbling. How inarticulate.

    How… him.

    -

    The leaving was ever so mundane.

    They got on the boat. There was waving, and waiting for the shuttle to vanish close to the horizon. With it all over, Lusamine found herself stuck on the dock, feet cemented on the edge before the drop into the sea. She looked down. It looked deep, impenetrable.

    Gladion came up behind her when he decided she had moped long enough. "Their flight out of Alola won't be today, you know," Gladion told her, strongly implying that her grief was premature. "You could even see them off again if you wanted."

    "No..." Lusamine folded her hands against her stomach, the Dawn Stone still round and hard against her flesh. "No, I think… This is the way it should be. This is all right."

    "Hmph." Gladion frowned like he didn't believe her. He squinted out to sea, but the shuttle had gone too far to be anything but an impersonal white speck hurtling for Mele'mele. "Then we should go inside. We have work to do."

    Lusamine watched the waves lick and slide.

    "...Mother?"

    "Ah…" She turned, a picture of serenity, and put on the first smile he had seen in a long time. "Yes, of course. Much work."

    When Gladion turned for the interior elevator, she started to follow, but after a few steps, her eyes dragged back to the source of her distraction. Far away, the boat's wake drew a thin line of white surf across the sea, and she froze again as she watched it. Like a thread, it stretched and stretched the further it went, building pain and tension with every passing moment. It went taut, strained, gave her the sudden, unbearable sensation of being torn in two―and then broke.

    Very abruptly, she could breathe.

    Had Guzma felt it too?

    With supernatural certainty, she decided that he had.



    Aloha ʻoe, aloha ʻoe

    E ke onaona noho i ka lipo

    One fond embrace,

    A hoʻi aʻe au

    Until we meet again



    Farewell to thee, farewell to thee

    The charming one who dwells in the shaded bowers

    One fond embrace,

    'Ere I depart

    Until we meet again



    THE END

    A/N: That's the final chapter! I'll be posting the epilogue and two addenda soon as well.
     
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  11. Chibi Pika

    Chibi Pika Stay positive

    aaaaand with that, our characters finally have their hard-earned ending. And what an ending. I love how you managed to fit little moments with pretty much every single character, from the Skull grunts reacting to the wedding being called off, to Nanu stepping in to take care of their punishment, to Faba being as tundere as ever and vouching for Aster to stay with Aether. And then of course the main characters. Gladion becoming president and getting the chance to train the other two Null. Lilie going on a journey, with Guzma watching over her. And Lusamine. Sitting in the center of all this change. Everyone going their separate ways. She can't hold tight to the way things are right now, can't hold back the changes that life brings. Like fireworks, the beauty is in the transience. There's a moment at the end where I can't help but feel that she's slowly begun to accept that.

    It's been a while since we'd seen the Ultra Beasts, hasn't it? But bringing them back in the end really solidified the parallels between them and Guzma, both unable to return to where they came from, but also pulled into a world that they were completely unfit for. It's so cute to see how well he understands them after all this. And even if they are simple creatures, it's hard not to feel for the beauty that Guzma sees in how they live and react to the world, and I'm glad he chose to stand by that in the end. Maybe they'll get the chance to learn and grow just as he has.

    It's been a hell of a journey, but it made seeing everyone reach a fitting end feel all the more sweet. Thanks for sharing it with us.

    ~Chibi~
     
  12. dietofwurms

    dietofwurms i see stars

    Epilogue: Postcards

    All stories must end.


    But when a story ends, lives go on. Winds blow in all directions; like dandelion seeds, where people were once were bound by one kernel, now, they scattered. And for each one, different fates had to be faced. Different challenges, and fears, and victories. Such would be stories in their own right―only not here.

    There is honor, at times, in the stories not written:



    I. Lusamine faced the most difficult and uncertain ending, but also the most necessary one. It would take time for her to find her way―to find how to fill her days, now that she had given up so much. To watch her son take over and disassemble so much of her dynasty hurt, like a series of amputations one after another, but within a few weeks, the pain dulled and she could start to see where the culling had made room for health. Life came back. Workers and volunteers flowed again, no long choked by crowds or media. There was focus, a sense of humility, a sense of… Wanting to do right.

    Without her duties as president, and without Guzma to accompany her, she had to find new hobbies and interests. There were only so many hours one could spend sitting in the garden doing nothing. Interim President Gladion noticed her restlessness and asked her what she did before her presidency, and she answered, I had two young children to take care of; what wasn't I doing?

    So he made his deduction and decided to offer her a chance to volunteer in the medical wing. Perhaps, he thought, she needed an outlet for her mothering instinct.

    He half-expected her to turn up her nose at the opportunity to do grunt work, so he was pleasantly surprised when she accepted. Though it proved awkward for a time working among her former underlings who still slipped into calling her Madame President , gradually, she learned a new routine. She came to relearn the preciousness of life and soften her heart, little by little, like stone worn down by dripping water. She had learned once that it took millions of years for canyons to be carved under the beating of harsh rivers, and there were days she woke up with the weight of that knowledge―of knowing that perhaps, it was no use trying to create such drastic change within a single lifespan. But the despair would pass, and she found, somewhere in herself, the strength to get up again.

    In the evenings after her work was done, in the privacy of her bedroom, she'd gaze up at the glowing moon through her open window, letters in hand. Guzma had started his journey and kept his promise. Clumsy handwriting aside, the tone of his letters remained professional, subdued, and at times, curt. She thought she could read a strain of melancholy in some of them, but perhaps she was projecting. Lusamine also suspected that Lillie was assisting him; there were turns of phrase and subtle composition choices that she would normally think of as beyond his grasp. Yet that, too, could be Lusamine's self-serving assumptions―an excuse for why Guzma had yet to wax poetic for her (if Lillie had eyes on his letters, she reasoned, certainly he'd withhold anything too personal or amorous). In any case, she still read them carefully, folded them away, and when loneliness returned, she'd bring them out again. Over and over, until the ink wore away.

    The moon stared back down at her. When it was positioned at just the right spot in the night sky, it made the Dawn Stone on her desk light up in a brilliant, ethereal seafoam blue. She wondered.



    II. Gladion took to his new position well, though his decisions and leadership style caused an initial kerfuffle. Once the dust settled, Aether returned to normal, with some key elements extracted. The first thing to go was the battle stadium and spectacle; then came the cleaning of the underbelly, purging the live experimentation and worst excesses of the science department. Faba grumbled about certain projects being slashed―but wised up enough to comply.

    The young master worked long hours, which for a boy his age meant plenty of exhaustion, but with Ms. Wicke back at the Foundation, he always had support in form of tea and comforting words. Lusamine, too, would on occasion deign to offer bits of advice when she passed through the halls like a ghost of the past.

    No matter how many times she suggested it, though, he never wore wardrobe befitting a president.

    True to his word, he kept his mother at arm's length most of the time and ventured near the home only rarely. This wasn't to say he isolated her entirely; if he had learned anything in training Silvally, it was that frequent contact, not harsh discipline, made for the best rehabilitation. On occasion, this meant a meal, or a meeting on important matters, or a walk along the outskirts of the facility. Gladion also came to take frequent trips to the islands, usually to visit the satellite bases and assess their wildlife initiatives, and often, if Lusamine's health and spirit were good, she would come along.

    The first time she did that, Gladion hardly knew what to make of it, seeing her stand on real earth, surrounded by natural life neither transplanted nor collected. He saw her sweat in the sweltering heat. He watched her shake pebbles from her shoes, scratch bug bites, and flush with pink patches of sunburn. Outside of the artifice of Aether, she humanized, became an organic being again. She was uncomfortable during the trips, but determined, and when he pushed certain feelings aside, he could feel almost proud of her.

    It would all take time, he knew.

    But he had plenty.



    III. Faba, who dutifully postponed his retirement to assist in the transition of power, had to face the realities of his actions under Lusamine, compelled as they were. Interim President certainly didn't let him avoid responsibility; wherever Gladion went in the foundation to undo past sins, he'd order Faba along to do the heavy lifting―of the intellectual sort mostly, though, sometimes, the literal sort, too. While Faba griped about his new work situation―being ordered around by a small child like he was their personal secretary―eventually, he resigned to his fate and found ways to tolerate it. Faba became once again a timid breed of sycophant, praising Gladion's leadership skills to his face while muttering other desires under his breath. Still, something about the current political upheaval brightened his outlook. The fact that power had changed hands… After all, Gladion might not want to be President forever.

    In the meantime, Professor Aster remained at Aether, and when Ms. Wicke returned to serve as Assistant Branch Chief, the two got along famously. They gossiped and swapped recipes and cooed over staff baby pictures, and in general drove Faba entirely batty.

    Aster and Faba still spent time together, too, of course. They convinced the Interim President to approve a joint trip to Lumiose for what Aster insisted on calling a vacation and Faba was quick to call an out-of-town conference. (The whole time they were there, Aster could not quite convince Faba to introduce him as anything other than a fellow colleague. Some things―still an uphill battle).



    IV. After leaving the wedding, Nanu went directly home to his police station, kicked up his heels, and fell asleep with a purring Meowth on his chest. As far as anyone knows, he hasn't moved since.



    V. Team Skull went on to be… well, itself, for the time being. A few changes began to take place: as the hierarchy loosened and group goals dissolved, many of the elder grunts wandered off, returning home if they could, going on their respective journeys if they couldn't. This left the youngest in squalor, but not for long. The court had made its order: they could stay in Po Town, so long as they didn't cause anymore trouble, and so long as they began to attend school.

    Plumeria had to play big sister. She had to assure them this wasn't an execution, reason that they were bored most of the time anyway, and wake up early to corral them into the kitchen and out the door. It was hectic and nerve-wracking, but privately, she came to the conclusion that the boneheads could use some literacy and numerical skills. It wasn't the worst thing.

    As for herself, she thanked the stars that she had dodged the age requirement for school. She had been slapped with probation instead, and the judge must have had a twisted sense of humor, because they put Nanu in charge of it.

    It didn't matter too much. As the kahuna often did, he passed the responsibility off to his favorite errand boy, Molayne.

    ...Sly old devil.



    VI. And as for Guzma and Lillie, their unwritten story began at the shores of Mele'mele, because both of them were wound into the fabric of that island, and both felt the need to delicately pry themselves away rather than rent violently off. For Lillie, this meant time with Professor Kukui, time packing her old and newer belongings, deciding what to keep and what to leave behind. It meant finding Hau and trying to find a way of explaining her plans without shattering his spirit. And of course it meant a hearty goodbye to Kahuna Hala, who had given her the first of her lessons which would serve her on her journey.

    Because Guzma knew these people, too, he had to negotiate his presence carefully. He met with Master Hala, too, and had to endure the jealous and suspicious glares from the kahuna's grandson when travel plans were divulged. Guzma would try to surrender his Z-Ring, a pitiful gesture of contrition, but Hala wouldn't accept it. He said something gentle, and merciful, and wise, and all over again, Guzma felt shame at having not listened to him before.

    In those last days on Mele'mele, Guzma also spent time at home, mostly to crash for the night, though he at least once stayed for supper. His parents weren't sure what to make of his failed attempt at marriage, but they expressed―in their own ways―cautious enthusiasm about his new lot in life.

    And even though he knew all his feelings wouldn't be resolved in one meeting, he accepted an invitation to Kukui's place for dinner; Professor Burnet and Lillie attended, too, so it was an uneasy, but cheerful affair. When the sun set on their meal, resting its bronze face over the black sea, Kukui and Guzma broke off from the women and out onto the sand, walking along shore, dodging the laps of the tide. After sitting together on neighboring rocks, private things were spoken about―things not to be transcribed here―though one is free to speculate what two men who were once friends might say to each other, now that they're grown and ready to face childhood wounds.

    By the end of their talk, Guzma thought, I'll never really leave this place. At one time, he would have thought of that as a curse. But now, he accepted it, the good and the bad alike. Mele'mele Island was in his blood. Running to Ula'ula hadn't changed that, and going to Kanto wouldn't, either.

    It was difficult―letting go. But it was good, too.

    The wind started to blow, and the sun cast long, mingling shadows over the bay, blending the two men's silhouettes with one another, and with trees and stones. The breeze had a salty aroma, but clean, rolling with the smells of distant grasses.

    It was the wind of change.
     
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  13. dietofwurms

    dietofwurms i see stars

    I plan to post the two addenda's tomorrow. Meanwhile, thanks to those who nominated and voted for this story in the 2018 contest. It appears this story won a category or two (and tied for another). I'm sorry that I've been dragging my feet so much updating this thread throughout this process; I get easily discouraged and distracted. As soon as I'm done with the addenda, this thread will have to be moved to completed fics.
     
  14. dietofwurms

    dietofwurms i see stars

    Addendum One: The Evil That Men Do

    Twelve years ago in early June, the weather on Mele'mele Island had already become uncomfortably warm, but it had not stopped Guzma from walking home and sweating in his favorite hoodie over his school uniform. The island was small enough that on any given day, he could choose a variety of paths home: he could cut through the bustling city, past the beach; he could wind his way to a malasada shop for a post-school snack; he could trek up through the northern cliff-sides and fields for solitude. This time, in no particular rush to get home, Guzma chose a more meandering path, one that had gotten familiar to him in the last year.

    At the south end of Hau'oli City, a row of duplex style homes sat at the edge of the sea. Unlike the homes in Iki Town, these were of more modern design and were almost exclusively occupied by adults without families of their own, either living alone or with a roommate. They also tended to be rented by transplants to the island, as such people would move to Mele'mele and have no claim to the village homes owned by local residents. The duplexes were tall―three floors with windows and a small balcony at the top floor―and rather narrowly packed in together. Guzma knew the faces, if not the names, of every resident along that street, but he knew only the one very well.

    Guzma approached the first duplex. Like the others, it didn't have much in the way of a yard or garden, but a small picket fence divided its property line from the road, and some potted flowers and plants lined the rim of the house's porch. On its exterior, the home had a soothing, plain look, correctly communicating the quietness and solitude of its two neighboring residents. But if one knew where and how to look, subtle concerning signs could be spotted. Curtains and windows kept shut. Unswept pavement. A few wooden chairs piled in the corner of the yard, perhaps at one point to be repaired, but now bleaching and warping from neglect.

    The duplex apartments were conjoined with one set of stairs and one whitewashed porch, with a door on the left and on the right sides to signify the division of the eastern and western halves. Guzma glanced toward the right side of the duplex―the side of interest―and saw a familiar sight.

    A Mightyena draped over the floor of the porch, its long body stretched out and slumbering in the shade. Its front paws were folded neatly, and its head nestled between them, giving a steep and visible rise to its back as it took in sleepy breaths. Advanced in age, this particular Mightyena had stiffer, more matted fur than its younger, silkier counterparts; the lustrous mane that began at its head and wound down its back had likewise changed from a smooth ebony to a more matte gray color. Guzma knew that Mightyena tended to be wild, feisty pokemon, but this one had calmed significantly in its later years, now spending most of its days lazing on its owner's porch and watching the island-folk walk by.

    When he saw the pokemon, he felt brave enough to reach out, push open the gate, and venture inside. He dropped his backpack from his shoulders and left it at the gate on his way in.

    "Hey, Saki," he called.

    The Mightyena twitched, yawned, and peeled a single eye open. Upon seeing him, its ears perked.

    "Your owner home?"

    Rather than answer, it sniffed the air in his direction and chuffed.

    Guzma wasn't dissuaded. He plodded his way up the steps, knocked on the right-side door, and waited. When no one came, he turned to face the drowsing animal, who still tracked him with its eyes. He stooped down and put a hand on its head. The petting pleased it. It flopped a saggy ear at him and slipped out its tongue, lapping his wrist. A few scratches in, it groaned and rolled its entire body onto its back. Guzma snorted a laugh and indulged its request for a belly rub. The hairs were short and bristly on its stomach, but if he scratched the right place, he could make its back leg kick and throat whistle with a happy howl. Its tongue lolled out.

    "Ha-ha! Tha'ssa a good boy, Saki."

    Momentarily distracted, Guzma failed to hear the far door open, so he was caught by surprise when a sharp, unfriendly voice snapped at him.

    "What do you think you're doing!?"

    The Mightyena grunted at hearing the scolding tone; Guzma himself leaped to his feet and, without even looking, skittered down the steps. It was only when he turned around, heart pounding out of his chest, that he found the landlord glowering at him. The elderly woman, with tawny, wrinkled skin and beady, hateful eyes, probably posed no real threat, but she never failed to frighten him in the few times they'd interacted.

    An Absol slipped out from behind her. Like her, it had a pair of cruel, penetrating eyes that seemed to never let up; Guzma felt a shiver move up his spine when it examined him.

    The landlord's voice sliced into him. "What sort of child are you? Walking onto other people's property without their permission!"

    Guzma frowned indignantly but couldn't keep his voice from shaking. "H-he said I can…"

    "He's not here," she barked. "And he doesn't own the place; I do!"

    The more she yelled, the more he found himself walking backwards and slinking toward the gate. He trembled as he picked up his backpack and slung it over his shoulders. Guzma put a hand on the gate to leave, but proved so shaken that he fumbled with the latch a few times.

    "Some no-good punk has been coming around at night and smashing my flowers. You wouldn't know anything about that, would you?"

    "What?" Guzma pulled the straps of his backpack tighter against his shoulders. "Miss, I don't even―"

    "And if I ever catch you, you're dead meat!"

    At this point, Guzma began to realize that arguing with her would do no good. As she yelled, anger spilled into his chest, and a wrathful heat clenched his throat. In that moment, he would have given anything for the courage to say exactly what he felt. He wanted to march over to her stupid plants and show what he thought of her, this caterwauling, bitter witch.

    But before he could do anything, someone at a distance spoke.

    "Guzma."

    Guzma heard the voice and whipped his head around.

    "Is everything okay?"

    And Guzma saw him―the other resident of the duplex, and the owner of the Mightyena. "Uncle."

    To Guzma's right, on the other side of the fence, Daturo had come around from the back of the house. The man rested his hands on the picket planks and looked between Guzma and the woman, showing his concern by wrinkling his brow. The white t-shirt he wore had smears of oil, sweat and grease, as did his face and hands, but before Guzma could try and deduce what the cop must have been doing, the woman piped up angrily.

    "Oh, there's the bum. Why aren't you out on patrol? Did they finally fire you?"

    "Ah..." Daturo nervously chuckled, smiled, and employed some false charm. "Good afternoon, Mrs. Makani… I'm working the night shift this week, remember? Say, it's nice weather today, isn't it?"

    The old woman scrunched up her eyes, digging a glare into him. "Don't try and sweet-talk me. Your rent's late."

    Smoothly, he spoke while wiping his hands down with a handkerchief. "How's your water heater? Giving you any more trouble?"

    She breathed in―held her breath―then muttered darkly to herself, not answering. She dropped the issue. "If you're a cop, then you should keep this delinquent off my property."

    "Will do, Mrs. Makani."

    Grumbling, she turned for her door, yanking it open to retreat inside. Her Absol followed after her.

    "Have a nice evening!"

    The door slammed shut.

    Daturo's voice plummeted and he sighed. He rubbed the back of his neck. "...Aye. Yeesh."

    "I'm sorry," Guzma blurted.

    Daturo blinked at him. "Huh?"

    "I didn't―mean―"

    "Ah, don't apologize," Daturo interrupted. "She's a crazy *****. Just ignore her."

    (From any other adult, the language would have shocked Guzma; from Daturo, though, he was used to it).

    With another gruff sigh, the cop bent backward and pressed a hand to straighten his spine. "What are you doing here, anyway?"

    Guzma didn't know how to answer. He started unconsciously digging his shoe into a spot of dirt.

    Daturo, having become an expert in reading him, cocked his head. "Something wrong?"

    "No," Guzma said, too quickly. "I… I dunno."

    Without being able to discern what Guzma wanted, Daturo simply relented. He turned with a shake of his head. "Well, I'm just working on my car around back. You can follow me, if you want."

    Daturo had his police cruiser parked on the maintenance road winding behind the row of duplexes. The car's hood was propped open; tools lay scattered on the pavement; bottles and empty containers of undecipherable purpose lined the curb. By the time Guzma reached it, the cop, who he could see now was entirely in civilian clothing, had already returned to his work.

    Guzma ended up standing there awkwardly for a while, wriggling under the weight of his backpack and watching Daturo tinker away. Finally, the cop finished some crucial step enough to pause and think of what to say.

    "So, it's been awhile," Daturo observed.

    It was true. It was also not an accident. Guzma just shrugged. "Yeah, I guess..."

    "What have you been up to?"

    "Nothing." Guzma hastily moved the subject away from himself. "What are you doing?"

    Daturo, without shifting his focus from the current task, answered, "Nothing complicated. Checking its fluids. About to do an oil change."

    Those words meant nothing to Guzma. He craned his neck slightly to see if he could make any sense of it by sight, but Daturo's body was enough in the way, and the mess of pipes and metal shapes had no recognizable pattern. "You know how to do all that?"

    "Sure I do." Daturo at last turned and spotted Guzma's skeptical look. "I guess you island kids never learn much about cars," Daturo surmised―correctly. "Back in Jubilife, our dads taught us the basics."

    Guzma held onto and marveled at that thought. His vision whirled with the images of traffic jams and highways, like he only ever saw on TV. "Did you all have one?"

    Daturo chuckled. "Oh, we all wanted one. It was a big deal when you were a teenager. Especially for guys. We all wanted the chance to sneak out and slip our girlfriends into the back seat for some hanky panky, you know?"

    Horrified, but not entirely surprised by the comment, Guzma averted his eyes and flushed.

    Thankfully, Daturo didn't notice. He was too busy fiddling with something.

    This was one of Daturo's most prominent flaws in character: when alone with him and not in the presence of prying eyes and ears, he did not restrain himself. He spoke crassly. He swore, he told lewd stories, he discussed sensitive topics, he overshared personal details, he asked invasive and intimate questions. If anything he said made Guzma uncomfortable, he'd laugh and tease him: Aww, what are you getting all shy for?

    It was a flaw too easily misinterpreted by a child; Guzma mistook this lack of self-censorship as a sign of honesty and transparency. He even thought it was a show of respect, because Daturo spoke to him like he was another adult.

    (In retrospect, though, Guzma would come to understand it as evidence of deeper flaws: a lack of self-control; an inability to maintain personal boundaries; a recklessness; a dangerous disregard for the uniqueness of childhood. In Daturo's world, all lines blurred together.)

    "Hey, Goose."

    Guzma, startled, brought his eyes up to see Daturo looking directly at him.

    "You came here from school?"

    Instinctively, Guzma glanced down and pulled at the telling backpack straps. "Uh, yeah."

    "I thought you were out for the summer?"

    "Nah. We got just a few days left."

    "Huh. I swear when I was a kid, we were always out by June." After scratching his lower back and belting out a hoarse cough, he asked, "You got plans for the summer?"

    "...Not really."

    "Aren't you old enough to start that island challenge thing?"

    Guzma was used to explaining local traditions to the cop, so he explained patiently, "Most kids do that in sixth grade."

    "Oh. Really? That's funny. Hala told me he thinks you're ready."

    Shocked that Hala would volunteer such information freely, Guzma groused, "All he ever tells me is what I'm doing wrong."

    "He's a strict guy," Daturo said. Guzma could tell that he wanted to say something more profoundly unkind. Another habit of his: bad-mouthing other adults. But Kahuna Hala was so sinless that it proved difficult for him to cast stones; Hala was about the only man on the island who treated the cop with any respect or kindness, so even Daturo didn't have the heart to slander him. With that in mind, Daturo amended reluctantly, "I'm sure he just wants you to try your hardest." He paused again. Then, with an expectant, prodding upturn to his voice, he said, "So. If you're not on your challenge trip, I guess you'll be in the neighborhood all summer."

    Guzma knew this voice, and he knew what it meant. But Guzma was a little older now, and a little wiser, and he had started to learn the dance―how to sidestep, how to dodge, how to slip away. That wasn't to say it always worked. Daturo was bigger than he was. And the man was sly when he needed to be: tricky, shrewd, well-versed in the art of deceit. Guzma carefully calculated his answer. "Maybe."

    Daturo frowned. The slightest possibility emboldened him to start saying, "If you have nothing else to do, you can always hang around here."

    "I might be busy."

    Veiling his disappointment, Daturo said, "Okay. Well…"

    Guzma turned himself suddenly around and crossed the access road, settling himself at the shoreline. He could hear only Daturo's surprised stuttering behind him as he peered over the edge, seeing a few feet below where the waves beat against the rocky soil. The weight of his backpack suddenly felt like a mountain; he stooped, crouching down and fidgeting with the fabric at his knees. A thought occurred to him. "Have you ever…" He stopped himself, overcome with nerves. He picked up a rock from the ground and chucked it into the water, and half-hoped that Daturo hadn't heard him.

    "Have I ever what?"

    ...No luck. Guzma didn't face him when he asked, "Have you ever killed anybody?"

    "What!?" Daturo was in so much shock, that he dropped his tool into the recesses of the engine; he cursed and fumbled for it. Once he recovered, he paced over, eventually placing himself besides the boy. His voice quavered. "Geez. What brought this on all of a sudden?"

    "You're a cop."

    "Heh, sure―but that doesn't mean I run around shooting people."

    "I mean," Guzma said, frustrated by his flippancy, "you ever had to kill anybody?"

    As Daturo contemplated how to answer, he took a long, hard look out into the ocean. He fished out another menthol drop from his pants pocket, shook his head, and mulled, "Life in other regions… It's not really like it is on TV. Things are pretty safe… People hardly ever get killed. I don't think I know any cop who's had to kill anyone; definitely no beat cop."

    "Have you, though?"

    "No, Guzma. I haven't." Daturo sighed. The drop clacked against his teeth. "Now, are you gonna tell me what this is about?"

    "I just…" Guzma lost courage and stared down at his shoes. "Have you ever wanted to?"

    Rather than answer that directly―Guzma suspected the answer, anyway―Daturo said, "Wanting to do something and actually doing it are very different things."

    That was the kind of wisdom Guzma expected from Hala, not Daturo, a man who almost exclusively did as he impulsively desired.

    "What's on your mind?"

    How could he possibly tell him that? Guzma tried for a moment to even accumulate all his swirling thoughts into one place in his brain: his anger, disgust, resentment, terror, guilt, shame. If he let it, all of his putrid thoughts would spill out at once, right into the sea.

    And for Daturo to so obviously pretend―like he didn't know he was a part of it. The man was either dodgy or more daft than Guzma first supposed.

    "Hey." Guzma knew that tone of voice well. The whispering, begging, crawling voice, which crooked a finger and dug a hook into his skin, pulling, digging in. That voice had brought Guzma places, not all of them good. Suddenly, a hand reached out and squeezed his shoulder. "We promised, didn't we? Not to keep secrets from each other."

    They had. They had promised. And he didn't know how to wriggle free this time. He had come here--why? For all the pain, Daturo was the only adult he could be honest with.

    "Look… Goose…"

    (His hand hadn't moved).

    "You know―"

    Then, suddenly, far off and coming ever closer, the excitable yapping of a Rockruff interrupted him. Daturo blinked, shaken from his moment of focus, and turned; Guzma glanced over his shoulder and saw what the cop did. The noise boomed from between the duplexes until the small, panting critter scampered out into the driveway. Upon seeing Guzma, it released a jubilant set of howls.

    Guzma knew what that meant.

    " Guzma-a-a-a!"

    The voice cried out to the heavens, louder than any voice had any right to be. And from the front of the duplex came the running, lanky-limbed form that was, infamously, Kukui.

    Kukui was a schoolmate and a persistent problem.

    He had a closely-shaved head of brown hair which he nearly always kept under a battered baseball cap (his father had given up on letting him have longer hair, as it inevitably became a crow's nest of debris and tangles), and stood a full inch shorter than Guzma, despite being a year ahead of him. He had a wiry, uncoordinated body that was painted with the scrapes that come from climbing trees, cartwheeling into walls, and being generally spastic. His muscles were unpronounced but considerably powerful for his age; he could take down Guzma―and any kid up to twice his own size―with ease.

    Kukui also happened to be the single most annoying kid Guzma knew.

    It was difficult to sum up his problems with him―the list could go on all day if he let it―but here are some of the most crucial things to understand:

    Kukui was loud. As if his lungs had outgrown his tiny body, and so he shouted absolutely everything, regardless of how close he stood to you―a booming, ringing voice and an even more grating, screeching cackle when he laughed. He made Guzma's teeth rattle.

    And not only was he a loudmouth? But a big -mouth, too, not afraid to ask the stupidest questions or say the stupidest things. Kukui was the loudest, most persistently idiotic spaz in the whole sixth grade class, maybe even the whole school.

    Guzma might have been able to endure all this if Kukui ignored him as the other children did, but apparently Kukui had made it his personal mission to annoy Guzma to death. He didn't listen when Guzma told him in so many ways to leave him alone―as if the part of his brain that processed rejection hadn't kicked in yet. Guzma could tell Kukui to his face that he hated him and would push him off a cliff if he could, and Kukui would giggle-snort and ask, "DO YOU WANNA DARE ME TO BACKFLIP OFF THIS ROCK?!?"

    Kukui was also his neighbor on Mele'mele, which meant he couldn't escape him outside of school, either. He was always following him home, banging on his front door, or chucking pebbles at his bedroom window.

    He was, in short, an obligatory best friend: not asked for, not wanted, staunchly resisted, and yet there at every turn.

    So in this moment, Guzma felt simultaneously vexed and relieved at seeing him.

    The other boy, also in his school uniform, reached the two of them and bent over, puffing and gripping his knees to recover his breath. His backpack was jostled, almost falling from his shoulders for being bounced around so badly. Rockruff zipped back around toward its master, who grinned at it and said, "Good job, buddy! You found him straight away, huh?"

    Rockruff wagged and yapped.

    Saki then appeared from the front of the duplex, too, sluggishly dragging itself out after the pup, which soon ran in buzzing circles around it, yipping and nipping in a pleading bid for play. Saki just sat and grumbled at it, occasionally scolding it with a snap of teeth and growl.

    Kukui, in the most dramatic way possible, waved his arms out in a broad circle. "I've been looking ev-er-y-where for you, cuz! I got something to show you!" He finally noticed Daturo's presence and grinned. He threw an arm over his head to stretch it, and hopped with vibrant, irrepressible energy. "Heya, Uncle D!"

    "Hey, Kooks."

    Without missing a beat, and still wearing an amiable smile, Kukui replied, "It's Kukui."

    "Uh… Right." Daturo hesitated. "Ku… Ku- ku- i, sure."

    Every time Daturo ever said Kukui's name, he seemed to pronounce it slightly differently, putting emphasis on the wrong syllable or slurring different vowel sounds. Kukui was happy to relentlessly tease the man for it, and Guzma had thought up until recently that the whole thing was a mutual joke, but he had lately come to the conclusion that more than anything else, Daturo was annoyed by it.

    Kukui ran over to Guzma and narrowly missed knocking the other boy into the water when he grabbed him by the arm. "C'mon, let's go!"

    Without answering, Guzma irritably pulled himself away. Not that it mattered; Kukui redirected his energy by running a ways up the road and calling after him to follow. His Rockruff similarly hopped in place, barking and beckoning.

    " Hurry up, Slowpoke! "

    Daturo watched all this and sensed defeat in the face of competition. "Well," he said, "he seems pretty insistent; you better go with your friend."

    "He's not my friend."

    Amused, Daturo replied, "I think he hasn't gotten that memo, bud. Go on. I'll see you tomorrow."

    With an air of reluctance, Guzma turned and started up the hill.

    "Oh―Goose. Wait."

    Guzma turned back to find Daturo facing the other way. The cop stooped down, picked up a tin can rattling with tools and loose screws, and after plucking through its contents, drew out an item. He then came back around, approaching Guzma.

    "I got something for you. Here." Within a few seconds, a small, black pocket knife revealed itself in the cop's palm. Daturo looked a little mutually ashamed when he said, "I got it back from your teacher a few weeks back."

    Without any expression of gratitude, Guzma reached for it.

    But Daturo hesitated for a second, closing his fingers around it to prevent a quick snatch. "Just be careful with it," he exhorted. "Don't… bring it to school anymore, okay? I don't need people finding out I give kids knives to play with."

    "Okay." Guzma had to suppress his impatience, and it paid off: Daturo opened his fingers and allowed the boy to take it. With knife in hand, Guzma hurried to shove it into his jacket pocket and run off toward the main road.

    He didn't move quickly enough to keep Kukui from taunting, "C'mon! Geez, ya got longer legs than me, and you're still slo-o-w!"

    Kukui didn't bother telling him what he had planned, and instead led him on a typical, roundabout path along a dirt road leading out of the city. Guzma was used to the kid taking him on meandering walks that kept him guessing; you could never tell what Kukui was really thinking. The Rockruff that followed at their heels certainly didn't mind the free-wheeling path, as it yapped, frolicked, and nipped the air while panting profusely. Guzma had to more than once kick it aside to avoid being tripped by it, but thankfully, Kukui possessed sense enough to not allow the pup to overstay its welcome, and after a few minutes chose to withdraw it.

    So the two of them were alone with Kukui's nonstop mouth.

    Guzma had tuned out Kukui's incessant chatter for the last minute, but now that he looked up and realized they were taking the long route home, he questioned, "So, what is it?"

    "Huh?"

    "The thing you wanted to show me." A thought occurred to him. "Why didn't you find me at recess and show me then?"

    "I couldn't, brah! I wasn't there." Kukui fidgeted with his cap and confessed, with the appropriate modicum of shame, "Dad found out I busted another desk when I was practicin' my Body Slam today―yeah, so, I was in his office gettin' dirty lickins."

    "...Oh." Guzma went uncomfortably quiet.

    Kukui noticed the weightiness of Guzma's response and, worried that he'd caused undue alarm, thumped him in the arm. He joked and cackled, "Woo, you shoulda heard me, cuz! I was hollerin' for Tapu Koko to save me!"

    The levity sort of worked, in that Guzma's mild grimace faded, but he didn't smile.

    "Anyway, I ain't got the something on me. It's at my house."

    Guzma watched Kukui take to skipping down the dirt road. When Guzma thought the other boy wasn't paying attention, he slipped the knife from his pocket to admire it. It glinted black and burned his fingers with the confidence it afforded.

    "What's that?"

    Guzma jumped out of his skin and shoved the knife away, but it was too late. Kukui stood next to him, eyeing his pocket. Guzma tried lying. "Nothing."

    "Eh? It didn't look like 'nothing,'" Kukui said crossly.

    Guzma shuffled his feet, sighed, and produced the knife from his pocket. "Okay… Just don't tell nobody."

    "WOW, LOOK AT IT! IT'S HUGE!" (It really wasn't.) "Can I hold it?"

    "...I guess." He had a feeling that Kukui wouldn't take 'no' for an answer.

    The other boy took up the knife, opened it, and marveled some more. He took a few large steps backward, settling himself in a large open space, and began thrusting the blade in the air, spinning around, yelping hysterically unrealistic karate sounds. He paused to grin in Guzma's direction. "Where'd you get it?"

    It was supposed to be a secret, but his answer slipped out. "Uncle Daturo."

    "Ugh-h-h-h. Lucky-y." (Guzma revelled, for a moment, in Kukui's transparent jealousy). "I asked my dad for one, and he said I would just hurt myself." Kukui gave him a look, goading Guzma to agree that this was absolutely ridiculous and unreasonable, even though they both knew his father was right.

    So Guzma played along. "Bogus."

    "I know!" Kukui tried throwing the knife at a tree a few times, but mostly missed or struck its trunk with the handle rather than the blade, so he eventually relented, picked it up from the ground and handed it back to Guzma. "Here."

    Guzma pocketed it and they kept going, but it wasn't long before Kukui started to fidget again. He hopped, skipped ahead, waited for Guzma to catch up, then snorted aloud with impatience. He contained his restlessness only long enough to drum his shoes on the dirt for a little while before giving up on his friend's pace. He charged Guzma until he came within arm's reach.

    "Ugh! C'mon, let's go!"

    And there was his last bone to pick with this aggravating, infuriating kid: Kukui liked to hold hands.

    Even though everybody had figured out by second grade that holding hands with girls was weird, and holding hands with boys was even weirder.

    Admittedly, it had a normal origin: it had gone on since Guzma started kindergarten. They were neighbors, and so naturally they walked to and from school together every day. Little kids like that, walking on a winding dirt road by themselves―of course they clung to each for security.

    But Kukui, for whatever reason, never let up. So it was that whenever they walked anywhere together, inevitably, Kukui would grab his hand and tug him along at a brisk speed. The grip he had on him was always such that, even if Guzma tried to squirm his way out of it, Kukui kept it in an ironclad lock and refused to let go.

    Guzma tried, once, to ask Kukui about it, but his questioning skills had never been very good, so he ended up asking Kukui if he was a "weirdo" and Kukui didn't understand the question, and that was that. But after thinking on it and studying Kukui's behavior, Guzma had since come to the conclusion that Kukui was just kind of dumb. (Not, you know, a "weirdo.")

    About all Guzma had ever decided to do about it was grit his teeth and put up with it, praying no one would see.

    For now, he had to pick up his pace to prevent Kukui from pulling his arm from his socket. This proved easier than avoiding being seen; after climbing one grassy hill, they ended up cutting along the street on their way to Route 2. People bustled outside the shops and on their way to their respective homes.

    Then, just ahead, they came to pass a group.

    Girls. A cluster of them, outside the malasada shop. Usually Guzma could ignore them, but Kukui was the sort of crazy kid who had no fear, who didn't worry about talking with girls or even befriending them, all while his peers still fidgeted about cooties.

    The nutcase waved and hollered: "Heya, ladies!"

    (Guzma, realizing now that Kukui had gone and called attention to them, desperately maneuvered himself behind Kukui and tried to hide his face. Prying his hand out of Kukui's at this point was a lost cause, but he gave a panicked tug, anyhow.)

    Too late. He heard the group of girls burst into giggles and call: "He-e-ey, Kukui! He-ey Guzma!"

    Guzma pulled his hoodie over his face and steamed. For a passing moment, he wanted to sock Kukui in the back of the head.

    "Hey, Guz, whaddaya think about Burnet?"

    The question came once they hit the dusty road again and were surrounded on all sides with trees and silence. As Kukui had found things he wished to kick and throw, he at last released his friend from bondage, but evidently, his thoughts had not wandered from the schoolgirls in their skirts and ribbon-laced hair.

    Uh-oh.

    Had Burnet even been there? Kukui must have seen her, despite Guzma's lack of attention. In any case, Guzma didn't hide his feelings. "She's a dork."

    "Yeah," Kukui said, tilting his head to the side dreamily. "She's awful cute, though!"

    Guzma pulled a disgusted face, alarmed that his companion had already gone to the dark side. "....Ugh. Ew."

    "Just wait," Kukui laughed, pounding Guzma's shoulder with his fist. "When you get older, you'll like girls, too."

    Guzma winced, rubbed his shoulder, and blustered at the implication. "You're only like a year older than me!"

    "Yeah! So you'll catch up before you know it!"

    Some time passed for Guzma to steam and Kukui to completely miss it.

    "Hey, Guz. Do you think our kids will be friends, too?"

    It took a moment for Guzma to process the deeply stupid question. "What are you talking about?"

    "You know!" Kukui skipped a step and aimed his foot at a rock, kicking it down the road. He looked jovial and excited. "When we both get married someday―an' when we have kids―do you think our kids will be friends? I think that would be neat, yeah!"

    "I'm not getting married," Guzma contradicted fiercely.

    "Why not?"

    He didn't expect to get interrogated. He opened his mouth, hesitated, and tried to wait out the painful flips in his stomach. Heat creeped upward over his face. "I―I dunno, it's gross, is all."

    Kukui frowned, uncertain. "What, like the kissing and stuff?"

    With a furious snort, Guzma sneered and pushed past him. He concealed his burning embarrassment by facing ahead. "Do you know anything? How do you think babies happen, huh?"

    Instead of answering right away, Kukui backed up a few steps, took a running start, and cartwheeled several times on the grass growing alongside the road. His cap fell off immediately, but he persisted until he landed on his hands back on the path in front of Guzma. He paused in a hand-stand, lazily kicking his legs in the air, his shirt falling around his head to reveal the muscles and rib-dimples of his puffing chest. "I don't get what's gross about it," Kukui blathered, finally rolling back upright. "You get married, you go to the tapu, an' you pray and ask for a baby and―"

    "Are you serious? You're in sixth grade and you still believe that!?"

    It was Kukui's turn to be embarrassed. He flushed, scrambled to his feet, and hurried to retrieve his hat, pouting as he did. "Whatever," Kukui said. He sounded a little wounded. "What do you know, anyway?"

    It wasn't worth fighting over. Kukui's father taught health class at school, anyway, and Guzma knew that topic was formally covered in the seventh grade―so Kukui would have to endure compound humiliation next year, unless Lokelani decided to talk the birds and bees with his son beforehand.

    "Anyway― I'm gonna get married, and have, like, ten kids, yeah!"

    Kukui's father, Lokelani, was known by most kids on the island as simply "Coach," because within their small community, if there was a sport or physical activity to be had, the man was sure to be a part of it. He also worked as the school gym teacher, which made him yet another individual impossible to avoid. Lokelani was an imposing figure, especially to those who didn't know him: he stood over six feet tall, with broad shoulders and impressive, lean muscles. His chin had a sizeable but neatly-trimmed beard to offset the messiness of his hair, which he allowed to grow long and tangled and put up in a top knot when it became too much of a hassle. If one ever needed to find Lokelani in a pinch, a sure bet would be to hit the beach, because he spent hours surfing and swimming almost every day, as his tawny, sun-kissed skin clearly showed.

    Though responsible for leading countless athletic clubs and teams (many of which Kukui participated in), Lokelani by most descriptors qualified as a conservative, religious man and had never been terribly competitive. He preferred to enjoy the leisure of outdoor play: the feel of grass in the soccer field, the waves licking the surfboard, the crunch of gravel at home base. In that way, as he was in other ways, Lokelani was an old-school native islander, a sort of man going extinct in Alola: the warrior monk who both taught and practiced physical feats not to glorify oneself, but to glorify life.

    As such, Lokelani possessed firm traditional values, which had always turned Guzma off. He would sermonize in the middle of class, extolling the virtues of cooperation and hard work, and denouncing the unequivocal evils of laziness, rebellion, gluttony, and other such sins. Guzma heard that as students got older, the man's preaching broadened to similarly warn against bodily vices―drinking, smoking, premarital sex―which only served to cement Guzma's impression that the man was a blathering, moralistic crank. How many times had Guzma been forced to sit through one of Coach's 'your body is sacred' spiels at the beginning of gym? In any case, none of it had ever struck Guzma as true or applicable to his own life circumstances, so he usually yawned and shut his eyes, listening to the giggles and whispers around him rather than yielding to those sappy lectures.

    Guzma didn't speak with Lokelani much outside of school, even though the man had always been welcoming and inclusive, inviting him over, feeding him, treating him like another son. The fact was, Coach intimidated him with his size and brawn. He also had a very faint, but charged memory of the man scolding him once, when he was maybe five or six.

    Perhaps Guzma shouldn't have held it against him. After all, while Lokelani shared Hala's strictness and old-world-values, he had a discernment the kahuna lacked.

    When Kukui pushed open the front door, the strong odor of grilled meat and pineapple flew into their faces. A steady plume of steam and smoke flowed out from the stovetop, tended to by familiar, broad shoulders.

    "I'M HOME!" Kukui announced with a characteristic lack of volume control.

    It was just as well. With all the hissing of the grill and fans, Lokelani only just heard him. The man turned, spotted them over the countertop, and smiled, wiping sweat from his brow with his forearm. "Hey, sport!" He hurried to flip a few items before approaching the near side of the kitchen and poking his head out. "Aw, howzit, Guzma?"

    "Um." Guzma averted his eyes and mumbled, politely, "Hi, Coach."

    "Didn't expect to see you here today. And so late. Especially―" Lokelani's expression narrowed in Kukui's direction. "--Since I told you to come straight home today."

    "I did," Kukui protested, his voice squawking unconvincingly.

    Lokelani must have known Kukui was lying, because he looked to Guzma and tilted his head in a stern and silent, ' is that true?' expression.

    Guzma only said, "We met up on the way home."

    "Uh-huh." Lokelani seemed torn for the moment between scolding Guzma for colluding with his son's deception, or commending him for his loyalty. He squeezed his temple with his fingers and sighed. "Well, so long as you're here, are you staying for dinner?"

    "No…" Guzma thought on that a second longer. "I don't think so."

    "In that case, you'd better head on home. Kukui has chores he's been putting off all week, so he won't be able to play today."

    ...Great. Kukui had decided to drag him to his house in the midst of some domestic drama. Guzma eyed the door and wondered how quickly he could make his escape.

    But the whining picked up immediately; Kukui hopped with tension. "D-a-a-ad! Can't I just show him my thing really quick!"

    "Your what-now?"

    "The thing I got yesterday!"

    "Oh!" Lokelani, in spite of himself, smirked. "All right, but make it quick. Dinner's in five."

    With that news, Kukui wasted no time; he seized Guzma by the arm and yanked him toward his bedroom with sheer, unrelenting force. He threw the door open, knocking some equipment over in the process: a bat, a racket, some sneakers. Then they had to kick aside and step over unsorted piles of clothes, but they reached his desk, at which he rifled through a drawer swimming with trinkets, pokeball, and papers. His hand paused after touching what must have been the object of interest, because Kukui looked up and grinned at him, readying the reveal. "A-a-and―" He pulled it out and stuck it in Guzma's face. "Ta-da!"

    A challenge amulet.

    Guzma shouldn't have been surprised. But he was.

    Kukui had talent―that much, he could acknowledge―but Guzma had never thought of him as a serious opponent. The kid usually slid in comfortably at fourth or fifth place at tournaments, as he battled like a complete goofball, spamming moves at seemingly random times. He didn't fuss about winning or coming out on top. He just belly-laughed and tried to have fun. Besides, he spent more time playing with his partners than training them. Guzma had always assumed Kukui would settle for a more leisurely path to adulthood.

    Guzma felt the small, slow, burning crawl of resentment make its way up his throat.

    Kukui rattle on as if Guzma had said anything at all. "That's right! I'm going on my island challenge, yeah! I went to Ol' Hala's yesterday and picked this up. I'm goin' to him for special training starting next week! A couple other kids will be there… I know Big Mo for sure. It's gonna be amazing!" The boy gripped the amulet in his fist and clawed his hair. "Augh! It'll feel like forever! I just can't wait, you know? I'll be takin' on the captains, and the kahunas, and I'm gonna prove what I'm made of!"

    The embedded gems gleamed and winked at Guzma. He thought about another summer squandered at home around an eternally-volatile father, or perhaps finding himself wrapped up in schemes not of his own making.

    "And who knows! In a couple'a years, maybe I'll try out to be a captain, too!"

    "Well, I―"

    It was too late. Guzma had opened his mouth, and Kukui waited with bated breath for him to finish.

    "I―" Though he could have taken it back, a sudden surge of desire passed through him. His voice turned firm and certain as he, on the spot, made his decision. "I'm starting my challenge, too."

    "REALLY?"

    "I'm… gonna get my amulet tomorrow, and…"

    Like his Rockruff, Kukui tended to express joy through a good tackle, and Guzma tended to forget this, leaving him vulnerable to attack. So in one sudden swoop, the kid grabbed him, sent him to the floor, and shook him madly, ignoring Guzma's shock and groaning at landing hard on his back.

    "THAT'S AMAZING!"

    Weak and pinned, Guzma made a sad effort to push him. "Get offa me."

    "WE'RE GONNA DO OUR TRIALS TOGETHER!"

    Thankfully, Lokelani heard the violent thud and called out from the kitchen: "Kukui! No horseplay in the house!"

    A hefty sigh and shuffle of obedience brought Kukui and Guzma back to their feet. Guzma grumbled and checked that nothing in his backpack had been profoundly disturbed by the fall, but Kukui couldn't stop ranting.

    "You'll have to come to Master Hala's with us! Aw, man! Doing this together is gonna make it way more fun!" Kukui folded his arms and did his best impression of an adult. "We're gonna have to fight each other sometimes, though. We'll still be friends afterward, right?"

    We're barely friends as it is.

    Because Guzma hesitated to answer, Kukui took it as a challenge and again screamed at him, shoving him hard. "SWEAR!"

    "Ow!" Guzma rubbed his chest and glowered. "Fine, whatever."

    "KUKUI! DINNER!"

    "COMING!"

    If Guzma ever had to wonder where Kukui got his voice, time spent in his house dispelled it.

    While Kukui set the table and fulfilled other childhood supper duties, Guzma found his chance to slink out the door without further assault. Outside, he could see the last glint of sunlight singing the sky, and dusk began to fall over the island. He didn't have much time.

    But one last interruption came.

    "Hey… Guzma."

    Guzma stepped out onto the dirt footpath leading up to the house, then turned around. Lokelani had emerged and shut the door behind him. He stood tall, his eyes burning with intent.

    "You know, it's good you stopped by. Let's have a quick chat, yeah?"

    His stomach sank. Was he in trouble? He didn't need trouble now. Not from this massive man who didn't hesitate to pick up a phone and call someone's parents. What was this guy's problem!? Why was he always in someone else's business? Why…?

    The frantic flow of angry thoughts was cut short when Lokelani asked, "Is everything okay?"

    "H-huh?"

    "You seem a little on edge today."

    Stunned, Guzma tried to dodge the observation. "I don't… I don't think that I am."

    "No?" For a long, heartwrenching second, Lokelani stroked his beard and hummed with thought. Finally, he revealed his purpose. "Y'know… Kids talk. And I know they sometimes think grownups aren't listening, but… I overheard someone say you and Kawika are going to have a fight after school tomorrow."

    "I―" Guzma felt his mouth go dry. He bunched up his shoulders. "Just--a pokemon battle, that's all…"

    "Guzma. I wasn't born yesterday," Lokelani chided gently. "I know how it is. You have beef, yeah? And now you're going to try and settle it, man-to-man."

    Guzma chose to say nothing, even though words stuck in his throat.

    "In my day, we did that plenty. So I understand. And you know―it's good for kids to try and solve their own problems if they can. That's how you become a man, yeah? But Guzma―if things get too deep, if you're scared or don't know what to do―it's okay to ask for help."

    "I'm not…" Guzma buried his hands deep in his hoodie pocket, and felt his face flare up with embarrassment. The pocket knife inside touched his fingers. He gripped it tight and began nervously flipping it over as the word flew at him: Scared. Kawika, by most measures bigger and stronger than him, telling him to his face that I heard your mom's a― He couldn't even allow himself to remember. But he did remember how intensely he wanted to bury a knife in the other boy's face. Scared. Scared of Kawika first, then himself, of what he was becoming. Guzma tightened his throat. "I'm fine."

    "Yeah?" Lokelani ruminated on his reluctance to speak. He scratched his chin and said, "You know you can talk to me, right? If someone's bothering you―"

    "I think," Guzma interrupted, paused, and swallowed, all while shaking with nerves. "I should get home. It's kinda late."

    "O-oh. Alright, little man. You be safe."

    Guzma had never been so relieved to leave that house.

    Alone.

    Finally.

    The truth was, Guzma felt no rush to get home. He took the path closer to the cliff-sides than to his house, and settled at an edge from which he could see far out over the sea. Day-dreaming overtook his view. Up until a few minutes ago, he could see nothing of his future but imminent strife, but for now, he could push that aside and think beyond it.

    The Island Challenge.

    Was he stupid? Maybe he shouldn't have said anything. He didn't even know for sure that Hala would let him start. What if he went to the old man tomorrow and he rejected him…?

    Tomorrow.

    Tomorrow?

    What was wrong with him?

    He was supposed to fight Kawika tomorrow.

    Even the most basic of forward-thinking told Guzma that this was bad timing. Hala would frown on a schoolyard fistfight, and he couldn't hope to hide it from him, because whenever he got in trouble, Hala heard about it. Guzma could hear the man's disapproval in his head : "This is behavior you think is fit for an Island Challenger? Perhaps you'd better wait another year… "

    Angry at himself, Guzma kicked a rock over the edge and watch it grind and splinter dustily into the sea. His fists balled up at his sides. Why did nothing work out for him?

    "The trials are stupid, anyway," he told himself.

    Waves crushed against the rocks like slapping palms.

    "I can't chicken out."

    But the more he reasoned it out, the more he remembered how little he wanted the fight in the first place.

    As he looked through the sky, he pushed his hands in his pocket. The knife was still there, and he drew it out. In the bronze evening light, it shone orange, a torch of gleaming light. He admired it, but couldn't escape the troubling circumstances of its retrieval.

    He had admitted to, as plainly as he could, thoughts of killing―and Daturo handed him a knife.

    Even Guzma knew how perverse that was. What kind of person would do that?

    A synapse fired, and for the first time in his life, he ascribed a value to an adult: irresponsible.

    He had never thought of an adult as a moral actor; he thought of them more as capricious beasts, turning with the wind, at times cruel, at times benevolent. But to think of them as flawed…? As prone to failure in judgment, or feebleness… That thought soured his stomach and shook his frame with terror. The very gods who ruled his life―daily telling him what to do, how to do it, where to go, and what truth is―what were they, more than larger children who bumbled around and did as they pleased? Who saw him as an object by which they could punish the misery in their lives, or satisfy their illicit desires, or show off their virtue?

    Guzma chewed his bottom lip.

    He turned the knife over in his hand.

    The good in him wanted to chuck the knife into the ocean and never think of it again. He even drew back his arm a little, like he meant to skip it across the waves. But his fingers clawed tight, desperate, needing. He couldn't let go of it, not quite yet.

    I'll be a good person, he vowed. Someday. Just not now. Not yet.

    So he put it away.

    In the end, he would think of some way to circumnavigate Kawika and attain a more delectable goal. His father would be pleased to live vicariously through his successes (his father used to be a trainer, a someday-Champion, before unexpected family life overthrew his plans). His mother would cry (that's all she ever did these days). He would get as far as he could until fate stepped in and mediocrity caught up with him.

    And all along the way, the knife stayed. It poked and prodded him, a thorn in his flesh, drifting from one pocket to another, wounding others throughout the years. The knife never changed, and it grew smaller in his hands as he grew older, but its weight seemed to escalate, dragging him with memories. Once, he cut a rival's arm with it. Once, he cut a cop's leg with it to escape arrest. Once, in the dark, with no one around, he held it against the skin of his wrist and couldn't do it.

    His extra tooth to bare. His id. His fury.

    To survive, he had to pocket all of this and turn for his house. The home glowed against the steadily-growing darkness, a candle flickering along on the hillside. When he had the amulet in his hand the next day, he thought, everything would feel more certain. He would see his future… and grab it with both hands.
     
  15. dietofwurms

    dietofwurms i see stars

    Addendum Two: No Man Is An Island

    A Meowth's claws dug into Nanu's chest.

    Since he was currently dozing, this pain barely registered at first, but the sensation of sharp needles piercing the fabric of his shirt and then his skin started to shake him from dreamless sleep. He snorted. Then he tried to slip over onto his side to sleep more comfortably on the sofa, to no avail, as several other Meowth had piled onto his body and refused to budge.

    "Hrrngh."

    The one arm that wasn't currently being used as a pillow reached up at the Meowth's dagger-like paws.

    "Hey. Easy."

    The cat purred and, rather than heeding his suggestion, yawned and flexed its toes in a kneading movement, burying the nails even harder into his chest.

    "Ow."

    Now he was about to lose his patience. He reached for the nape of its neck, and was ready to knock it to the floor, but the front doors of the police station rattled. For the moment, he didn't notice, as the collection of Meowth's ears perked up. The doors rattled again―and slammed open like a thunderclap, backed with children screeching.

    Nanu's flesh was lanced on all sides with needles. The cats leaped, clawed, and flayed him as they scrambled apart and shot underneath tables; he cursed and flailed, breathless after one Meowth bounced hard over his stomach, and shredded when another launched itself over his legs with claws unsheathed.

    "UNCLE!"

    He moaned, clutched his wounds, and rolled stiffly to his feet. He knew what this meant. Was it that time already? The days he had nothing to do, the hours all bled together. A quick glance over the counter told him he was right: the grunts had arrived.

    Nothing continued to jar him like seeing the group of brats in their school uniforms. Their heads clustered about, little bobs of pink, blue, green, purple hair that they had refused to give up, which mismatched entirely with their conservative green uniforms. Some of the Skull girls had even flat-out refused to wear the mandatory skirts that typically came with the female uniforms; it took some careful reasoning from Kahuna Nanu before the principal surrendered on that issue.

    With shuffling feet, Nanu approached the waiting area and read their body language. Excited, as usual. Abuzz about something. He felt a headache coming on just looking at them. They dripped from the rain but were so used to the weather that it didn't temper their mood at all. When Nanu clawed for a mug and poured a cup of lukewarm leftover coffee, the group flocked toward him. The kids then hopped and argued until Zazi could no longer contain her excitement.

    She blurted, "Chops cussed out our teacher!"

    Nanu pretended to be surprised. "...Really."

    "Yeah! He's bein' held after school and everything!"

    "...And why'd he do that?"

    "'Cause he was actin' a fool! And Miss Jade told him to chill!" She tossed her head and huffed, acting thoroughly offended. "That boy is so disrespectful!"

    Nanu shook his head. The kids loved to get in trouble, but more than anything, he'd discovered, they adored telling on each other; nearly every day they'd crowd the doorway upon their walk home from school, chanting, guess what so-and-so did!? Ain't that crazy, Uncle!? He supposed it was their way of posturing, angling for his approval. It did get tiring, though.

    "You oughta smack that boy, Mr. Nanu."

    Nanu rolled his eyes and sipped on his coffee. "I'll let Rainbow handle that, thanks."

    "Big sis is too busy," Buzz complained. "She hardly ever around no more."

    "Where do you think she is?"

    "Duh. She's with Molayne. Y'know, training."

    Nanu nodded somberly. "Uh-huh."

    "Tch." Nene lifted his hands and made air-quotes. "We all know what kinda 'training' they doin'―the horizontal kind―"

    "Hey," Nanu gruffed, giving the boy a muted but still sharp rap on the head with a clipboard. "Shut it."

    "Ow-uhh!"

    Nanu waggled the clipboard after him and lectured, "Don't you kids know anything? You're in Alola. No one does that nonsense here until after they're married."

    Nene rubbed his head and sucked his teeth. "What? That ain't true."

    "Sure it is. 'Less you want the wrath of the tapu on your head."

    "That don't even make sense! You just made that up, gramps!"

    Nanu straightened his back and tucked the clipboard under his arm, his voice taking on a serious, imposing tone. "I'm the kahuna. I don't make things up."

    Nene and Buzz glanced at each other, screwing their faces up with thought, but they were too dumb to think of a retort. They didn't seem to believe him, but neither were they able to completely dismiss his warning.

    (He felt only a little bad for messing with them. They'll be real teenagers soon, he reasoned. They'll figure out this stuff for themselves soon enough―and by then, hokey old wives' tales won't do much good, anyway. He ought to know.)

    Zazi cleared her throat and dropped her bag from her shoulders. "Hey, Uncle. We had a test today. Wanna see?"

    The grunts didn't wait for him to answer; the moment she made mention of it, they scrambled to release their own bags and dig through their papers.

    Zazi had started all of this months ago. One day after school, she stopped by the station, beaming and producing her latest score on an exam to elicit some form of approval from the old kahuna. Nanu, who mostly wanted her to leave, did take a look at it and offered faint praise. So she asked if he could hang it on his fridge―an extension of some tradition she remembered from her old home―and to humor her, he agreed. This, however, began a heated contest among the younger grunts as they quite suddenly envied the attention and ascribed mythical properties to being deemed Worthy Of the Fridge. Soon, the kids began routinely stopping by and shoving their work in his face, begging for the honor. Nanu regretted starting the whole trend (it was a pain, an annoyance, and he had to buy more magnets to appease their demands), but he didn't have the heart or willpower to shut it down.

    "Okay, okay, one at a time. Whaddaya got?"

    The five of them immediately began speaking over each other and pushing papers into view. Zazi, as usual, had won out; she had a noggin on her, a fact that she only realized once she started attending school. Nene and JJ had middling grades to offer. Slip took a passing glance at his own sheet, eyed the others' scores, and mumbled something as he hid it away again.

    "A 78's almost a B," Nene argued.

    Nanu emphasized: "Almost."

    Buzz then slammed his paper down, breaking the group's chatter. "I gotta 62," he bragged.

    "That's a D," Zazi said. "That means you're D-U-M-B."

    Nanu intervened with a firm, "Hey, now. This is the first one he hasn't flunked; that's not bad at all." He picked it up, examined it, clicked his tongue, and decided, "Let's post it as a 'Most Improved.'"

    Buzz beamed and pumped his fists, wagging his hips in a goofy celebration pose. "'Eyyy! Whassup!"

    "That's not fair!"

    "It is too!"

    "You got the worst score!"

    "You always get good grades though!"

    Nanu had managed to tune out their clawing and hissing long enough to fasten the paper to an uncovered portion of his refrigerator, and just when he turned to shoo them out, someone knocked at the door.

    Their arguing hushed; all of them threw puzzled looks at the entrance.

    A flash of annoyance crossed the kahuna's face. "Criminy. Can't get a moment's peace around here. Zazi."

    The girl squeaked with compliance and went over to welcome whoever this unwelcome guest might be. She swung open the door, took one hard look into the murky afternoon, and called out over her shoulder, "It's some guy."

    "Thanks for the intel," Nanu said, exasperated. "What's he selling?"

    "Um..." She stuck her head out to interrogate, and reported out, "He, like, wants to talk to you?"

    No point in barricading the door. He sighed. "Well, get him outta the rain already."

    Zazi nodded, instructed the visitor, and stepped back. All of them waited to see who would enter.

    A man stepped in.

    A shirt of explosive, radioactive color stuck out from the rainy gloom like a beam of sunlight; the orange, yellow, and green colors were arranged in a kaleidoscope of floral design common to those summer shirts worn on the islands, especially by visitors. The man also wore long khaki shorts, sandals, and sunglasses, completing the vacationer's look. A plain black umbrella covered his head, but after crossing the threshold into the station, he folded it, sending its moisture rolling onto the floor.

    Because the clothing did not match the profile of anyone Nanu came into regular contact with, his brain at first fired off: stranger. But he kept looking, adjusted his vision, and features came into view, piecing together a familiar form―tall, lanky, swooped brown hair, sharp nose.

    "Looker."

    A smile overcame Looker's initial measured expression; he lifted his sunglasses to his forehead. "Ah," he said, spying Nanu's presence behind the grunts. "Nanu. What a pleasure it is to see you again! I see you're counselling your wards. A worthy pursuit." Looker directed his words then to his uncomfortable, captive audience. "Good afternoon, young people. Studying hard in school, I hope?"

    The man's chipper attitude did not win over the children. They took one suspicious glance at him, looked to one another, and came to the collective, silent conclusion that they needed to beat it. Nene spoke for them all: "Yo, we out."

    With quick, bustling movements, they pushed past him and left out the door, leaving them alone. Looker, bless his heart, looked only mildly confused by their rebuff, and not at all hurt.

    Nanu felt his hand press against his crown. This had better not turn into a headache. He didn't have the foggiest idea why Looker had chosen to appear now and here, of all times and places. He hadn't seen the agent in months, and rather safely assumed that Looker and Anabel had gone on their way. No business remained on the islands for them to clean up, as far as Nanu could tell.

    Trying to read Looker's face for answers never did much good. As usual, the man's eyes burned with steady, unchanging intensity, like they searched for something that would never be found; the smile he opened the conversation with had since steepened into a strong, contemplative line. He appeared neither disturbed nor excited―if news was to be shared, Nanu couldn't fathom what it might be.

    Nanu decided to break the silence. "Well. Didn't expect you to show."

    Instead of responding immediately, Looker furrowed his brow and froze, like a machine caught in a difficult calculation.

    "...You want coffee?"

    The offer jarred the gears back into motion; Looker blinked. "That would be appreciated."

    They didn't speak, but Nanu, in his own way, silently gave Looker permission to enter into his living space and find a seat. The kahuna turned back for the kitchenette and the agent followed, dodging purring, curious companions as he stepped for the couch. The furniture, not ready for company, was piled high with papers and laundry, but Looker was too polite to say anything about it, so he merely brushed aside the debris and sat.

    "It's not fresh," Nanu warned him. "It'll be like the good old days."

    By the time the kahuna turned around with coffee ready, a Meowth had claimed Looker's lap. Pleased, the agent stroked the creature's head. "It's no matter," he said. "I want to speak with you. That's the priority."

    "I figured," Nanu answered, resisting the temptation to pull sarcasm. He pulled up a chair, placed the coffee down, and crossed his legs. "So. The, uh, tourist disguise is decent. Looks like the kids can still smell the cop on you, though."

    "Hmm?" Like he'd forgotten his get-up, Looker patted his shirt down. His face brightened. "Oh―this is no disguise, my friend. My vacation is in full swing, and the heavy coat and suit… struck me as unnecessary and cumbersome for the climate."

    "A coat mighta done you some good in this rain, but yeah, I guess you're right."

    Looker paused. By now, he should have launched straight into his purpose for coming here, but he dawdled, plucking the porcelain mug from the table and taking tentative, wincing sips at it.

    "...It's been a while, Looker. There a reason you're popping in out of the blue?"

    "You're right," Looker rambled, dodging the latter question. "It's' been… Oh, about four months now, since we've last spoken. I apologize for not visiting you sooner. After completing our investigation, we had to return to Sinnoh for debriefing and training, and we only returned last week for our holiday."

    Together? Nanu didn't think it normal for a chief and her subordinate to vacation so mutually, and he thought about teasing the agent for it, but he knew Looker would miss any innuendo he came up with. He smirked. "I see. Been busy, huh." (Maybe just alittle innuendo couldn't hurt.)

    "Busy indeed. While I was away, though, I saw you in the news." Looker said this as if it would please his former supervisor; all it did was wipe the smirk off Nanu's face.

    "Uh, you didn't see me."

    "Perhaps I didn't see you. But you were prominently mentioned. That event looked like quite an adventure."

    Right. The wedding―or attempted wedding, rather―had been the talk of the local news for several weeks. The coverage was breathless and overwrought. A boat! Hijacked by Team Skull! The president of Aether trapped! The kahuna of Ula'ula held captive by thugs! Nanu griped, "Journalists should keep their noses outta people's personal business." A thought occurred to him. "That isn't what you wanted to talk about, is it?"

    "Oh, no. That matter seems resolved, non?" Looker's face fell. He stared down into the black pool of burnt coffee. "No, the fact is, I have… something to confess."

    "Uh." Nanu thought for a second. "Does it have to do with Chief…? I'd be the wrong guy―"

    "My confession is… I believe I've stumbled into a case."

    "A case?" Nanu scratched the shoulder of a Meowth wriggling its way against his leg. "On your vacation?"

    "Yes! So that's why… I've done some informal investigating, that's all."

    "How's Anabel feel about that?"

    Looker clutched a hand to the nape of the Meowth's neck, overcome with discomfort.

    "...You haven't told her, have you."

    "If my suspicions prove true, then I'll tell her," Look vowed. "Until then… I don't want to trouble her."

    Nanu smirked again. Mr. Goody-Two-Shoes, starting to enjoy the occasional off-the-books snooping. Maybe he wasn't so hopeless after all. "So, what's this mystery case?"

    "To give you some context," Looker began, swallowing his nerves with a visible gulp, "I first must describe where the case began. After you left the agency… The UB-extraction team was dissolved. Anabel was sent into training to become an agent, and for several years I worked individually in Kalos. Then, and this was about six years ago, I was briefly assigned to a much different task force. You see, that year, an incident occurred at Aether Paradise at its former location in Kalos. Its president and head scientist went missing."

    "Mohn."

    Looker stiffened again.

    "I know his kids and his wife―sort of. Interpol went looking for him?"

    "I shouldn't be telling you this," Looker muttered. "Interpol and Aether have never seen eye-to-eye. Professor Mohn especially was never very forthcoming about his experiments with UB's and wormholes. He must have feared what the agency would do with his research. But of course Interpol desperately wanted that information, and as such… I believe their intention was to find him first."

    'First.' Nanu felt a chill ride up the hairs on his arm. Of course Interpol would be up to their old tactics. No qualms about using people as bait… Or captive sources of information. No doubt if they found Mohn, they would keep him, stow him away for safety.

    Sensing Nanu's distaste, Looker shook his head. "It didn't matter in the end. The task force failed. Mohn was never found and the case was sealed."

    This proved not to be a subtle transition into the agent's news; Nanu stared emptily at Looker's fidgeting form.

    "...I imagine… By now, you understand what I am about to suggest."

    "A lead."

    "It's no longer my case. I certainly didn't seek it out…" Looker met his eyes. "Nanu. Are you familiar with the island hermits in your region?"

    "Sure. There's a long history o' that 'round these parts."

    "Have you met any of them?"

    Nanu cocked an eyebrow. "They're hermits, Looker. Not social butterflies."

    "Well, I have. I met one the other day. And it was a most interesting meeting."

    -

    And so Looker told the story of how he met the Hermit of the Pelago:

    One of the first things Looker did upon arriving in Alola for his long-awaited vacation was visit the tourist bureau. If nothing else, he hoped to find some information to dive into, or some ideas to bounce off locals before he committed to them. Most of the pamphlets and advertisements covered the usual fare for visitors: exploratory cruises, guides, hot springs, hotels, photography tours. One advertisement in particular, however, caught his attention. In bright, glossy font, a pamphlet named and described aPokemon Pelago available for visitation.

    Intrigued, he asked an employee about it. She cheerfully informed him that the Pelago was a collection of tiny islands north of Akala and Ula'ula; until just recently, she said, no one much bothered with the area, as it was extremely remote, lay out of the path of any fishing boats or traveling ships, and offered no real amenities for humans. As far as anyone ever knew, the Pelago was only occupied by a small, unremarkable population of wild creatures.

    Almost half a year ago, though, a fisherman by the name of Mr. Takada made a peculiar discovery while trawling the northern sea. After an unsuccessful fishing trip out west, he had cut around the islands to reach a spot he hoped would be more fruitful. Instead, he caught sight of activity on a small island and, overcome with curiosity, steered his boat toward it.

    The fisherman stopped at the island to find, to his shock, a man living in a thatch hut all alone. The stranded man acted extremely erratic and nervous, and nearly scared off Takada before any conversation could be had, but in time, the man calmed down enough to inform his baffled visitor that he had been living on the remote isle for quite some time―he estimated at least a year. Graciously, Takada offered him a trip back to nearby civilization, but for reasons that were not explained, the castaway refused. He preferred, it seemed, the company of his wild partners: indeed, he only survived as long as he had thanks to the help of the pelago's friendly pokemon population.

    Overall, the man's condition was good, aside from being a little dehydrated. His appearance, however, left much to be desired, with his hair wild and unkempt, his face covered in a scraggly beard, and his clothes tattered to almost nothing.

    By the end of that first visit, Takada agreed to come back with supplies, and thus, a trade route was born. From that day onward, the fisherman made frequent stops to the Pelago, giving the hermit access to varied foods, self-grooming supplies, rope, wire, glass bottles, clothing… All in exchange for the pelago's only viable natural resource: beans. Thankfully, the cafes, salons, and pokemon breeders on the inhabited islands coveted the agricultural product, and so Takada ran a successful side-business selling bundles of the beans at Poni Island's port. As this business expanded, though, so did the hermit's tastes and… unusual requests. The day the blonde, blue-eyed mystery man handed Takada a list in fine handwriting, asking for such exotic equipment as a "parabolic reflector," "steel actuator," "140-watt soldering iron," "50 yards of copper wire," and "capacitor and resistor," he realized that this was no ordinary fellow.

    In any case, Takada didn't argue. Many items he had to order overseas, and each time he brought the hermit equipment, he found the man building something new: a satellite dish, a functional radio, a network connectivity station. Most of it ended up on the hermit's home raft, a large, well-crafted floating structure anchored between the Pelago's islands.

    Then, one day a few months ago, the hermit opened up about his plan: he wanted to host a pokemon resort.

    It was a bit of a shock, but the man had done the work. He had a PC system and network running from his raft, and after witnessing how the wild pokemon of the Pelago flourished, he thought there may be trainers who would like to allow their own partners to grow, play, train, and relax in said environment. He hadn't completely finished construction on all these islands, but he vowed that given the right amount of interest and investment, he could make the place a paradise. Takada might have been skeptical, but as a fair and honest man, he did as the hermit asked―he ordered pamphlets to the man's specifications, talked up the tourist bureau, and the Poké Pelago opened for business.

    ...And the hermit's name?

    That was the funny part.

    The pamphlet didn't name the owner of the pelago. The employee at the center didn't know, either. It wasn't until Looker decided to patronize the islands that he saw the man for himself and heard the name he chose to go by.

    -

    Nanu shielded his eyes against the wind and glinting ocean light in the waning afternoon.

    Upon the boat Looker had rented, they headed northeast at high speed in an attempt to beat the setting of the sun. Nanu hoped he wouldn't regret this, but Looker sure could tell a story.

    Over the roar of the engine and while he steered, Looker said, "Thank you for agreeing to accompany me."

    Nanu grunted and rifled through Looker's notepad. He wanted to have everything certain by the time they arrived.

    "As you can see, everything adds up."

    "Yeah, except―ugh, your handwriting is bad as ever. What's this note here with the big, fat question mark?"

    Looker cupped his eyes, read the paper in the shade, and nodded. "Ah―yes. That denotes his lack of U.R. signature. I was hoping you could interview him and make what you could of that. It's a puzzling detail, but perhaps something in his story would enlighten us."

    No Ultra Radiation? That didn't seem right. Nanu spent the next several minutes scribbling his own notes in pen, outlining whatever theories he could spin off the top of his head. But with everything else in consideration, he couldn't come up with an alternate explanation for Looker's story.

    And to think… This was under their noses the whole time.

    After almost forty minutes of zipping along the waves, they saw the small collection of islands rise up out of the sea, shadowy hills with faint murmurs of green. In between them, there lay some peculiar, bobbing apparatus that became clearer as they neared; it was some form of thatch house boat.

    Looker steered the boat to a landing which was built into the apparatus and made of rugged planks of wood. It didn't look terribly sturdy, but from inside the shack, a cloth tarp flapped, and Mohn appeared.

    The plump, tanned fellow with sun-bleached hair hopped down a step and trotted over to the landing, hooting a quick greeting before he snagged the dock line from Looker and helped tie it to a sturdier plank. Mohn wore what Nanu would describe as the typical beach bum outfit: tattered shorts smeared with sand, sleeveless white shirt, a broad-brimmed straw hat that had been ripped by the wind. He was sweating profusely from exertion, but showed no sign of irritation or stress, instead nodding to them in a jovial manner and inviting them to deboard.

    "Careful, now! She teeters a bit. Especially with three people."

    Looker stepped down first, then Nanu. The kahuna realized then what Mohn meant; the whole apparatus tilted a half-inch off-kilter, dipping the planks and soles of their shoes in sea water.

    "Come on! Let's head inside."

    Nanu came to better understand the platform by walking on it. It wasn't built like a ship, but like a raft, with layers upon layers of wood, glass, and floatables affixed with ropes and netting. The house had been built atop it but had seen better days. Its walls were shabby planks of corkwood, worn with holes, brine, and mold. The worst of the damage had been patched with some craftsmanship, but Mohn―at least, the Mohn that Nanu knew of―was no carpenter. Sheet metal rusted away over their heads as they ducked through the entrance, and a powerful odor that mixed the unpleasant musk of fish and human hit them. Nanu flinched, Mohn didn't notice, and Looker pretended not to.

    Despite the smell, the interior of the shack was surprisingly cozy. Clothes hung on the wall and over racks; bedding could be seen in the corner; a small hot plate sitting on a plank seemed to serve as a kitchen. Mohn had assembled a bamboo furniture set to simulate a sitting room, and cushions purchased from the islands made the seating bearable, so with prompting, both agents sat in chairs and Mohn flopped down onto the floor to be at level with a small serving table arrayed with fresh fruits. While the three of them settled, Pikipek, Toucannon, Wingull, and other birds flocked around a window hoping for food, but Mohn for the moment ignored them.

    "It sure is good to see you again, Mr. Looker," Mohn said, blue eyes agleam. The country twang in his voice caused Nanu to remember a note Looker had made (accent: southern Kalos). "Heck, I never thought my little ol' place would get you folks so interested! Is this another agent?"

    Looker had told him he was police? A rookie mistake, but maybe he meant to gain the man's trust.

    Looker smiled and gestured. "This is my associate, Mr. Nanu."

    Mohn looked at Nanu, saw his uniform jacket, and wrinkled his brow. "But you… are a police officer, right?"

    "I'm a kahuna. You know what that is?"

    "Oh! Oh, for sure!" Mohn scrambled to pry his straw hat from his head and smooth out his tousled gold hair. "Sorry, wow! I've never been graced with a kahuna before, what an honor!"

    "It's… fine." Nanu waved, embarrassed. "You can put your hat back on."

    The man listened, plopping the hat back atop his head.

    "Mr. Nanu will be assisting me today."

    "...Does that mean you've found something?"

    Looker stole a glance over to the kahuna then crossed his arms, almost chiding their host. "Mr. Mohn. As I explained last time, I am here only to conduct an interview and collect evidence. If I can confirm your identity, then perhaps we can discuss such information."

    A trace of unstated emotion― worry?--crossed Mohn's face. He began to fidget and drum his fingers on the tabletop.

    "Perhaps you could summarize the information you've already told me. This would catch my partner up."

    It wasn't necessary. Nanu had read all of Looker's notes. But asking someone to retell their story had strategic value; one could pick out lies or uncertainties by finding discrepancies between reports. It could also trip up a witness into letting a detail slip out that they had previously left out on purpose. That Looker asked for this could mean he was being careful―or he sensed something sketchy.

    Nanu dipped his attention to a sheet of paper. He pretended to take notes.

    "Uhh, well, there ain't much to tell, to be honest. Years ago, I washed up on shore on these here islands… Couldn't remember a thing from before that day. I didn't know where I'd come from, how I got there… No one was with me, so I didn't have much choice but to build shelter and survive. I knew there were islands nearby, but wasn't like I could reach 'em, so I got accustomed to livin' this way, with my pals here." He gestured for the hungry birds pecking at the windowsill. He beamed. "I got pretty good at building after a while. I started trading, and built my pelago resort. And… that's about it."

    "You remembered nothing?" Nanu pressed.

    "Er, nothin' substantial-like. I knew my name. I knew things about the world and all that. I had the sense I didn't eat meat… And I knew what kinda music I liked, favorite color, fears, that sorta thing. But no… memories, exactly."

    Looker questioned him next. "Was there anything odd about the way you woke up?"

    "'Odd' … Yeah, you could say that. You know, when I first came to, I wondered if I was an astronaut."

    "An astronaut?"

    "Well―!" The silliness of his theory embarrassed him, but he explained, "Y-you see… I was wearing this strange, full-body suit…"

    Looker furiously jotted down a note and showed it to him. Radiation suit.

    Nanu nodded. That would explain the lack of radiation on him. The suit must have kept his body from being exposed, and the radiation signature washed off the suit when he landed in the water.

    Mohn saw their silent exchange and became agitated. "W-was that important?"

    "It was very helpful, Mr. Mohn," Looker assured him calmly. "Thank you."

    On Nanu's notepad, he had scrawled nothing but a hard, inky spiral deepening in color and impression. Strange. All of it was strange.

    "Where's the suit now?"

    "Oh, it's long gone, sir. I cut up the fabric to make netting and rope, and they've been rotted away for years."

    Years. Years. Nanu tapped his pen to paper and frowned hard, then flitted his cold, red eyes onto the man's nervous expression. "So. You been here for all this time, and nobody's ever wondered who you were."

    The longer he stared at Mohn, the more the blonde man squired and avoided his gaze. "Uhh, I mean, I'm sure they have. I wondered, too."

    "I'm confused," Nanu drawled, though something in his voice implied he was the opposite of confused. "You ever actually try to find out who you are? You know. Ask around, maybe look yourself up…"

    Mohn swallowed and answered, "Well, no…"

    "You printed ads, but you didn't put your name on them. Why?"

    "I didn't―i-it slipped my mind."

    "Heck, why not take a trip to the islands yourself? Put yourself out there? You been here all these years, and what exactly have you done? Didn't you wanna be found?"

    That Looker hadn't interrupted and asked Nanu to be gentler meant the other agent sensed this, too. He must've gotten the same vibes when he visited previously.

    Mohn, though, tried to grace through it by hoisting himself up to his feet and stammering, "You kn-know what I just realized? Mister―erm, Nanu, I haven't shown you around yet!"

    The two agents eyed him as if to say in their silence: neither of us are buying this.

    It didn't seem to matter to him; he moved to stall the inevitable. "It's your first visit! I'll give you a tour."

    In a time pressure situation, Nanu could have rolled right through such a tactic. But the sun was setting, and they had nowhere to be.

    -

    Mohn brought them to Isle Aplenny in a tiny motorboat of his own, as he advised against trying to dock their larger boat amidst the rocky shore. The ride was brief but awkward and largely silent. Still, Nanu could derive some entertainment from seeing how Mohn had designed a system of living: the sandy beach drawn with lines from the countless previous landings, a wooden stand hosting a variety of buckets, and baskets overflowing with collected, multicolored beans. Evidently, he often collected more than he knew what to do with.

    The moment Mohn grabbed hold of a pail, his mouth went. He proved unable to stop the flood of blather, telling stories, describing his crops, his wild friends (who started to peek out from bushes, eyes glinting in the evening), his methods of harvesting. He spoke so profusely that neither Looker nor Nanu had the will to stop him.

    The beanstalks were a sight to behold; they burst at the seams with leaves and swollen stalk-flesh, and even in their curled, serpentine formation forced by the weight of their girth, their height reached the agents' waists. From under the leaves, green pods dangled, tantalizing in size and plumpness.

    However, they hadn't come to admire his agricultural skills.

    Mohn had been gathering bean pods, tossing them in his pail in a lackadaisical manner while he rambled― plunk, plunk ―and Nanu was contemplating how to pry answers out of him.

    Then Looker released a startled yelp.

    Old detective instinct led Nanu to leap to the defensive, whirl around, and reach for his hip. But his alarm soon turned to amusement, because Looker had not been accosted by some band of criminals, but by an overexcited, flop-eared Rockruff. It had bruised the agent's ankles with its pebbly ruff and proceeded to drum its muddied paws on his legs, panting and wagging its tail with rabid intensity.

    Nanu relaxed and smirked. "You alright there?"

    "I'm not hurt," Looker said. He feebly tried to push the dog away with his leg. "Only… taken by surprise."

    "You got treats in your pockets or something?"

    Mohn, seeing the excitement, trailed back to their side, this time with an entire horde of wild pokemon following him. It hadn't taken the creatures long to catch on that harvested beans rested in his pail, so they murmured, pawed, whined, and gawked up at him while he grinned at Looker's predicament. "He remembers you from the last time you stopped by," Mohn observed, marveling. "Seems to have taken a real likin' to ya."

    "Yes, I see."

    At last, the Rockruff obeyed Looker's exhortations to sit, and planted its rump on the ground, tail still wiggling.

    Mohn scratched his chin. "Y'know, that there fella's a wild one. If you'd like to take it with you―"

    "Oh! No, I…" Looker hesitated and frowned down at the eager pup. "I'm afraid I can't."

    Mohn, catching onto something in his voice but not understanding it, wrinkled his brow. "Sorry; I assumed you were a trainer…"

    "He was," Nanu said. He ignored Looker's look of admonishment. "He lost his partner a few years back."

    "What!" Aghast, Mohn floundered and waved his hands about. "Geez, I―sorry, I'm a complete heel, aren't I? Shouldn'ta even brought it up…"

    Looker was not often riled―he had an even-keeled temper that could weather nearly every indignation or offense―so Nanu didn't anticipate the steel-eyed glare the other agent gave him now. "Nanu is the one who should apologize," Looker snapped with a sudden surge of irritation. "He had no right to divulge that on my behalf."

    While the two men exchanged glances, Mohn became uncomfortable. He looked between them, swallowed, and mumbled, "I'll― I'll be over there, collecting… Let you two… Um…" And with that, he bumbled to the other side of the island, a trail of pokemon squeaking and chasing his heels as he went.

    They quietly contemplated matters for a while. It took only a moment for their eyes to break away and focus on other things; Looker softened and lingered his sight on the sea. Meanwhile, the Rockruff remained seated and watching Looker, though by now it sensed something amiss, so its tail went still and its head cocked quizzically to the side.

    Nanu fixed his hands into his pockets and watched the shadows of the vines crawl along the grassy knoll. "You know―" He didn't turn. "Rockruff wouldn't be a bad choice. They're loyal. Good trackers. Most cops on the island got one."

    "...Is that so."

    It was Nanu's turn to tilt his head at him. If he didn't know better, and if he was the type to say it, he would have asked, you wanna talk about it? Instead, he measured his words. "Moving on can feel like betrayal. But it's not, you know."

    "Chief―" Looker chomped down to correct his flub. He looked equal part distressed and grateful. "Nanu. I―wish to redirect our attention to the case at hand."

    "It's your investigation," Nanu said with a shrug. "Tell me what you think."

    Surreptitiously, Looker followed Mohn's pacing with his eyes. "Your intuition has told you there's something peculiar about his circumstances. I agree with your assessment." As he thought aloud, he stooped down to the ground and gave the Rockruff a polite pat on the head. "I told him about my status with the police because I thought it would lead to greater trust. Instead, he became more agitated and evasive. This tells me he's been avoiding looking into his identity."

    "Mm-hmm."

    "I can't say I understand it."

    "I understand it," Nanu rebuffed. "Makes perfect sense."

    Looker gave him a surprised, confused look.

    "Woke up in strange circumstances with no memory. He ain't dumb. He knows he's not some regular Joe. He knows there's danger in throwing his name around."

    "He must realize it's possible that he has a family he's left behind."

    "And I'm sure he does. But that's a scary thing to look into―if you don't know what you're gonna find. Could be your family's glad you're gone. Or worse yet, they fell apart on account of your going. That's some heavy guilt to bear."

    With a solemn nod, Looker signalled that he heard this theory and had no objections. However, his expression turned troubled. He fixed a finger to his chin. "He can't hide here forever."

    "It's not really our decision."

    "It won't be his, either. In his current state, the government will find him eventually. He will be found alone, an amnesiac, and without proper legal counsel. What will become of him then?"

    Nanu could see the gears in Looker's head grinding away; he asked bluntly, "What are you thinking?"

    "I'm thinking…" Looker's face pointed straight at the white obelisk towering over the dark, Alolan horizon. "Aether would provide him ample legal protection. Should they know that their former president is alive and well."

    "Hmm." Nanu slouched and leaned in close, his voice turning stern, as it might have been years ago, when he still served as Looker's superior. "Let me get this straight. You've gone and done a secret investigation on a case Interpol locked up years ago―so it's definitely not approved or in your jurisdiction―and you had unsupervised interviews, collected illegal evidence, and now that you've got your intel, you're gonna leak it to a third party, which will obstruct an Interpol investigation and might get your fired―or arrested."

    "That is correct."

    Nanu's blank face froze, then with the warmth of the breeze, contorted into a wicked grin. He slapped a hand to the back of his head and chortled. "Kid, I could kiss you."

    "What?"

    Ah, Looker. Not a bone of comedic understanding in his body. Nanu sighed and was about to restate what he meant in less crass terms, but his pocket vibrated, and a default medley chirped into the air. "Uh―forget it," he said, waving Looker's befuddlement aside. "Hold on."

    This didn't bode well. Nanu hadn't been expecting a call. He dug through his pocket to reveal an unfamiliar number blinking on the phone's face. Area code looked foreign, but familiar. Normally he would ignore most phone calls, especially ones not identifiable by number, but...

    "Gimme a second, will you? I'm gonna take this."

    To give himself some privacy, Nanu traipsed down the hill until he reached the rocky shore where the boat currently rested, and he hurriedly flipped his phone open.

    -

    "Hello?"

    An unfamiliar voice spoke into his ear.

    "Speaking."



    "Yeah, I… What? What happened?"



    "Is he alright? How bad off is…?"



    "Okay… Okay, uh, he has family, you know… Yeah, two kids, has he…? No, I'm a bit outta the way, ma'am, but his daughter lives a region over."



    "Can you tell him it's a twelve hour flight? Tell him that. I can't―"



    "When? Well, tell him not to."



    "He's old as dirt, are you telling me you can't―!" Nanu released an exasperated sigh through his nostrils. "Can you hold? Yeah, just a minute." The kahuna planted the phone at his chest, spat a curse, and climbed the hill back over to Looker. The other man read his expression easily, and so stood up straight with concern before he managed to say anything. "I got a situation."

    Looker, seeing the deep lines of worry in Nanu's face, knew there were only a few things on earth that could trigger such anxiety out of him, so Looker appropriately asked, "What's the matter?"

    "It's personal." The blunt response had to be softened when he continued, "I need a favor. How fast can you get me on a plane to Viridian City?"

    "Viridian City?" Before he could help himself, Looker connected every dot. "Is it Sullivan? Is he alright?"

    Nanu prickled. "Flights, Looker."

    "I'll check with Chief. Maybe we can arrange something."

    "...Thanks." Nanu finished his call with a few gruff, choice words, and hung up. After fishing through his pockets for a cigarette, he noticed Looker's continued, sympathetic gaze. He grunted with annoyance. "Put the puppy-look away. No one's dead or dying."

    "Oh… That's good to hear." Looker was relieved, but knew he wouldn't be getting any more details. "We can head back to Ula'ula if you wish."

    The lighter snapped with a tiny glow of flame in the dimming evening. It painted Nanu's face in orange light that only seemed to accent his ragged, contemplative, disquieted features. "It's no rush," he said. Smoke rose up to cloud his face. "Don't let my crap interrupt your work."

    But Looker shook his head. "No more investigation is necessary. I am confident in my conclusion and I can handle it from here." Before Nanu could shy away, he placed a hand on his shoulder. "Thank you for your help. But family comes first."

    Family. Nanu wasn't sure about that. He glared at the hand currently touching him, willing it to move away.

    With a flash of a smile, Looker released him and went to seek out Mohn, probably to excuse them and discuss next steps. Nanu stayed where he was and smoked his cigarette in billowing puffs, trying his best to choke out the clot of nerves starting in his head and shaking the tips of his fingers. Just his luck―of all days, all times. He had always prided himself in keeping cool and controlling his thoughts when they went sideways, but he couldn't reel them in now. He just couldn't stop.

    He felt selfish just then. Until a few minutes ago, he had spent this entire excursion thinking of nothing but Mohn's fate, and how this discovery would upturn multiple lives, lives he had recently become more involved in than he intended. He could not help but imagine reunions and revelations, anger, tears, relief, confusion. But one phone call had sapped all of his interest in this story.

    Nanu hated thinking about himself; it was what made him such a good detective. Men like that lose themselves in their work―get to live in other people's headspaces, follow other people's stories, all while neglecting the rotted corpse of their own personal issues. He would have been happy to ignore the call, and ignore the problem at the other end.

    But it's just not how these things work.

    On the way back to the island, Nanu said nothing, but in the dark, he considered who he would make responsible for feeding his Meowth while he was away.

    -

    Author's note: Alright, that's it! This chapter serves as a transition/preview of my next story, "Unspoken," which is currently... At a writing hiatus, so I don't know if I'll be posting it anytime soon, or at all for that matter. I'll have to see. If you do want to read the first few chapters in the meanwhile, just Google me or go to my tumblr, and you can find it. Thanks!
     

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