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Tangela-d

Chapter Text

There's an island unlike all the others. It's crafted not by nature, but by the love and will of two researchers - a husband and wife. They called it Aether Paradise and made it their foundation's goal to help and protect the Pokemon of the region.

And in this mission they were successful for many years. Their members grew, the island grew, even their family grew with the addition of a son and a daughter. But the husband grew restless.

He remembered old projects and notes of years prior. Tales of other worlds, untameable beasts, and portals through space lingered at the back of his mind, until the need to understand became all encompassing. His research turned from Pokemon to wormholes.

As he toiled away in his lab, hardly ever emerging, the wife worried, but she did not stop him. She had her own plans to see through. If he would not join her, then she would do it alone. She would be the leader Aether needed and the parent her children deserved in his absence.

But the children had inherited the curiosity of their parents. They wanted to know why their father grew increasingly distant while their mother became evermore bitter. One day they decided to sneak into the lab their father so cherished.

It was the same day the husband reached a breakthrough. He made a connection to another world and a wormhole opened. When it closed again, the wife was left with no husband and no children, but a teenage girl and a strange Pokemon in their place.

The wife, grieving and desperate, bullied the girl, demanding information, but there was none to give. The girl had no memory of who she is or where she came from.

Years pass, and the wife attempted to pick up the research her husband left behind, wanting nothing more than her family back.

She hid the girl and her Pokemon away, knowing they were crucial to her goals. The girl stayed concealed to all but those who need know within the foundation. Though she secluded her, the wife grew to care for the girl, often treating her as the family she no longer had.

But a poison still remained within her. For as often as she was kind, she was cruel, questioning what part the girl had in her family's disappearance. She told the girl she may never leave. That the outside world was far worse than the room she resided in. That she was all the girl has. That the girl cannot leave her as well, especially since she may be the reason she's alone. She told her nothing can change until the day her family is returned.

And what could the girl do but give in? The wife was all she had, after all, and the only "mother" she could remember. If the outside world was so terrible, maybe she should be grateful to live on paradise.

But if it's paradise, then why could it be so awful? As the years go on, her mother's demands became worse. She grew more dangerously obsessed with wormholes, ultra beasts, and her lost family. The foundation experimented on the Pokemon sent through the wormhole with her, causing it great pain and stress. The girl had nightmares that felt like fragments of memories she can’t piece together. Her isolated life became unbearable.

Her greatest dream is to find out who she truly is and where she comes from, but will the ivory walls of Aether Paradise hide her away forever?

Chapter Text

"I'll be back in three days time," Lusamine says, giving you a warm smile.

"I - I could come with you," you cautiously offer.

Her smile fades.

You panic a bit, gathering your nerves for your explanation. You'd prepared for this conversation for too long to have it sour so quickly. "Me and Nebby both! Maybe with us there something will happen. What could it hurt to try, right? What if we're what's missing?"

Your "mother" is heading off with a small research team to investigate the claims of a wormhole sighting in Haina Desert. Whatever her husband, Mohn, did all those years ago, it made things... unstable. They're rare, but every so often wormholes - like the one that brought you and your Cosmog here in exchange for Lusamine's family - appear in random places across Alola. The Aether Foundation keeps a watchful eye and ear out for any news of "portals in the sky" or "strange beasts." They never turn out to be quite what Lusamine's searching for. But you wonder if, just maybe, they're the answers you're looking for.

All you know, is that you and Nebby were left behind by a wormhole many years ago and you've been kept in a secluded area of Aether Paradise ever since. You have no memories of your life prior to the wormhole and you've been permitted to see so few people. The only person you can ask questions of is Lusamine and you suspect that she's purposefully keeping you in the dark on certain subjects.

Still, she's all you have and she's been so kind to you. Well, most of the time. But she's the only mother you know, and you've grown to care for her as such, even though you know she's not your "real" one.

Besides, by keeping you here, she's protecting you. Mother's told you all about the outside world and it sounds horrific. You falter in your eye contact with Lusamine. Maybe it was wrong to ask to come along.

"We've been over this so many times," she says in a sing-song voice. "You're not leaving this room. For your own protection."

But could you really just stay here forever? Could you really be okay with never knowing? You can't just grow old and die here, safety be damned. "Please, mother. If you're with me, what could happen? I'd just like to see something outside. Just once."

Lusamine's eyes darken as she rounds on you. "You really think you can handle it out there? You? You don't even belong here. This world would destroy you and I can't allow that."

"But I-"

"You come from nothing. Just dropped from the sky with no one and nothing. You're nothing, except to me. Do you understand?"

You stay silent. It's clear that no matter what you say, this conversation is going to be in Lusamine's favor, as it always is.

"You're lucky I want you; even if you may be why my family's vanished. You're lucky you wound up here. The least you can do, is behave."

There's an anger that runs slow and steady through your veins. You're far from a child anymore and you wish she would at least acknowledge that. Instead she seems to feel that you owe her playing the part of her daughter to make up for the one you inadvertently stole. And what if that was your fault? What if you really are the reason her family is gone? It's not as if you can remember. Your anger dissipates. Was it so bad to want to know though? To try to find answers? You tell mother the one last thing you can think of to try and persuade her. It's one of the few fragments about yourself that you can remember. "It's my birthday."

Lusamine softens. "So it is. And facing what awaits out there couldn't possibly be a proper gift. We'll celebrate when I return, okay?"

You relent. The fight is gone from you. For now. "Yes, mother."

She draws you into a hug. "I love you, dear."

"I love you more." It's a familiar saying that you're sure you feel despite your anger and frustration.

"I love you most." Lusamine releases you, gives you a reassuring smile, and leaves you in the locked room.

At the very least, the room is spacious, large, and (from what you've been told) as pristine and white as much of Aether Paradise is. From books, to puzzles, to games, and more, you have no shortage of things to do, but what's outside this room would always be more enticing.

You pull out a chair and collapse onto it, sighing. There's a small chime noise by your feet and you look down to find your Cosmog, Nebby, looking worriedly up at you. You lift the Pokemon into your lap where it nuzzles against you.

This little cloud of a Pokemon is the only reason you occasionally see other parts of Aether Paradise. Though, you're not shown much and they aren't exactly happy times. You're only permitted to leave when Lusamine and her researchers have new experiments to perform on Nebby. For reasons unknown to you, Nebby had taken to you instantly, and would only obey you, making you an often instrumental part of the experiments.

It was suspected that your mysterious Pokemon has the ability to open wormholes - making it invaluable to Lusamine for the obvious reasons. It was just a question of how to get it to open wormholes. And after many years, Lusamine's near madness drove her experiments to be increasingly violent and risky.

You admit that in some ways you wish she'd have success. Maybe when she got her family back, you'd also get your memory back; or at least some answers.

But you don't want that at the cost of Nebby. You wonder if mother would go so far as to kill the Pokemon to get what she wants.

Instead, you're growing to believe more and more that maybe your answers lie outside of Aether Paradise. You have dreams - sometimes nightmares - about things you don't recognize, and yet you feel they're crucial: an island full of Exeggutor, two ornate flutes, an alter, a Pokemon unlike any that's been seen before... but you know you'll never find what they mean here.

You know only what you'd been allowed to know and what you'd managed to find. You do have some knowledge of Alola having seen maps from mother's research trips. And you know of many Pokemon from books you've read. There's some base knowledge leftover from another life you don't remember that you hope might be enough to help you get by should you need it. But it's all fragments and you don't have any context for it.

Sometimes your mind just circles, thinking about how trapped you are. These white walls are home and a prison you're not sure you'll ever escape.

But you can dream.

~~~

Guzma shuffles around nervously outside the locked door. He looks anxiously down each side of the hallway, confirming for the hundredth time that no one's here. There shouldn't be. After all, it was mostly Lusamine he'd seen wander this far into the building, and he'd just watched her and a few of her closest lackeys pile onto one of her boats for some kind of research trip. He had to see her off and have visual confirmation that she was gone for what he's about to pull.

He's sure - completely sure - that behind this door are all the things Lusamine had promised, but been holding out on. Namely, Ultra Beasts.

Okay, well, he's not completely sure, but sure enough. Besides, even if he's wrong, then he takes nothing and leaves the room, and no one has to know he was there. No harm done, and at least he would have peace of mind.

Truthfully this alliance between the Aether Foundation and Team Skull had gone on too long for his liking. It made him antsy and irritable to have to answer to someone. But it was, he supposed, mutually beneficial. They didn't exactly have much before the president came along.

Their arrangement was this: Lusamine paid them handsomely to steal what she could not buy, cause distractions when needed, and be at her beck and call, albeit secretly. It also helped that she had a hand in keeping them out of jail for their more criminal activities. For a bunch of nobodies who have nothing but each other, it's a decent arrangement. They weren't doing well before her, and they probably wouldn't do well without...

But that didn't stop Guzma from occasionally feeling vengeful. He might be a good-for-nothing gang leader, but that don't mean he doesn't have dreams of his own. He works almost exclusively with bug type Pokemon, and despite failing to become a trial captain, he's still determined to be known as the greatest bug trainer there is. He'd even had his team steal as much Buginium Z as they could find. You wanna work with bug types? You wanna prove your worth with them? Well, you're gonna have to find ya boy Guzma, whether he's a trial captain or not. Hell, weren't they establishing some stupid league up on Mount Lanakila? Maybe he'd shoot for an elite four spot. Whatever the title, it doesn't matter. To prove himself is his goal.

And what had swayed him when it came to Lusamine, was what she'd said she could offer him to help him realize that goal. He could sense that she wasn't always being entirely truthful with him. Guzma wasn't a fool, for as much as he might act like one. He knows he and Team Skull are being used, but if it put food on the table and clothes on their backs, then that was fine. But he was determined to at least make sure he got what Lusamine said would be his: bug type ultra beasts.

What would set him apart as the greatest bug trainer more than using the strongest bugs available that nobody else would even have? So he'd patiently waited through all of Lusamine's demands, experiments, mood swings, explanations, and more, only to be left empty handed when it came to Pokemon.

He knows what her research is about; she'd let him in on that much. She's dangerously obsessed with wormholes, ultra beasts, and getting her family back. Everything else played second fiddle. He suspected she might already have the ultra beasts in her possession and was simply refusing to give him what he was owed. How else would she even know bug type ultra beasts exist? Probably got it through one of the random wormholes that open up and close so quickly across the islands. Those were practically an urban legend he didn't believe until Lusamine.

Guzma had waited long enough as far as he's concerned. If she's holding out, then it was time to find out. The most obvious place would be this room where nearly no one is allowed, so he'd start there.

But he still wanted their deal to continue. He needed it to for the team. So, the only way he was going to have his cake and eat it too, would be to wait until she's gone to strike. And when word got around of a possible wormhole in Haina Desert, he started to formulate a plan.

Part of that plan is making his way toward him now, walking in an unnatural manner down the hall. Liam, a member of Team Skull and one of his best friends is disguised as an Aether Foundation employee, complete with tight pants and his blue hair stuffed underneath one of the standard issue Aether caps. He pulls at the fabric near his crotch and continues his awkward gait until he reaches Guzma.

Liam throws the hat to the ground and runs his hands through his hair. The white gloves he was wearing soon join the cap. "How the hell do they wear this shit all day?" He tugs at the shirt collar.

Guzma laughs. "What, not your style?"

"It needs to breathe a little, ya know?" Liam says gesturing towards his groin. "Why'd it have to be me in this getup again?"

"Ya really think I was gonna get away with it? Nah, I show my face around here too much."

"Well, lucky me, right, boss?" Liam says, rolling his eyes.

"Yeah, yeah, it's almost over." He pauses before apprehensively asking, "Did you get the card?"

"Uh, yeah," Liam says in an odd tone, digging through one of the pouches attached to his side. "Took a while, but uh, I got it."

Guzma regards him skeptically. "What - what exactly did you do to get it?"

"Uh, so there's this guy named Ethan working in the security department and-"

"You didn't," Guzma says already knowing where this is heading.

Liam shrugs and hands him the keycard. "I might've."

Guzma runs a hand down the side of his face. "What happened to blendin' in and not bein' noticed?"

"Pretty hard to do when the card's sittin' under somebody's nose!"

"Yeah but ya didn't have to-"

"Hey," Liam interrupts him, detaching pouches from the uniform and adding them to the pile of Aether clothing on the floor. "Ya got your keycard, right? Besides, what can I say? The glasses did it for me."

Well, he did get the keycard. "You leave the fake?"

"Of course!" Liam says, throwing his arms wide. "I ain't that distracted!"

From the information they were able to gather, there are three cards with access to this room in existence. One Lusamine carries, one her assistant Wicke has, but Guzma had never seen her use, and this spare one that was kept in a security room. They'd cobbled together a passable decoy back in Po Town. Since it's a spare, who knew when they'd actually try it and find it's a fake. Maybe Team Skull would be long done with the Aether Foundation by then. And hey, they'd have to prove they were the ones to take it anyway.

Guzma looks down at the shiny plastic in his hand and then back up to Liam. "Guess it's time to do this."

"Yeah, yeah," Liam says, waving a dismissive hand. "I'll stand guard. Go get your ultra bugs or whatever."

He gives Liam an appreciative smirk before turning and facing the door. He'd finally know in just a few moments if his suspicions were right all along. With one swipe of the keycard, the door slides open and he steps inside.

 

Behind him the door quickly closes and locks again, but he's too distracted to notice. He'd thought he'd see walls lined with shelves of Pokeballs in here - ultra beasts and other rare creatures ripe for the taking. But there's not a single Pokeball to be found.

No, instead it's a large, pristine room. It almost looks like... a bedroom?

"What the f-"

There's a sharp pain at the back of his head, and he's out cold.

Chapter Text

You stand with the textbook still raised over your head, should he make any sudden moves.

But he doesn't. Who knew The Complete Taxonomy of the Pokemon of Alola would be enough to knock someone out? It's a good thing it did though, as the man who suddenly came through your door certainly looks the part of every ruffian and thug mother had warned you about. His outfit is almost entirely black and there's a skull insignia on the back of his jacket that you're getting a good look at now that he's lying face down and motionless upon the floor.

You'd heard voices outside your door, which would have been an unusual enough occurrence, but that they were male voices immediately put you on high alert. You'd scrunched yourself up into a corner by the door and waited to see if they'd actually come in. Then, when one had, well, you suddenly found another purpose for that old book. One whack with all you had and he was down.

But, how down was he? The book slips from your hands. You didn't kill him, did you? You kneel down beside him, unsure what to do next and feeling some odd cocktail of fear, and yet also excitement. There's a person in your room! There's a person in your room. What a weird birthday this was turning out to be. You try to flip him over as gently as you can, but he's heavier than you expected. Even with the roughness, he doesn't wake.

You watch the rise and fall of a gold medallion on his chest. It's the shape of the same skull on his jacket. Breathing! He's breathing. And he's... not bad looking for a random guy who just broke into your room. Happy birthday to you indeed. You run your fingers lightly over one of the purple tattoos he's got on both his forearms. More skulls. Who is he?

He lets out some small groan and you jump back. Nebby makes an anxious squeak and retreats to your bed. You decide to act fast and begin looking around for anything rope-like you can find.

 

It had taken a good deal of effort, but you've now got your ruffian visitor sat upright in a chair, tied to it with wires, hair ribbons, and cables. You've perched yourself up on the table across from him, book in your lap, just in case.

But he still hasn't woken up and you're starting to worry you may have put him into a coma. You sit and watch, nervously chewing on your lip.

He's got a weird pair of sunglasses, with one frame lopsided, making them look almost like a sun and half moon. They now sit askew in his hair and the temptation to get a better look at them is too great. You hop down from the table and cautiously pluck them from his head.

You're holding them up and inspecting them when there's a knock on the door that nearly makes you drop them.

"Eyy boss," says the other male voice from outside. "You alright in there?"

The man in the chair begins to stir and you freeze.

His eyes open slowly and he shakes his head slightly, moaning. Then he jumps (as much as he's able to) as he looks down to find himself tied to the chair.

"What the hell?" he mutters and begin to struggle against the restraints.

He wasn't getting out of this alone. Among the many books you've read is one on tying knots. You inhale, gathering your nerves to confront him, but the noise makes his head snap up and look at you.

"I-" you start, but he interrupts you.

"Hey! Hey, give those back!"

You're confused for a moment, then look down at the sunglasses in your hands.

"Yeah, doll, the shades. Give em back!"

You hesitate for a moment, amused that this is his first concern upon waking and finding that he's tied up. You slowly approach him, his fierce gray eyes watching you.

"No, no not-" he says as you start to place them over his eyes. He sighs in exasperation, the dark glasses now on his face. "Ya gotta push em up a bit."

You comply, moving them up to his forehead, revealing his eyes again. Whoever this guy is, he just gets stranger by the minute.

"Okay," he says. "Now who the fuck are you? And what the fuck is going on?"

"Who am I?" you reply incredulously. "You're the one who just barged into my room. Who are you?"

"You haven't heard of Big Bad Guzma, doll?" He continues to pull at the binds.

You tell him your name, correcting him.

"Yeah, okay, well, any particular reason you've got me tied up?" He looks at you with both anger and confusion.

He's sure got some nerve to be this accusatory given the circumstances. "Any particular reason you broke in here?"

"I thought that-" he huffs, pulling as hard as he can against the restraints before relaxing into the chair. "I was lookin' for ultra beasts. Didn't think the Prez's big secret was that she was hiding some chick back here."

"Ultra beasts..." you mutter, a plan already starting to form in your head. "You work for my mother?"

"In a manner of speakin'. Wait- your mother? Lusamine's your mother?"

"Not - not really. It's a long story." You look away for a moment, thinking.

"What are you doing here? Why are you kept here like this?"

"Moth- Lusamine," you correct yourself. "Keeps us here to protect us. She needs us for her work."

"Us?"

You step to the side, giving this Guzma person a clear view of your bed where Nebby is still hiding.

"That an ultra beast?" he asks.

"No one's really sure." You chew your lip, trying to come up with the best way to phrase what you want to ask him next.

"Alright, well, this has been fun, but since what I'm looking for clearly ain't here. How's about letting me go, huh?"

"So about that," you start as he looks at you apprehensively. "I will let you go, if you will be my guide and take me to Exeggutor Island and back before Lusamine returns."

"What?" his face twists in confusion.

"Exeggutor island. I just need to - to see it. I think I'm meant to find something there."

"Nope, nah, uh-uh, you are not something I need to get involved with and risk pissin' off the Prez."

"You didn't already risk that coming in here?"

"Yeah, well, sneakin' in a forbidden room is a lot less risky than taking Lusamine's prisoner off the island."

Something about someone else referring to you as a "prisoner" makes you pause. You might have thought of yourself as that many times, but to hear it confirmed aloud gives you even more resolve. You have to convince him to get you out of here, even if it is only for a few days. "I can make it worth your while."

He looks you up and down. "And how's that exactly?"

You point to your Cosmog. "Nebby can open wormholes. You think Lusamine has ultra beasts? Well, you're right about that, and we're how she gets them." That just might be the biggest, most direct lie you've ever told. "Be my guide, and I will get you whatever ultra beast you want."

Guzma is quiet for a long moment, just staring at you and blinking. Then his face sets into a smirk. "Listen, you're real cute, doll." He raises his eyebrows at you suggestively. "And real good at makin' up stories. How about you come over here, untie me, and we can do whatever you want, so long as it's not leavin' this room."

"Are you... hitting on me? Are you hitting on me to get out of this?"

"I dunno. Is it workin'?"

"Has it ever?"

"No. Yes. Sometimes on occasion it- alright, you know what? Liam!" he screams. "Liam get your as-"

You put your hand over his mouth. "Shhh. Don't-" There's a slimy sensation as he runs his tongue over your palm. You quickly pull your hand away and wipe it down your pants. "What? That is disgusting!"

"Liam!" Guzma yells again.

"Boss?" The male voice outside asks.

"Liam, ya gotta-"

Unsure what else to do, you take the golden skull medallion from around his neck and shove it into his mouth. He gives you the most annoyed look you've ever seen.

"Boss? Boss, the door's locked!"

Guzma maneuvers the medallion around and spits it out. "The keycard's right outside the door! You can reach it!"

You look, and sure enough, there's a plastic card sitting on the ground right by the underside of the door. Guzma must have dropped it there when you knocked him out. Now there's fingers feeling around for it through the gap. You run for it.

"Reach, Liam! Fucking reach, she's coming!"

You're almost there, but the fingers bump into the card, cover it, and slide it out.

A moment later the door opens to reveal a man with blue hair in an Aether uniform. He walks into the room and looks from you, to Guzma who's still tied up. "What kind of heterosexual nonsense is this?"

"What?!" Guzma says. "No, no, no, it's not-"

"And after you gave me a hard time? You ain't got no room to talk, G."

"Liam, this is not - this is not that kinda thing!"

Liam ignores him and steps further into the room, the door closing behind him. He gives you a skeptical look before taking in the rest of the room. "Ain't no ultra beasts, huh?"

"Yeah, no, we were wrong about that. You mind helping me out?"

Liam walks past Guzma towards Nebby.

You gasp and move to them.

"Liam," Guzma says, sounding annoyed.

"What's that? Ain't no Pokemon I've ever seen."

You step between Liam and Nebby, your arms out protectively. "That," you tell him. "Is your ticket to ultra beasts. If you help me."

Liam raises both his hands in an "oh well" motion as he turns to Guzma. "Why don't we just take that thing?"

You bristle. "Nebby won't listen to anyone but me. Without both of us, you'll have nothing."

"I don't believe that for a second, doll," Guzma says.

Liam puts a hand to his chin as he regards you. "Why not, boss?"

"You sayin' you do?" Guzma huffs.

Liam approaches you. Mustering all your courage, you stand your ground and put your hands on your hips.

"Your bud there," he says, nodding towards Nebby. "It can help us get ultra beasts? New ones? Not ones the Prez has already got?"

"Yes," you tell him confidently, lying once more.

"And you want what in return?"

You swallow. "Take me to Exeggutor Island and back before Lusamine's trip is over."

Liam turns away from you. "Ey, boss, sounds like a fair deal to me!"

Guzma sighs. "Are you serious?"

"Well, we pull this off, and we still get what we wanted and we won't even take nothin' from the Prez! No missing beasts for her to notice neither."

"It's my birthday," you add hoping to tip the scale in your favor.

Guzma falls quiet for a moment before fixing his eyes on you. "Fine, we'll take you to see the damn Exeggutors."

~~~

"We're really gonna do this, huh?" Guzma mutters to Liam, now freed from the chair and rubbing his wrists. She sure knew how to tie a knot.

The two of them are waiting on her as she looks around the room, preparing to leave the island for what sounds like the first time ever.

"Guess we are," Liam says absentmindedly. He looks a lot more comfortable now that he's abandoned the rest of the Aether uniform for his Team Skull outfit.

Guzma watches her as she hurriedly looks everything over and nervously rubs at the back of his head. "I mean, I guess it's the right thing to do right? Like, uh, what are the moral implications of leaving someone all trapped in a place? ... even if we are bringin' her back."

"Yeah, well, we've always been a real bastion of morality," Liam says sarcastically.

"You think she's telling the truth?"

"I ain't gonna lie. I really just wanted an excuse to come back to Aether."

"What, are you kidding me?"

Liam shrugs. "I thought maybe I could-"

Realization dawns on him. "You wanna come back to see Easton?"

"Ethan." Liam wipes at his nose. "And I dunno."

Guzma tries to choose his next words carefully. He wants to be supportive, but did Liam have to go for an Aether employee? "Well, uh, I can't say I think it's a good idea."

"Is it ever really a good idea?"

Guzma shakes his head. "Beats me. I'm about as lucky as you are with that shit."

"What about her?" Liam gestures to the woman frantically checking the room over and possibly gathering her nerves.

"Her? She's just some shut-in. Don't be weird."

"Hey! I'm just sayin'. What's her deal anyway?"

"Hell if I know. Guess we've got a couple days to find out."

"Okay!" She interrupts them suddenly. "Just one more thing." She pulls open a drawer and roots around until she pulls out a red and white duffel. She turns to her Pokemon who's refused to leave the bed this whole time. "Nebby, get in the bag."

 

Outside the door to her room she seems to be going through some kind of internal crisis. She goes from smiling one minute to looking downright horrified the next.

"You alright there?" Guzma asks.

"This is just - just so exciting!" Her face lights up and he's surprised to find himself grinning back at her. Then her expression drops and she adds, "And absolutely terrifying."

"Hey, what's there to worry about? Ya got me around, right?" He tells her, trying to be reassuring.

He's relieved to see her smile again. "Right, Big Bad Guzma."

Her calling him that is the most amusing thing he's heard in a long time. "Exactly, doll. Destruction in human form. The boss."

"And Mister Humble to boot," she says laughing.

Guzma catches Liam raising an eyebrow in his direction and clears his throat. "Okay, so about sneaking you outta here."

"We just gotta get to the docks," Liam says. "Just an elevator ride. No biggie."

"At least no one will recognize me." She adjusts the bag over her shoulder.

"You do already look pretty Aether..." Guzma says, eyeing Liam's discarded clothes still sitting outside her door. She is dressed in all white - no doubt Lusamine's doing - but there was still something missing to make her seem a little more inconspicuous. He bends down and reaches for the Aether cap. "I think this'll do it." He dusts it off and places it gently atop her head, and lowers it so that the brim casts most of her face in shadow.

"Good enough!" Liam declares, and with that they start for the elevator.

 

Aether's elevator always weirded Guzma out. It's damn near in the middle of the place, triangular shaped, and essentially open on all sides - not exactly the best for being discrete. It was simple enough to get to the elevator as there was hardly anyone on that particular floor, but passing each level on the way to the docks is another story.

She's gripping the railing so hard that her knuckles are white. Her eyes are wide and her mouth has been hanging open the entire ride. They pass by laboratories, housing, and - probably most impressively to someone who's never seen it or anything like it - the Pokemon sanctuary.

"Hey," he nudges her. "You okay?" She's got to pull it together or the people they're passing may find her gaping suspicious.

She doesn't respond, just blinks a few times, inhales, and shakes her head ever so slightly.

He's about to try to comfort her more when Liam says, "Oh shit."

Guzma follows Liam's gaze. Their platform passes by an Aether employee with glasses. He freezes when he sees Liam, who's suddenly in a very different uniform, and drops the stack of papers he's holding. Ethan. But then they're descending to the next floor before anything else can be done or said.

"Fuck!" Liam smacks the railing in frustration. "Well, that's, uh, that's gonna complicate some things."

"I mean, he wouldn't suspect," Guzma gestures to the girl. "Anything about her right."

"Nah, nah," Liam says running a hand through his hair. "Don't think he even knows about her."

The elevator finally comes to a stop at the docks. Guzma nearly vaults over the guard rail in his hurry to get to the Team Skull boat. The sooner they got away from Aether, the better. "Come on, we just gotta-"

"G," Liam interrupts him. "G, look."

Guzma turns back around. She's still gripping the railing and staring ahead at nothing, frozen.

"Can you start the boat?"

Liam nods and leaves them.

Right, comforting. How was it you do that? "Hey, we gotta go," he tells her gently.

"I know," she says quietly.

"What - what's up?"

She finally looks at him. "I've never left this island. All I've been told of what's out there is that it's horrible, and I don't know if that's true, but - but what if it is?"

"Ah, well, there's some shitty things-"

She goes back to staring at nothing.

"But, there's some pretty great things too."

She looks unconvinced.

Guzma sighs. He'd been so against this plan, but now he's the one trying to convince her to follow through with it. "Look, I'm not good at this kinda thing. But what're ya gonna do? Stay here locked up on your ivory island forever? Nah. Even if it is bad, at least you'll know. At least you'll have found out for yourself. But," He offers her his hand. "I can promise you that it's definitely not all bad. And I don't make promises easily. Come on, I said I'd be your guide. Let me show you Alola?"

She looks from his hand up to him. Finally she takes it and smiles. "Okay."

Chapter Text

"This is not Exeggutor Island," you say, looking out at the approaching dock. It looks old and rickety, and the thought of walking on it fills you with unease. You imagine the wooden planks collapsing beneath you, dropping you into the dirty water below. The island it's attached to is much too big to be the island you're after. Beyond the dock is a tall wall stretching around some kind of compound.

"It ain't," Guzma confirms.

"And why's that?" you ask, turning towards him, suddenly defensive.

"Hey, chill, doll. We'll getcha to your island... just not like this."

You blink, confused. "Wouldn't a boat be the easiest way?"

Guzma rubs at the back of his neck. "Alright, so a couple things: One, this ain't exactly, uh, this ain't our boat."

You look around at the boat and it's black paint job and back to him. "It sure looks like your tastes."

"Yeah, well, that's Lusamine's doing too. Technically it's her boat, and we know for a fact she tracks it. We take it anywhere Aether ain't expecting and it's gonna be suspicious."

"Oh." You deflate a little. Even when she's not here, mother's still making things difficult.

"And two, you need a change o' clothes if you're gonna be runnin' around with us."

You look down at your clothing. You only have what mother permitted you to wear and your wardrobe is almost entirely white. Guzma had been right when he said you "look Aether." You noticed that you nearly blended in with the employees during the elevator ride. "But, what would it matter out here?"

"People outside Aether and Team Skull don't know we're working together. In fact, we're supposed to sorta be on opposite sides of things. So someone who looks like an Aether employee with the likes of us ain't gonna work either. We're tryin' to keep this low-key."

"Team Skull?" You glance at the insignia around his neck.

Guzma smiles. "Well, we sure ain't Aether right?" He nods towards the dock. "Come on, got some people for you to meet."

 

You find yourself frozen again, mind trying to process everything. You're standing on the dock, which does creak heavily, but holds, and staring at the ground in front of you.

Some deep, forgotten part of you remembers grass - you know you've seen and felt it before. You've seen trees, rocks, dirt, the sky, and more, in person. You know it, but you just can't recall when or where. It's like a word forever stuck on the tip of your tongue. But despite logically telling yourself that you've had these experiences before, you can't help the awe you feel now.

A drop of water hits your nose causing you to look up. Now more drops are hitting your face and you're stuck in another cycle of wonderment. "Rain," you mumble.

Guzma comes into view, towering over you, making you realize just how tall he is. "Yeah, rain. It's almost always raining around these parts. How long you been trapped in that room exactly?"

"I have no idea," you tell him truthfully. You're not even certain how many years it's been.

Liam jumps off the boat with an umbrella and hands it to you. "Ya know how to use this, new girl?"

"I know what an umbrella is," you tell him. "But, what about you guys?"

They both shrug. "Pretty used to the rain by now," Liam says.

 

The grass and rain are nothing compared to what's in front of you now and you silently berate yourself for your constant shock at everything. But what you're seeing? You've never seen anything like it. You're just inside the gates of what Guzma's called "Po Town" holding the umbrella like your life depends on it, and staring open-mouthed at the scene before you.

Everything's rundown and broken; there's boarded up windows, graffiti on walls and walkways, vehicles that look abandoned, busted street lamps, and debris. The town has been trashed, and sitting at the very end of it all is some kind of mansion that Liam is already walking towards.

"What?" Guzma says, looking amused at your expression. "Can't handle a five star joint like this?"

You don't respond. Instead, you're now focused on the people milling about in the rain. Everyone within the gate is dressed like Liam and they've all got brightly colored hair in various shades. You watch as a girl with pink hair begins spray painting their skull logo on a building.

"What? Them? Eh, they're just-"

"Ruffians? Thugs?"

He huffs and gives a noncommittal hand gesture. "I mean, you're not wrong, I guess, but don't worry about them; there are way bigger things to fear than these numskulls."

"Hey!" says a man with orange hair who overhears Guzma.

You point the umbrella at him threateningly, but he pays you no mind. Nebby chimes nervously in your bag.

Guzma gently pushes your umbrella down. "Eh, you know I mean it in the best way possible."

"Course ya do, boss!" The man leaves you both be.

Guzma starts down the path and you follow. "Boss?" He had called himself that before, as had Liam.

He glances at you and shoves his hands in his pockets. "That's right - boss around here anyway, and that up there," he nods to the mansion. "That's Shady House."

You continue to gawk at everything as you walk. This is all far stranger than you ever could have imagined. "Team Skull is... it's a gang?" Why would mother work - even secretly - with the type of people she'd always warned you about?

"Well, that's what everyone seems to want to call us," Guzma says. He sounds disappointed at your observation. "Maybe we deserve that, but we're just a group of people tryin' to get by, ya know?"

You nod, even though you don't exactly know.

When you reach the mansion, Guzma holds open the door for you.

The inside of the mansion seems like it was abandoned in a hurry. There's still expensive looking furniture about, but many of the decorations and belongings are gone. Books are missing from shelves, cardboard boxes sit here and there, and it's dusty. It's also about as trashed as the outside with the graffiti and grunge. It's so unlike Aether Paradise and you feel so out of place.

Guzma leads you up a staircase, avoiding a chandelier that has crashed to the ground. You follow him until he reaches a door and knocks.

"Yeah, yeah, come in," says a female voice.

Guzma opens the door to reveal what appears to be a bedroom. On one side there's multiple computer towers and even more screens. A girl with pastel purple hair sits at a desk, clacking away on a keyboard. On the other side of the room is a large bed where another girl with pink and yellow hair lounges with a magazine. Scattered across the room are what appears to be various makeup and hair products.

"Hey, G," says the girl with the magazine. "Did you get the-" she lowers it and goes silent when she notices you. "G, what the hell?!

The girl at the computer desk spins in her chair and her eyes widen. "Whoa."

"Yeah, yeah, I'll explain," Guzma says. He introduces you, then points to the girl with pink and yellow hair. "That's Plumeria. We call her Plumes. She'd be second in charge around here." He points to the other girl. "And that's Sweets, our residents hacker."

"Hacker's a strong word," Sweets says, adjusting her thick-rimmed glasses that are as purple as her hair. "And I do more than that."

Plumeria still looks shocked and impatient. "Okay, now do you wanna explain why you kidnapped an Aether chick?"

"It wasn't a kidnapping!" Guzma says defensively. "Look, ain't no ultra beasts in that room! Instead it was-" He gestures up and down at you.

Both Guzma and Plumeria turn to Sweets.

Sweets shrugs. "Well, don't look at me. Lusamine has no security cameras anywhere near the room, let alone inside it. She clearly wanted to hide whatever's in there. Every other inch of Aether Paradise is under surveillance. Question is," she says, regarding you curiously. "Why would she want to hide you?"

"She had to protect me because-" The duffel bag slung over your shoulder begins to sway back and forth. The zipper slides back and suddenly Nebby shoots out of the bag and into your arms.

Both girls look stunned. Plumeria recovers first and says, "Well, the surprises just keep coming."

You continue explaining your situation, namely how and why Lusamine needs you, and why you and Nebby are so safeguarded. You tell them you don't remember anything before the wormhole you came through. You end with your lie: that Nebby can for sure open wormholes and will do so to obtain the ultra beasts Guzma wants in exchange for a trip to Exeggutor Island.

"Oh, this is bad, G," Plumeria says. "Is taking Lusamine's prisoner such a good idea?"

You unconsciously clench your teeth at the word "prisoner."

Guzma shrugs. "We'll get her back in time."

"It's just... it's a big risk." Plumeria looks you over, concerned.

You stay silent, trying to process the swirling feelings you have at the notion of going back. If you're right about everything, and you find whatever it is you're looking for, would you really go back?

Sweets seems more interested in your story than worried about risks. "Why Exeggutor Island?"

You hold Nebby to you, and pet it's head before attempting to explain, hoping you can make this sound worth the trip. "I keep having these dreams about the island. I always find something there, but I'm not always sure what it is. I'm pretty sure it's a flute. All I want - all I've ever dreamed of - is finding out who I really am and where I come from, and something tells me it has something to do with that flute. Well, two of them. There's two sometimes in my dreams."

When you finish, the room is silent. Without a word, Sweets begins to type away on her keyboard, muttering, "Flutes... Exeggutor Island..."

"G, I can't-" Plumeria gives you a sympathetic look before continuing. "I can't support this. Take her back before we get caught and everything goes to shit again."

Guzma sighs, rubs at his undercut and glances around the room, clearly considering her words.

There's a panic rising within you. "Please. Please, don't take me back yet. This is my only chance to figure something - anything - out." Nebby peeks up towards you with worry when it hears the panic in your voice.

Guzma looks guiltily at you.

"Girlie," Plumeria says her voice soft, and full of sympathy. "I don't think you understand what we're risking. Everybody here? They've got nowhere else to go. We're depending on Lusamine. Not pissing her off is priority."

"What are the risks then? What does she do for you?" You have to know. If you are going to be denied your opportunity, you have to at least know why.

Plumeria looks at Guzma. Sweets continues to type.

Guzma hesitates before speaking. "Without Lusamine we wouldn't have this place. People think we took over the town, but it was nearly abandoned because of the constant rain. She paid the last few residents to leave. She pays for a lot of things: clothes, food, phones-"

"Medicine," Plumeria continues. "Jeremy's inhalers, couple of the grunts need those injections handy in case of an allergic reaction-"

"Hormones," Sweets adds, still facing the screen.

"And that ain't even all of it," Guzma says, "We ain't got much, but what we do have, is Lusamine's doing."

You swallow. "In exchange for what?"

Guzma and Plumeria glance at one another again. Sweet's typing momentarily stops.

Guzma clears his throat. "In exchange for causing trouble. I mean, we were already doin' some of that in the first place, but now it's her call when and what we do."

You shake your head, still not totally understanding.

"If she says 'steal it,' we steal it." Plumeria explains. "If she says 'destroy it,' we destroy it. If she says 'raise hell,' well, no one can raise hell quite like us."

"It's for her research. Sometimes she needs us for a distraction. Or to take what can't be bought," Guzma adds.

It's falling into place now for you. "She made you the gang everyone fears you are."

"Well," Guzma says. "I mean, uh, sure, kinda. Though we weren't exactly the do-right brigade before Lusamine came along - we just got uniforms now." He huffs. "Let's just say we ain't too good, but we ain't too bad neither. That work?"

Plumeria shrugs. "It's as good an explanation as any."

The door to the room flies open.

Nebby leaves your arms to perch at full alert atop your head.

"Sweets!" says Liam, hand still flat on the door after shoving it open. "Listen, what dyes you got? This is of the utmost, serious importance, so knock off your nerd shit and let's go." He looks around the room then. "Oh, hey new girl. Plumes. Boss."

Sweets spins around in the chair. "Dye? Liam, I just dyed your hair."

He runs a hand through his blue locks. "I know, but, it's gotta be red."

"Red? What, like, stop sign red?"

"Yeah, that's it!"

"I'm not bleaching your hair again!"

Liam throws his arms wide. "Why not?"

"You don't remember what happened to Jeremy's hair when we did too much to it in a short amount of time? It went clear, Liam. Clear!"

Liam sighs and plops down on the bed beside Plumeria. "Yeah, well-"

"Who's the guy?" Sweets puts her hands on her hips.

"What?" Liam laughs incredulously. "No guy, there ain't no- shut up, boss," he says, pointing at Guzma, whose mouth had just barely opened.

"There is too. You think I don't remember why your hair's blue? I can see right through you - just like I saw through Jeremy's hair."

Liam flops backwards on the bed. "Guess it don't matter. I don't even know if he's-"

"Single?" Sweets says.

"Into ya?" Guzma asks.

"Desperate?" Plumeria adds sarcastically.

Liam sits up again and gives them each a dirty look. "No! I don't know if he's gonna wanna have anything to do with me after seein' that I ain't Aether."

"Wait, what?" Plumeria asks. "Was this recent? As in, when you picked her up? Did someone see you? This guy, he saw you with her?"

"It's fine!" you tell her, unwilling to let this turn into another reason to take you back. "No one knew I was there. They wouldn't have recognized me."

Plumeria stands and paces for a brief moment before saying, "She's gotta go back, G. No doubt about it now."

The room then turns into a cacophony of arguments and questions as everyone speaks at once.

"But we just got her here!" you hear Liam say.

"I need you to see what I found on the flutes first!" Sweets says.

"And just put her back in a prison cell, Plumes?!" Guzma argues.

"You're not thinking clearly. Think of the rest of the team, G! Put that girl back where she came from, or so help me-" Plumeria snaps.

The rest of what they say is lost in the confusing back and forth that leaves you unable to even think straight.

Nebby, sensing your panic and aggravation, screams.

The room is silent, and all eyes are on you and the Pokemon still clinging to your head.

You inhale and exhale slowly, removing Nebby from its perch and settling it back in the bag before addressing them. "I know this is asking a lot. I don't mean to put so much at risk for you all... but this is my one chance at finding something out. I think Lusamine might be letting me know as little as possible and I just-" you stop, finding it hard to continue. "If I'm going to spend the rest of my life in that room, I want to at least know I did everything I could to find out who I really am. I'll never get another chance to know if those dreams mean anything - it took long enough just to get this one."

The four of them are still silent, looking at one another as you speak.

"This is - this is all I've ever wanted," you continue. "I've spent so long in that room just... dreaming of finally knowing who I am. Haven't any of you ever had a dream?"

Plumeria softens. "I used to want to make music. Well, DJing, if I'm honest. Or, I did, before all this."

Liam raises his hand excitedly. "Oh, oh, oh! Architecture! I wanted to be an architect and I even went to school for a while. I was actually pretty good at it - was gonna have an internship and everythin' ... before I had to drop out."

Everyone turns to Sweets next. She pats one of the computer towers. "Listen, I'm living the dream; well, mostly. Got my set up here, plenty of people who's hair needs doing, got you guys... though I wouldn't mind my own salon. Imagine not dyeing hair in a bathroom, huh?"

Guzma looks surprised when eyes fall on him. He wipes at his nose. "Y'all already know what I want. Gonna be known as the best bug trainer there is. That's why those bug type ultra beasts would be so great to have. And that'll prove-"

Plumeria and Sweets groan.

"What?" Guzma demands.

"Your dream sucks," says Plumeria.

Sweets gestures to her screens. "All that damn Buginum Z you had me track down."

"I dunno, sounds reasonable to me, boss," says Liam.

"Your dream is to prove yourself?" you ask. "To who?"

Guzma crosses his arms. "Everyone."

You aren't sure how to interpret an ambition so nonspecific, yet lofty, and you wonder what could have led to such a desire.

"So, anyway," says Liam, "I need to buy a little time to figure out what to do about Ethan before we go back to Aether, so I say we do it." He puts his hand out. "Who's in?"

Guzma places his hand over Liam's. "I was in at 'ultra beasts.'"

You feel a flicker of guilt in your chest. You'd have some explaining to do on that one when the time comes. You do your best to shove those thoughts away.

Sweets' hand goes next. "I'm in! Mostly because you need to see what I found."

You decide to say something too, your hand joining Sweets'. "I mean, this is obvious, but I'm in."

Plumeria crosses her arms.

"Come on, Plumes!" Guzma says. "We'll get her back in time and there'll be no harm done."

Plumeria looks at you, then unfolds her arms and smirks. Her hand covers yours. "Fine, but only because I hate Lusamine."

The five of you break apart.

Sweets waves everyone over to her computer. "So, I can't find much, but look at this message board post: this gadgetguy42 is looking for two particular flutes. Someone suggested they check Exeggutor Island based on some super old books they read at the library in Malie. Now, that library holds some of the oldest and most obscure books in Alola and it's not far from us. We've got three days you said, right? If we want to help find out some things, a trip there might be worth it."

You feel like you can barely breathe at confirmation that your dreams might be more than just nonsense.

"Wait, you wanna add to this road trip?" Guzma asks.

Sweets shifts nervously in her chair. "If we can help her find out more and we've got the time, why not? Whatever you find there might help me research more. I don't have a lot to go on right now, but with a little more info, maybe we can do this - maybe we can figure this out and do more than just look around an island full of Exeggutor."

You want to cry with how grateful you are to Sweets. "We could do this?"

Plumeria sighs. "I don't know that we should be making this more risky. Take her more places that people will see her? Look at her! She's so obviously Aether, and we're, well, we're us."

"Sweets'll take care o' that!" Liam says. "It's why we brought her here anyway."

Guzma frowns, considering.

Well, it worked before, so you decide to pull this card out one more time. "It is my birthday."

Guzma runs a hand down his face. "Yeah, yeah, alright."

"Hell yeah! Birthday makeover!" says Sweets

"Yeah!" Liam yells. "And you'll do my hair next, right?"

"Absolutely not." She's already opening drawers and rooting through her belongings for supplies.

"It's Ethan's favorite color," Liam mutters.

"Well, he's gonna have to make do with blue."

Liam sits in Sweet's vacated chair and spins in it, letting out a defeated sigh.

Sweets turns to you, looking resolute, her arms loaded with clothes and products. "Time to make you one of us!"

Chapter Text

You, Guzma, and Liam stand at the entrance to Malie City. By this point, awe feels like a constant companion, but at least this time Liam seems to share your enthusiasm.

"You've been here before!" Guzma tells him.

"Yeah, but look at it, boss!" He waves at the buildings with their foreign architecture. "It's just - it's so... Johto!"

Liam enthusiastically rattles off facts and details as the three of you make your way into the city. Guzma's got his hands stuffed in his pockets, giving Liam a smirk tinged with exasperation and you suspect that he's heard this particular speech from Liam before.

You pull at your new clothes. They're so much tighter and darker than you're used to, but there was a kind of excitement to wearing them. It's like you've evolved from Aether to Team Skull. Sweets had seen to your clothing change, makeup, and though you were unable to really change your hair due to your eventual return to Aether Paradise, you're wearing it in a way you never have before. While she worked, Sweets had sung you Happy Birthday about four or five times. You were just amused to have someone else really acknowledge your birthday for once - someone who isn't Lusamine.

Guzma huffs when he sees you fidgeting with the clothes. "What's the fuss about, doll? Little outside your usual wear?"

"It's... a little more revealing than anything I can remember wearing," you admit.

He rubs at his neck. "Well, hey, you don't look half bad as one of us. Kinda suits you."

"Thanks! I think." You feel like that might be as close to a compliment as you're going to get from someone who likes to preface his name with the words "big" and "bad."

There was something else that came along with your new clothes - stares - and that, you're definitely not used to. Mothers grab their children by the hand and hurry them along, some cross the street to avoid you, others just cast dirty looks and whisper under their breath.

"Don't pay them any mind," Guzma says, as a group in front of you splits to avoid Liam, who's still gesturing at buildings.

"Does this happen everywhere you go?" you ask. If so, it can't exactly be comfortable to be so scrutinized just for walking.

Guzma shrugs. "We ain't exactly built up the best reputation."

Your duffel bag begins to wriggle. Oh no. Not now - not with all these people around.

You reach for the zipper, to try and hold it closed, but it's too late. Nebby topples out of the bag and takes off down the sidewalk, weaving between the legs of passerby.

"Um," is all Guzma manages.

Liam doesn't see, still too preoccupied with the buildings you're passing.

You follow after Nebby before you lose sight of it. If Nebby really is that rare of a Pokemon, you can't let too many people see it.

"Sorry!" You tell the people you bump into. "Excuse me!"

They give you nasty looks, but you hardly notice, keeping your focus on Nebby.

"Hey! Move it!" You hear Guzma shout in pursuit of you, Liam not far behind him. Both their tones are less than apologetic as they work through the crowd.

You almost lose sight of the small Pokemon, but then you see it duck into a clothing shop, following on the heels of the person entering.

You throw open the door, dash into the shop, and slide on the linoleum. "Nebby?" you pant out, trying to catch your breath.

"Oh no. No, I don't want trouble. Your little gang needs to stay out of here," says a haughty looking woman behind the counter.

"I'm - I'm sorry?"

"You're part of Team Skull aren't you? We don't- what is that?!"

Nebby shoots out from underneath a rack of clothes.

You take after it again, stumbling, and almost taking out a display of sunglasses in the process.

"Nebby, please!" You beg, but it floats ahead of you, just out of reach of your hands. Up one aisle and down another, around mannequins, and under tables.

All the while the woman behind the counter shouts and threatens you and "whatever creature you dragged in here."

There's a chime as the door opens. Liam stands there watching wide-eyed as you chase the Pokemon towards him.

"More of you?!" the woman yells.

"Catch it!" you tell Liam, but Nebby escapes between his legs.

Then there's a sound - a familiar screaming. Whatever just happened, Nebby didn't make it far.

You rush back out the door with Liam, just barely catching the store clerk telling you in an overly pleasant voice, "Please don't come again!"

Outside you find the reason for Nebby's high pitched scream: Guzma's caught it by one of the stalks protruding from its head and is holding it while looking shocked. His other hand goes to cover one of his ears.

Nebby is glowing and people are starting to stare.

You rip open the bag, and hold it up to Guzma. He stuffs the Pokemon inside, and the glowing and screaming cease.

"What the hell was that?" he asks.

You ignore his question, drawing the bag defensively towards you. "You hurt it! You can't hold it like that!"

"What was I supposed to do? It ran out and I grabbed it! What was that glowing?"

"I don't know!" you say angrily. You know Guzma didn't purposefully harm Nebby, but after everything Lusamine and her researchers have done, you feel protective of Nebby, no matter how mischievous it is.

"Hey guys," Liam says quietly. "We might wanna take this elsewhere."

It's then you notice the crowd that's started to gather, watching you argue.

Liam places a hand on each of your backs and begins marching you forward. "Listen, we're going to a library. You gotta shut the fuck up and shit."

You clutch the bag to you, letting yourself be led further into Malie city. You really don't know what that glowing was. All the poking, prodding, and experiments never resulted in anything like that.

 

After the strangeness that has been your entire day, the library feels almost comforting. Books, at least, you have seen before and you understand. Granted, you certainly can't recall seeing quite this many. You aren't sure where to start, and if the confused looks on Guzma's and Liam's faces are any indication, neither do they.

"What'd Sweets say?" Guzma asks. "We're looking for some old shit, right?"

You nod. "Let's see if we can find a section on Alola's history."

You split up and begin combing the library for some long awaited keys to your past.

 

You parse shelves and read through book spines. You go up and down the stairs, and weave around aisles. You're sure the three of you have covered every inch of the library, but over an hour later your search seems to be fruitless.

"Maybe we should just head back," Guzma says, rubbing the back of his neck.

Liam yawns. "You're sure Sweets said the Malie library, right?"

Your shoulders sag, and Nebby's bag slides down to your elbow. Was there really nothing here?

"Can I help you find something?" a woman's voice says.

You look to see a librarian regarding the three of you with both caution and curiosity. Team Skull must not make very many library visits.

She hesitates for a moment when you tell her what you're after, but then she's leading you upstairs and to a room separate from the rest of the collection of books. It's small, windowless, and dark. The light the librarian flicks on is dim, and the room smells slightly musty. The shelves lining the walls are filled with books, but unlike the ones outside of this room, some of the spines are stained or torn. You realize that this is where Alola's oldest books are housed. This is what you've been looking for.

The librarian gives the three of you one last concerned glance, and a warning to treat the books carefully, before closing the door behind her.

"If it's all the same to you guys," Liam says. "I haven't been in a library since I had classes and shit and there's a couple o' books I'd like to check out again."

Guzma blinks at him, looking uncertain. "Uh, sure."

He continues to stare at the door even after Liam's gone.

"What was that about?" you ask.

Guzma looks down a moment, before meeting your gaze again. "I think he regrets not finishing school, ya know?"

"He can't go back?"

Once more his hand is at his undercut. "Been tryin' to work that one out with Lusamine."

You swallow. Yet another thing they're risking. For you.

You do your best to set aside thoughts of mother and going back to Aether Paradise. You only have so much time and you've got to focus. You set your duffel bag down on a table in the center of the room and Nebby rolls out of it. It takes one look at Guzma and chimes angrily.

He puts his hands on his hips. "What?"

"Told you shouldn't have grabbed it like that," you say, searching among the shelves. You're not entirely sure what book you're looking for, but at the very least your hunt has been limited to this room.

Nebby chimes again and you turn to see Guzma stopped in the middle of reaching out towards it. Nebby hides behind the bag, glaring at him.

Guzma sighs and crosses his arms. He stares at Nebby, eyebrows furrowed.

You're surprised just how upset he looks that your Pokemon is displeased with him. Did Big Bad Guzma really need the approval of a Cosmog? "It'll forgive you; just give it time," you say, though you know your time is limited.

"Never had a Pokemon not like me," he mumbles.

"And people?" you ask curiously.

"Well, that's a different story." He finally turns away from Nebby and joins you by the shelves. "So what now?"

You frown at the books surrounding you. Even with a decreased number to search through, there's still so much information to delve into. "I'm... not sure."

Nebby begins fussing again.

"What? I'm not even doin' anything!" Guzma says.

Nebby hops off the table and floats to a nearby shelf. It moves one of it's appendages repeatedly towards it - like it's pointing. It's telling you to look at a particular book. But how would it know which one you're looking for?

You kneel beside it and find that it's gesturing towards one titled The Light of Alola. You pull it from the shelf and sit at the table.

"But - how?" Guzma says, standing over you.

You shake your head slightly, still in disbelief yourself. "Nebby's done stranger things, I suppose."

Nebby gives one last disgruntled chime when Guzma looks at it.

"Yeah, yeah, alright. I get it." He rolls his eyes at the Pokemon.

You flip through the pages of the ancient book as Guzma leans over you, his hand on the back of your chair. You're distracted for a moment by his closeness until your eyes run across the word "flute." With just those five letters, it feels like the world has come to a complete stop.

You read the line aloud. "The ancient kings sang their thanks for Solgaleo with song of flute. Two tones rang out across the altar- a perfect pair, even after mute."

It feels hard to breathe. How long had you had those strange dreams? How many times had you failed to convince yourself that they meant nothing? How often had you tried to give up a hope that just wouldn't die? And here on this page was proof that your hope was right to survive.

"Solgaleo?" Guzma asks.

You shrug, still feeling unable to respond verbally.

"Well that can't be it, right?"

You continue turning pages, and halt on a page with a drawing. There they are: the two flutes you'd seen so often in your dreams. They're ornate, with one decorated to reflect the sun, and one the moon.

"Well," Guzma chuckles. "Holy shit."

You run a finger reverently over the drawing. They're real. They're real and you've got to find them.

There's a warm hand on your shoulder, bringing you back out of the book. Your skin tingles at the touch. You look up to see Guzma grinning down at you. You smile back, suddenly quite happy you've got someone to share this discovery with.

Then a thought occurs to you. "We probably can't take this with us, can we?"

He takes his hand from your shoulder and you immediately miss the warmth. "Doubt it, doll, with how old all these damn books are, but," he roots around in his pocket for a moment and pulls out a phone. "We can get some pictures."

You go through the old text together, Guzma snapping pictures of any pages making mention of the flutes.

He's just about to take another photo, when it starts to ring. You catch the name flashing across the screen: Madam Prez.

Guzma pales. You both stare in silence at the phone as it continues to ring.

"Why would mother be calling? She should be busy with her research trip," you say quietly, unable to take your eyes away from the glowing device.

"Hell if I know." He inhales, his finger hovering over the ignore button. Then he taps it, and exhales.

The room is silent again.

You both glance at one another. Whatever Lusamine wanted, it couldn't be good.

The phone rings out again, making you jump.

But this time, it's Sweets' name on the screen.

Guzma answers it and brings it to his ear. "Hello?"

Sweets is so loud and horrified that you can just barely make out what she says from the speaker. "I don't know how, but she knows! She's almost to Malie library now!"

"What?!" Guzma says, but it's the last word of their conversation you catch.

You stand and grab your bag, your mind buzzing with pure panic. How? How did she find out? And how much does she know? You usher Nebby back into the duffel. If she catches you what will you say? What will you do? ... what will she do to you?

Guzma hangs up the phone as you shoulder your bag. He looks at you, eyes wide. "We've got to get Liam and get the fuck outta here."

The two of you leave the room in a hurry, abandoning the book on the table. You hope the pictures Guzma took are enough.

Once again you search the aisles, eyes scanning for your missing companion.

"Liam!" Guzma yells.

There are immediately two voices that shush him. One is the librarian, standing behind the checkout counter.

The other, is Liam, seated at a desk between the shelves with three books in front of him. He glares at Guzma, a finger still pressed to his lips before he says, "Boss, this a fuckin' library."

Guzma rushes to him, nearly tripping in the process. "Well, it's gonna be our fucking funeral if we don't leave. Now. Lusamine's coming."

The front door opens and you instinctively duck down.

Mother walks in flanked by four Aether employees.

Guzma and Liam quietly crawl and hide behind one of the rows of books. You join them as quickly and discreetly as you can.

Lusamine stands, hands on her hips, eyes scanning the library coldly. The grunts wait for further direction behind her. One of them, a nervous looking guy with glasses, you recognize.

"Shit," Liam mutters. "She brought Ethan along."

Lusamine moves further into the library, approaching the table Liam had been sitting at. She carefully examines the books, closing an open one and reading the cover. "What did you say his name was?" She asks.

"Liam," Ethan answers as he pulls out a tablet and begins flicking through information on the screen.

Beside you Liam winces.

Lusamine holds the book out, showing Ethan the cover. It's an architecture book. "And what was it he was studying before he dropped out?"

Ethan blinks at her a moment and goes back to the screen in his hand. "Architecture."

"Hmm," Lusamine says, dropping the book back on the table. "Anything else you can tell me? Or is that really the most you can do for what I pay you? What was your job title?"

Ethan swallows. "Head of surveillance and security intelligence."

"Well, we'll see." Lusamine gives him a wicked smile. "You came highly recommended to me, you know. They said no one was could get past you. That your technical know-how was unsurpassed. That nothing could possibly go missing under all your watchful eyes. There was so much you installed around my island."

"Wait," Guzma whispers. "Is he their version of Sweets? Liam! You did not get involved with their Sweets."

Liam shrugs and waves a hand a Guzma, motioning for him to be quiet.

Lusamine continues. "And yet despite the multitude of gadgets you brought with you, and all your supposed intelligence, you let one little thug distract you."

You glance at Liam. His eyes are fixed on Lusamine and his face is now a mask of fury.

"Madam President," Ethan begins. "You wouldn't let me secure that hall-"

"I really don't want to hear your excuses again. That room contained essential research components."

Research components? Your shoulders tense. Try a live human being.

You catch Guzma fidgeting out of the corner of your eye. While you and Liam are transfixed with the conversation you're witnessing, he seems to be making a plan.

"Ya think there's another exit? We can't stick around here," he says.

Liam doesn't respond. Neither do you. You can't. What else will mother say? You have to know.

Ethan pushes his glasses back up on his face anxiously. "We don't even know if the two incidents are connected."

Lusamine rounds on him. "One of those thugs poses as an Aether employee, the spare keycard no longer works, and my research goes missing all in one day, and you think it's all just coincidence?"

Ethan shrinks as she berates him.

Liam's hands ball into fists.

Lusamine turns away from Ethan. "They're here somewhere. We had multiple witnesses spot Guzma and a couple of his lackeys headed here. We'll just have to ask him a couple questions about this 'Liam' person. Search the library."

Lusamine and Ethan hover around the table as the remaining Aether employees split up.

"Witnesses?" Guzma says.

Liam shakes his head. "She's got eyes everywhere, huh?"

"How did - how did she realize I was gone so fast?" You say, still feeling shell-shocked.

Liam looks a little crestfallen. "Guess it was Ethan."

Guzma glances nervously at the three Aether employees checking up and down the aisles. "Well, hey, sounds like those witnesses thought you were just a 'lackey' anyway, so if we can just find a way to that door-"

"Y'all are gettin' out. I'm settin' things right with Ethan. Right now."

"Wait, what?" Guzma starts.

But in the next moment, Liam stands, and walks straight for Lusamine and Ethan.

Ethan's eyes widen as Liam approaches. Lusamine turns around at his expression.

"Eyy," Liam says. If he's nervous, he sure doesn't show it as he gives Ethan a wide smirk while ignoring Lusamine. "Hope I'm not over my book limit because I need to check you out."

Ethan drops his tablet.

Guzma audibly groans and then quickly covers his mouth.

Lusamine, mercifully, doesn't notice. "You. Are you Liam?" she asks.

A hand gently tugs on your arm before you can watch any more. Guzma nods down the aisle, motioning for you to move forward. One of the Aether employees is approaching from the right. No time to worry over Liam - if you hang around any longer, you'll be caught too.

You half crawl, half walk with him down the rest of your aisle and move into the next row. There, you look for the door. To your dismay, you don't see any way of making it there with Lusamine where she is currently. She still hasn't moved from the table Liam had been sitting at, and the door is not too far behind them. The only way out was going to be moving over as far as you can, and sneaking out along the back wall... if you don't run into the three Aether employees still roving the floor.

Guzma seems to be thinking along similar lines. The two of you move further into the library, using the shelves as cover.

But it's seemingly a bad move - ahead of you, one of the employees is quickly approaching, checking each aisle for Team Skull members. Behind you the one who'd been checking the area around Lusamine is moving on to the section you're currently hiding in.

You can't just run down the middle, so then your only choice is-

You grab Guzma by the wrist and pull him towards the stairs. You've got to go up now before they get any closer and notice you.

He resists for only a moment, looking hesitant to head away from the door and your escape, then he climbs the staircase with you, as low as you can.

At the top you're greeted by the back of a man clad in white - the third employee.

You duck behind a cart full of books as Guzma splits from you, taking cover behind a large, plush chair.

Shit. What now? You'd certainly never been in a situation this tense back on Aether Paradise.

Your bag begins to wriggle back and forth. Nebby must be sensing your distress. You grit your teeth and hold the bag to you, willing Nebby to calm down. Not now, not now.

The zipper begins to split and you grab it, holding it closed and halting Nebby's progress.

Nebby lets out an angry chime.

The Aether employee turns toward you.

You hold your breath, looking for somewhere, anywhere you can run, but there's no where else you can take cover without him noticing. This is it - any second now, you'll be found. You close your eyes.

There's a sudden loud crashing sound.

Nebby settles down.

You stifle a startled scream, and when you open your eyes, there's a fallen shelf full of books on top of the employee. He curses as he struggles to get out from underneath it.

Guzma stands where the shelf was once upright. He's breathing heavy and holding one of his hands in the other. Blood drips down onto the carpet.

Footfall on the stairs makes you both move. Only, there's nowhere left to go but the room you'd been in earlier - the one with all the ancient books.

You both scramble inside, Guzma slamming the door behind you. He drags the long, heavy table from the center of the room to the door, his hand leaving a bloody streak on it.

"What happened?!" you ask, panicked.

He's still panting from exertion as he looks at his hand. "Fuckin' book shelf splintered when I pushed it. Big shard of wood got me pretty good."

The doorknob jiggles, but the door doesn't budge.

You hear Lusamine call your name.

If you weren't alarmed before, now you're on full alert to your core. You look around the room, but there's no windows, no doors, nothing. You're trapped. "What do we do?!"

Guzma's breathing has started to slow. He opens his mouth as if to say something, but closes it again, shaking his head and giving you a defeated look. Is he giving up?

You go to him. "There has to be something we can do." Your bag begins to sway again.

The doorknob continues to twitch and there's pounding on the door.

Guzma leans against the wall and slides down until he's sitting on the floor. He turns his hand over, looking at the long, jagged cut across his palm and the blood still running from it. "Think we're a little trapped, doll," he mutters.

You sit beside him, holding your duffel closer to you. Inside Nebby chimes in agitation. "I'm so sorry," you tell him. Once they get through that door and confirm that it was indeed Guzma and Team Skull who took you, that'll be it for everything Lusamine provides for them. Tears prick your eyes and you feel like you've been so selfish. If only you'd stayed in your room. "This is all my fault."

He gives you a weak smile. "Eh, well, I probably shouldn't have been so intent to do whatever it took to get my hands on those ultra beasts."

Guilty tears fall from your eyes. "Guzma I - I lied."

His face falls as he looks at you. "Whaddya mean?"

"I - I don't know if Nebby can open wormholes. I never had any real way of getting you those ultra beasts."

His expression goes stony and he doesn't respond.

You feel completely crushed, but you had to tell him. How could this all have gone so wrong so fast? It's more despair than you've felt in a while.

Your bag begins to glow.

The table suddenly slides, and the door opens.

But you never see who opens it - the glow from your bag is too bright.

Then you, Guzma, and Nebby are no longer in Malie Library.

Chapter Text

Guzma hits the ground hard, but the wind that's knocked out of him feels more from surprise than anything. What had started as a faint glow from her duffel bag had turned all-encompassing, blocking out all else from view in a bright light. Then, for just a moment, there was the feeling of weightlessness as the ground seemingly melted beneath him.

But the ground was definitely solid now - and rough. He winces as he wipes gravel away from the cut on his injured hand. The both of them are not in Malie Library, but instead on a wooded dirt path - one that looks a little too familiar for his liking. By now it's late and dark out, making him squint as his eyes adjust. He spots her a few feet from him, frantically checking the bag to make sure the Pokemon inside is unharmed.

The shock and confusion of this teleportation was enough to knock the betrayal and anger he felt from her confession from him - though only for a moment. He gets to his feet and storms over to her. "What the fuck was that?"

She zips up the bag and stands, glaring at him. "I have no idea!"

"What do you mean you don't know?! Your thing there did it!"

"Maybe it was a wormhole," she says pulling the bag closer.

Guzma scoffs. "Don't think so. What kinda wormhole just takes us to Route 2?"

"You... know where we are?"

"Unfortunately. This ain't Ultra Space or whatever. Ain't nothin' but Alola."

"I guess Nebby can teleport people."

Guzma rolls his eyes at her, unwilling to conceal his frustration. "Yeah, thanks, I hadn't figured that out myself."

She ignores him, seemingly lost in thought now.

He begins pacing, mind reviewing the last few minutes and struggling to organize everything. There was so much to make sense of in just a few short moments. She had lied and tricked them into taking her off Aether Paradise under false pretenses. Stupid, stupid, how stupid of him. He'd known too - suspected it at least. He was stupid to have done this. It wasn't just about the ultra beasts that had alluded his grasp again; it was everything they'd risked. It was the team.

The team. He gets his phone from his pocket and taps until he comes across Sweets' name. He hits call.

And nothing happens other than the screen looking slightly distorted. The phone has no service. Panicked, he scrolls through every setting he can think off, but nothing seems to fix it. Whatever her Cosmog had done, it also made his phone useless as far as contacting anyone.

Rage bubbles in him. He throws the phone at the ground.

"Hey!" she says, picking it up and holding it almost reverently in her hands. "We need the pictures on this!"

"No, you need them!" he says, pointing at her. "You really think I'm gonna help you with anything after this?!"

She just stands there, blinking at him.

He grits his teeth. Didn't she understand? Didn't she get it? "Any other lies you wanna clear up?" he yells.

"No, I just-"

"We've lost it all thanks to you. Lusamine's going to cut us off from everything, or worse! And the one thing you said you could get - the one thing that would have made this worth it - you don't even have!"

Behind the anger he's spewing, some part of him feels guilty for that. How bad did he want those ultra beasts? Was he really willing to risk the well being of those around him for them? Apparently so; he already had. He shouldn't have taken her from the room. But could he have left her? Did Lusamine see them in the library? Does she know for sure they're the ones that took her? ... should she be brought back? There's too many questions, so much uncertainty, and no way to solve anything right now. He pulls at his hair with his uninjured hand in irritation.

"Guzma," she says softly. "I'm sorry. I-"

"Sorry?! And what's that gonna fix, huh?" He knows he's being crueler than he needs to, but he can't help it. It's all boiling over.

Now she's starting to look flustered too. "Well, what am I supposed to say?!"

"Hell if I know!"

She looks up at him, eyes glistening with the beginnings of tears, eyebrows creased. "Can't you just - can't you understand needing to get out of a bad situation!?"

His hands drop to his side. He could absolutely understand that. If anything, their current surroundings are a reminder of that, and might be part of the reason he feels so short-tempered. He grew up around here after all, and these familiar sights do not bring happy memories with them.

He sighs. He just needs a moment to sort this - calmly. No more yelling. Probably. "Look, doll, there's a Pokemon Center real close. Let's just go there and figure it out, okay?"

She looks at him and his sudden change in attitude with confusion for a moment before nodding.

 

They do their best to keep a low profile once they reach the building. His mind keeps replaying what Lusamine said about "witnesses" and he hopes that someplace more rural, like Route 2, will have less of them. There are few people in the Pokemon Center at this hour of the night and he regards each one of them suspiciously. The center is quiet, and softly lit for the nighttime. It's peacefulness feels so contrary to the mess they've gotten themselves into.

She sits on a bench clutching her bag to her chest and looking forlorn, as he negotiates with a nurse for some first aid supplies for his hand.

He looks at his injury as he walks towards her, a small case of materials now with him. It's not too bad - won't need stitches or anything - but that it's on his palm will sure make things difficult for a while.

He sits on the bench opposite her, but slightly away. His anger might no longer be bursting at the seams, but it still sits dully throbbing below the surface. And if being a little petty about it made him feel better, than so be it.

She sets the bag down beside her and looks at him.

He ignores her and sets about trying to clean up his hand; a task more difficult than he thought it would be. With one of his hands down, it's hard to open bottles, bandages, everything. He curses as he attempts to uncap disinfectant.

She slides down her bench until she's sitting in front of him, their knees accidentally bumping.

He moves his leg away.

She fixes him with a resolute face. "Let me help you."

He looks at her coolly, conflicted. Since she'd come along, it'd all turned topsy-turvy, and he can't help but assign a certain amount of blame to her, especially when he thinks of everyone back in Po Town... but this wasn't completely her fault. Plus, she's so earnest as she holds her hand out to him, and something about her sitting there in that little outfit Sweets put her in is-

Fine. He sets his wounded hand in her open palm as his other nervously rubs at the bristliness of his undercut.

She gives him a small smile and he looks down, avoiding her eyes. Why does he suddenly feel so awkward? This is ridiculous. He considers pulling his hand away, but then she gently sets it down on her bare knees and he clenches his jaw. Her skin is warm and soft. He freezes, eyes glued to his hand.

His focus is broken when she brings a cloth moistened with disinfectant to the cut. He winces at the sharp burn. "Fuck!"

She stifles a laugh, the sound making him finally look at her face again. "Sorry," she says.

He smirks at her, some of the final remnants of his anger dissolving. "What, are you enjoying this?"

"No, of course not! ...okay, maybe a little," she grins.

He huffs. There's still tension, but maybe it was okay to put it on pause for now. What more could he do immediately without being able to contact anyone anyway? Besides, with Lusamine as a replacement mother, really she was in just as much of a predicament as he is. What would be the point in giving her the cold shoulder while they're more or less stranded together?

She sets aside cloths red with his blood. He'd bled quite a bit and that wound will surely take some time to heal, but at least they got away. He can't help but wonder where they'd be and what would be happening now if that Cosmog - Nebby, she called it - hadn't transported them here. Maybe they were down, but not caught yet.

She runs a thumb along the base of his palm, below the cut, and it sends a shiver up his spine. Something about her tender motions is soothing. He relaxes, his shoulders slacking and releasing a tenseness he wasn't even conscious of.

She repeats the motion a couple more times and a tingle works its way along his skull. He sighs and as he does so his knee bumps into hers again. This time he doesn't move it. Neither does she.

Is that really all it takes to mollify Big Bad Guzma?

She continues for just a moment longer, and he decides, yes, absolutely it is.

"I... really am sorry," she says softly.

His eyes meet hers again, but he doesn't respond. True, he might possibly be melting just the teeniest bit from her apologetic manner and careful ministrations, but it would feel disingenuous to tell her that it's okay.

She continues, her eyes looking down at their joined hands, and her thumb resuming its gliding motion. "I know maybe lying to you wasn't the best way to go about it, but, I was just so - so trapped there. I'd been trapped there for so long. I had to do what it took to escape or just... I dunno. Die there."

He bites his lip. Truthfully, he's sure he probably would have done the same thing. She'd quite literally been a prisoner. Maybe he'd never been as secluded as she had, but he knew what it was like to have home be a prison. What would the right thing have been to do anyway? For either of them? There'd been more at stake for both of them than he was willing to see before. For him it was Lusamine's wealth and what that meant for the team. For her, it was her life and Nebby's. He tries to formulate a proper response as he lets her finish.

"I know none of my reasoning will make it right or change anything, but I never meant for anything to happen to you or anyone. I wish I knew how to fix this. I should have never left that room."

"I get it," he says.

Her thumb halts and she looks up at him.

"You know, I, uh, I grew up around here; on this very route."

"You did?" she says, giving him the slightest smile, looking grateful that he's finally speaking to her more. She reaches into the case beside herself for some kind of cream.

"Yeah, my parent's house ain't far from here." He hesitates as she spreads the ointment across his cut. Not because it hurts, but because he isn't sure he should be revealing a different pain to her. Still, an unhappy childhood seems to be something they have in common. "My dad was, well, he was kind of an asshole."

Her eyes flash to his for a moment before looking for bandages.

"And mom didn't - couldn't - do anything about it. Guess you could say I was also in a 'bad situation.'"

She places a couple squares of cotton along the cut and begins to wrap his palm with gauze to hold them in place. He swallows, trying to bring his focus back to the story he's telling but finding it difficult for both the story's content, and the warmth and smoothness of her hands. Having someone care for him in even this small way is distracting to say the least. He wonders if he really is that starved for touch and affection.

He takes a shaky breath. "Growing up in that house was a fuckin' nightmare. Even when I was away from it for school or whatever, knowin' I had to go back felt like I couldn't escape the things he did or said. I felt trapped too."

She pauses for a moment at his last sentence. Her grip tightens ever so slightly.

"Spent so much of my life feelin' trapped. Eventually I would have done anything to get out of there. Then one day I did. Had a big fight with my old man - a bad one. Real bad. Wasn't the first time. But this time? This time I won. Nobody was standin' in my way anymore, so I took off. Grabbed my Pokemon, filled a backpack, then ran away and never looked back. Met Liam, Plumes, and Sweets not long after, and we've been together ever since. That was years ago."

She finishes with the gauze and sets it back in the case, giving him a sympatheitic look.

He gives a small, rueful laugh. "And lemme tell you, being back here so close to home real suddenly ain't exactly the best feelin'."

She says nothing, but rests their hands together on her lap.

Once more there's a buzzing through him at the feel of his hand on her leg. "Um," he mutters distractedly. "But, uh, I wasn't tryin' to put the attention on me or take away from your situation or nothin'. Just wanted you to know that I do get it. I've felt that way too - or at least somethin' similar, so I understand why you would lie."

"Well," she says, running her thumb along his. "Thank you for understanding, and I'm sorry that you had to experience that."

Each repeated motion of her finger seems to increase whatever the prickling sensation running along his scalp is. It's somehow both comforting and kind of... exciting? She can keep doing that as long as she likes.

He stays there, feeling nearly hypnotized, eyes fixed on their joined hands.

Then he's suddenly thrown into doubt. What is he doing? What is even going on here? This is... he shouldn't be getting this close.

He stands, removing himself from her a little quicker than he means to. Immediately he rubs at his undercut and feels the bandage on the back of his neck. "I'm - uh - thank you."

She blinks at him, looking a little confused. "Oh, um, you're welcome."

Guzma sighs and looks around the Pokemon Center awkwardly before returning his gaze to her. "Look, we'll... we'll figure this out somehow. But for now, I'm gonna find us something to eat."

As he steps over the bench she asks, "Can I see your phone? I just want to see what pictures we got from the library."

He reaches into his pocket and pulls the device out. With the tap of a button it illuminates. The picture on the screen - one of his Golisopod - still looks a little hazy and distorted, and there's still no service. He notes the new scratches on the case and regrets the way he'd thrown it in frustration earlier. He thinks back to his father and the story he just told her. He might be quick to anger, but he hopes his temper isn't as bad as his is. It isn't, right?

He passes it to her. "Hey, uh, sorry for all the yelling earlier."

She takes it from him and gives him a small smile. "It's alright."

He gives her his own apprehensive smile before turning to see if the cafe has anything left for them.

~~~

You watch him leave and feel a mixture of things. There really is something about Guzma, and it's not just because he's the first guy you've really talked to since... well, you don't know.

You hadn't been able to give much thought to romance before; how could you with the lack of human contact? That kind of thing felt off limits to you while your world ended at the walls of your room. But now? You think of the way he looked at you and the way he relaxed. Maybe he felt the start of something too? Or were you just being naive?

After all, some part of him must surely still be mad at you - you'd made such a mess of things. Guilt hits you as you wonder what the outcome will be from all this. What do you even do now? Just continue on, right? Still search for answers?

Well, answers start with those pictures of that textbook.

You turn the phone over in your hand. Somehow, you seem to instinctively know how to use it. Had you used something similar before? You can't remember, but you must have, as you effortlessly unlock the screen and go to Guzma's photos.

You scroll through the recent photos, eyes scanning the text, but unable to make connections. The slight distortion on the screen isn't helping. If only you were able to get this information to Sweets.

You glance over at Guzma to see he's still talking with the cafe worker. Well, you're too tired to make much sense of anything anyway. Maybe you'd just have a little fun. You swipe past all the photos of the book. He probably wouldn't mind, right? He wasn't the type to take dick pics. ... was he?

The first several pictures you come to are of a Golisopod happily munching on some kind of colorful beans. After that is one of Liam flipping off the camera. Then there's Sweets and Plumeria sitting on the hood of a car outside the mansion in Po Town.

You pause on that one for a few minutes. Plumeria is leaning back on her hands, a big, pink gum bubble coming from her mouth. Sweets is fiddling with some kind of square device strapped to her wrist. There's a large umbrella over the both of them to block the rain. Had you really made life suddenly a lot harder for them?

The next picture is of a Wimpod that someone had stuck Guzma's sunglasses on and draped a Team SKull medallion around it. There are at least thirty photos of this particular Wimpod running around the mansion in this getup.

Then there's inexplicably a picture of a half eaten malasada in the sand, a couple pictures of Alolan Meowth with a grumpy looking older man, some pictures of graffiti, and one of a steaming cup of Tapu Cocoa.

The next you come to is one Guzma had taken of himself. He's sitting on the ground, with tiny caves dotting the rocky background behind him. He smiles at the camera as several wild Wimpod perch all over him, unafraid.

You stay on this photo, studying his face. He looks happier than you've yet to see him. You know things clearly aren't perfect for him, but if he could once be trapped, escape and find happiness, than maybe there was hope for you. You smile down at the phone in your hand, returning the grin on the digital Guzma's face.

There's a chime next to you and you look over to see Nebby's head poking out of the bag. You hold the phone up to it. "See, he's not so bad."

Nebby looks from you to the picture on the screen and it's little face wrinkles up in disgust.

"You still don't forgive him, huh?" you laugh.

Nebby reaches out one of its nebulous appendages and touches the screen.

The phones emits a low, weird buzzing noise.

When you turn it back towards yourself, the distortion momentarily gets worse, then disappears completely.

"Nebby, what did you-"

You're stopped short as Guzma's smiling face suddenly turns into a name flashing across the screen.

Madam Prez

The phone has service again! ... and mother is calling.

A ringtone starts playing and before you can stop yourself, you hit the green button on the screen, answering the call. You stay quiet, bringing the phone to your ear and looking over at Guzma. He hasn't noticed and seems to be in some kind of debate with the cafe worker.

"Hello?! Finally you answer!" you hear Lusamine practically scream into the phone. Her composure sounds all but gone, nearly unhinged. "Bring her back now you ungrateful little thug!"

You stay silent, your mind running wild with panic at the sound of mother's voice.

"You think I don't know you and your band of delinquents are behind this? Answer me, Guzma, or I'll have all your goons removed from that town you trashed right now."

You inhale, then cover your mouth.

There's a pause on the other end. Lusamine says your name.

All the air in your lungs leaves you.

She says your name once more, softer this time. "Please, just say something. Let me know you're alright."

You relent. You have so many swirling, mixed feelings when it comes to Lusamine, but there's a reason you call her 'mother' beyond the fact that she'd asked you to. "I'm okay."

Lusamine sighs in relief. "Oh thank god. Where are you? I'll send someone for you."

Her tone sounds so different from when you'd overheard her in the library - much more concerned now. What was it she'd called you and Nebby? Research components? Which was how she really feels? It hurts to realize, but you can take a guess. "I - I'm not coming home, mother. Not yet."

Lusamine's voice goes cold. "And why's that?"

"I've seen so much and I've met all these new people and-"

"Yes, gang members. I'm so proud," she says sarcastically. "You've seen enough. You need to come home. Now."

"But you don't understand. I'm - I'm doing it! I'm finding answers and Guzma-"

"What about him? He kidnapped you."

"He didn't. I asked him to take me, and I think that - I think maybe he-"

"What? Likes you?" Lusamine gives an ugly, taunting laugh into the phone. "That is demented.

"Mother-"

"You see? This is why you don't belong out there. To think that he really cares for you? You're far too gullible. Tell me where you are. Now."

You picture white walls - the bars of your jail cell. You can't go back, no matter what she says. "No, mother."

Lusamine is quiet for a moment. "Are you telling me he took you off this island just because you asked? Because he's just so good? Do you know what he does?"

"What you make him do," you snap back.

"What he'd be doing anyway," she snarls. "What did you promise him to get out of here? Had to be something. Guzma never just does anything for anyone. Was it ultra beasts? He was always complaining about not having those yet."

You're stunned. How? How could she just know? How was she always one step ahead of you?

"It was, wasn't it?" she says in your silence. "Does he know yet that you have no way of getting him any? How much more do you really think he's going to help you?"

"I-"

"Just you wait. I'll bet it's not long until he turns you over to me. And even if he doesn't, I will find you myself. You can't hide from me on these islands, dear. And what's more, is that you aren't enough to cure his selfishness."

The line goes dead. You lower the phone to your lap, unable to look anywhere but straight ahead of you. She'd been so sure of her ability to find you that she'd even hung up instead of trying to get more information... and with how often she seems able to predict things, maybe she was right.

But she was wrong about Guzma. He wouldn't just turn you over.

Would he?

"You alright? Why ya look so shook?"

You jump and look up to see Guzma standing beside you with two sandwiches.

You breathe in, and set the phone on the bench, trying to regain your composure. "I'm fine!" You can't let mother plant her little seed of doubt. You'd just put that phone call out of your mind. She's wrong. She's wrong and there was no need to think about it. You don't even need to mention it to Guzma. That's how much you know she's wrong. ... and you admit you'd rather not worry him again after the two of you had just sort of made up. It's fine! Everything is fine. Just like you're fine.

Right?

He sits down and hands you one of the sandwiches. "Took some convincing, but thanks to your boy's cocoa makin' skills, I got us some dinner."

"Thank you," you tell him absentmindedly.

He picks up the phone, unlocks it, and laughs in disbelief. "Hey, looks like our luck is turning around! Phone's workin' again!"

Chapter Text

Sweets' immaculate face and purples waves of hair fill the screen on Guzma's phone as he holds it out in front of himself. The two of them had been video chatting for a while, reviewing the various options for getting both of you off Melemele, but given the hour, they're coming up empty.

"So we're-" Guzma says.

"Stranded," Sweets confirms. "Sorry, but the best I can do is trying to get tickets for the ferry tomorrow morning - it's all shut down till then. I'm sure the Pokemon Center will let you stay, unless you wanna try-"

"Nope. Ain't nobody on this damn island I'm stayin' with. Especially not-"

"I was going to suggest Hala. Maybe Kukui. Not your parents," Sweets says carefully.

You watch their conversation quietly. Guzma's pretty desperate to get away from here as soon as possible. The island doesn't seem to hold many good memories for him. You wonder how long it's been since he's been back. Why did Nebby choose to teleport you here?

Guzma swallows, looking away from the phone for a moment. "Nah, nah. It's just one night; the center will be fine... y'all heard anything from Liam?"

Sweets' expression becomes more worried. "I've got limited access to Aether now - they must have caught on to my presence. The feed from all security camera's but two are blocked. One of the ones we've still got is on the docks. We saw them bring Liam in. They're holding him there somewhere."

Guilt drags its nails up your insides. You might no longer be a prisoner, but now Liam's taken your place.

Guzma rubs at his face, looking both exhausted and distressed. "Well, I dunno what we're gonna do about that yet."

"Nothing we can do right now," Sweets says, giving him a sympathetic half smile. "Everything's so up in the air and we're going to have to be mindful of how we proceed. Lusamine could do any number of things next."

"Right." Guzma glances at you, and you feel suddenly startled under his eyes.

Mother's words come back to you. It is true that she's got so much leverage over them. Would he give you up? If he did, would he be right to?

Should you consider giving yourself up?

Your eyes go to the floor. The answers feel so muddled. You decide the best you can do, is play it by ear.

"So send me those photos you guys got from the library and I'll see what I can dig up. In the meantime, go get some sleep. You look like hell." Sweets says.

"Gee, thanks, Sweets."

She gives him a playful grin. "Anytime, boss."

Sweets' disappears from the phone as the call ends.

"Well," Guzma sighs. "I'm sure you heard - looks like we're crashing here for the night, doll."

"Is that... bad?" you ask, unsure what, exactly, that will entail.

"Nah, it's just, uh, usually only kids on their island challenge do it."

 

Sure enough, as Guzma explains a heavily modified version of the situation to the nurse, you can't tell if the apprehensive looks she gives him are because of Team Skull's reputation, or because you two make for strange sleepover guests compared to the others. Still, she hands him what looks like two mats, blankets, and pillows.

You set up your sleeping areas off by yourselves in a secluded corner of the Pokemon Center, Guzma just a few feet from you. The nurse still watches you both the entire time. She's the only staff left now, and you hope she isn't one of Lusamine's informants. She'd been fairly nice and accommodating so far, even with her suspicious glances.

You try to pull your thoughts from your wariness of her. This particular center seems to be in a more remote part of the island. Aside from the nurse, the only other people are a handful of preteens settling in for the night. Maybe you're safe here then. For now.

You hear Guzma grumble something in a frustrated manner. When you look his way, you find it hard to stifle your laughter.

He's so tall that only about half of him fits on the mat that he'd been provided. He rolls his eyes at you. "Shoulda asked for another one."

"The nurse is still there," you tell him, settling Nebby down beside you. You open the bag halfway so that it can peer out.

Guzma looks over at the nurse's station and sighs. "Nah, it's fine. This is embarrassing enough as is."

"Is it?" you ask as you pet Nebby. You don't really have enough context to find the situation shameful. Maybe you're both older than the center's other visitors, but this is also the first night you've spent out of your room that you can remember. Despite the troublesome circumstances, there's a tiny part of you that can't help but find this thrilling.

Guzma just hums confirmation.

Nebby lets out a very faint chime. All of this is just as new for it, too, and it's probably tired.

Guzma leans in close to you and you jump in surprise. When you turn your head, his face is just a few mere inches from yours. He's looking intently at Nebby and reaching out a hand slowly.

"Hey," he says softly. "I'm sorry for grabbin' ya like that. Are we cool now?"

Nebby's little face twists into pure loathing. It retreats further into the bag, hiding from view.

Guzma's shoulders slump in disappointment and he moves away from you. "Damn."

You can only blink for a moment. "It really gets to you that Nebby doesn't like you, huh?"

He huffs. "Listen, bein' good with Pokemon is one of the few things I'm proud of."

"Is Golisopod your favorite?" you ask, remembering the background of his phone.

Guzma grins at you. "Guess that was easy to guess. But, yeah, bug Pokemon in general are what I work with."

Which would include bug type ultra beasts... if he were able to get them - something that was no longer promised with you. You gather your courage and ask, "So, um, what's the plan now?"

Guzma falls back on his pillow and throws an arm over his eyes. "I dunno. Looks like Lusamine know's you're with us, she's got Liam... but she ain't done nothing else yet. So maybe we'll just get back to Po Town and figure this out." He pauses for a moment, then takes his arm from his face and turns to look at you. "But I'm thinkin'... maybe gettin' your shit figured out means sortin' out this wormhole business too. If that's the case, maybe there's ultra beasts in it after all. Right?"

"I-" You swallow. So the ultra beasts were still a big motivating factor for him; he hadn't given up on that yet. Maybe that had been part of why he was so quick to forgive. What if 'figuring out your shit' becomes too much, or too risky, or it becomes obvious it won't end in ultra beasts? Would he turn you over then? "I don't know," you tell him truthfully. No point in once again promising him something you can't guarantee.

"Still," he says, putting his hands behind his head. "It's a possibility."

You decide you need to probe more. You have to convince yourself mother is wrong. "What - what, exactly, would you use them for, Guzma?"

"Told ya: wanna be the best bug trainer there is."

"But what will that... do?"

He's quiet for a while before he says, "I know everyone thinks it's just about proving myself, and I'd be lyin' if that weren't a big part of it - it is, believe me - but I also figure that maybe if I could do somethin' big, like become champ or join the elite four, then we could eventually stop relying on Lusamine. I mean, I know that I won't be making as much as she's been payin' us, but it's a start. Maybe we could at least do more than petty crime."

You don't say anything as you lie down and stare at the ceiling. At the very least, mother was wrong about how selfish he is - he seems to care a lot about the family he's found in Team Skull. But that was also a family you're not a part of, so that sense of loyalty couldn't possibly extend to you. You're still left with the question of whether or not he would hand you over if it came down to it.

"And besides," he continues. "How fuckin' awesome would it be to have some bug types no one else has? So yeah, if I can mange it, I'm gonna get 'em any way I can."

Your chest aches with the uncertainty you're starting to feel. You briefly consider running off once he's asleep, but what would you do? Where would you go? ... and what would happen to him and the others if you did? What was worth more: your freedom or their well-being?

"Hey," he says, breaking the increasingly awkward silence. "Happy birthday, by the way. Though I guess it's past that now, huh?"

Right - your birthday. With all the chaos, you'd completely forgotten. Without a doubt it's the strangest one you've ever had. Whether that was good or bad, well, you can't quite decide. You suppose it depends on how this all pans out. You laugh incredulously. You never would have imagined even a couple days ago that you'd be here now. "Thanks," you tell him.

Nebby makes a noise that sounds almost like chiding from the duffel beside you. It wants to sleep and your chit chat is preventing that.

"I swear I will win that thing over before you... uh," Guzma trails off. "What happens if we get this figured out? You gonna be gone?"

You've had thoughts of another family somewhere that might be missing you, but you're not sure reconnecting is possible, especially if it requires a specific wormhole. For this particular journey, your goal had only been to find answers. You can't predict what'll happen once you have them. "I guess I'll have to find out."

"Well, uh," he says as he gingerly touches the bandage on his hand. "Don't leave too quickly, alright?"

There's a fluttering in your chest at those words. "And why's that?"

"Hey, I might wanna show you some Alola stuff first! Been here how many years and you ain't even get to see shit yet. Maybe we can fix that."

You smile, wondering if there will be an opportunity for such a thing. "I'd like that."

Guzma yawns. "Ey, we'll see what we can do. For now, guess we better try to sleep. Night, doll."

"Goodnight." You close your eyes, and do your best to ignore the cocktail of emotions within you.

~~~

"Boss. Eyy boss!"

What could Liam possibly want this early in the morning? Dawn is only just barely beginning to creep through the windows. Guzma turns over and pulls the pillow around both of his ears. If he ignored him, maybe he'd let him sleep a while longer. Right now he's so exhausted he can't even think straight.

"Boss!"

He rolls onto his back, dragging the pillow over his face.

"Guzma!"

There's a sudden heavy weight that drops onto his stomach, making him shout in surprise, his upper half jolting upwards for a second. He rips the pillow off his head to see Liam sitting on him.

"Liam! What the fuck!? How old are you?" He shoves at Liam until he slides off, sitting between him and the girl next to him. Guzma never did have siblings, but Liam always seemed more than happy to provide the experience for him anyway.

"Shhhh," Liam says, placing a finger to his lips. "There's, like, people sleeping here and shit. Oh, hey new girl!"

New girl? At just those two words, his cloudy, tired mind clears. Anxiety had made it nearly impossible to fall asleep, but once he had, it was a deep slumber - so deep that the previous day felt blurry. He was so drained that the hard floor of the Pokemon Center might as well have been his bed back in Po Town.

But he's definitely not in Po Town. He looks over to see her stirring from sleep. And Liam-

"Liam! What - but how?! What'd they do? How'd ya get here?"

"Well," Liam says, a smile spreading across his face. "Remember how you were all 'blah blah blah let me give Liam shit for gettin' with the Aether guy?'"

On the other side of Liam, she giggles.

Guzma rolls his eyes. "I mean, that's not how I remember it, but, yeah, sure, go on."

"Turns out - maybe, just maybe - cozyin' up with their version of Sweets was actually doin' us all a favor, and we should all be thankin' Liam."

Guzma exchanges glances with her before looking incredulously at Liam. "Thank you? Wasn't your Easton guy the reason Lusamine was tipped off in the first place?!"

"Yeah, well," Liam says, glancing away nervously. "It's Ethan, and it ain't - it ain't like that no more. Mostly. Look, I got his number!"

"His number?!"

Both the girl and Liam shush him.

"Now you have his number?" Guzma says, lowering his voice. "Ain't you doin' this a little out of order? Isn't that, like, step one?" If Liam wanted to play the part of annoying younger brother, than he was certainly allowed to play the over-concerned older one.

"Steps? Steps? You wanna talk about steps? She tied you to a chair. What base is that, huh? You get her number and do some textin' back and forth before ya got to light BDSM? An' whatchu been doin' since-"

"Alright, alright, sorry I asked," Guzma says. "Now how the fuck did you get away from Lusamine?"

Liam's face suddenly becomes serious. "Okay, picture it: Me, handsome hostage, hidden away on Aether Paradise for questionin'."

Guzma can't stifle the exasperated sigh that escapes him. He glances over at her to see how well she's entertaining this, but she's just smiling at Liam. He shakes his head. Well, if there's few things Liam's better at than breaking the tension. After last night, his antics are almost a relief.

Liam continues. "Then, door opens, and I'm ready; almost pounced on my would-be interrogator. But then I saw it was just some nerd - a cute nerd - and I was like, 'shoulda pounced anyway.' But, ya know, like a different kinda pounce. Like a sexual pounce."

"Liam-"

"Anyway, it was Ethan. Did you get that? What I was tryin' to say was, it was Ethan. And he was like," Liam forms his hands into circles and holds them up to his eyes, pantomiming glasses, "'You're not Aether' and I was like, 'I'm whatever you want me to be,' and he was like, droppin' that keycard he was holdin'."

"Liam can you just-"

"No, no, I want to hear this," she says, pulling her knees to her chest, eyes fixed on Liam.

Liam gives Guzma a pointed look. "Thank you, new girl. As I was sayin'... I was like, 'I mighta lied about bein' Aether, but I ain't lyin' about liking you.' And at this point he was picking up that keycard, right? But he dropped it again after I said that, so I went to pick it up, and he went to pick it up, so we were both grabbin' it at the same time. It was like that movie, ya know, with those two dogs? Only instead of spaghetti it was a keycard, and instead of mouths it was hands... Shit. Maybe I'll invite him over for spaghetti."

"Liam. Liam, I am beggin' you-"

"Yeah, yeah, alright," Liam says, giving Guzma a dismissive wave. "Long story short, we got to talkin' and worked it out. But, uh..." His face falls as he trails off.

"But what?" she asks.

Liam swallows. "He said that, uh, he would help me out this time, and even give me a head start on findin' y'all, but that it would be hard for us to be together, bein' on different teams and all. Maybe we're more like those lions in that other movie? The second one? And he's from the Pride Lands, and I'm from, uh, whatever they called that shadowy place."

"He let you go?" Guzma says.

"Yeah, sure, me, but not my heart," Liam answers dramatically.

She looks concerned. "What do you mean he gave you a head start on finding us?"

"So, almost none of them Aether folks had any idea you existed, right? Who knew Madam Prez was keepin' a prisoner? But, even if they don't agree with it, they're all scared of her. Not to mention, she's signin' their paychecks, and holdin' em to certain contracts or whatever, so they're gonna do what she says... that includes trackin' you down. Lusamine does have eyes reportin' to her from all over Alola, but all of them tips go through Ethan - he sorts the good ones and the bullshit ones. He's known you've been in this Pokemon Center since last night."

"What?!" Guzma nearly jumps to feet in his panic. If anyone at Aether knows where they are, they've got to move now then, don't they?

The girl clutches her bag to her, looking ready to run.

"Ey, relax, boss. He bought us some time. Said he can't hold her off forever, but he's not gonna let Lusamine know till a little later. We'll be gone by then." Liam gets his phone from his pocket and sighs as he stares at it. "Then he dropped me off here on Melemele and gave me his number, and I gave him mine - just in case."

"Well, uh, I'm sorry, Liam," Guzma says, unsure how else to comfort him. Liam's romantic interests never seemed to be ones who were easy to pursue. While he wishes the circumstances were different for his friend, he's also not confident that they can really trust someone still solidly part of the Aether Foundation. Ultimately, Ethan's loyalties might still lie with Lusamine.

There's a sudden gasp and Guzma looks over to see her desperately searching the duffel bag.

"Somethin' up with Fluff Nugget?" Liam asks.

She doesn't even need to tell him what's wrong, he can already guess by the look on her face.

She turns the bag inside out, but nothing falls out of it. "Nebby's gone!"

~~~

You're the first out the Pokemon Center door, Liam following after, and Guzma bringing up the rear saying, "Whoa, whoa, can't I take a piss first?"

You'd looked all around the building where you were allowed to, and even asked the nurse the vaguest questions you could, but there was no trace of Nebby. You glance this way and that, frantic, not caring about the mess you must look, considering you'd been asleep a few minutes before. It couldn't have gotten far, could it? You've got to find it before someone sees it and catches it - it's not exactly a common Pokemon.

You begin running down a path - you're not even sure where it leads or if it's even the way Nebby went, but you're panicked and you've got to start somewhere. You run past trees, patches of grass, and a few pedestrians, all the while looking for any hint of your cosmic companion.

There's some kind of farming area coming into view on your right when suddenly a hand catches your own. The shock of that alone makes you slow.

"Wait! Just - just hold on a second!" Guzma yells.

When you turn, he's standing there, panting, his bandaged hand still clinging to yours. Behind him Liam comes to a stop and watches you two curiously.

Guzma looks a little alarmed as he starts saying, "Up ahead is-"

But then you hear shouting and a familiar chiming. You turn back towards what appears to be a berry farm. Out of the fields comes Nebby, and right behind it, is a farmer.

Before Guzma can say anything else, you take off, your hand leaving his. You're not sure what has him spooked, but it'll have to wait until after you've got your Pokemon back.

"Little berry thief!" the farmer says, chasing after Nebby with a watering can.

Nebby lets out a distressed cry. Then it starts to happen again - the glowing. Even in your panic you can't help but wonder at the strangeness of it. All the tests and all the stresses of Aether never induced anything like that, but for some reason being outside and faced with danger started this teleportation process.

"Nebby!" You scream, hoping to get its attention. You can't let it teleport away without you. Who knows where it would go?

When it sees you, the glowing halts instantly. Relieved, it quickly comes to you and retreats behind your legs.

The farmer stops and glares at you. "You should keep that thing in a ball!"

"I'm sorry!" you yell back as he begins to return to his farm. You hurry to get the bag off your shoulder.

Guzma and Liam catch up to you, both out of breath.

Nebby takes one look at Guzma, and bolts again.

"Man, Fluff Nugget really hates you!" Liam says.

Once more, Guzma looks a little crestfallen at this fact.

You race after Nebby, past the berry fields, and down a path off the main road until you come to a house. It's small and the yard is unkempt. The windows are boarded up and the fence surrounding a swing set has fallen over.

Nebby floats over one of the downed planks and into the fenced-in yard. You climb in with it as it perches on the swing.

"Nebby!" You put your hands on your knees, bending over and trying your damnedest to catch your breath. "Get in the bag!

It watches you for a moment, the swing swaying in the light breeze. Then, it finally does as it's told, and returns to the duffel over your shoulder.

You heave a heavy sigh and look around. The overgrown grass dances slowly back and forth in the warm Alolan wind. Birds chip and the leaves rustle. It's quiet and peaceful, but also melancholy. There's something a little mournful about this abandoned house.

You leave, crossing back over the broken fence, but stop short when you see Guzma and Liam.

Guzma's stands, staring up at the house with an indescribable emotion on his face - it's a mixture of things that you can't quite read. "They're gone," he mumbles.

Liam looks at you, then back to Guzma.

And you realize: this was his parents house.

~~~

How does he process this? How is he supposed to feel as he looks at the familiar steps now coated with dust and dirt, and the door he'd passed through so many times now boarded up? If there's something he should be feeling, he doesn't know it. What he does feel at first, is relief. Watching her sprint down this dirt road and knowing what lied ahead felt like watching her run toward a monster.

But he also inexplicably felt some degree of... happiness? Or maybe it was just familiarity. It's not as if every instant of his childhood was bad, and there was still some comfort to be found in seeing so much that he recognizes after all these years.

But now this house is a stranger - it's uncared for with its occupants having long left. And seeing it abandoned, makes him feel as if he's been abandoned himself. It's a final rejection without his parents even being there physically to do it.

"Boss?" Liam asks.

"You... you okay?" she says.

But he can't bring himself to answer either of them - in his shock he can barely even register that they're there. Instead he storms up the steps and begins pulling at one of the boards nailed across the door. He has to get inside - he has to, because if he does, then maybe he'll find some kind of answers.

He yanks at the boards, muscles straining, the cut on his palm stinging, but they don't give.

"Guzma," she begins behind him, but he ignores her.

He smacks the door in frustration, pain radiating throughout his hand, and leans his forehead against the wood. If there are answers, maybe it was better he didn't know them anyway. A hole's been reopened within him, made fresh by this new feeling of discardment. Why did it still matter? Why did they still matter after all this time? He shouldn't care anymore - they clearly didn't care about him - and yet here he was, breathing deeply, head still pressed to the door and willing all that's coming to the surface not to push its way out his eyes.

There's a hand on his arm. "Hey-"

He jumps and whips around to face her far more roughly than intended in his surprise.

She shrinks from him when she sees the look in his eye. He doesn't feel very friendly right now, and he's surely conveying that. He swallows, and unclenches his fists, feeling regret for scaring her.

"You doin' alright, boss?" Liam says from the bottom of the steps.

Guzma looks away from them, rubbing at his nose. "Yeah, yeah, I'm fine." An explanation doesn't feel like something he can give right now, and comfort feels like something he can't accept. He walks down the steps, past both of them and out onto the path. "We should get ahold of Sweets. Let her know Liam's alright and to get us a few ferry tickets."

The silence as they follow behind him feels awkward and deliberate. He imagines them exchanging worried glances while working out what they should say. He doesn't want them to. All he wants is to ignore this and move on. He almost tells them that, but what he sees down the route sets another emotion in him that pushes everything else aside: fear.

There are Aether employees walking down the main road.

When he turns around, sure enough, Liam nearly walks into him because hes so focused on giving the girl walking beside him concerned looks. Guzma ignores his agitation and instead whispers, "Go back," to them.

Her face scrunches in confusion, but his urgency must have convinced them not to question it - they follow him back toward the abandoned house, over the broken gate, and into the overgrown backyard.

Now, kneeling in the tall grass against the building, he tells them, "Fuckin' Aether's here."

"We could fight," Liam suggests.

"More of 'em than us," Guzma says. "And if we lose..."

"No." She says, looking a little horrified. "Just let them pass. They wouldn't check here, would they?"

"Probably not too hard to figure out I used to live here," Guzma says, remembering Liam's Aether acquaintance and his abilities. He wonders then if Sweets could potentially track down where his parents are now before shoving the thought away.

"Not even a battle? We gettin' kinda cornered again," Liam mutters.

"Too many." Guzma carefully leans ever so slightly around the building. Three employees are coming down the path towards the house while the others continue onward - presumably to check the Pokemon Center. One of the three is bespectacled and nervous looking. He almost laughs - he can't tell if this is good luck or bad. "Besides, ya gonna fight him?"

"Him who- Ethan?!" Guzma struggles to hold Liam back as he launches across both their laps to get a peek around the corner.

The footfall from the three Aether employees stops once they reach the front of the house.

"He lived here?" an unfamiliar voice asks.

"Well, it was his parent's place," Ethan says.

Another clicks his tongue disapprovingly. "And look at the shithole now."

"Yeah," says the first. "Looks like it's boarded up. Still, we'll check the perimeter and make sure there's no way inside."

Guzma looks around the yard. Could they make it over the fence in time? Would they be spotted if they tried? How was it they were trapped again?

Liam glances around the corner once more, and Guzma nearly drags him back, but then Liam turns toward them with a large grin.

Ethan is now coming their way, tablet in hand. He hasn't noticed them in the grass yet, too busy looking at the building.

Liam slowly stands, grabs Ethan's free hand and quickly pulls him into himself, covering his mouth to muffle a scream of surprise.

"Liam!" Ethan hisses when his mouth is uncovered. "What are you doing here?"

"Well, I was hopin' to run into some wild Pokemon in the tall grass. Wasn't expectin' a whole snack like you to appear."

Ethan nearly drops the tablet, but Liam catches it just in time and returns it to him.

How many lines did Liam have? Furthermore, how are they actually working? Guzma shakes his head. There's no time for Liam's blunt flirting. He stands, dusting the dirt from his pants. "Hey, so-"

"You're all here?" Ethan says, alarmed.

"Yeah, about that..." Liam mumbles.

"Liam, you were supposed to get off the island. I can't - I just - I told you I'd try to keep them one step behind you, but I can't do that if you never move to the next step."

"Steps, steps, you too with the steps?"

Ethan gives him a look of confusion.

"Fuck steps! Just... come with us! You hate workin' for Aether anyway."

"I can't just - I can't just do that, Liam. We already had this conversation too."

Liam's other hand joins the one that still holding Ethan's. "But do ya want to?"

Ethan's quiet for a moment, watching Liam's face. "That's kind of irrelevant."

A voice comes from around the back of the house. "You over there, Ethan?"

Ethan's eyes widen. "Yeah, yeah, there's nothing here!" he calls back. Then he gently untangles his hand from Liam's. "You guys have got to go. Now."

Guzma rubs at the back of his neck and exchanges glances with the girl next to him. "Uh, how exactly? Your buddies there'll see us."

"Well, how'd you leave the library?" Ethan asked.

She grabs at the strap of the bag slung over her shoulder. "That was Nebby."

"Cosmog? It teleported you?"

She nods.

There's another voice from the front now. "Ethan?"

"Yeah, hold on!" Ethan yells. Then he turns to the girl. "Get it to do it again!" he whispers urgently.

She hesitates before unzipping the duffel. "Okay, Nebby, you know the glowy thing? Think you can do that for us now?"

"But where's it gonna put us?" Guzma says, wondering if this is really the best plan.

She shakes her head. "I dunno. Maybe we can ask it to put us somewhere? We want to catch the ferry right? So the docks?"

"If you can get it to do it at all!" Guzma says, growing panicked at what sounds like approaching feet crunching down on grass.

Liam shrugs. "Started glowin' when boss grabbed it before."

Every single eye turns to him. Guzma sighs in exasperation. "Really? But-"

She holds the bag out to him, looking pained. "Sorry... and sorry, Nebby."

This was certainly not going to help his quest to gain that little Pokemon's approval. It kind of ate at him that it disliked him so. But, he supposed their options were limited right now. He reaches in, and feels immediately guilty as Nebby winces away and begins screaming. He holds it up by one of its appendages as it continues to make that terrible noise and starts to glow.

There's running towards them now.

"You sure you can't come with us?" Liam asks Ethan.

He gives him a sad smile and shakes his head. "I can't... but be careful, okay?"

Liam takes his hand once more, and kisses his knuckles. "Won't be doin' nothin' stupid knowin' you're out there waitin' on me."

The brightness around Nebby is becoming blinding. It'll happen any second now.

"Take us to the docks!" she says, grabbing Guzma by the arm.

"Wait, wait, why not Po Town?" Guzma adds, remembering that they've hopped islands before.

Liam grabs his other arm. "I'm thinkin' Malasadas."

There's no time to argue. Once again, the ground seems to dissolve underneath Guzma.

 

They land, and Guzma blinks in the vanishing brightness. His eyes feel like they're taking forever to clear, but once they do, he finds that they've been brought to-"

"Well, shit, this ain't malasadas," Liam says.

"Mother!" she half whispers, half sobs, horrified.

They're on the docks in Hau'oli City, but they aren't the only ones there - Lusamine is looking at the group, dumbfounded, with a handful of Aether employees. Guzma mentally kicks himself. Why hadn't it occurred to them that she might be guarding their exit from the island?

"The Cosmog!" she demands when she recovers.

Guzma holds the Pokemon up in front of him. "Hey, hey little guy! Think you can take us some place else? Cause this ain't ideal!"

But the creature in his hands looks exhausted, and there's a couple Aether employees making their way towards him now.

"Guzma!" she calls to him, holding out the bag.

He places the Pokemon inside, then steps in front of her and Liam.

Lusamine scoffs. "Really? Now that is unexpected."

"Get on the ferry!" Guzma tells them. It's still waiting behind them, though there's a bell ringing out across the docks - a five minute warning.

"Ain't got tickets!" Liam says.

"Fuck," Guzma mutters. They never called Sweets, and now that Nebby had teleported them, their phones wouldn't be working. "Just - just get on! We'll figure it out!"

But now Lusamine's men are closing in on them from multiple sides. Whatever luck they had, it's run dry.

She screams as the duffel is snatched from her shoulder.

Reacting on pure instinct, Guzma turns and swings, catching the would-be bag thief in the chin. He stumbles, and as he does, Guzma grabs the bag and pulls it to himself. He catches a glimpse of Nebby's face beyond the open zipper, watching him.

It feels like there's barely any room to think. With so much going on, all there is, is panic and a frantic search for a way out of this.

Behind him, Liam is dragging her towards the ferry, doing his best to convince her to board despite her protests.

Aether employees circle him.

Lusamine glares at him. "You want me to make good on my promise, Guzma? Only way that's possible is with that Pokemon and that girl. You want those ultra beasts, right? It's what you've been doing all this for? What you've been working so hard for?"

He doesn't answer her. There's another grab for the bag, and a tug as a hand closes on the strap.

But all they manage to get, is an empty bag. As soon as the duffel started to leave his side, Nebby had floated out of it, and clung to him - willingly. It was willingly touching him. Despite the turmoil of their current situation, Guzma can't help but take half a second to be happy at earning the Pokemon's forgiveness.

If only their newfound friendship wasn't so short lived.

He tries to fight them off, but he's outnumbered. He only manages a few good kicks, shoves, and punches before Nebby is wrestled from his shoulders. Guzma's thrown to the ground.

He glances back. She and Liam are on the boat, Liam shoving back what looks to be some sort of security guard for the ferry. At the end of the walkway, Aether employees argue and threaten another guard.

But that quick look is all he gets before he's pinned down on his knees, Lusamine now standing before him, holding a strange looking box.

He knows he should feel defeated, but right now it's like there's no emotion left to give. Nothing, but contempt. His eyes don't leave Lusamine, and he hopes they convey all the defiance and animosity he's directing her way. It's not just this situation, it's the way she's used him and those closest to him. It's everything she's held over their heads.

One of the employees throws Nebby roughly into the box, and it lights up a bright blue.

Lusamine sets the crate on the ground beside herself, and kneels. "You see this, Guzma," she says, patting it. I've been developing this for a while, but I was afraid to use it. It may very well kill the Cosmog inside."

The ringing from the warning bell stops. The ferry is about to pull away. Are she and Liam still on?

Lusamine continues. "But, I've been pushed to the brink, thanks to you and your thugs, so I'm going to use it now. You can finally have your ultra beasts. This might be it! This might finally allow us to open up a wormhole ourselves... all I need you to do, is give me my daughter back. She has to tell the Cosmog to open the wormhole. It won't obey anyone but-"

A bright ball leaves the crate, interrupting her. It shoots off, spiraling out into the space beyond Lusamine and her men. Then it stops, and light explodes outward from it.

A hole appears there, shimmering in the air. A wormhole.

Lusamine turns, looking enraptured. "Maybe she's not needed after all..."

All around, onlookers gasp and whisper as Lusamine approaches it. The grip the employees have on Guzma loosens, their attention dragged away by this unexpected turn. He slowly stands, and they don't stop him.

Lusamine reaches out a hand, completely unafraid of the glowing portal. There's the sound of something beyond it - ultra beasts.

Guzma hesitates.

They had discussed this before - the possibility of finding a way to open a wormhole themselves - and if they did, all he'd need do, was follow her in to catch whatever he wanted.

And everything really had been for that, hadn't it? Everything he'd done? He'd been so sure that these superior Pokemon would be the key - the key to doing something more for his team, and the key to finally proving himself. Would his parents regret leaving without saying a word then? When he became well known enough, not as a gang leader, but as someone worthwhile, would they care? Would he finally have that approval he so sorely wanted from his father? Would he finally feel okay?

He could follow her now. None of the employees seem interested in stopping him anymore. If he does - if he gets what he's after - there would no longer be a need to be Lusamine's lapdog. He would be free. Right?

He glances down at the crate containing Nebby. But... at what cost. And what about her?

No. Maybe he would have happily followed Lusamine into the unknown before, hoping all she promised would be true, but not now. He can't just recklessly take what he wants. He won't take those ultra beasts. Not like this.

Even if it means he never gets them at all. He thinks of Liam, Sweets, Plumeria, and everyone still in Po Town. Maybe his original family would never be one he'd be a part of, and maybe they had abandoned him... but he's got a new family. He's had one for some time now, and he didn't need to earn their approval - he already had it implicitly. He has a family, and they'll be needing him, ultra beasts or not.

He grabs the glowing box at his feet, turns, and runs for the boat leaving the dock.

He can see her and Liam onboard yelling to him, but he can't hear them - there's too much commotion and adrenaline coursing through him.

The light from the wormhole flickers and disappears as he makes his mad dash. Did taking Nebby do that?

Lusamine screams.

She didn't make it in the hole before it closed.

He doesn't stop. He runs past passerby and Aether employees that still seem too stunned to give chase. He flies down the ramp, Nebby still in tow.

Now there's the sound of feet hitting the wooden planks behind him.

He reaches the end of the ramp, and jumps.

Please. There's water below him and Aether employees trailing behind.

He hits the railing and grabs onto it as he does, yelling in pain - it's his bandaged hand.

He hangs from it, feet scrambling for purchase, and Nebby's crate growing heavy.

There's splashes as a couple employees fall into the water. They didn't make it, but he did.

There's a hand on his, and he looks up to see her.

Liam isn't far behind. Together, they pull him and Nebby aboard to safety.

He collapses on deck, sitting with the box beside him. Through the bars of the railing he can see Lusamine staring after him, furious.

He huffs with surprise when the girl suddenly throws her arms around him, practically sitting in his lap.

He can't keep the stupid grin off of his face as he returns the embrace, still panting with exertion.

"Hey, hey, me too," Liam says, dropping to his knees and hugging them both.

Guzma playfully rolls his eyes. His new family might not exactly be conventional, but he can't imagine trading them for anything.

And maybe she was becoming part of it too.

Chapter Text

"We could just smash it open," Guzma suggests as the three of them gather around the strange crate Nebby's still trapped in.

"Agreed, agreed," Liam nods.

She leans over the box protectively. "That's too dangerous!"

"You got any better ideas?" He kneels to examine the contraption. There's still a bright blue emanating from it and no buttons anywhere that he can see.

"You see how it closed?" she asks.

Guzma rubs at the back of his neck. "Nah, there, uh, there was kind of a lot going on."

"Speaking of... you wouldn't have followed her into that wormhole - would you?" she says, looking at him rather suspiciously.

He stands. "No! I mean, I didn't, right?"

"No, but you just sorta... you looked like you were thinking about it."

"I wasn't!" He knows he's lying, but he's also feeling on trial for something he didn't even do.

"Alright," she says slowly, clearly not convinced.

He's just opening his mouth to argue more, when Liam interrupts.

"Ey, I got it!" he says, bent over the box.

Sure enough, one end of the box has opened, and floating inside is... not Nebby.

Or, at least it doesn't look like it. Whatever this creature is, it's smaller than Nebby, but it's central colors and even the face are similar. It's encased in something hard and gold with ridges.

"Yo, I think Fluff Nugget evolved," Liam tells them, gently poking the tiny creature.

It doesn't respond. In fact it looks downright catatonic.

"Oh, Nebby," she mutters worriedly.

Liam reaches into his pants pocket and pulls out his phone. "Now lets just see if we can look this shit up and- hey, what's up with my phone?"

This was not going to go over well. "Nebby's little teleportation trick takes out the phones for a while," Guzma says.

"What?! Liam looks horrified. "But I just got Ethan's number!"

"Guzma's didn't work again until Nebby touched it," she says.

So that was how that happened - he hadn't been there for that.

Liam begins tapping his phone against Nebby's new form. "Come on, come on."

But nothing happens other than Nebby floating sideways with each tap. They weren't lucky enough for full phone recovery this time.

Guzma sighs and leans on the railing, watching the water. For what seems like the millionth time in the past couple days he finds himself wondering what now?

She stands next to him, Nebby pulled to her chest.

"Where's this ferry going anyway?" he asks.

Liam joins him on his other side. "Akala."

"And, uh, how'd havin' no tickets go?"

"Well, turns out we did have them," she answers.

"Yep!" Liam confirms. "Sweets got 'em at some point. There was two tickets reserved for 'Team Skull associates.'" He glances over at Guzma. "But only two. They already saw us. If security comes around, we're gonna have to hide ya."

Guzma sighs again. He's exhausted and not sure he's up to evading anyone else. It feels as if they've been on the run for a week. He decides to find a spot to lay low before there's a chance of him being spotted. Maybe he could take a damn nap.

 

Which is how he finds himself in some sort of supply closet with cleaning utilities. He sits on a box hoping that they only clean between traveling when there aren't any passengers on board. If that's the case, then he shouldn't be disturbed. He watches the window in the door for a while, but no one passes by. It lights up the small room enough to be able to see most of the supplies within, and the water gently rocks the boat back and forth.

But despite the quiet, the solitude, and his heavy eyes, sleep won't come. It's not hard to guess why - his body might be tired, but his mind is still running on overdrive.

He thought there'd been too much to think about before, but now that's been multiplied ten fold. He miserably reviews the day so far. The image of his parents' abandoned home feels burned behind his eyelids.

Some things will take time to be forgotten, and maybe they'd never really be gotten over. He could try to forge ahead as much as he wanted, but the past would remain the same.

It's not that his circle of friends aren't enough; it's that he doesn't seem able to so easily drop everything and move on the way his parents had.

Maybe it was foolish, and maybe everyone but him could see what an impossibility it was, but he always thought that maybe he'd go back someday. Maybe they'd even reach out to him, invite him back, and they'd somehow work things out.

When he was younger, he used to imagine confronting his father about all he'd done. He prepared speeches in his head that would never be heard aloud that detailed just how every unkind word, every berating, every hit, every kick, every object thrown his way had made him feel. In these scenarios, his father never responded - just let him speak all he had to say with begrudging indifference.

In reality, he knew what his reaction really would have been. Like so many other things, the situation would have been turned around on him. His father was good at that. There would have been a reasoning for all the abuse. He would have yelled and screamed about how Guzma deserved it... and maybe he would have believed him.

But, as he got older, these daydreams changed from justifiably angry rants, to something far more calm, but somehow just as satisfying.

He pictured it happening some time later, after he finally accomplished all he was after with Lusamine. He'd be so successful in fact, that his parents would have a reason to be proud.

"That son of mine," his father would say to anyone who would listen. "Started out real rough, huh? But look at him now! That's my boy."

It'd begin with an unfamiliar number calling him. He'd answer to hear the voice of his mother, and after some catching up, she'd ask him to come and visit. She'd say that she misses him. That she still loves him despite everything.

So he would travel back to Route 2 and to that little house he grew up in. The three of them would sit at the dinner table, talking and laughing, connecting in a way that'd sorely been missing before.

Then his dad would get real quiet and serious, and it would finally, finally happen. He would hear the words that would have filled the hole in his chest: an apology - a sincere one, laced with regret and understanding.

Guzma isn't sure if he would forgive his father right then and there had this situation actually happened, but at least in these visions, he does. And he would feel... normal then. Like he, too, had finally managed the seemingly impossible task of having a good relationship with his parents. Maybe it was a lot to put on one pipe dream, but he always felt like everything else would fall into place after that.

But, none of that would happen now, would it? There would be no mending return for him. He thought that maybe someday he could come to feel like that house really was a home - maybe not one he'd be returning to permanently live in, but still somewhere he always knew he could go. Somewhere where the sting of his dark memories might start to heal.

Now it sits like a rotting tomb. He imagines a younger version of himself haunting the forgotten rooms, forever trapped in an angry adolescence.

His fantasizing of a reconciliation with his parents might have been pathetic, but there were times where it was what kept him going.

He'd been so stupid to think that would ever, ever happen.

Fury, hurt, and embarrassment course through him. There'd been too much going on to properly feel any way about it before, but now, sitting here alone with his thoughts, he feels as if he could explode.

He kicks a box in front of him, and it flies forward, hitting the wall with a dull thud.

And that small acts sets off larger ones. Whatever he can reach, he throws to the ground - bottles, brooms, mops, towels, and more join the clutter on the floor. Some of the boxes are upended and buckets are tossed noisily. For at least this small moment, he couldn't care less if he's caught.

But then that moment passes, and he's left standing the middle of this wreck of a closet, panting and even more exhausted than when he entered.

He looks around at the destruction around him. Did that even make him feel any better? He's not sure it did. If anything, all it's done, is make him think back to his father's anger.

Regret setting in, he picks up a bottle of cleaning solution and places it back on the shelf nailed to the wall. But the bottle's now bent, and it topples back to the floor.

He collapses back onto the box he'd been sitting on earlier and puts his head in his hands. Another mess he's created.

He jumps when the door suddenly opens, wondering if this is the time he's finally been caught.

But it's only her standing there - the newest member of their strange little family. She stares at him, face concerned as she takes in the state of the room, her figure silhouetted in the light. Then she steps in, and shuts the door behind her.

"You... alright?" she asks.

He doesn't answer that. Instead he says, "Thought you'd be more interested in seeing the water and shit."

She shakes her head and sits on a box beside him. "Think I just... needed to be someplace quiet for a while."

"What, Liam too much to handle?" he teases.

"No, no that's not it." Her eyebrows crease in concentration.

"Then what is it?"

"Mothe- Lusamine doesn't really... need me anymore, does she? Just Nebby. That wormhole was opened without my telling it to."

He's quiet. It doesn't seem right to tell her that Lusamine had basically said as much. "Do you want her to need you?"

She looks him in the eye, then her gaze goes to the ground. "I don't know."

Okay, okay. What to say to help? His hand instinctively goes to the back of his neck. "Well, hey, uh, we need you! You're one of us now, right?"

She gives him a sideways glance and a small smile. "Am I?"

"Bonafide member of the Skull family." He bumps his shoulder into hers.

"Was that a pun?" she laughs.

"Unintentional." Hey, laughing was good. Maybe he was better at this comforting thing than he thought.

But then her face falls again. "Does that - does that really help? Finding a family of your own choosing?"

"Yeah! Well, most of the time."

She gestures to the items strewn around the closet. "Really?"

"What?" he says, doing his best to play it off. "Needed some redecoratin'."

"I'm sorry about your parents," she tells him, softly. "I can't imagine what that must feel like. If I had another family before Lusamine, I don't remember them."

"Kinda wish I could forget." He wonders then if that's true. If he could forget - just be ignorant to his parents' existence and all that happened with them - would he be better? He pictures himself back at that boarded up building, looking at it and seeing just a house, and nothing more. There's a certain peace to that.

"Would you be here then?" she asks. "I mean, would you have your Skull family?"

His vision of a house he doesn't recognize fades to images of Po Town; of Liam, Plumeria, and Sweets. "Probably not," he admits.

"Sometimes I don't know if I want to remember," she says, looking out the window. "Say I do remember my family, but then I have no way of finding them? Or what if they were no better than Lusamine?"

"Wish I had an answer for you," Guzma mutters. He wishes he had the answers for both of them, but there doesn't seem to be any easy ones. "Would it kill ya to never know?"

She considers this. "I think that, if there are answers, I'd like to know them. But if there isn't, maybe the unknown's okay too."

He thinks of what's currently unknown for him: the future of Team Skull... his own future. "Unknown's kind of a scary thing, though."

"Yeah, but it's also kind of, well, freeing! Before you showed up, everything seemed so limited; I thought I knew all there possibly could be for me. Everything began and ended in that room. It was so depressingly set in stone. But now? Now, I don't know what's going to happen. Yeah, it's scary, but just the thought that anything could happen just- it gives me hope, you know?" She smiles, but her eyebrows are still furrowed. "I feel... genuinely happy and excited about what comes next - about being alive - and I think that was fading for me in that room."

"That's probably a good way of lookin' at it." He wonders if maybe he's still trapped in his own room - a mental one that was partially constructed for him, and partly made himself. It's not one he can physically leave, but maybe he'll still find an exit.

Or allow someone in to help make an escape.

She scoots closer to him. "Never met anyone like you guys - well, uh, I haven't met many people in general - but, if someone had to break into my room, I'm glad it was you."

He laughs. "Hey, I'm glad you're what we found behind that door."

"You're not... too disappointed that it wasn't ultra beasts?"

He waves dismissively. "Nah."

"Really?" She turns toward him.

He feels a slight twang of guilt. "Okay, okay, so I might have considered for just a moment goin' in that wormhole for 'em."

She looks a little hurt. "You would have done that? But, you don't even know where you would have ended up, or if you could even come back."

"Wasn't thinking about that at the time." She was right, but in those few moments, there hadn't been time to think stuff like that through. "But, I didn't."

"No," she grins. "You didn't."

"Maybe it's about time I found a new dream, huh?" And another reason to keep going besides a possible reconciliation with his parents. Just once more, he pictures himself and his parents at the dinner table together - a dream that would never be - and lets it fade.

He swallows hard, feeling embarrassed at the pinprick of tears in his eyes. Yes, he had other reasons, like the team, but this loss still feels like a hefty blow.

Her fingers ghost over the back of his hand, and he jumps in surprise when she takes it. Concern's etched all over her face.

"It's not - it's not about the ultra beasts and shit," he says quickly. "It's just been - been a lot. 'specially with seein' that house like that. Uh, I..."

Her thumb is doing that thing again: running along the base of his palm, under the bandage that's surely in need of changing by now. Between that, and trying to pick words that won't let loose a vulnerability he's been barely keeping at bay, his mind blanks.

He stares at the floor, blinking rapidly, and trying to slow his breathing. The last thing he wants right now is to cry in front of her, and make her feel burdened with his bullshit - especially while she's got so much else she's dealing with. He focuses just on that repeated motion, letting that same tingling sensation from the Pokemon Center work its way up his spine.

Her hand moves lightly up his arm, giving him goosebumps. She grabs him by the elbow and gently tugs, until he finally, reluctantly turns toward her.

He can't bring himself to look up until she says, "hey."

When he does meet her eyes, they're full of every bit of sympathy he was afraid he'd see. To be pathetic and pitied in front of her was not what he wanted. ...What did he want?

He must look tense, because the next thing she says is, "Hey, relax. It's okay."

He opens his mouth to speak, but then closes it, words still failing him.

Her other hand finds its way up his other arm and stops at that elbow as well. Just these simple touches sets a prickling all along the back of his skull. His shoulders slack and he does begin to relax - a little.

She gives a careful pull on his elbows, encouraging him to move towards her. He doesn't resist, leaning until his body meets hers.

Her arms wrap around his back and pull him closer still, holding him to her firmly, reassuringly.

His own come to rest on her back lightly - tentative and hesitant in comparison.

She's warm, and he can feel the rise and fall of her chest against his. The side of his face rests against her hair, his chin on her shoulder.

He feels almost too shocked to really appreciate this gesture, rendered immobile and caught off guard by an intimacy he hasn't experienced in a while. But when her hands begin to rub gentle circles into his back, there's something within him that gives in. He sighs, and clings tightly to her, discarding his former cautiousness.

Unable to hold them back anymore, tears slide down his cheeks. It isn't like the outburst he'd had before she'd walked in - it's a quiet, reserved crying, and yet it's somehow more cathartic. All the while she continues to massage his back. She doesn't say anything and she doesn't need to; just those motions feel like enough.

He can't even keep his thoughts straight as the tears fall. Like so much lately, it all feels like a jumbled mess. He decides to not even try to sort it in this moment. He just lets it all be. His mind is finally catching up with his body in terms of exhaustion anyway.

As his breathing slows, her hands move upwards, trailing up the middle of his back. He shudders as they reach his undercut. The back of his head feels like it's nearly on fire with the amount of tingling this induces.

When they begin threading into his hair, he closes his eyes and almost moans, blindsided by how good it is. His grip on her loosens as he completely relaxes, feeling damn near tranquilized.

Without meaning to, he comes to rest his forehead on her shoulder, his hands still gingerly touching her back. His sunglasses slide upwards and eventually fall, landing on the box beside her, but he doesn't care. The entire world could slip away right now.

And it begins to. He has one more fleeting thought before sleep takes over:

Is the want he feels for her really a good idea?

Chapter Text

He sleeps for nearly the entire ride to Akala. When he does wake, he finds they're both still on those boxes in the supply closet. He's laying across them, with his legs dangling off the side of one, while his head rests in her lap. She's also fallen asleep, reclining against the wall behind them. One of her hands still sits in his hair. The other lays on his chest, with his own clutching to her arm. He has only vague, cloudy memories of them rearranging into this position.

He doesn't move. He's still tired and this was far more comfortable than the floor of that Pokemon Center. He also doesn't want to disturb her - she doesn't seem to have slept well either.

As his grogginess continues to clear, certain anxieties and thoughts begin to reemerge. Still, with the boat gently rocking and the soft light coming through the window... and his unexpected, though not unwelcome, sleeping companion, he can't help but want to let this last as long as it can. Besides, who knew what chaos awaits them in Akala? Would Lusamine be there?

With all the unknown that lies ahead of them, he'd enjoy this moment of quiet and contentment a while longer.

But then he wonders what Liam's up to. Well, how much trouble could he get into on a boat?

Several different scenarios occur to him, and he decides maybe he should find Liam - risk of being caught as a stowaway or no.

Ever so carefully he untangles himself from her and sits up on the box. He puts his head in his hands, willing it to clear, but then he realizes that there's something missing from his hair. He looks all around them and finally finds what he's looking for on the box beside her: his sunglasses.

He reaches over for them, but as he does so, she shifts and grumbles, making him freeze. He stays there, arm stretched out, hand closed around the glasses, and barely breathing, suddenly feeling alarmed for some reason.

In her sleep she leans toward him, sliding along the wall until she gently falls against him.

He blinks, still holding that same position, unsure what to do. He slowly pulls his arm back, letting her continue her fall, and now she's resting her head on his chest.

Alright, okay, well this was... this was something. He tentatively lays his arm around her, holding her to him. Maybe it was her turn to sleep a little more comfortably anyway.

The room is silent except for her slow, even breathing. Her weight against him feels strangely comforting. This was also kind of nice...

He mentally kicks himself for these sentimental thoughts. Who was he? Big Bad Guzma. And he could totally handle this situation without getting all... What? Mushy? Why was he having these reactions anyway? He tries to figure out how long it'd been since he'd been with anyone. Admittedly it'd been a while now - he'd been too caught up in Lusamine's bullshit to really worry about anything like that.

He supposed that was no longer an issue.

But now there's all new ones - like what are they going to do without Lusamine's support if it really is gone?

And should he be getting attached to this girl who might have another life waiting for her somewhere else - somewhere far removed from him.

Would she even be interested in him if it were a possibility? She seems to be, but is that just because she hasn't met very many people yet? When she does, she'll probably realize there's far better out there than him.

She'll be right.

He sighs, feeling her head droop a bit on his chest as he does so. She moves closer unconsciously, so that she's practically curled around him.

Guzma swallows, embarrassed with how much he's okay with this. Forget whatever Liam's doing - this was more than fine.

She might eventually have a real family to go back to, but until they figure that out, he'd enjoy the time he's still got with her. He decides that if they can manage it, there's a few local things on Akala he'd like to show her.

A horn blares from somewhere on the boat - they're docking. He jumps, and so does she, startled awake. She doesn't move for a beat, but then she quickly pulls away, muttering apologies for falling asleep on him.

"What? Nah, it's fine," he says, rubbing his neck. "Uh, so thanks for-" For what? For dealing with my bullshit? For letting me cry on you?

He stands, feeling a little mortified and unable to find a way to finish the sentence that feels adequately badass enough. A couple bottles of window cleaner bump against his shoes, making him remember the mess he'd created earlier. Right, his temper tantrum. No time to fix it now. Feeling even more awkward, he reaches for the door handle. "We should - we should probably find Liam."

They carefully exit the closet, keeping an eye out for anyone passing by. Luckily, everyone seems to be gathered elsewhere.

In fact, he can already see through a window that there's a crowd in the middle of the cabin of the boat. Nearly every passenger and even some staff are all huddled around someone or something. Liam.

Throwing caution to the wind, he hurries to the cabin door and throws it open.

"An' ya see," he hears Liam's voice addressing the crowd. "By startin' off with that solid foundation, our house here is strong as fuck. You couldn't blow that shit over- wait! Don't actually try it! Ain't y'all ever heard of exaggeration? It's part of showmanship, okay?"

Guzma exchanges glances with the girl beside him, then the two of them make their way through the crowd toward Liam's voice.

For once, his height is a big help. Looking over several heads, he finally sees what Liam's up to: on the table he's standing beside is an elaborate and impressive house made out of stacked cards. Even Guzma's impressed Liam had both the patience and steady hand to make such a thing on just this boat ride. All around the table, people are murmuring and taking pictures of Liam's creation.

"He learn that from all his architecture classes?" she asks, bending to see between two people.

Guzma shrugs. "Maybe."

Liam catches sight of him and throws his arms out, knocking over the house and sending cards in every direction. "Eyy boss!"

There's grumbles of disappointment from the crowd. Some give Guzma dubious glances. Liam might be good at card stacking and entertaining, but he was certainly not good at being inconspicuous.

 

They manage to exit the boat without incident, which feels like some kind of major miracle by this point. None of the staff stop him or question him, and Lusamine isn't even waiting with an army of Aether employees as he feared. Instead, they're greeted by Sweets' friendly face and Plumeria's not-so friendly one.

"Liam!" Sweets says, upon setting eyes on him. He remembers then that they never had a chance to call and let them know that Liam was alright.

Plumeria's face falters for just an instant at the Liam revelation before she becomes stony again. "We've been calling nonstop!"

"Yeah, about that..." Guzma begins.

Liam gets out his phone and kneels on the ground before Sweets, holding it up to her. "Please, oh great and powerful Sweets, fix this damn phone."

Looking both confused and amused, Sweets takes it from him and examines. "What happened, exactly?"

She sets Nebby's box on the ground - it was the only thing she had to carry it in. Now it no longer glows, as whatever Liam did to open it seems to have broken it. Probably a good thing. "We escaped getting caught a couple times with Nebby; turns out it can teleport people. But, afterwards the phones are messed up. Also," she opens the the broken end of the cube and shows them Nebby's new form.

"Also Fluff Nugget ain't so fluff no more," Liam adds.

Sweets is fascinated. She inspects the box and starts asking the girl an endless stream of questions.

"G," Plumeria says curtly. "Can I talk to you?"

He can't imagine this is going to be good. Plumeria had earned her reputation as "Big Sis" for a reason - she's probably the most mature and practical one of them, and while this is useful, it could also mean butting heads. Given her fears about upsetting Lusamine before they'd even left for the library, he knows she's not happy. He follows her out of earshot of the group.

"Listen," she begins. "I don't - I don't want to be the bad guy here, but maybe we should return her and that Pokemon before this gets any worse."

"Plumes, we - I just... we can't."

She sighs and looks away from him, confliction evident in her every gesture. Plumeria might be more pragmatic than the rest of them, but she isn't heartless. He's hoping he doesn't have to fight her too hard on this.

"Besides," he says. "Prez doesn't seem to even want her anymore - I think she just needs the Cosmog."

Plumeria shakes her head in confusion. "Thought they were sorta adopted mother and daughter or whatever."

"Yeah, well, you know as well as I do that parents ain't always the best."

"G, I get that things are kinda shitty for her on Aether, but what about us? What about the entire team?"

He swallows. It wasn't as if that thought wasn't already constantly running through his head. "Well, what's Lusamine done so far?"

"Not much, but we got the hell out of Po Town just in case. Some are here with us, some are in trailers outside Tapu Village, Nanu took some in... we're scattered - and scared. Lusamine hasn't made any contact yet. I'm thinking she still wants to try using her support as leverage if she can. She knows we don't have many options."

"We're just - we'll have to find some other way. We always do, right?"

She gives him a small, sympathetic smile. "There's a lot more of us now, G."

"Even if we just give that Pokemon back, I think she'll kill it. She'd do just about anything to be able to open up whatever wormhole she wants. And what if Nebby's needed for that girl to find her answers?" Not to mention he has no desire to forcibly take that Cosmog from her and hand it over to the woman that kept her prisoner.

"Nebby?" Plumeria says, nearly laughing. "Wow, you are getting kinda close, huh?"

Maybe No! No, it's not like that, alright?"

She smirks, looking ready to go into full teasing mode. "Hey, I never said it was a bad thing! Well, I mean, it kinda is, given the situation." She rolls her eyes. "You and Liam both - I don't know who picks worse people to go for."

"Don't matter much anyway," he says. "We get her situation figured out and she's probably gonna be gone, right?"

"So that's the plan then? Find out where she comes from?"

Guzma shrugs. "We've already done this much. And hey, involves wormholes, so maybe there's ultra beasts at the end of all this. Maybe we figure out what Lusamine never could. Maybe after all that, we'll be fine and we won't have to mess with her anyway."

Plumeria watches him, scrutinizing. "You really think that?"

"Do you really wanna turn either of them over? Do we gotta participate in killin' somethin' to stay afloat?"

"It's not like we haven't done morally questionable things before. Is one Pokemon worth more than the entire team?"

"Plumes, this one's a step too far, and you know it. We can figure this out without anyone gettin' hurt."

Her face softens. "Yeah, yeah, alright. I just - I hope you're right. I hope this works out."

He gives her his best reassuring smile. "Me too."

They start walking back toward the rest of the group when he asks, "So why are there a bunch of ya on Akala? Didn't come just to see us, right?"

"There's a music festival on Hano Beach later."

"Well shit, really? Guess we're stickin' around for that then."

"You want to go?" Plumeria says incredulously. "And you want to bring her? Shouldn't you be hiding her or something?"

"Honestly, after all the stress I think we deserve a little fun."

"Just don't let your 'fun' get us in more trouble." She rolls her eyes once more. "Y'all are stupid."

"Hey, hey, that line is trademark: Big Bad Guzma."

~~~

"Okay! So," Sweets says when Guzma and Plumeria join you again. "First of all, these phones are completely borked as far as I can tell right now."

Liam grabs onto Plumeria's arm for support. She doesn't look amused.

"Second, since we're killing a little time around Akala, I think we should review what I've found based off the pictures you sent of that book from the library."

Your heart stops for a moment. You hadn’t forgotten about your ultimate goal, but all the excitement had definitely pushed it a little further back in your mind. Now, to hear of possible progress feels downright invigorating.

"You remember that message board I was on? The one with GadgetGuy42? Well, let me tell you, I've been on a journey pursuing our little friend around the internet. He's pretty serious about finding these flutes too. Question is: why? Regardless, we're going to have to hope we get to them before he does."

"It's a race!" Liam says.

"Yes, well, after following his internet trail, my own research, and cross referencing that with the book, I can pretty confidently say one of them is hidden on Exeggutor Island - just like your dreams inferred!" She smiles at you.

You smile back, grateful for all Sweets has done.

"The other though... that one's a bit tougher to track down. There wasn't much I could find on it in the book, and so there wasn't a lot to research. GadgetGuy42 also seemed far less interested in this one, so no luck with taking cues from him either."

Your heart falls a bit. Whatever you have to do with these flutes... would one be useful without the other?

"But there's something else definitive I was able to get out of all this: that alter the book talks about? It's on Poni Island. So after we get the flutes, we bring them there."

"And what - what happens after that?" you ask tentatively.

Sweets shrugs. "I found a lot of references to something called 'Solgaleo' but nothing that could tell me what that is. But I was thinking: what if your dreams are memories from the day you came here? I'm betting on the possibility of something happening with wormholes. Sounds a little out there - I know - but, well, we're carrying around an unknown species of Pokemon that can apparently open wormholes itself. I think 'out there' is plausible. We'll just have to try and see!"

Memories? Could that be what they are? Were you dreaming of something that had already happened? Maybe recreating these dream fragments with the flutes would at least trigger some sort of memory retrieval. Still, had you done this ritual before?

Guzma scratches at his neck. "But you think we'll get answers from this? We'll know where she comes from?"

"All we can do is try!" Sweets says again. "It's the best we've got to go on right now - if nothing else, it might point us in the right direction."

"I don't know what to say," you tell her and mean it. How could words sum up all that you feel? You're finally getting somewhere after years of sitting in that room. "Thank you so much - all of you - for your help."

Sweets grins. "Hey, it's been fun! Things were getting kind of boring anyway. Glad to have a mission!"

"Speaking of fun, how about we spend a little time checkin' out Akala? I did say I'd show you some Alola stuff." Guzma says, giving you a half smile.

Plumeria looks skeptical. "Liam you're sure your Aether contact will keep Lusamine distracted?"

"Uh, I'd say about eighty- no ninety percent certain. Ethan's got it handled! Probably. Well, it ain't like I can text him, can I?"

"I'll keep working on the phones," Sweets says.

Plumeria crosses her arms, still concerned.

"Little break can't hurt," Guzma reassures her. Then he turns to you. "Whaddya say?"

You look around at all the unusual sights. You're growing used to unfamiliarity, but that didn't stop a need to explore, which you hadn't really gotten much of a chance to do yet. It's true that there's a lot to worry about with finding the flutes and avoiding mother... but how could you turn down the chance for a little fun? Especially with people you've grown to consider friends - you can't remember having those before, with the possible exception of Ms. Wicke, who you only saw on rare occasions.

You nod. "I'm in!"

 

The first stop had been to an apparel store to pick up a brand new backpack for you to carry Nebby in. There'd been debate over what to do with the box, but since there was no convenient way to take it with you, it'd been broken into several pieces and discarded. Even if mother did manage to get Nebby back, she'd have to spend time creating another before she could hurt it.

Now, shiny new bag strapped to your back, you make your way towards someplace called Brooklet Hill. Plumeria had asked why there of all places, and Guzma told her that it was where he'd caught his Surskit many years ago and he hadn't been back since. You were just happy to see whatever you could.

You and Guzma tag a little behind Plumeria, Sweets, and Liam - the latter of which is excitedly recounting once more his tale of being a hapless prisoner rescued by Ethan, and all that came after that. While Sweets seems engrossed in Liam's storytelling, Plumeria looks more and more horrified, especially at the points in it where you'd nearly been caught.

"It's kind of warm for that, isn't it?" you say, watching Guzma sip from a covered styrofoam cup. In his other hand is a paper bag full of malasadas - not his favorite he admitted, but he insisted that you get some for the trip when you said that you knew of them, but had never actually had one before.

"Listen, I could be standing in fuckin' Wela Volcano and still be drinking cocoa," he says, bringing the cup to his lips again.

"There's no way its that good." You've had cocoa before. Tapu cocoa couldn't be that different.

Then the cup is suddenly in front of your face as he hands it to you. "Don't knock it till you've tried it, doll."

You take it and stare at it for a beat, the smell of chocolate and cinnamon reaching your nose. You tentatively take a sip of the warm, sweet liquid. Okay, yeah, it is actually pretty good. Better, at least, than any cocoa you've ever had.

"Ya see?" he says watching your face. "It's good shit."

You take another gulp.

"Hey, hey, hey!" He says, grasping for the cup, but you dodge out of his reach, starting to feel a little playful. "I said 'try it' not 'steal it!'"

"I'm just learning from you guys," you tease, sipping again from the cup.

"Ey, we don't steal from each other!" He reaches again, narrowly missing it.

You give him what you hope is a flirty smile, and take off up the trail, cup still in hand. "So steal it back!"

You hear him give an incredulous laugh behind you before giving chase. "You better not spill it!"

You run past the other three on your way, the path, trees, and grass all flying by. You throw out your arms as you go - there's too little cocoa left in the cup for it to really spill anyway. The sun is warm, bright, and just might be the best sensation you've felt in years. There's no walls stopping you now. No pristine, florescent prison to halt you from going all out. This outside world is unpredictable and imperfect, but somehow more vibrant and alive than you imagined.

And now you're finally part of it.

You keep sprinting, happy to be doing it because you want to, and not because you're on the run from something. Well, not really anyway. You can hear Guzma's footfall behind you, but you think you'd actually like it if he caught you.

"Run, boss, run!" You hear Liam yell.

You keep going until you come to an unexpected view: there's numerous waterfalls cascading down, each at a different elevation and set in pools that are running into one another. Everything is lush, the plant life is green, there's a faint mist in the air, and the water is spectacularly clear and blue. You're transfixed as you take it all in.

Then your feet leave the ground as you yelp in surprise and delight, nearly dropping the cup.

Guzma picks you up from behind, arms around your waist, and spins once as he says, "Fuckin' caught, cocoa thief!"

You laugh as he puts you back down and takes the cup from your hand, a victorious look on his face. This is the most carefree you've seen him.

He takes one long swig before handing it back to you. "Last bit's the best."

You look through the hole in the lid to see all the cocoa that's gathered in the bottom. You finish it off with the chocolate-iest gulp.

 

The five of you spend a while exploring around Brooklet Hill. You eat your first malasada and watch the water, pointing out random Wishiwashi that occasionally jump from the water. At one point Liam falls in one of the pools because it was inevitable.

Guzma seems amused at your enthusiasm for each Pokemon you spot. "Guess you haven't seen many aside from Nebby, huh?"

You crumple up your malasada wrapper. "Saw mother's occasionally, and I can recognize most of the Alolan Pokedex from books, but that's about it.

"Never seen a Golisopod then?"

You shake your head.

He stands and reaches in his jacket pocket for something. In the next instant there's a shadow cast over you as a giant isopod Pokemon appears, the sun glinting off its shell.

You scramble backwards a bit from where you were sitting, surprised.

He huffs. "You ain't afraid of bugs, are ya?"

"No, it's just... so much bigger than I was expecting." Sure your books might have listed approximate heights, but looking at a number and looking at the real thing are completely different experiences.

The Golisopod nuzzles into him, making pleased sounding chittering noises.

"Yeah, well, he may be tall and little scary lookin', but he's just a big softie." He pats the Pokemon affectionately.

You stand, still a little too timid to approach. "Same could be said about you."

Guzma looks at you with mock hurt. "You think I'm scary lookin'?"

"Absolutely terrifying." You grin.

"Yeah, okay, fine. But I ain't soft." To make his point, he hugs his Golisopod to himself.

Golisopod wriggles curious purple antennae at you.

"You wanna pet him?" Guzma asks.

You take one step back, unsure. The sheer size of this thing still intimidates you, especially considering how few Pokemon you've been around. "Oh, uh, I don't - I dunno."

"He won't bite, I swear."

You take a step toward them, trying to gather your courage.

Guzma rubs at the back of his neck for a moment as he looks away from you. Then he turns back, more resolute. He holds a hand out to you.

You take it, and his fingers close over yours. You smile as he gently pulls you toward him and Golisopod.

You can't help but wonder why he's so odd about touch. Sometimes he seems to do it without thinking, like when he picked you up, but then other times, like now, it seems to require a certain degree of deliberation from him - almost as if he's afraid. You think back to the supply closet on the ferry. On the other hand, he definitely looks like he enjoys it when you willing touch him. You try to take your mind off of thoughts of experimenting to see exactly what kinds of touches he would like best.

He maneuvers so that he's standing behind you, and then he turns your hand over in his, palm up.

But now it's you that's reacting awkwardly to touch. You press back into him as much as you dare, breathing deeply, noting how good he smells. There's something new and reassuring about having him so close to you this way, with his chest against your back.

His other hand reaches back into a pocket and then deposits brightly colored beans into your open hand.

He hesitates once more, before placing his hand lightly on your hip and moving you forward.

For a second you become absolutely dizzy with the feel of so much of him touching you, but then your attention goes to his Golisopod as it suddenly moves for you.

You jump, your unoccupied hand clutching at Guzma's arm. A couple of mother's Pokemon might rival this giant bug in size, but you admit that none of them look quite as intimidating. But, Guzma doesn't seem alarmed by all that he's doing, so you try to relax. You remember the various pictures of Golisopod and Wimpod in his phone, and how he once told you that he prides himself on being able to handle Pokemon well. Surely, if it were about to hurt you, Guzma would know what body language to watch out for.

Golisopod's mandibles gingerly bump your palm as it picks up each bean and eats it, one by one. You can't stifle the giggle that escapes you from the tickling sensation of it. Guzma's grip on both your outstretched hand and hip increase slightly.

You feel Guzma's chest rumble with laughter and your face splits into a grin. You're sure you could melt into him.

You're even more sure when he leans down slightly and whispers, "See? He ain't so scary," into your ear. You only barely suppress your shudder, your breathing now a little shallow.

Golisopod finishes the beans, and you're now a good bit braver since you remain unbitten. Your hand leaves Guzma's as you reach out.

Golisopod purrs at you quizzically. You can't tell if it's a good or bad noise and you almost lose your nerve.

"It's alright; go on," Guzma says.

You pet the giant bug on it's head. The exoskeleton is smooth, and hard, but not unpleasant.

The creature watches you with it's dark eyes, then bends down and nestles against your neck, the same way it had done to Guzma earlier.

There's another laugh from behind you, making you feel a bit weak. "Ey, he likes ya! He's a little easier to win over than Nebby, huh?"

You think about Nebby and it's new form. Would it ever revert back? Maybe evolve more? It's definitely not the same Pokemon you've spent all that time trapped with anymore.

Golisopod breaks away from you, and nudges pockets on Guzma's jacket, in search of more beans.

Guzma removes himself from you - reluctantly so, and you swear you can still feel the tingle of his hand on your hip. You swallow. You weren't imagining this, right? It wasn't "demented" as mother had called it? There was definitely something growing between you.

You just hope it's mutual.

 

After Brooklet Hill, they took you to a couple more places, including Paniola Ranch, and the Battle Royal Dome. Though, that last one didn't last long once Guzma saw someone called The Masked Royal there. Still, you can't remember ever having a more full and fun day.

And it's not even over yet.

"Where are we going?" you ask.

"Hano Beach!" Sweets answers excitedly.

"They got some music-concert-thing going on there," Liam adds.

Plumeria crosses her arms.

Throughout the day, Liam and Sweets had remained as enthusiastic as ever. Guzma seemed mostly focused on you having a good time.

But Plumeria was a different story. As the day wore on, her face grew more and more concerned, and her gestures more and more anxious.

Still, she smiled when you talked to her, and as far as you could tell she was okay with your presence. She just seems to be worried. About what you're afraid to ask, though you can guess that it's the possibility of mother catching up to you.

The day had been so good that you barely thought about mother, but maybe Plumeria was right to worry - how long could you all goof off before she finds you?

Though, it was hard to think about that now as you come upon Hano Grand Resort.

It's a large, gorgeous building, and all of the lights inside make it almost glitter in the twilight. There's people everywhere, drinking, partying, celebrating. But the real draw is beyond the resort, out on the beach.

Out near the water, a giant stage has been constructed. Waves calmly move in and out beneath it, and the setting sun lies behind it. Big lights are set up in the sand and at the top of the stage, illuminating the people coming out onto it.

They pick up instruments and there's screams, shouts, and cheers as people rush toward the stage, forming a crowd of jumping partiers on the beachfront. The air is positively buzzing with excitement and mirth.

Then the music starts. Guitar rifts ring out across the sand leading into a steady beat that has everyone around you swaying and bobbing to the rhythm. You've heard music before, but not like this. There's a different feel now with it being played live - especially with all the people around. It's more people than you can ever remember seeing, and their festive cheeriness is kind of infectious. Their sheer numbers do make you a little nervous, but as the music reverberates through your chest and lights from the stage strobe out over the audience, you can't help but feel in awe of the spectacle.

Liam gives a loud whoop, throws an empty plastic cup he was holding on the ground, and runs out to join the dancers.

"Don't litter!" Plumeria calls out after him, though she's drowned out by the music. She picks the cup up, but it's soon back in the sand when Sweets grabs her other hand and pulls her toward Liam.

Which leaves just you and Guzma standing there awkwardly still as the rest of the crowd is a carnival of motion.

He rolls his eyes and rubs at his undercut when Liam attempts to wave the two of you over while making suggestive hip movements.

"You don't wanna dance?" you shout.

"This pop stuff's not really my thing. You can- you can go if you want."

You watch as Liam, Plumeria, and Sweets are joined by other Team Skull members - all of them laughing, dancing, and carrying on in their own little group out on the beach. As fun as it looks, it's still not something you can ever remember doing, and you find that you're now feeling self-conscious at the thought of joining them. Maybe you're just content to watch - it's definitely entertaining, if not occasionally hilarious. The grunts do not seem to care at all how ridiculous the look.

Liam again beckons you and Guzma to come join.

Guzma shakes his head and crosses his arms. You suppose "big" and "bad" doesn't exactly go with the scene before you... or maybe he's just as anxious as you are.

But then in the next instant he's uncrossed his arms and backing away as Liam rushes toward him. "Liam I am not gonna-"

He doesn't finish his sentence before Liam's leading him toward the rest of Team Skull by the arm. He takes big, plodding steps through the sand as he's reluctantly drug along. When he reaches the group, there's shouts of approval and a chorus of "Eyy boss!"

You giggle, amused, but now there's a hand taking your arm and gently tugging you too.

"You didn't think you were gonna get away with spectating, did you?" Sweets says.

She takes you right to the middle of the action. The music's even louder here and feels like it flows into every part of you. All around, Team Skull grunts dance, laugh, and sing along. It's memorizing, but you don't feel quite part of it - mostly you feel confused and out of place. You spin around, watching them, trying to decide if you should attempt to join in, or retreat.

You glance over at Guzma, but he's standing still as Liam dances in a circle around him, enthusiastically lip syncing.

Plumeria, however looks completely in her element. After all the worry she'd been clearly harboring throughout the day (and really in all the times you've seen her so far), it's a revelation to see her so happy and free of doubt - like a breath of fresh air. She expertly swings her hips right on beat as the grunts around her cheer her on.

Sweets takes each of your hands in hers, bringing your attention back to her face and the purple waves framing it. She starts moving your arms back and forth in time with the music, her shoulders bobbing. "You can do this, I promise!" she shouts.

Taking cues from her movements and the sound of the drums, you focus on her encouraging face and begin to let your body follow her lead. Shoulders, hips, and feet fall into step with your arms.

It takes you a minute to get the timing right, but then you feel yourself catching up. Something happens then: a sensation takes hold that seems impossible describe. It's not one you'd ever felt dancing alone in your room. It's a total and complete energetic sense of fun - a connected type of fun. Emboldened, you give yourself over to the music. Apprehension slips away, making room for an exhilaration that has you matching Sweets step-for-step.

"Hey, that's it!" she says, laughing.

You grin back at her. The world's becoming a happy blur of lights, sounds, and movement.

But now she seems to be leading you somewhere. At least, you think so. She pulls you along ever so slightly as you dance. Too caught up in your newfound jubilation, you let her move you wherever she needs to.

One of her hands leaves yours and drags someone stumbling towards you.

Guzma stands there, blinking and looking a little confused as Sweets dances next to him. She's got one hand holding his, while her other still holds yours.

You falter in your haphazard boogieing for a moment when you meet his eyes.

Sweets hip checks him, as she releases both your hands. "Come on, boss!"

He gives an exasperated sigh, but you catch the smallest hint of a smile.

Plumeria suddenly appears out of the crowd, glances around at the three of you, then grabs Sweets and leads her away.

"We should have got you drunk!" Sweets yells teasingly as she leaves.

"Yeah, well it ain't too late!" Guzma shouts after her.

You watch as he begins to reach for his neck. Feeling high off the music and the exuberance of those around you - and maybe growing a little impatient with his occasional timidness - you grab his hand before he can complete his nervous habit.

His looks caught off guard - an expression that only grows more apparent as you take his other hand and move his arms the same way Sweets had done to you. If you could catch whatever this night has infected you with, then he could too.

He regards you with nothing but bemusement for a minute or two as you continue to move his arms, alternating back and forth. You're wondering if perhaps he's just completely immune to the magic that's taken over you, when his face relaxes just the tiniest bit.

Finally, a sign of hope. You remember the picture he'd taken of himself on his phone - the one of his giant, breezy grin - and realize you want nothing more than to see it for yourself. It's been close, but there's been nothing quite like it in person. Yet.

He takes a tentative step towards you. He's been so cautious - way too cautious - when it comes to you. How was it mister "destruction in human form" could be so unsure about making a move?

Well, you've made it this far. You close the gap between you, moving towards him, and pulling until his body comes into contact with yours. Your arms rest on his shoulders as his hands find their way to your waist. You're no longer dancing, true, but now there's a different kind of two-step happening in your chest.

His eyes search yours, like he's got to make sure you really want this - really want him.

You bite your lip. Words have left you, but the music's so loud that it doesn't matter anyway. Instead, you run a thumb along his cheek. Your fingertips gliding into his hair, though you nearly have to stand on tiptoe to do it.

His eyebrows fall out of their near constant crease. His shoulders lose their tenseness. Then he draws you up towards him as he leans down, bringing his lips to yours.

The music continues to pulse and pound around you. Some of the grunts let out wolf whistles or hoot and holler. Somewhere in the distance you hear Liam scream, "Fuck yeah, boss!"

What was initially light and experimental, turns deeper and harder. You become only faintly aware of everyone around you, too encompassed by the tearing down of this unspoken wall between the two of you. Your fingers roughly thread through his hair as he clutches at your back, holding you as close as he can, nearly lifting you off the ground. You're sure your blood is running as fast as the music.

You break from him for just a second, a little overwhelmed by the pins and needles you're feeling. His hand leaves your hip, and trails up your side, making you gasp. He cups your chin, and brings you in again, mouth desperately meeting yours.

You return his eagerness, somewhat breathless. There's a warmth that's spreading through you chest. There might be people watching, but you're quickly losing your perception of them, and he seems to be too.

You pull off of him once more, though you hesitate, then take his hand to lead him further into the crowd. There was still music and dancing to do, after all.

"Wha- hey, hey, wait a second!" he says laughing.

You turn back towards him, and there it is: the smile from the picture - big, lighthearted, and unafraid.

Returning his grin, you give him one last quick peck before finding Liam, Sweets, and Plumeria.

Now infected with the same ecstatic rhythm, he finally gives in and joins the dancing.

 

The musicians on stage change as the night goes on. You're not sure how long you've been out on this beachfront, but you're still going strong; everyone else seems to be too.

There might not have been anymore kissing yet, but you're greatly enjoying the way Guzma's shyness with you has been cured.

Especially now that whoever's currently on stage is playing something a lot more slow and... sleazy.

You weren't sure how to proceed when it first started - it was so unlike the previous music - but now it's Guzma who leading you, much to your surprise and pleasure.

The bag holding Nebby slides down your arm and comes to rest on the ground between your feet. He stands behind you, one of his hands firmly on your waist, and the other running down your arm. He moves you with the slow and steady rhythm, body pressed entirely into the back of yours, hips moving together.

"You good with this?" he asks. His heavy breath passes over your ear, making you shiver and press a hand over the one he's got right above your ass. You swallow and nod, pushing back into him, wanting as much contact as you can get.

He gives a small laugh, then leans down and kisses the space between your neck and shoulder. You close your eyes and inhale deeply. You can feel his smile against your skin.

This dancing - the intimacy of it and the implicit longing - sets a different kind of excitement in you; one that's going right between your legs.

And if what you're feeling behind you is any indication, the same could be said for him.

Whoever's on stage could stay up there as long as they wanted if it meant this continued.

But you're not so lucky.

There's something happening in the crowd behind you. Murmurs and alarmed muttering just audible over the music break both of your concentrations.

Guzma stops, moving apart from you to turn around, but still keeping one of your hands in his.

When you look, squinting in the darkness and roving stage lights, you see what looks like figures dressed in white roving through the crowd, searching.

They're Aether employees.

You quickly pick up your bag and strap it on your back as fear spreads through you.

"I've been trying to text you!" a voice hisses to your left.

It's Ethan, standing beside Liam, looking stressed and apologetic, his tablet pressed to his chest.

Liam shrugs. "'fraid my phone's down for the count."

"Liam, you should leave before she sees you. Can you do that- that teleporting thing again? With the Cosmog?"

He grimaces. "Yeah that's outta commission too."

"Liam!"

"Well, as long as we're here and screwed," Liam says offering a hand to Ethan. "Ya wanna dance?"

Ethan blinks, then slowly extends a hand. When it reaches Liam's, he drops his tablet.

"Thank you!" Sweets says as she picks up the discarded item. Ethan doesn't seem to notice.

She rushes to you and Guzma, standing behind you to unzip your bag and place the tablet inside before closing it again. "Alright, boss, I'm taking your girl here."

"You're doing what?" Guzma looks panicked, his grip tightens on your hand.

She lifts up her wrist to show the large, square device strapped to it. "No promises, but I might be able to get this to function as a ride pager. But, it's gonna take me a minute and even if it works, the Charizard won't be able to take a bunch of us... And you might - you might be needed here." She gestures to the Team Skull members milling around.

On stage the music still blares. Aether employees continue weave through the crowd. Grunts are turning to Guzma for directions. It's a confusing mess of sound in the dim lighting. Every new piece of information comes so fast but so slow.

Guzma releases your hand. "Yeah, okay. Get her outta here."

"But-" You can't just leave him behind. After everything - especially after tonight - how could you?

He gives you a smile woven with a degree of sadness and resolve. "I'll catch up with ya later, doll."

“We’re gonna try to make it to Poni,” Sweets says. She pulls at your hand, but you remain in your spot.

Plumeria grabs you by the shoulders and gives you a gentle, but firm nudge, marching you forward. "Time to go, girlie!"

The two of them guide you away. You glance back to see the grunts gathering around Guzma. He's soon blocked from your view.

You push through the crowd, trying to get to the side of it, away from the encroaching Aether members and to a clear area. All the while, Sweets fusses over her device.

Plumeria is less than cordial about clearing the way, shoving and elbowing who she needs to without apology.

Your backpack gets tangled into someone's purse as you go along. It's nearly yanked from your back. Plumeria looks ready to fight someone as she whips around, but instead she roughly separates you from the other girl and continues on. The girl with the purse flips her off.

You reach the edge of the crowd, and Sweets is still working over her wrist, muttering "Please, please."

You strain your eyes, looking back, but between the people, the dark, and the commotion, you can't make out Guzma or see what's happening.

A voice shouts your name - a familiar voice that's barley keeping it's calm - Mother.

Lusamine is making her way towards you, as are her men. They're spreading out, trapping you between them, and the water.

Plumeria joins Sweets in begging her over-sized watch for a miracle.

As for you, there's so many thoughts running through your head at once that it's impossible to think coherently. This music, which had seemed so pleasant before, is now only adding to the turmoil of the situation.

It's like whiplash. You were so content just moments before, and now there's a nightmare marching towards you from all sides - pure white jailers here to drag you back to your prison, and do worse to Nebby.

"Come on, come on," Sweets pleads with her wrist.

Mother's face wavers between outrage and compassion, the effect of which just makes the situation all the more horrifying. You feel immobile.

But then her eyes fall on Sweets. "You," she says. "You're the one, aren't you? The one who hacked our surveillance? Their little techie." Her face twists into a snarl. "None of this would have happened without you. You've been a real thorn in my side, haven't you?"

Sweets device makes an odd noise - a beep that sounds almost like confirmation. She smiles at Lusamine. "Die mad about it."

Something large descends from the sky, landing between the three of you and all the Aether associates, driving them back, including mother.

Sweets newly called ride Charizard bends low, allowing you, Sweets, and Plumeria to climb aboard.

It takes off, and you watch mother's disbelieving face grow smaller and smaller.

Chapter Text

Guzma supposed it wasn't hard to find them, even in this huge crowd of people on the beach. The other concert goers had given them a wide berth, so that there was a buffer between the partying Team Skull members, and everyone else. He couldn't necessarily blame them, given their reputation, but it did make them stick out. It made surrounding them easy.

Maybe he shouldn't have done this. Maybe it was a mistake to let his guard down and allow them to have a day of less stress, but regrets weren't going to help the situation at hand anyway.

And at least she got away.

If he's caught, what would happen to him? Maybe any potential that might have existed between them is over before it could even evolve into anything more.

Aether employees are drawing closer. Most of the grunts have ceased any partying, turning to him for what to do next.

Liam's distracted with Ethan. The two of them look rather oblivious as they dance close together, one dressed almost entirely in black, and one in white. Liam's just leaning in toward Ethan when a cold voice interrupts them.

"You want to explain what you're doing, Ethan?" Lusamine shouts above the music.

Ethan instantly breaks apart from Liam, looking embarrassed. He backs away from him, toward Lusamine.

Liam nearly says something, but instead he closes his mouth and stands beside Guzma. "Whatchu thinkin', boss?"

He doesn't answer yet. It's just Guzma, Liam, and a handful of grunts against Lusamine and her employees. They're outnumbered.

"I think," Lusamine says, approaching him. "That you've forgotten who's lapdog you are."

"What kinda dog are you, boss?" Liam jokes. "I'm definitely some kinda lab."

"If he's smart, he's the kind of dog that knows not to bite the hand that feeds him." Lusamine looks nearly manic. Her face has the same calm is usually does, but her gestures are frantic and her hair is uncharacteristically out of place. She was used to always getting what she wanted, and this ordeal of chasing down her hostage only to have her escape time and time again seemed to be doing a number on her.

Was he still her lapdog? Was that what he'd really been this entire time? She obviously was going to use her support as leverage in some kind of last ditch effort... did that matter? Could they do without her? They'd never really come to a final conclusion on anything.

His silence must betray his confliction, because Lusamine smiles wide and victoriously. "I knew you weren't that stupid. Turn the girl and the Pokemon over to me now, and we'll pretend this never happened. You want your little band of delinquents to be provided for?" Her expression turns menacing. "Then heel."

This was it: a decision had to be made right now, right this moment. The girl or the team. Could he choose both?

He'd have to find out.

"Keep your fucking money. I'm no one's dog," he tells her.

Lusamine's face goes blank. "Well, you can be caged until you behave."

"What, like you did to that girl? The one you called your daughter?" He's not just arguing with her, he's trying to stall. How could they get out of this without grunts getting caught?

Some of the Aether employees shuffle awkwardly at his last sentence. Guzma notices a woman standing beyond Lusamine. She's dressed in a pink sweater beneath her Aether whites. She looks uncomfortable and worried. He'd seen her around before. She'd held one of the three keycards with access to the girl's room - Wicke. What did her having a keycard mean? Maybe she was a possible ally in all this.

"You don't know what you're talking about," Lusamine mutters. "Where did she go?"

"Ain't sayin' shit." Guzma crosses his arms. He notes the relieved look on Wicke's face.

"Guess we'll just have to bring the mutts in for questioning," Lusamine says, making some kind of gesture with her hand.

Her employees move closer. He's out of time for a distraction, but they aren't going down without a fight. They might be outnumbered, but he doubts any of them have even half the scrappiness of his team.

"You know what I'm thinkin', Liam?"

Liam moves behind him so they're standing back-to-back. "What's that, boss?"

"They're about to find out my bark is just as bad as my bite."

Liam looks over his shoulder at him incredulously. "That's whatchu got? That's your big line? Boss, that sucked."

Guzma takes a swing at an employee. He backs away from Guzma, looking very unnerved. Fighting a gang leader was probably not in the job description. Plus, it was far different taking him on while he's surrounded by said gang, vs when he was alone on the docks of Melemele. "You got a better one?"

"How 'bout fuck the dog puns." Liam shoves away an Aether assailant.

Guzma grabs hold of another frightened looking opponent and tosses him into a group of incomers. "Puns? Aren't they idioms?"

Lusamine and Wicke are retreating back through the crowd, away from the action. Ethan looks like he's searching the ground for something.

Around them Team Skull grunts and Aether employees clash. He was right - Lusamine had numbers on them, but what did a bunch of supposed conservationists know about fighting? Many were afraid to approach the grunts, and the ones that did, were swiftly beaten back. Still, the sooner they got out of here, the better.

Especially since the crowd is now dissolving into pure pandemonium at the outbreak of multiple fights. There's shouts and people running as the beach begins to clear. Onstage the music comes to an abrupt halt. How long until the police are called? There was no Nanu here to back them up either. It was obvious who's side law enforcement would take.

Liam kicks an employee square in the chest, sending him backwards. "Puns, idioms, whatever! You know what? I ain't a dog, I'm a cat. So leave me outta your bad lines. Fuckin' meow and shit."

"Well, it ain't like I had time to rehearse here!" Distracted with their arguing, a braver employee lands a punch on his jaw. He recovers quickly. These guys really are at a disadvantage here - they seem too afraid to hit hard or fight dirty.

Guzma, however, is not. He clocks the employee upside the head, sending him retreating. Afterwards he shakes out his hand. The cut across his palm might be doing better than it had been a couple days ago, but it still stung.

"If I don't make it, you ain't writin' my eulogy!" Liam swings one of them around by the arm into another.

"Nobody's makin' funeral preparations tonight anyway!" He shoves an employee towards Liam, who in turn throws him to the ground.

There's flashing lights now. Police probably wouldn't be far off for a big event like this. They've got to take advantage of the frenzied crowd while they can. "Eyy!" Guzma yells above the ruckus. "Scatter! Get the fuck outta here!"

The grunts do not have to be told twice. Immediately they drop whatever fights they're engaged with, and blend into the retreating crowd. He could only hope they had enough sense to regroup later somewhere safe. It was hard to be much of a leader in this kind of chaos.

He and Liam run back up toward to resort, avoiding anyone in a uniform - Aether or otherwise.

Liam laughs. "We shoulda fought them a while ago, boss! Did ya see em? Some of them white pants might be lookin' a little yellow now."

Guzma can't help but smile back. He might be panicked, and he might be fleeing, but he also feels like an animal that's been set free. Sure, maybe they could have taken them before, but they also had so much to lose if they did. Now, they've already lost it. Madam Prez could take all of her money and all of the strings that came with it and shove it right up her ass. If he was her lapdog, he was tame no longer. Okay, so he wasn't very good at these lines.

But this wasn't a time to celebrate his split from Aether - they've got to make it out of here and get to Poni Island. He glances at his watch. It's late, but if they hurry, they can catch the last ferry out.

They tear through the sand and up onto the cement path back toward the city, past confused concert goers and bewildered resort staff. He's feeling pretty lucky, until Liam pulls him down behind a parked car. The beam of a flashlight passes over the space above them. When it's gone, he carefully peers around the car to see two Heahea City police officers.

The crowd has unfortunately thinned out around this part. He's not sure they can move without getting caught. The best they can hope for, is that they just walk past them.

"Officers!" a woman's voice says.

Guzma's blood runs cold. Would whoever this is point them out?

"Officers, if I could just have a word?"

He dares another look over the hood of the car, following the voice until he sees Wicke beckoning the two policemen towards her. Was she... distracting them?

She glances nervously at the car. She was - she was on their side in all this!

He stands and shares the briefest pointed look with her; it's all the gratitude that can be given in their time crunch.

"What are you doing?" Liam whispers.

Guzma nudges the beanie on his head. "Get up, kitty cat, we got a boat to catch."

~~~

"Um, Sweets," Plumeria yells, trying to be heard over the wind whipping past the three of you. "This is not the right direction!"

"I know!" she answers, quickly looking back at the two of you. "Something's wrong!"

You're between each of them, clutching tight to Sweets. It's awkward with a seat that was clearly meant for one person. Not to mention the Charizard seems to have some difficulty flying with three people... and apparently it's also flying not to Poni Island, but somewhere else.

Part of you wishes you could enjoy the sights you're seeing below you and the fact that you're actually riding a Pokemon, but with that new information in addition to your worry over Guzma and everyone left behind, all you can feel is anxious.

Sweets tries to fiddle with the device on her wrist, but she doesn't seem able to do much while in flight - hard to hold on and work at the same time.

There's land coming back into view down below.

"It's bringing us back to Ula'Ula!" Plumeria says.

"I'm trying to fix it! I just-"

"We shouldn't have left!"

"What else were we going to do?"

"Can't you talk to it?" you ask.

Sweets glances at you. "I can try, but they tend to take their orders from the pagers. We aren't its trainer, you know?"

She leans down as much as she's able to toward the Charizard's head. "Hey! We need to go to Poni! Can you hear me? Please take us to Poni Island!"

It gives an annoyed sounding growl and jerks a shoulder upwards, trying to get her to back off.

Sweets sits up, looking disconcerted. So far you'd mostly seen her so confident. If she's this worried, then so were you.

The ground underneath has now turned sandy and vast, expanding endlessly for miles - it's a desert. Worse still, is that the Charizard seems to be descending.

"Hey! Hey, hey, hey!" Plumeria pats the side of the Pokemon. "Please don't drop us here, come on!"

Sweets tries once more with her watch, but there's no effect. Then it begins to emit a high pitched noise.

The Charizard roars.

"Shit!" Sweets yells.

It dives down faster, the ground approaching at an alarming rate, until it angrily lands in the sand.

You try to get your bearings, your body adjusting to suddenly no longer being in the air and in motion.

No one leaves the Charizard's back.

"We can't stay here!" Sweets says. "Please!"

It gives another growl and shakes its back lightly in warning, urging you to disembark.

Sweets device continues to wail.

"What the fuck do we do?!" Plumeria asks.

Sweets taps at the device, then shakes her head. "We get off. It's not going to take us anywhere else without a pager. Just let me fix this and we'll call another."

Plumeria looks caught between panic and rage. Reluctantly, she slides off the Pokemon's back. You and Sweets follow.

The Charizard takes off once more, this time, with no passengers.

The three of you stand quietly in the sand, watching it leave.

You find it hard to feel much beyond "tired" at this point. Of course something went wrong - why wouldn't it?

You try to shake away your bitterness. Plumeria already seems like she's none too pleased, and Sweets looks frazzled. You don't know what use you can be in this situation, but adding to the moody cloud that's descending on your little group won't help.

You shiver. You might be in a desert, but with the sun long set and the winds is fairly chilly.

Sweets sighs and tries to smooth down her hair - it's just as out of sorts as she is after the flight here.

Plumeria collapses onto the sand, sitting with her legs out in front of her and her head in her hands.

"Plumes," Sweets says softly.

Plumeria waves a hand dismissively. "I just - I just need a minute."

Sweets turns to you then and musters a reassuring smile. "It's gonna be okay."

You nod, trying to return the smile.

"Is it?" Plumeria says in a tone you can't quite read. Was she angry? It feels like there's a tension brewing. All day long she'd been so cautious, only to have everything she feared come to pass.

"Are you alright?" you ask her.

She looks up at you, her eyebrows knit together and her expression pained. She inhales and begins to speak, but stops, shaking her head.

"What is it?" Sweets asks.

"What do you think it is?" Plumeria says. She sounds as if she's trying to hold back from sounding too cruel. "We just lost everything, and I don't even know where everyone's going to end up."

What was it you'd been told about Plumeria? Guzma had called her the "Big Sis" of the group. It seems to be a title she takes very seriously. You note the worry in her features - for all the distaste everyone has for Team Skull, they sure cared a lot about one another, and perhaps Plumeria cared most of all. You can't help but wonder if anyone had ever worried about you like that. They might be cobbled together, but they're every bit the family you never had.

And how was it they were now so troubled?

A wave of guilt hits you. You kneel down in the sand in front of Plumeria. "I'm - I'm so sorry. None of this would have happened if-"

"Girlie, I don't blame you. Well, not really anyway." She smiles at you weakly. "That Guzma's a prime idiot, huh? I told him he should have kept you hidden."

You don't answer. It's true that maybe your Akala adventure wasn't the best idea, but it was hard to regret it.

Plumeria's eyes go to the ground before meeting yours again. "I did consider bringing you right over to Lusamine for a half a second."

You sit in the sand in front of her, blinking. You can't say that you're exactly surprised. Guzma had called you "one of us," but you'd suspected Plumeria might feel differently ever since Po Town.

"It's nothing against you," Plumeria continues. "This is my family and it's the only one I've got. Can you blame me?"

"No," you admit. And you can't. You get the impression that she feels responsible for everyone's well being, which can't be an easy thing to shoulder. "But you didn't. Why?"

"Do you know where most of Team Skull comes from? So many of us are dropouts, either from the island challenge, or school, or whatever. Some of us were kicked out of homes, abandoned or," she gives you a half smile, "ran away. You wanted to escape your mom, right? So you did what you had to to get out of there? Well, me too. And-"

"And maybe," Sweets says, plopping down with the two of you, "we could always use another sister."

Plumeria gives a small laugh. "We do have a habit of taking in strays."

You smile cautiously. At least Plumeria is coming around to you. Once again, you are genuinely happy that Guzma broke into your room - that it's Team Skull you've aligned with. So much was missing for you trapped in that room, and family, blood or otherwise, was one of them. If nothing else comes of this stressful adventure, you'll be glad, at least, for this odd clan that you're beginning to really feel part of.

"You know, Plumes," Sweets says. "You don't always have to have all the answers - I sure don't." She tosses her watch on the sand in front of her. "Haven't fixed those phones yet either."

Plumeria pulls her knees to her chest. "Yeah, well, it's just easier if I do always have them."

"You worry a lot, don't you?" you ask.

She shrugs. "They don't call me 'Big Sis' for nothing."

Sweets gently kicks Plumeria's shoe. "Don't worry about this one, okay? This I can fix. I just need... some time." Her face falls.

"Guess we put a lot on you, too, huh?" Plumeria tells her. "You got multiple roles - You're our salon and IT department all rolled into one."

Sweets recovers, her face splitting into a wide grin. "Yeah, but hey! There's nothing I'm more interested in. You won't get anyone better at either. Probably."

Plumeria looks at you curiously. "What do you like, girlie? What are your interests?"

You find that you're taken aback by the question. Interests? Your interests were limited to what mother had allowed you to experience. Could you even be confident that you really like what you like when there's so much you've yet to see? Really there's a lot that you question of yourself now that you're out of your cage. There's so much of you still left to discover.

"She likes the boss!" Sweets teases.

"I- uh" you stammer. You're not sure how to follow that up. You do like Guzma, but talking about it feels... so awkward.

Plumeria playfully rolls her eyes. "Yeah, they weren't exactly hiding that one."

You feel your cheeks start to burn.

Sweets looks at you with mock seriousness. "What are your intentions with our boss?"

How do you answer that, even jokingly? "Uh-"

"Her intentions won't matter if we're lost in the desert." Pumeria sighs.

You sigh too, grateful the subject has been switched - even if the new subject is a little depressing. Imagine dying out here after everything you've been through? You look off in the distance for something, anything.

And this time, you get lucky.

"What's that?" You point. There are what appear to be white tents far ahead of you - at least three or four of them, but it's hard to tell from back here.

Sweets stands and squints. "That, is hopefully our ticket out of the desert!"

Plumeria gets to her feet and dusts the sand from herself. "Good eye, girlie." She offers you a hand.

~~~

Guzma and Liam had only just made it on the last ferry to Poni Island. The attendant was closing the window when they rushed up. She regarded them, and their Team Skull attire with scrutiny. He was now out twice what the tickets should cost after bribing her, but at least they were on the boat.

They stand at the back of it, watching Akala shrink.

"Sucks we ain't got ride pagers," Liam says. "Hope Sweets' watch thing actually works. She's been tryin' to figure that one out forever. Ya know, gettin' it to be a ride pager?"

Guzma nods absentmindedly as he leans over the railing. His previous feelings of vindication over Lusamine are giving way to an avalanche of concerns. Had everyone made it off Hano Beach? Could they figure out what to do without either him or Plumeria around? Had that ride Charizard worked out? How ruthless would Lusamine get now?

Liam continues rattling off about... something. He's too lost in thought to listen.

He looks down at his hand. Once again, the bandage is dirty. He runs his own thumb under the cut in the same spot where she'd done the same. What he'd give for some of that right now - it was an effective destressor. There's so much about her that's both comforting and exciting. It's... different to see Alola with her. To her, everything is new and worth exploring. It's like there's a wonderment on these islands he'd forgotten about until she came along. There's more he'd like to show her if he can.

If she wants. And he's sure she does. He fights back a stupid grin at the thought. They'd definitely gotten a little closer on the beach.

But there was still the question of if that's a good idea or not.

He doesn't register anything Liam says until, "So, you and new girl."

Guzma shakes his head like he's been brought out of a stupor. "What?"

"Ha, that got your fuckin' attention." Liam elbows him. "So, you and new girl."

"So what?"

"That a thing now?"

Guzma scratches at the back of his neck. "I dunno."

"Sure looked like you did."

"Yeah, what about you and Eas-"

Liam gives him an exasperated look.

"Ethan," he corrects himself.

Liam sighs. "Someday. Maybe after all this bullshit. It'll work out though."

"And how do you know that?"

"I don't. I just have faith - or, I'm tryin' to."

"What, faith that you'll actually get together?"

"Faith that it'll work out how it's supposed ta."

Guzma huffs. "Well, that's a new one for you."

"I think, uh," Liam shrugs and looks out at the water. "I think I spent enough time bein' bitter."

Guzma doesn't know what to say. In a way, bitterness over failed relationships had been something they'd bonded over in the past. Relationships weren't something he'd had an easy time with, and Liam's history had been even rougher. He hadn't seen Liam serious over anyone in years. He wasn't even sure he was serious about Ethan until this conversation.

"I don't... really know Ethan all that well yet, but I want to. There's just somethin' about them glasses I guess," he says smiling. "For the first time in a long time, I just feel open to the possibility of things, ya know?"

Guzma nods. How well does he know this girl? Not half as much as he finds he wants to.

"So, you and new girl."

"How many times are you gonna say that?"

"Till I get an answer."

"What's it matter? We find out where she comes from, and she might go back. Or we don't and - and she's gonna find a lot better out there than me." How could it not work out that way? What did he have to offer? Just a gang leader, right? Good for nothing and always has been.

"Ya know what your fuckin' problem is?" Liam says.

Guzma rolls his eyes. "Here we go." He doesn't mean it half as sarcastic as it comes out. Serious Liam is a rare occurrence, and not a side he lets many people see. He's grateful that he's one of the few to witness it.

"Yeah, yeah, here we go. And you're gonna fuckin' listen. Your problem is you don't think you’re worthy of anythin'."

"What? That's not-"

"Ya don't, do ya?"

At the very least, he doesn't feel worthy of any happiness - and yeah, that included her. But saying that aloud? Feels like admitting a weakness he's not ready to. "Liam-"

"An' what's that go back to, huh?"

"Thought you majored in architecture. Not psychology."

Liam ignores him. "Your parents, right? Everybody's boy but your dad's."

What could he say to that? He was right. Guzma looks out at the water.

"I get it," Liam says. "My dad ain't exactly happy with me either."

That Guzma knew. It was hard to find anyone in Team Skull with happy backgrounds. For many people that included disappointed parents.

Liam continues. "Think the former champ of Unova wanted his son out there bein' gay and doin' crimes? Nah."

Guzma still refuses to engage in the conversation. His parents rejection doesn't affect every aspect of his life like that. At least, he doesn't think so.

"But, you don't have to fix it or forgive it... saying 'fuck it' is also an option."

He finally looks at Liam. "I do say 'fuck it.' Been doing that for years. I don't give a shit what they think anymore."

"Yeah, I don't think so, boss. I was there when you saw that house. I mean, I know somethin' like that would be hard for anyone, but you can't act like you don't walk around all hunched over all the time. Like you're ashamed of yourself. Like you still owe them somethin'."

Guzma reflexively stands straighter. "My posture's got nothin' to do with it."

Liam looks him in the eye. "You don't owe them anything. Not a damn thing. Not even a reason to be proud."

Guzma's shoulders slump back down, some of his father's words coming back to him. "Don't we all owe them that. They fed us, put a roof over our heads - all that. Aren't we supposed to try?" Each of his failures had been met with that argument. His father did this for him, his father did that for him, so why couldn't Guzma do XYZ? When he couldn't succeed, when he wasn't enough, when he couldn't make them proud, he felt like a burden. Like every dime spent on him, and every hour spent with him was a waste.

"Nah," Liam says. "They sign up for that shit when they have a kid. You were alive. You were theirs. That should have been enough to be proud. You don't have to earn your right to exist as their kid."

Guzma deflates, leaning on the railing again.

Liam leans beside him. "And so, we say 'fuck it.' And mean it."

"Like I ain't been trying that." And he really thought he had been.

"Takes practice, boss! Ya just... ya gotta keep at it. Every time you're all 'oh dad would think this' or 'dad would say that,' you tell that voice to 'shut the fuck up' because he just don't fuckin' matter."

Guzma looks over at Liam and shakes his head, chuckling. "You're so damn odd, you know that? Always acting like a clown up until you wanna dispense some wisdom you pulled out of your ass."

"Ey, what can I say? I like makin' people laugh." Liam shrugs. "I've seen... a lotta darkness, so if I can be a light for someone else, I'm gonna, even if it means doin' stupid shit sometimes. Think it helps havin' people who appreciate that light you're tryin' to give off."

"Ethan included?" Guzma knew one of Liam's problems in relationships was trying to be with people who didn't quite "get" him and his sense of humor.

Liam grins. "Gonna find out."

"What's his deal anyway? Why stick with Aether?"

"Eh, he's sorta beholden to some contracts... but also I think he's hopin' things are gonna fix themself as far as Lusamine's concerned. See, he really likes Aether - at least what they say they are publicly. He's into conservation and shit. He's a vegetarian even! And he thought that maybe he could use all that nerd stuff he's good at to help Pokemon. He used to really look up to Madam Prez too. Never meet your heroes, right?"

"Well, maybe he'll come around."

"Here's hopin'. And here's hopin' things work out with your girl too."

He huffs. There's no telling how that'll end, but in the meantime he'd do his best to believe he's worthy of her and any happiness he can find - it beat telling himself he isn't.

Guzma watches the waves the ferry makes as it cuts through the water. "We'll see."

~~~

You, Sweets, and Plumeria trudge through the night and sand towards the tents. But, now that you're closer, there's something about the setup that's... familiar.

You can't quite put your finger on it until Sweets says, "It's an abandoned Aether outpost."

All the white should have given it away, but sure enough, everything here is Aether - and it looks like it was left in a hurry. In addition to the tents, there's supplies, a fire pit, food, water containers, and even some tech all left sitting in the sand.

Plumeria looks around, confused. "Why would-"

"Wormhole research," Sweets says.

"The day I left," you mutter, putting the pieces together. "Mother was going to be out in Haina Desert for three days. They must have abandoned all this when she found out I was missing."

"Well, you know what they say about one madwoman's trash," says Sweets, dusting sand off a screen and some sort of console.

Was that what mother was? Mad? Crazy? And had you driven her to that? You try to push the thoughts away, but it's difficult when you can see the Aether Foundation insignia - mother's insignia - emblazoned on everything.

 

Before long, the three of you sit around the fire pit. There's now a large, bright fire burning at its center, thanks to Plumeria's Salazzle. It curls around her contentedly, as Plumeria pets its head with one hand. Her phone sits in the other, sending out text after text, attempting to track down the grunts who'd been on the beach.

Sweets tinkers with various gadgets, including her watch, Liam and Guzma's phones, and some things she'd found around the camp.

You stare into the flames, thinking. Nebby's bag sits by your feet.

When you can't stand to be alone with your thoughts anymore, you break the silence. "You think Lusamine's crazy?"

Sweets hands freeze over her watch.

"Some kind of unstable anyway," Plumeria says, still tapping away at her phone. Then she looks up at you. "Do you care if she is? I mean, she kept you a prisoner for years."

You fiddle with the strap of Nebby's bag. "I don't know. So often she was the only person I talked to. She - she had a reason for all she did."

"Yeah, we know about the family thing." Plumeria sets her phone down. "Listen, I know your feelings might be kinda mixed on this, but I can't stand her. Everything we had to do for her support? Nah, she can kiss my ass."

"But, you did those things she asked of you for your family, right?" Was Lusamine completely wrong for all she'd done? What would you have done in her situation? Or maybe you're just trying to justify her actions because... you're not sure. Because she's still "mother" to you.

"Yes," Plumeria says slowly. "But there's, like, a limit. I wouldn't hold someone prisoner and chase them all over Alola. I don't think so, anyway."

Sweets watches you carefully. "You get that her keeping you there was wrong, right? It's not your fault that wormhole stuff happened. Besides, that's not how a 'mother' should treat a daughter."

You shrug. "I've... never seen any different."

"I have," Sweets says. "I mean, sort of. My parents? They left me with my grandmother when I was real little. I basically grew up in her salon - learned everything I know there, no beauty school needed. Grandma was awesome; she didn't give a fuck what anyone thought. I tried to pick that up from her too and I think I succeed. Well, most of the time." She laughs.

You imagine a young Sweets in a hair salon sweeping up hair and spinning in styling chairs as she plays handheld games. What would it have been like to not be trapped in a room for all those years? To have a parent that didn't blame you for her misfortunes, but instead taught you things?

Sweets continues. "I was a picky eater when I was a kid, but I really liked sugar. She called me 'Sweet Tooth' and I kept the name. She didn't even think that was weird; she was just happy I chose it because of her." Sweets smiles to herself. "She was pretty patient and accepting of everything. Except the unnatural hair colors - had to learn how to best do those on my own. She was fine with me trying whatever I wanted until I found stuff that fit, but purple hair was where she drew the line."

"But you still have purple hair," you say, watching as Sweets twirls a strand around her fingers.

"Yeah, well, we had to agree to disagree on some things. But it wasn't ever over who I was as a person, or things like if I should be allowed to leave my room."

It felt strange to hear someone talk about a parental figure without also including a background of anguish. Between your own confusing feelings, Guzma's parents, and the scraps you've heard of others, like Plumeria's, resentment seemed to almost be part of the deal. But there was still something about the wistful way Sweets speaks about her grandmother. "What happened to her?" you ask.

"She died," Sweets says. "And the salon went with her - everything did. I was on my own, and now? Now I'm here, but," she gives you a reassuring grin, "we get by. We make it work."

Plumeria sighs. "Get by? And how are we supposed to do that now?"

"We did it before," Sweets argues.

"But what about-" Plumeria looks away, like she's unsure she should say her next words.

"What? Hormones and stuff?" Sweets holds up her watch and tools. "Plumes, don't worry about it. I can reprogram this thing to be a ride pager, I can spy on Aether, I can do your outrageous hair - you think I can't figure this one out? I have my ways."

Plumeria looks only slightly relieved.

And you still feel slightly guilty. "You - you all will be alright? Without Lusamine?"

Sweets nods. "Madam Prez might have made stuff easy, but she doesn't have to be the answer. We'll stick together! We've all got things we can do - coding pays a pretty penny sometimes. I believe in our Skull family."

Plumeria finally gives in, and smiles. "If you say so, Sweets."

If you'd never passed through a wormhole - if you'd never wound up with mother - how different would your life have been? What was your "real" family like? Would you have had a happy childhood like Sweets? Or is it possible it could have been worse than it already had been? The question that had persistently followed you for as long as you can remember reasserts itself: who are you?

"So, about those flutes," you start.

"Speaking of which, let me see that tablet," Sweets says.

You retrieve Ethan's tablet from Nebby's bag, confused. "What does that have to do with the flutes?"

Sweets takes it from you and turns it on, flipping through the contents. "I have a hunch about something."

You glance down at Nebby, still unresponsive in your backpack. It's true that at the very least it stays in the bag now, but you kind of miss its mischief. When you got a chance, you'd have to try to figure out what you could do to help it too.

"Thought so," Sweets says, looking at you from over the top of the tablet, eyes sparkling.

"What?" Plumeria seems unprepared for any more surprises.

Sweets turns the tablet around to show you the screen. There's an email account open - an email account belonging to GadgetGuy42. "Ethan's been chasing the flutes."

 

Sweets stayed up late trying to get her watch to function as a ride pager once more, but exhaustion was wearing her thin. She seemed to feel guilty and a little bewildered over her inability to find a quick fix to either the watch or the phones. Trying to clear her mind, she pours over Ethan's tablet for a while, but the only new information she can find is that he's scheduled a trip to Exeggutor Island a few days from now.

Was he searching for the flutes for Lusamine? If so, you've got to beat him there.

But Sweets is starting to seem worked beyond her capacity. Given the camp you've found, you decided to spend the night, hoping rest will help.

Rest isn't coming easy for you though. You can hear a noise outside your tent. You toss and turn, until you finally give in and investigate.

You pull back the flap of the tent and follow the noise. It's a strange sound, almost like a croaking. Probably a Pokemon of some kind. You admit that you might be okay with getting up to see a creature that you haven't before.

It doesn't take long to find it. There's a reptilian looking Pokemon sitting upon one of the machines. It squats lazily on the console, a screen and some sort of receiver behind it. You recognize it as a Sandile. It lets out the odd noise at intervals, breathing in and letting it out like clockwork.

You notice something on the screen then. Had it been working before? Had Sweets investigated this one? You read the message across it: 3 missed calls.

Calls? From who? Maybe the camp wasn't as abandoned as you thought. What if mother knows you’re here? Was that possible?

The screen changes. Incoming call.

You slowly approach, wondering if you should answer it or not.

The Sandile makes the decision for you. When you draw too close, it hisses and scurries off the console.

It must have hit a button because the screen changes again. Receiving call.

You hold your breath.

Mother's face appears on screen. And she looks... so different. There's bags under her eyes and her hair has lost its luster. Her face reads tired and defeated, even as she seems mildly surprised that her call went through. She holds a receiver to her head and blinks.

Can she see you? You notice a little camera and a red dot of light on the monitor. Lusamine stares straight ahead, then she turns her head slightly in a confused way. Her hand appears and she beckons you forward. She can see you.

Your options run through your mind. You could just ignore this and go back to your tent. You could wake the others. You could try to disconnect the call. You could... talk to her. She looks as if the fight has left her. All the manic determination has been replaced with exhaustion.

You slowly walk towards the console. This was still mother and while you don't know what that should mean to you, you do know that there's something compelling you to pick up that phone.

So you do.

"Surprising," Lusamine says flatly. "I was notified that someone was using the equipment at the Haina camp - there was so much we had to leave behind. It seemed like such an impossibility that it would be you, and yet I thought I'd try. Mother's intuition I suppose."

"We didn't exactly come on purpose," you mutter. The relative calmness of this conversation is frightening to you, but you aren't sure why.

Lusamine watches you in silence for a moment. Then she inhales deeply and says your name. "I can't convince you to come home. Chasing you hasn't worked - you've escaped every time. None of the thugs will listen... so now I'll try a different approach. You think I've lied to you about how awful this world can be? How I've been trying to protect you from it? Then, I guess you'll just have to find out for yourself."

"Mothe-"

"You trust him - Guzma? I've worked with him for some time now. I don't trust him, and this whole ordeal is proof that I was right. Now, it's time for your proof." She moves around, fidgeting with objects off screen.

Something materializes on a tray in front of you - a strange looking Pokeball.

"That's an ultra beast; one of the few we have. It's a bug type, just like he wants. You want to see the truth? Give him that."

You pick up the ball from the tray and stare at it. You glance back up at Lusamine. Yes, she might look beaten, and yes that might have taken you off guard, but now different feelings are reemerging - ones of anger and hurt. "I will!" you tell her. She'd be wrong. She doesn't know him - or any of them - at all. You're sure of that.

Lusamine's face doesn't change. "And we'll be there to collect you after." The screen goes blank.

You set the receiver down and turn the ball over in your hand. Would you really give it to him? You tried to remember the last things he'd said about ultra beasts. It would be fine if you gave it to him. Right? Should you tell Plumeria and Sweets?

You return to your tent, thoughts circling.

Until you decide, you'll keep it hidden in Nebby's bag.

Chapter Text

Poni. Sweets had said "Poni," right? So, where were they? It's true that so far they've only searched around Seafolk Village and its outskirts, but it seems unlikely they'd go anywhere else. Most of the island is unsettled and wild; people coming to it by any means start here.

So here Guzma and Liam stay. The village was the most likely meetup spot, and going too far from it could mean being missing when they do arrive. But as hour after hour passes, Guzma grows more antsy. Had they missed them somehow? Did they wind up elsewhere? Did they go to Exeggutor Island already? ... Had something gone wrong?

Having no way of contacting them is not helping the stress this situation is inducing.

They search a while longer, asking unhelpful passerby if they've seen three girls, but there's no new clues. The station that ferries people to and from Exeggutor Island is closed, and not even the nurse in the Pokemon Center they decide to stay in has seen anything. It's now the wee hours of the morning, and they've run out of ideas on what to do.

Liam's sprawled out on a bench and snoring, as Guzma sits, elbows on his knees and chin resting on his intertwined fingers. He runs through a million possibilities in his head, and none of them are good. Two of his best friends gone missing as well as his... whatever he should call her, and all he can do is sit here and worry. What if they never show up? What if Lusamine had somehow captured them? He feels frustrated and useless. Anxiety had never been something he'd coped with well.

With sleep eluding him, he continues to turn over a multitude of thoughts in his head - thoughts of her, thoughts of the beach, of the things Liam had said, and his own doubts and worries. Maybe he could tell himself that the two of them together is a possibility, and that maybe she'd still want him after spending more time out in the world, but that wasn't the only thing he'd been questioning.

They're getting nearer to their goal now - one small trip to Exeggutor Island and they'd have the first flute. Track down the other, get to the alter, and then? Then maybe she's gone. Why would she stick around him and his cobbled together family of miscreants if she's got a real home to go back to? Most everyone in Team Skull comes from broken backgrounds, and the truth is, she might not be one of them.

Their journey and all they're doing might be bringing them to their parting. Even if he gives in, and continues to grow closer to her, he could still lose her.

And he's not sure he's prepared for that.

Maybe it hasn't been that long since they found her, but in just that short amount of time so much has changed. He's not even sure how he and Team Skull will proceed once this is all over. He supposed it would depend on exactly what happens and the likelihood of still obtaining any ultra beasts. To have everything upended, and then for her to be gone on top of that feels like too much. So maybe it was better to leave up the walls that had always guarded him.

Beside him on the bench Liam turns over in his sleep and his snoring ceases. Perhaps Liam is braver than he is with being "open to possibilities" as he'd put it. Guzma knows he's pretty closed off to most people - even those who know him well - but that had always felt less like cowardice and more like playing it safe until now.

Was it worth it to have the kind of faith Liam seems to be building with Ethan? Was having her for even a small amount of time better than never having her at all?

He sighs and puts his face in his hands. He never could have predicted any this happening when he walked into that room of hers. At the very least, they got her out of there.

He just hopes they haven't gotten her into some other kind of mess.

~~~

Sweets was the first to awaken.

After receiving the beast ball from mother, your sleep was troubled and not very deep. When you heard Sweets outside muttering in frustrated tones to herself, you knew you wouldn't be getting anymore shuteye. You reluctantly rise, glancing over at your bag and the ultra beast hidden within beside Nebby. Your small moments of sleep throughout the night had done nothing when it came to helping you decide what to do.

Lusamine didn't know Guzma - or any of them - at all. Right? You're sure she's wrong. Pretty sure. Still, your mind taunts you with everything Guzma had ever said about ultra beasts. You can still see the image of him considering going into that wormhole back on the docks of Melemele. What was it about these things that made people so irrational? Lusamine, her husband, and... possibly Guzma too - all of them chasing the beasts no matter the cost to one degree or another. Maybe he didn't actually follow through with passing into the portal, but that he gave it any thought at all is unnerving. If he had, who knows where he would have ended up - he might have been as good as dead. You find you're beginning to despise anything having to do with wormholes, even more than you had before.

Is it foolish to trust him? Are you as naive as mother thinks you are if you do? You would like to fully trust him - all of them - and believe that you've got people on your side.

That you have a family.

You bring a hand to your face, your fingers lightly grazing your lips. You'd also like to believe that the growing connection you feel with him is everything you think it is. But that starts with trust, doesn't it?

But what if he's done with you if he gets all he wants?

No. No it's not like that. That was just mother getting to you.

Sighing, you grab the bag and strap it to your back. You're still undecided on what to do with the beast ball, but with the headache its giving you, you'll ignore its existence for now.

You hear Sweets curse outside and remember there might be more pressing things to worry about anyway.

Sweets is sitting by the long extinguished campfire with several devices in front of her. The sun is rising and the temperature along with it. Plumeria seems to still be sleeping.

"You alright?" you ask.

Sweets jumps in surprise, turning to face you. She'd been working on the watch she'd used as a ride pager earlier. Off to the side you can see both Guzma and Liam's phones and feel a stab of worry. You have no way of contacting them or vice versa. What were they thinking about the fact that you hadn't shown up on Poni Island?

Sweets plays with her hair distractedly, trying and failing to give you what seems to be a reassuring smile. "Oh, yeah, yeah, I'm fine. This is fine. Everything's... fine."

You sit beside her, eyes fixed on the phones and trying to shove away thoughts of Guzma fretting over your whereabouts. "You sure?"

Her shoulders slump. "No."

She seems utterly defeated. Had she even slept much? Once more you realize how disconcerting it is to see Sweets this way. All you've seen of her before the watch malfunction is someone who always seemed so happy and confident. This has knocked her for a loop and you wonder why. Well, besides the obvious that without a ride pager you're stuck in this desert.

"Anything I can do to help?" you offer.

She gives you a sad smile. "Nah. It's just that I'm not often this stumped, you know? And now the one time I am, I got us stranded."

"It's not your fault. You got us off that beach." You're not certain what to say to comfort her, but maybe if she could just calm down and think clearly she could figure this out. The blame she's assigning herself certainly doesn't seem be helping.

"Out of the frying pan and into the fire." She gestures to the sands around you. "Literally."

You swallow, trying to find the best thing to say. "But, you've done it before - calling a Charizard."

"That one time took me long enough to figure out. Now I also need to fix whatever went wrong."

Your eyes cross Ethan's tablet, and you remember all the ways Sweets has helped you along so far. "l know you can do it. I've already seen you do the impossible! I never would have been able to track down that flute on my own."

The corners of her mouth twitch up. "Thanks. It'll - it'll be okay. I'm just - it's like there's something blocking the answer in my head - something I can't move aside. And the more I try, the heavier whatever it is seems to become."

"So maybe don't try for a while?" you tell her. "Just forget for a bit."

Sweets shakes her head, her purple waves of hair swaying with the motion. "It just feels like there's no time."

Up above you the sun continues to grow brighter. The air around you is heating up with the day. At the very least, you do have shelter and supplies here. It's not ideal, given your lack of a way to reach Guzma and Liam, but there can be at least a little time. Maybe you could try to distract her for a bit. "You didn't happen to bring scissors, did you?"

Sweets looks at you quizzically. "What? Maybe. I'll check my bag. Why?"

You give her a hopeful smile. "Well, since I don't plan on going back to Aether, we don't have to worry about keeping my hair the same anymore. I'm thinking I could use a haircut."

Sweets' face splits into a wide grin. She stands, and makes for the tent she'd slept in, leaving the devices on the ground. "I'll see what I've got!

 

Sweets admits she doesn't have all the supplies she'd normally like to for styling your hair, but in the interest of distracting her for a while, you convince her to do it anyway. You sit, watching carefully cut hair fall to the ground as Sweets stands behind you. Now that she's no longer bent over her watch and panicking, she's back to her usual chipper self almost immediately.

Which seems to include pressing you about Guzma.

"So," she says as her fingers thread through your hair and she clips the ends, "the boss sure has warmed up to you."

You try to fight back the panicked and awkward feelings rising up your throat. It wasn't as if you'd had much opportunity to talk about or explore crushes hidden away in your room. Was that all this was then? A crush? "I-" you start.

Sweets laughs gently at the shakiness of your voice. "Hey, you don't have to talk about it if you don't want to. It's just... it's kinda nice is all. Can't remember the last time I saw him genuinely interested in someone."

Unsure what to say, you hum in agreement, listening to the repeated snipping of the scissors.

"Liam too for that matter," she continues. "The two of them were so dead set against relationships until this whole thing started - at least taking them seriously anyway."

"Why's that?" you ask.

Sweets sighs. "Eh, I think they both just needed to grow up a little. That and I guess get over some sour experiences."

Experiences? You know it wasn't Sweets' intention, but with just that one word, a new insecurity hits you: you really don't have any experience with anything like this. How much does Guzma have? Will he still be interested when he realizes it's all your first time with him? Is this all too far out of your depth? You find yourself wondering once more if mother's right.

Your silence seems to give away some of the inner turmoil this conversation is causing. Sweets cuts wordlessly, letting the moment hang before saying, "How do you feel about Guzma?"

You bite your lip, thinking. Like so many other things since you've left Aether, describing this is a new experience with unfamiliar emotions and words. "I think, more than anything, I just want to be part of something - especially with him. There's more I'd like to see and do and," you pause, inhaling and sighing, "and I can't imagine doing that with anyone else. I want to do it with him - with all of you."

You remember him smiling in the lights from the stage on the beach the night before; the way his eyes softened and the creases that formed at the corners. You think of his wide, lopsided grin as he gave into the music - and to you. There's a security in that smile. A familiarity you can cling to in world that would otherwise leave you lost at sea.

But it's not just that - it's that you'd also like to be that same kind of stability for him. You want to be there, like you had in the supply closet on the ferry. If he needed someone to lean on, you wanted it to be you. Not necessarily because no one else can fill that spot, but because you want to be around to know that he's... happy. You want to have a hand in that happiness, and let him have a hand in yours.

If he wants the same.

Sweets sets aside the scissors and runs her hands through your hair once more, checking her work. "If you're feeling some kind of way," she says, picking up a compact mirror and flipping it open, "then go for it! You're free now, right? New hair and everything, so no going back." She hands you the mirror. "So go live what you've been missing."

You turn to the mirror in your hand. The reflection that stares back at you is someone you don't recognize - in a good way. Your face looks so different out here in the sun compared to the florescence of your room. And your hair is definitely different from the way mother had forced you to keep it. It's shorter, flirty, and so much more you than it ever was before. Without constraints, you're slowly becoming the person you were meant to be.

You smile at the new you and then appreciatively up at Sweets.

She grins back before suddenly looking shocked.

"What?" you ask, worried that something's wrong.

But then she's back to fiddling with her watch. "I think I've got it!"

It's not long till a Charizard is descending on the camp, finally waking Plumeria in the process.

And after everything, you're on your way to Poni and Exeggutor Island.

~~~

Morning comes and still there is no sign of them. Guzma had manged broken sleep, never falling into too deep a slumber. Even while resting he felt on high alert for the sound of descending wings outside the Pokemon Center, but no Pokemon ever drops them off.

After grabbing a few things to eat at the cafe, Guzma and Liam sit outside the docks to the ferries, hoping that maybe now that they're running for the day, the girls will show up. He has to stop Liam - still groggy despite a full night of sleep - from nodding off and falling into the water multiple times.

If they don't appear soon, he'll have to think of another plan. Waiting this long with no answers and increasing anxiety has left him irritable and weary. "You fuckin' - you wanna just go back to the center and sleep, huh?" he snaps at Liam after pulling him back from the water a fifth time.

Liam rubs at his face and finally scoots away from the edge. "Jeez, boss, ya ain't gotta say it like that."

Guzma exhales roughly out his nose. "Got enough to worry about without savin' your ass from drowning."

"Ya gonna be this grumpy every time ya girl ain't around?"

"You know what? Changed my mind. Take a nap under the dock." He can't understand why Liam doesn't get it. Can't he see that any number of things could have happened to them? Maybe there's nothing he can do about that right this instant, but joking around won't help either.

Liam picks up a pebble and tosses it at him. "They're fine! Probably. Maybe."

"You got a strange way of comfortin' people, you know that?" Guzma sighs and puts his face in hands. For Liam he'd normally have a little more patience, but in this moment he'd happily fling him into the water.

Liam seems to finally relent, giving him a half smile woven with concern. "Ey, it's gonna be okay, boss. Plumes is with em! Like she'd ever let anythin' happen to one o' our own."

Guzma runs his hands down his face, grumbling.

"Ey," Liam says, making him look up. "They'll show."

Guzma doesn't respond. He hopes that whatever belief Liam has that things will turn out alright isn't misplaced.

"You're gettin' real caught up, aren't ya?" Liam says.

He knows he is, and he knows he's overthinking the situation - overthinking everything about her - but he's not about to say that. "No."

Liam flops backwards onto the dock. "Yeah, well, don't think I ain't worried about Ethan."

Guzma gives him a confused look. If Liam is concerned over Ethan, he's sure not showing it.

"Real anxious to get that phone working again," Liam says. "But, two things: Nothin' I can do about that now, so I ain't gonna sweat it too bad. An' two: Ethan's handled things so far, so I trust he can handle things now. The girls might be made o' stronger stuff than you're givin' em credit for. You just gotta have a little faith, ya know?"

There's that word again. Faith? He's got faith - faith that something will inevitably go wrong. What did Liam's faith get him so far?

There's a shadow above them - a Charizard descending.

Guzma's immediately on his feet. He raises a hand to his forehead, squinting up into the sun. There's three figures on the Pokemon's back. Maybe Liam did have a point.

"Ha! What'd I tell ya! I'm a fuckin' prophet!" Liam shouts.

The Pokemon lands ungracefully on the docks that are almost too narrow for it. The wood creaks beneath it. All three disembark, and then the Charizard is gone, as quick as it came, leaving the five of them reunited in an awkward silence.

"What," he starts, fully aware that his tone is more aggressive than he intends. He can't help but feel irritated that he'd been made to fret all night, but he's also so relieved to see all of them here standing in front of him. "What happened?"

"You sleep, boss?" Sweets says.

Guzma ignores the question. "Where have you been? I-"

She breaks from Sweets and Plumeria, moving towards him. He goes silent when she stands on tip-toe and wraps her arms around him.

He deflates and any anger he had left melts away. He places his hands on her back and pulls her close, grateful for the tangible confirmation that she's really here.

Plumeria crosses her arms and gives him an amused look. "We might have had a little ride pager trouble, but Sweets got it figured out."

"Were you worried?" she asks in his ear.

Guzma huffs. "What, me? Nah."

They break apart and he gets a good look at her for the first time since they landed. Something's different. "Sweets do your hair?"

Sweets grins at him. "You like it, boss? Did it just in time for a trip to Exeggutor Island, right?"

At Sweets last sentence her eyebrows knit together.

Right, getting to that island had been the first thing she'd asked him for back on Aether. It'd been the focus of the dreams she'd had. In some ways, it'd all led to this next short boat ride. Once they find what they're looking for there, she'd be closer than she's ever been to finding out her past.

"You ready for this?" he asks her.

She looks up at him, her smile unsure, but hopeful. "Been ready since I left that room."

Chapter Text

"You got a what?" Guzma says.

Liam shrugs. "Options were limited, boss!"

"And that was really the best choice, huh?"

Liam's face turns mischievous. "Guess you'll have to tell me later."

Guzma rolls his eyes. Maybe he should have known better than to leave this task up to Liam. Or maybe he should have known something was up when Liam offered to do it. He knew ferries to Exeggutor Island are infrequent as not many people go on a daily basis, but he didn't know they offered things like private boat rides there. Out of whatever options had been available, Liam had seen fit to rent what was essentially a floating hotel room for that afternoon.

He understands that Liam's trying to help him along and play his wing man, but with Lusamine no longer supporting them, their funds are surely dwindling. How much more expensive was this?

And how, exactly, was he going to explain this to her?

He considers going to the dock and making different arrangements, but decides not to. It doesn't have to be just to the two of them going anyway - even if that's obviously Liam's plan. That had become even more clear when Liam suddenly put a condom in his hand and refused to take it back.

But now the rest of them seem to be in on the scheme, with Sweets insisting she stay behind to work on finally fixing their phones, and Plumeria saying she wants to catch up with a friend named Mina.

So, when the afternoon approaches, Guzma boards the boat just him and her, feeling a little mortified at his friends' inability to be discrete.

He swallows and rubs at the back of his neck, watching her reaction as she walks into the small cabin after him.

She looks around a little wide-eyed at the single bed, desk, couple chairs, and a door leading to a bathroom. It's tiny, quaint, and clearly meant to be a private boat for couples to rent.

Guzma starts to sweat as he tries to explain. "I ain't- uh, so, we don't uh- I didn't do- Liam. This was Liam."

To his relief, rather than looking creeped out, she looks amused. "It's fine," she says, holding back laughter.

"You sure?" he asks, still feeling embarrassed. "I mean, if this is weird we could-"

She shakes her head. "I just want to get to that island, you know? This is a boat, it'll get us there - it's fine." Then her face falls as she concentrates on something.

"What?" Was she being truthful about this being alright? He doesn't want to make her feel unsafe or anything. He won't try anything... unless she wanted it. He winces, mentally trying to boot his own mind out of the gutter. Did Liam really have to try to rush things like this?

She looks up at him, eyebrows drawn together. "I've been waiting so long for this - years even - to get to this island. I just can't believe I'm finally doing it. But, what if we can't find the flute, or - or none of this turns out to be the answer?"

Guzma's hand finally leaves the back of his neck and drops to his side. He figures that finally moving closer to her goal after all this time must be just as scary as it is exciting. "It will be. We'll find the flute. We'll search all night if we gotta."

Did that make it more weird to admit they have the boat overnight? It was apparently the only way the boat could be rented. He silently curses Liam again.

But she doesn't make mention of that. Instead, she watches him carefully, a cautious smile on her lips. "And if it is? We find the flute and you'll - you'll still be around? You still want to help with this? Even after Lusamine? Even if there's no ultra beasts?"

He can't beat back the twinge he fees in his chest at the verbal confirmation that she wants him around. "Doll, I'm here no matter what."

She huffs, her grin turning wide as she sets her bag down on the desk. "Good to know."

He resists the urge to cross over to her and embrace her, kiss her - whatever she'd want. That was a boundary they'd already crossed on Hano Beach, but he can't sort if he should do it now, and it feels too awkward to ask. What had that kiss meant anyway? Was it just a kiss? A sign of something more? He's still not sure "something more" is even wise. Instead his hand returns to his undercut as he asks, "Should we get goin'?"

 

Exeggutor Island is small - so small in fact, that Guzma can nearly see all the way across it from where they've docked. The island is uninhabited except for the numerous Exeggutor that stomp around; gentle giants ignoring their presence. The greenery is lush and thick after years and years of being allowed to grow unattended. It's beautiful and wild, and they have it to themselves.

Guzma surveys it all in the afternoon sun, raising a hand above his eyes to shield them. His fingers bump into his sun glasses and he suddenly feels a little silly for never using them properly. Lowering his hand, he turns to look at her.

She's frozen in the doorway of the boat, taking in the island with wonderment and what might possibly be fear. "It's just like I dreamed," she mumbles. "And something about this feels... familiar."

She shakes her head a little and looks at him. "What if I find out things I don't want to? What if there's a reason I don't remember anything?"

He considers this a moment. In some ways, it would be so easy to tell her that they could go back. That they could abandon this search and forget everything having to do with Lusamine, wormholes, her past, his past, and ultra beasts. They could start over, make something new, and leave every trouble here on this island.

But that doesn't seem right either. She'd spent so long dreaming of this place and finding answers. How could he let fear stop her from reaching that goal?

He swallows. "What if ya find everything you've been looking for?" He offers her a hand, remembering how he'd done the same back on Aether Paradise to get her off the elevator and on their boat. "You can do this."

Her eyes linger on his hand and the bandages still covering it from the library injury. Then she meets his eyes, and takes it.

Hand-in-hand, they fully disembark and begin their search of the island.

She passes by the oblivious Exeggutor dotting the island with wide eyes. If his Golisopod had seemed tall, these must seem gargantuan to her. Her hand leaves his as she approaches one, marveling at its height. Then she's off to inspect various plants, and vegetation.

He thinks at first that her fascination with the island must just be yet another instance of her seeing something new for the first time, but what she tells him indicates the opposite.

"I've definitely been here before. Or - or someplace like it," she says, leading him onward in a way that seems way too practiced to have been the first time.

There's a prickling along the back of his skull. Had she really been here before? Her dreams of this place weren't just some weird premonition or coincidence? It's hard to quiet the sense of foreboding that's coming over him. Where exactly had that wormhole taken her from all those years ago?

They continue across the island, past wandering Exeggutor and through foliage, as the sky overhead darkens with gathering clouds. It's going to rain any minute.

But she doesn't seem to notice that - she stays a few steps ahead of Guzma as he follows behind, quiet and pensive.

It feels like it's all happening too fast - traversing the island, how she knows exactly where to go - all of it. Whether he wanted to admit it to himself or not, he was hoping their little trip together might last a little longer.

"Hey, can we-" he starts.

He's interrupted by a crack of thunder and a flash of lightening. The clouds let loose the downpour they'd been just barely holding back.

She finally stops there between the trees, and turns to him, rain quickly starting to soak her hair and clothes. She looks like she's been snapped out of some trance.

The rainfall grows heavier, making it difficult to see clearly. He blinks the water out of his eyes, searching for any kind of shelter - finding the flute in this would be impossible. He spots a cave off to the right and hesitates for just a moment, before grabbing her hand and pulling her toward it.

They slosh through the overgrowth and duck inside. The cave is small, dark, and smells of damp soil, but at least they're out of the rain - even if they are already mostly soaked.

Guzma runs his hands through his hair, attempting to remove the water from it, wincing as the bandage catches on the side of his sunglasses. When that proves near useless, he takes off his jacket and shakes it out, sighing. Well, at least he'd stayed almost completely dry underneath. He leaves it hanging by the hood on a rock jutting out from the cave wall. "Guess we're waitin' on this to-" he stops short when he looks back at the cave entrance.

She's standing there, silhouetted in the light, one hand resting on the wall as she stares out. She looks miserable, with her shoulders drooping and her other hand limp at her side. She removes her backpack and clutches it to her chest.

Maybe this was the cause for his sense of unease; there's a cloud over her as dark as the ones outside.

He swallows, debating what to do or say, and remembering the time spent in that supply closet on the ferry. The dripping and plopping of the rain outside fills the silence between them.

As he watches, she slowly lowers herself to the ground and sits, resting against the side of the cave.

Comforting has never been his strong suit - he hardly knows what to tell himself, let alone anyone else - but for her he'd try. He approaches, and sits at the entrance, leaning on the opposite wall. When he looks at her, her face is set in an emotion he can't read. "You... okay?"

She blinks and turns toward him, smiling a smile she clearly doesn't feel. "I'm fine."

He thinks for a moment, not wanting to press her if she doesn't want to talk. He's not sure he's seen her look quite this conflicted before. This was what she wanted, right?

He decides to try for levity. "Ya know, sometimes it rains this hard in Po Town. One time Liam took this Pokedex that Sweets made out for test drive, but he left it outside in the rain. That thing was never the same after that. You could point it at anything and it'd call it any random Pokemon. Liam pointed it at Plumes and it called her a Tangela. He said it was because both their hair's a 'hot mess.' She locked him outta Shady House for that one and it was rainin' just as bad as this."

She gives a him a quizzical look.

Guzma continues. "I snuck em back in, and told him to lay low, and you know what he did? Went into Plumes' room and laid on her bed in all his soaking wet clothes. She comes in the room, and there he is, sittin' there with a shit-eatin' grin. Thought she was gonna murder him."

"That's not funny," she says, though her expression has softened.

He sticks a leg out towards her until his shoe taps hers. "It's kinda funny, ya know, long as you ain't involved. Me and Sweets had a time watchin'. Never a dull moment in Po Town." He falters for second on his last words, wondering if they'll ever be able to return to that town and the mansion within.

She gives him the smallest smile and shivers. The rock beneath them is a little chilly, even on this tropical island. Being wet from the rain probably didn't help.

Guzma leaves his wall of the entrance and cautiously scoots toward her until they're almost touching. He spreads one arm out in invitation and huffs in pleasant surprise when she quickly moves into his side, leaning against him. He fights back a grin from his own lips as he puts his arm around her. His jacket might not be much use soaked, but maybe body heat would help at least. She shivers again and he begins rubbing her arm. She relaxes into him with the motion, her head resting on his shoulder.

They're both quiet for a while, watching heavy raindrops fall onto the greenery outside the cave. Finally he dares to ask, "Doll, what's up?"

"I - I don't know," she says.

He's not sure where to go with this. There's so many who join Team Skull who are troubled in some way, himself included, but any kind of advice or talking about it had always seemed to naturally fall on Plumeria. He's woefully inexperienced.

But luckily she continues. "Despite everything, she still feels like my mother and I don't know why. I know it wasn't right. I know I spent so many years wanting out, but I just... I can't hate her. So, what do I do after all this? What does freedom even mean if some part of me is still trapped in that room?"

Well, parental woes he knows about at least - even if his are a little different.

Her head rises from his shoulder as she watches an Exeggutor totter past in the rain. "But I don't want to go back - I can't - no matter how I feel about Lusamine. That room, those walls... I felt so many things and nothing at all just waiting for a chance to escape. Sometimes I could distract myself with everything she brought me; all the books, crafts, games, movies. There was Nebby..." Her grip tightens on the bag. "Sometimes that was enough. Sometimes I was even happy - I found what joy I could in all of it. But then came the days where I felt nothing for it anymore.

They were my escape for a while, but how could I sit there and enjoy reading and watching stories of all these far off places when I knew that I would never see anything like that? My room was exactly fifty-five steps front to back, and forty-two side-to-side. I don't even know how many times I counted that. Fifty-five and forty-two. That's all I had.

Some days I couldn't even get out of bed - it felt so pointless. So I'd lay there waiting for when I'd finally feel able to move again. I questioned so many things. Did I even exist? Did I matter? I lost track of time thinking that maybe if I just hoped, wished, or imagined hard enough, something would change - maybe mother would finally let me leave that room. But that never happened."

Guzma imagines that it would be hard not to become depressed in that situation. That was something else he's sure he's struggled with too. Maybe less so once he and the team were set up in Po Town, but even with everyone around he'd still occasionally feel achingly alone. There were times where it felt like it was always three in the morning and everyone was asleep but him - like perpetual dark, empty hallways in the dead of night.

But you can't fix that for someone, can you? He tries to think of what would help him if he were in her shoes. What would he want to hear? But the amount of isolation she's been through is unfathomable. "That's awful shitty, and I'm sorry it happened," is all he can muster. It feels hollow and he wracks his brain for something more to say.

"Yeah," she says. "Yeah."

Maybe he can't fix this, but he could try to reassure her. He shifts so that he's turned toward her, but she doesn't meet his eyes; her gaze rests firmly on the floor of the cave. Gently, he cups her chin and raises it until she looks at him. He has to make sure that she knows that he means what he's about to say.

Putting every ounce of confidence into his voice that he can, he tells her, "You will never be trapped in that room again. I won't let that happen. You can do whatever you want now. It's gonna stay that way. That's what comes after all this."

She says nothing, but her eyes search his, like they're waiting for some kind of sign that what he's saying is untrue. But he doesn't falter, because he does mean this - he's sure of that. Whatever it takes to keep her out of Lusamine's grasp, he'd do.

Her eyes blink rapidly. She looks down, then back up at him before opening her bag. "I - there's something I need to give you. Maybe I should have done this sooner - as soon as I got it - but I was afraid... and I think - I think maybe I'm not so afraid anymore."

She reaches into her bag, and to his utter bewilderment pulls out a beast ball.

~~~

He doesn't take it from you. He doesn't even move at first as you watch a range of emotions play across his face: surprise, confusion, disbelief, and maybe even the slightest bit of anger. "What? Where did you - when did you-"

"When we were stuck at that camp in the desert," you tell him. Should you tell him it came from Lusamine? That she'd meant it as a test? You can't make those words leave your mouth. It's no longer a test anyway - not to you at least. Instead you decide on one last white lie. "I found it there."

He still remains motionless, eyes focused on the ball in your hand. Then, finally, slowly, he meets your gaze as he takes the beast ball from you.

He turns in over in his hands - one bandaged, one not - examining it cautiously. "You don't - you don't know what's in it?"

You shake your head. "No, but it's yours." You carefully reach over and take his injured hand. The wrappings are once again a bit dirtied and rumpled and you make a mental note to help change them once you get back to the boat. Avoiding the cut, you run your fingers lightly along his rough skin and look back up at his face. "Maybe after all this you'll get your answers too. Maybe whatever's in that ball is a new start for the team."

Guzma places the beast ball in his pants pocket, leans toward you, but stops, hesitating. For a long moment there's nothing but the sound of rain and the both of you breathing. You wait, wanting him to be the one to initiate this time.

For the first time since Hano Beach, he closes the gap between you, bringing his lips to yours a little more forcefully than you expected - like he's trying to convey something unspoken with this kiss.

Outside the downpour begins to slow as the sun starts to set.

"Thank you," he says when you break apart.

He's still so close you can feel his breath on you as he mumbles the words. It sends a shiver down your spine, although perhaps that's also because you're still a little chilly. You'd be happy to get out of this cave, which now that the rain is turning into a drizzle should be soon. Then there would finally be that flute to claim.

"Looks like the sky's clearin' up," he notices as he stands. Once more you find yourself taking his hand as he offers it to you and helps you off the cold ground.

While he shakes out his still wet jacket, you notice some writing on the side of the wall. "Garret was here," you read aloud.

Guzma squints at it with you, throwing his hoodie over his shoulders. He picks up a light colored rock from the ground, and to your amusement, uses it to scratch out the was here part and adds is a loser.

"What?" he says at the look on your face, shrugging and tossing the rock aside. "He won't be back to see it. Probably."

You give a small laugh. "I just thought you would write something far worse."

"You got a suggestion?"

You roll your eyes and start to leave the cave.

"No, no, I wanna hear this," Guzma says, following you out. "You gonna add some kinda limerick? 'There once was a man from-'"

"And we're done," you say, not wanting to know where his little poem is going.

"Yeah, yeah, alright," he laughs as he catches up to you. He glances at you sideways in a dubious way before grabbing your hand.

It's a small gesture that feels surprising, especially when his fingers interlace with yours. For as often as he's helped you up or off of things, hand-holding is still relatively new.

"Hey, if you're gonna charge across this island again like a woman on a mission, you're at least gonna drag me with you," he says when he sees your expression.

You chuckle and tell him, "Okay." You are on a mission; you're so close to completing the first leg of this journey.

But it is just that: the first flute. There was still a second and no telling where it could be. You smile over at Guzma, and true to what you've agreed, you pull him along this way and that, following a path that you inexplicably know. You decide to do your best to enjoy the here and now, rather than worry about what comes after finding the second flute - if you find it.

You continue on, under both trees and Exeggutor, through wet grass and leaves, your feet following directions that you don't even feel like you're consciously giving them. Guzma trails along behind, looking less worried now. You're feeling the same - giving him the beast ball felt like at least some small weight had been lifted off your shoulders. Not only were you no longer having an internal debate over what to do, if what Guzma had told you was true, maybe he really could use it to start anew. Mother had meant it to be the end - to be what proves to you how bad everything is - but she's wrong; it'll be the beginning.

Then you come to a stop.

Whatever invisible force that's been leading you on has been honest. Because there in front of you, on the edge of this island, and glistening in the last rays of day is a tiny alter.

And upon that, is the flute you'd seen so many times in your dreams.

Your hand leaves Guzma's as you slowly move towards it, one foot in front of the other. The world feels like it's gone silent - no gentle waves down below, no birds, no rustling of leaves or grass - there's just this flute and this feeling of absolute purpose.

It seems so unlikely and incredible that you're here. The hand that reaches out reverently in front of you doesn't even feel like your hand. Surely it's a dream - this is yet another dream that you'll wake up from; never before have you gotten this far in one. Any second now, your eyes will open and this will all disappear. One more step, and devastation will set in as you awaken in your room.

None of it is real until your hand closes around the instrument and lifts it from the pedestal.

You gasp, trying to hold back a sob of both relief and disbelief. Suddenly your dreams are actualized; years of nebulous wishes made solid in your hands. You hold it to your chest just to make sure it's not some kind of trick of the light that will slip through your fingers.

The Sun Flute is now yours.

 

Trudging back toward the boat proves a little more perilous with the sun now set. With no towns, cities, or human inhabitants, there's no need for power, leaving you only the light from the moon and stars.

And there are just so many stars; more than you've ever seen, more than seem possible. Maybe they were the real cause for the peril - you've tripped several times while staring up at them.

"Watch it, doll," Guzma says, catching you by the elbow as you stumble for the eighth time.

But it's hard not to admire everything. You've never seen a night quite like this. You can't tell if it's the high from finally finding the flute or if it's being alone in a strange place with him that's put you in such an elevated mood - maybe both. The night air is warm and moist, but the breeze blowing in from the water makes it more comfortable, especially since your clothes are nearly dry from the rain. The island smells tropical and alive, and you breathe it in deeply - fresh air still feels like a miracle to you. With no one else on the island, it feels like this night belongs to you and Guzma.

"So," you say, feeling a little bold. "You said we have that boat for the night, right?"

Now it's Guzma who missteps. He rights himself and looks at you nervously, hand on the back of his neck. "Uh - I mean, yeah!"

"And we can just leave it docked here?"

"Don't see why not." He studies you curiously. "Got somethin' else you're lookin' for on this island?"

"Maybe," you answer. You have your reservations, and you barely feel like you know what you're doing, but what had Sweets said? 'Go live what you've been missing.' Well, this was something you've missed out on for sure. Now that things are coming together, you feel determined to experience all that your imprisonment never allowed.

The boat that had been rented was strange, but at least it provided this opportunity. If that really was Liam's doing you might have to thank him later.

Guzma's grin has now turned mischievous. "And what, exactly, are you hopin' to find?"

Unwilling to say it aloud, in response you grab his hand and pull him along quickly through the underbrush. Most of your trip to Exeggutor seems to comprise you leading him as fast as possible across the island.

"Shit!" he says, nearly tripping once more before picking up his pace.

You continue past the cave, past the Exeggutor that are starting to settle down and sleep, retracing your steps to the boat, Guzma laughing in what you can only interpret as either disbelief or beguilement every so often along the way.

You don't stop until you reach the short, wooden dock where you'd left the boat earlier. At the end of the planks, you turn towards him.

Guzma leans over you, arms boxing you against the door of the boat. Neither of you says a word as you stare at one another, faces just inches apart, both of you breathing heavily from your near sprint.

Looking into his gray eyes, you feel an apprehension coming back over you as you realize what it is you're about to do.

You know of sex and you know what to expect - another piece of knowledge from before you were locked away - but it's not something you've experienced before.

He blinks, wicked grin faltering and eyebrows raising in concern. "You... you okay? This okay?"

You glance away for a moment, biting your lip and now feeling a little embarrassed. "I, uh, I've never... done this before."

"Oh. I mean, I sorta figured." One of his arms retreats to once again scratch at his undercut. "We don't gotta- if you don't wanna-"

His other arm leaves the door to lean away from you, but you grab him by the elbow and pull him back. He looks at you with uncertainty and you realize you'll have to be clear. "I want this - I want to do this. I'm just... nervous."

A smile slowly returns to his face, though now it's far more reassuring instead of hungry wolf. His bandaged hand reaches up to sweep a few stray stands of hair behind your ear. "Hey, that's okay. Your boy will take care of you, alright?"

You return his grin and nod, relieved that your lack of experience isn't a turnoff for him. Taking his hand and feeling the wrappings, you tell him, "Let me take care of you first."

 

You sit on the edge of the bed with him, a first aid kit you'd found in one of the drawers by the sink beside you. It's quiet in this little room, but you can hear the water and the chirping of insects outside. The boat gently bobs as it floats, making your view of the stars outside sway ever so slightly. There's a nightstand next to the bed where he's put his glasses, medallion, watch, and bracelets. Your bag lays with them. There's a single lamp that sits beside those objects, illuminating everything in a soft, yellow glow - the only light source in the room.

You might not be saying much, but it's not an uncomfortable silence; instead it's one that feels far more contented. Focusing on his hand has ebbed some of your nerves. Guzma's eyes are on you the entire time, but you find you don't mind, especially since he looks happy to be receiving the attention. He watches you with a charmingly dopey smile that almost makes you laugh when you glance up at his face.

The cut is healing nicely despite all you've been through together since it happened - you'd been worried the numerous times it'd gotten dirty might have caused an infection. You cover it with fresh cotton swabs and gauze, finishing your task and setting his hand palm-up on your lap.

He turns it over and begins rubbing your knee, which sets a fluttering in your stomach. Swallowing, and feeling both anxious and excited, you put the first aid kit on the nightstand and scoot just a little closer to him.

You look around at the bed and it's soft sheets, the pictures on the wall of random water Pokemon, and all the rustic decorations. It's so much more comfortable and homey than your pristine, painfully florescent room on Aether had ever been. Even though there were many mishaps along the way to getting here, you feel grateful for the journey and the changes it's brought. Every second out here feels like solid proof that you're alive.

And you're even more sure you're alive when you feel fingers gingerly cup your chin. He turns your face to his and asks, "You still good?"

You nod, and his hand slides along your cheek, palm resting against the side of your face. His skin is warm and rough, but the movements are tender. You place your hand over his, pleased that he seems willing to lead this.

You meet his eyes, silently asking him to continue.

His lips brush against yours, light at first, testing, waiting for your response.

Starting to feel a little dizzy with anticipation, you lean in further, deepening the kiss. You're rewarded with a grin you can feel as he meets your eagerness.

It's so much more private and slow compared to the last time you'd done this on the beach. There's no audience cheering you on now, other than the pleasant buzzing that's building in your head. Those quick and desperate kisses are replaced with ones full of mutual longing.

In some ways you swear you've been waiting for this since the moment he entered your room, and at last it's finally happening.

You run a hand along his chest over the white cotton shirt, making him inhale sharply. His jacket is officially the first article of clothing to go as he shrugs out of it and tosses it aside, doing his best to keep his lips to yours as he does so. Once it's gone, his arms encircle you and pull you closer.

Your fingers find their way to his now bare arms, and the higher they climb, the more you can feel him relax under your fingertips. You feel along his shoulders, to his neck, and then to the bristly hair of his undercut.

Guzma shudders. He breaks from your mouth and rests his forehead on your shoulder, breathing deeply.

You huff and ask, "Are you alright?"

"Yeah, yeah," he says, sounding a little dazed. "Just- just keep doin' that."

Your hand ventures further up into his hair, where you lightly massage his scalp.

He tugs you flush to himself and lets out a low moan, his arms wound tightly around you. "Shit, I could let you do that forever," he mumbles.

If he enjoys it that much, you're certainly fine with continuing. He clutches to you, inhaling and exhaling long, drawn out breaths. There's an alleviation nearly emanating from him, like a thirst that's finally being quenched.

The body pressed to you is warm and solid. His chest rises and falls against yours. With his cheek so close to yours, you can smell that his surprisingly soft hair smells of shampoo and the ocean breeze.

His face lowers then, and you give a small gasp as his lips find your shoulder and trace sloppy kisses up your neck. The sensation sends a shiver up your spine.

One of his hands grazes up your side and comes to a stop beside your breast, his thumb tracing the curve of it. He bites at your earlobe as he finds a hardening nipple beneath the fabric of the tank top. His fingers languidly ghost over it repeatedly.

There's a heat gathering between your legs and your breathing is growing as heavy as his.

"I'm gonna make you feel so good," he whispers into your ear, his voice low and rough. "Ya trust me?"

You bite your lip and nod.

His mouth closes over yours in response and his fingers slowly move the tank up along your body and over your head. It joins his jacket on the ground. He hesitates for just a second before his own shirt follows soon after.

You catch something on his chest in the light - a few lines of discolored skin here and there, and a jagged scar that starts at his shoulder and disappears from view as it continues down his back. You reach out and feel the slightly raised skin of one of the lines, giving him a questioning look.

His shoulders slump a bit and a hand rubs at the back of his head. "Yeah, uh, sometimes things were rough, ya know? My - my dad he, um-" He glances away from you before meeting your gaze again. "They bother you?"

You can tell he's trying to sound nonchalant, but there's so much vulnerability in that question. You mind flashes back to comments he's made about his parents and the way he looked standing in front of that abandoned house. You chase the images away. You don't need more explanation - at least none that he's not wanting to give - more than anything you just want to help him forget about the scars and the memories they hold for a while.

Your pasts were not going to take this moment from either of you.

You lean towards him, your hands pressing into his chest, feeling the lines beneath. You plant a kiss over the scar on his shoulder and tell him, "Not at all."

His face softens at the dismissal of the uncertainty he'd been trying to conceal. He moves over you, gently guiding you back onto the mattress. His mouth begins exploring you, starting with your lips, and moving down your jaw, your neck, between your breasts. One of his fingers plays with the edge of your bra, moving it aside it reveal a nipple. He swirls a thumb over the bare mound, making you sigh.

He tugs the cup of the bra lower, fully exposing you as his eyes dart up to yours. "This okay?"

"Mmm hmm," you hum in agreement, eager for what you're hoping comes next.

That wicked grin from outside the boat plays across his face before he turns his attention back to your nipple, running a bold tongue along it.

You inhale, your hands clutching at his hair. His mouth covers it, and you close your eyes as he licks and sucks at the hardened mound. Each pass of his tongue feels like an electric connection lighting up right down to between your thighs. This is a desire deeper than you've ever felt before.

You rise from the pillows to allow him easier access to unhook your bra, making it the latest clothing casualty.

When you lie back again, your fingers thread into his hair, making him moan once more while he sucks at one nipple and his fingers play with the other.

The heat between your thighs is begging for attention. You feel relief as much as anticipation when his hand ventures lower. He unbuttons and unzips your shorts then slides them down your legs slowly, teasingly, until all that's left is your panties.

One finger glides under the elastic band and you're near ready to beg him to touch you. "Please," you mutter, and you're sure you see his eyes light up with some new fire.

"What's that, doll?" he nearly growls, hooking a finger over the edge and tugging down the hem of one side a couple inches.

"Please," you say again, louder and clearer.

Guzma's hand slides underneath the fabric and his eyes center on your face as he cautiously and much too slowly for your liking lets a finger press between your folds of skin. You gasp as he feels around in the slickness, your legs instinctively parting further. His motions spread your wetness up to the nub at the top of your entrance. His finger circles your clit, and your hips buck up against his hand, desperately seeking more contact.

First one finger, then two pull in and out of you. The sensation is uncomfortable for just a moment before you relax, giving yourself over to the building sensation that's happening within you. There's an edge you're coming towards, spurred on by the downright devilish grin he gives with each noise you make.

But then his motions stop and it feels like you're stumbling back from that edge. You look up at him, confused and disappointed. His hand leaves your panties, and you can feel sore lines around your legs from where they'd stretched against you as he pulled at them.

You almost speak to question him, but then he lowers himself down your body, his face stopping at the edge of the fabric. Eyes never leaving yours, his teeth close over the elastic as he drags them down your legs.

You gape at him, committing that image to memory.

When they reach your knees, he sits up and quickly discards them, leaving you totally exposed on the bed. He looks you over, asking "You good with this?"

You nod, barely able to breath.

He removes himself from the bed and stands. Hands closed over your ankles. "Good," he says and pulls, sliding you until your legs dangle over the side.

He kneels in front of you, and you feel a little bewildered until he places your legs one at a time over each of his shoulders. His mouth hovers tantalizingly close over you. "And how bout this?"

You nod once more.

"Let me hear it," he says, smiling. He runs his thumb back over your clit.

"Yes!" you manage to gasp out.

Immediately his face is pressed squarely between your thighs and you cry out when his tongue runs up the center of you. Once more he finds that nub and begins to circle it, his tongue warm and slick.

It's almost too much - this pleasure's nearly painful with its intensity. You find yourself back at that edge all too soon. He closes in on your clit and sucks, and you can't decide whether you want to pull back or press further into his face.

He decides for you. His hands feels along your outer thighs, then pull you forward, holding you in place.

Panting, you place shaky hands in his hair, eliciting a moan from him that's muffled by his full mouth.

Then you're over the edge. His tongue is too much, too fast. Far quicker than you would have expected, whatever you felt building within you is overflowing. Your legs close around his head, and his fingertips dig into your thighs as you come.

Wave after wave hits you as he continues to play with your clit through the orgasm. Your vocalizations are the lewdest you've ever made.

Finally you relax, releasing him from between your legs as you come down, panting.

His hands drag down your thighs as he sits back and wipes away the wetness from his chin. "How was that?" he asks.

But you're not sure you can answer. Your legs shake slightly in a way you can't seem to control.

He gives a small laugh at your non-response. "What, that good?"

You flop backward onto the bed.

He chuckles and leans over you. "Guess that's a 'yes.'"

You nod, your pulse still pounding through you.

He smiles in a self-congratulatory way, but you suppose he's earned it. He puts a hand on your knee and shakes it. "Come on, tell ya boy he did a good job."

You look at him incredulously and playfully roll your eyes, your breathing starting to even out. "What, do want a reward?"

He plants a hand on either side of your face and lowers until his lips meet yours. "Hey, it couldn't hurt," he says, gray eyes full of mirth.

"What do you have in mind?" You grin back.

His face becomes a little more serious and he answers your question with one of his own. "You're good if we keep going?"

You think for a second, then look back up at him, resolute. You might be a little shook from coming once already, but you're so wanting to explore this further. "Absolutely" you tell him.

Finally, after all this, he removes something from his pants pocket before they slide down to the floor. He coaxes you back toward the pillows and attempts to tear open a foil packet in his fumbling hands.

His suddenly anxious motions give you pause, pulling you out of your own nervous thoughts. "Are you... good with continuing?" you ask.

"Yeah, yeah, it's just been a while," he says with the edge of the condom packet between his teeth, still trying to open it. It splits with his efforts, and he takes it from his mouth, sighing. "And, I dunno, I just - I want it to be good, ya know? For you, I mean."

You blink, unsure how to respond at first. There's something endearing about the fact that he's a little tense about this too. You sit up, and catch his lips in yours, hoping that maybe that will convey the words that are escaping you.

Your fingertips return to his chest and play with the hair you find there. He's paid so much attention to you, and maybe some of that deserved to be repaid. You once again feel a little awkward and inexperienced as you experimentally kiss along his jaw, following wherever your lips lead you.

You glance at his face when you hear him give a small hum. He closes his eyes, and his eyebrows crease in concentration while your hands continue their exploration of his chest, shoulders, and back. Your mouth grazes his collarbone and venture to his chest, where you notice an uptick in his breathing.

You feel bandages move along your back and his hand trembling slightly. Guzma seems completely entranced by any amount of physical affection you're willing to give. In the time you've gotten to know him, you've realized he's practically starving for touch.

And now that you're out of isolation, you're becoming more and more aware that maybe you're a little hungry for that too. You hope tonight is the start of many touches.

You travel lower, but stop, not sure you're prepared to return exactly everything he's given you tonight. There's a lot of this that's still so new.

You stay there, paused over him, thinking. But then a hand gently tugs you by the arm.

"Ey," he says. "We don't gotta do whatever you're not comfortable with yet."

You blink. "Are you sure?"

He chuckles. "Yeah! There's plenty o' time to..." he trails off and his face falls a bit.

How much time was there? You don't know. Neither of you do.

He clears his throat. He almost says something else, but stops, instead bringing his lips back to yours.

The kisses between you turn passionate and ravenous as you begin to get worked back up again. You return to letting your hands work their way down him, lingering over the spot where his leg meets his hips. Your hand travels lower, curious, until your palm closes around his hard length.

He swallows and pulls you closer, breathing harshly out his nose.

You stroke up and down, watching his reactions and feeling your own arousal returning.

"Shit," he hisses before pressing his mouth back into yours. The tip of his tongue plays over your lips, until they part. It bumps gently against yours as he moans against you.

Your hand moves faster, and he eggs you on with gradually louder noises - noises that you're quite enjoying. You wonder how noisy he can get.

But then he seems to reach some sort of limit. You're suddenly on your back with him over you, between your thighs, and he's clearly wanting something more after all the teasing.

He clumsily slides the condom on, his movements frantic and needy, mouth to yours and his tongue probing.

You worry for a moment that he might takes this a little too fast. But, he breaks from your lips and slows himself, breathing heavy. He rests his forehead against yours for a moment before looking into your face.

Neither of you says anything as he searches your eyes, his breath ghosting over you. He aligns himself with your entrance, but doesn't move, waiting.

Any nerves you had left dissipate as you reach up and pull him down toward you.

Then, mouth pressed firmly to yours, he pushes inside.

Like with his fingers, it's uncomfortable until you fully relax. Luckily you're already wet enough for there to be little resistance.

He's slow and steady at first, allowing you time to adjust to this new sensation. He holds back, watching your face, his breath raggedy.

As you become accustomed to this, his rocking back and forth starts to feel too slow, too gentle. You're overwhelmed by a need for more friction.

Above you, Guzma bites his lip, looking like he could maybe use that too. "Fuck, doll," he says hoarsely.

Unable to handle the frustratingly slow pace anymore, you ask him "Please, please faster."

"Yeah?" he tries to confirm, looking very eager to comply.

When you gasp out "yes," he sighs in relief and buries his face into the space between your neck and shoulder. His hand brings one of your legs around his hips as he moves harder and faster into you.

His hand leaves your leg to grab at your ass, pulling you to him, his desperation for as much contact as possible entirely too evident.

But you don't mind. The angle at which he's thrusting is bringing you back toward that edge, and you struggle to feel as much of him as you can, your arms clinging to his back.

Guzma grunts and lets out increasingly louder moans into your shoulder, his sweaty forehead brushing against your cheek. Hazily remembering how much he enjoys your playing with his hair, you bouncily thread your fingers into his moistening locks.

You tug slightly, eliciting the loudest moan from him yet and the grip on your ass increases.

There's another uptick in his pace, causing you to lose your concentration a little bit. As noises begin to escape you, you feel him kiss and bite onto your shoulder, making you cry out.

"Ya like that, doll?" he nearly growls into your ear between breaths.

But all you can manage back is a moan.

His face comes back into view as he lifts his head. "Yeah, you get as loud as you want," he grunts out. "Ain't nobody here, so let me hear it."

You abandon any reservations you had, allowing whatever noises to come out that his hips demand.

He kisses you again, swallowing some of your explicit vocalizations and meeting them with his own.

The sensation is good, but it's not enough. It leaves you nearing the edge, but never over it. And the longer this goes on, the more dire your need for that release.

One of his hands comes between you and circles your clit for just a moment and it finally happens. You gasp, and clutch to him as you come, yelling his name.

This seems to set him over his own edge. His mouth drops open and his eyebrows furrow as he orgasms, raggedy moans escaping him. Coming down with you, he kisses you once more, and collapses with his face over your shoulder. As he stays there, breathing heavily, a hand reaches up to gently stroke your face.

His other hand still clutches to your body, keeping you close to him, not willing to allow your full contact to end just yet.

You keep your hands on his back, rubbing, and not wanting to break from him either.

Finally he rises on his elbows, and looks into your face, concerned. "You okay? That okay?"

"Yeah," you breathe out, still recovering.

But he doesn't look relieved at your answer. Instead, he looks more troubled. He swallows and looks away from you.

"What is it?" you ask. What could possibly be wrong? Had you done something wrong?

His eyes meet your again, but he hesitates, struggling with whatever it is he's trying to get out.

"Guzma," you start.

"Just don't - don't leave too soon, alright?"

You blink up at him, feeling a little disoriented and confused. "I'm not going anywhere."

"I mean, after all this; after we figure out where you come from. After everything. I can't - I wouldn't ask you to give up-" he sighs and looks away again, struggling.

He's worried about you leaving. How much had he thought of this? You feel a mixture of things. There's a rush from the knowledge that he so terribly wants you to stay, and an uncertainty as you question what you'll do if there is really somewhere else you're meant to go.

Guzma's face continues to betray his inner turmoil. He won't ask you to stay, no matter how much he wants to... and you can't promise him that you won't leave.

"Please don't - don't get the hell outta here too quick.” His eyes are focused on your bag on the nightstand. He brings them back to yours.

"Okay," you tell him slowly. You'd be lying to yourself to neglect that a large part of you wants to stay - to stay with him and this family of misfits you've found - but you can't bring yourself to give in to that yet. You've got to do what you've set out to first. You'll find the flutes, get to the alter, and see where it goes from there. You can't give up and always wonder... no matter how tempting that might be, especially with him still on top of you.

Guzma looks only slightly relieved and a little regretful at your one word answer. He kisses you once more before rising to clean up.

~~~

In the bathroom Guzma stares at his reflection. He feels satiated for the first time in years, but also guilty. He shouldn't have let those words slip.

He doesn't expect her to give up the answers she's waited years for just for him. She could have a real home and family to go back to, and he's got to accept that this could very well come to an end.

But he just wants time - even a little more. Just a little longer with her and this newfound happiness. A little more time to get to know her and figure out this thing growing between them. Could he just have that? Was that too much to ask for?

He looks down at the sink, avoiding his own eyes. Maybe it is too much to ask for.

Guzma sighs, collecting himself before opening the door. He can't let his fear of the future get in the way of the joy he's got right here, right now.

She's waiting for him on the bed, worry etched on her face - worry that he put there. "Are you okay?" she asks.

Well, he was definitely okay with the fact that they've still got this boat together for the rest of the night. How long had it been since he slept next to someone? He plops down onto the bed beside her, and leans in to give her a long kiss. When they break, he smiles and tells her, "I'm good, doll."

She doesn't look entirely convinced, but she returns the grin and yawns.

They settle in to sleep, tangled up together, Guzma hoping there will be even just a few more nights like this one.

Chapter Text

Guzma is completely out - for most of the night anyway. Their days hadn't exactly been leisurely lately, and their sleeping arrangements not exactly comfortable with multiple nights in Pokemon Centers. But a bed? And a good one at that? Not some beat up old Po Town mattress? As soon as she was curled up around him he was far too cozy and content to keep his eyes open.

But exhaustion only seemed to ward off his troubles for so long. As the first rays of dawn begin to creep their way in through the window, Guzma finds himself awake - confused for a moment, but awake.

The light outside is still faint and unintrusive. A few birds sing gentle songs of waking. The window frames a view of a cloudy sky that moves slowly with the rise and fall of the water. He watches the small window for a while, arm still around the girl beside him, letting all the events of the previous day return.

Maybe he would have to actually thank Liam.

Guzma rolls his eyes at the thought, even though a smile plays across his lips. He pulls her to himself a little closer, resting a cheek against her hair. Then again, maybe it was better if he didn't give Liam the opportunity to gloat.

He lays there for a while, debating getting up to use the bathroom or to fall back asleep. It was difficult to argue in favor of leaving the bed. How many moments like this would there be? What else is waiting for them as they try to find that second flute? ... How long would she still be around?

Fuck that. Fuck his bladder. He'd stay right here as long as he can.

Something catches his eye on the floor. There's a glinting from something in the pocket of his pants as light plays across them.

The beast ball.

He still doesn't know which beast it is. Was there even anything in it? All he'd been told about it was that she'd found it at that abandoned Aether camp. Would Lusamine really leave an ultra beast behind? Maybe it was an accident. Maybe years of putting up with Madam Prez's bullshit was about to pay off anyway.

But there'd be time later for that. Better to stay in bed.

He looks away from the beast ball and back to the window, watching as a flock of birds fly past in the distance.

His eyes wander back to the ball. He stares it down, silently arguing with himself. Then he sighs in mild frustration, curiosity getting the better of him. After all this time, he can't lay here and let the unknown tease him.

Slowly, carefully, he untangles himself from her and rises from the bed. A quick trip to the bathroom, a collecting of clothes, and he's quietly opening the door, beast ball in hand.

He walks a small distance from the boat, not wanting any noise the creature might make to wake her. A couple Exeggutors toddle past him, oblivious as they go about their morning routines.

Guzma stops in a space where the trees are more sparse and turns the ball over in his hands, examining it. It was so different from holding a Pokeball, and it wasn't just the shape - something about it feels cold and clinical. He holds it up in the morning sun, letting the light catch it. Would whatever's in this ball really be the help he's looking for? Might as well find out.

He sighs and whispers "Please be a bug" before tossing it out in front of him.

But what manifests is not a bug. The newly freed beast rises up in the air, levitating as if through water. Several pale, white tentacles sway beneath a large bulbous cap. He recognizes the jellyfish-like creature from Lusamine's ramblings: UB-01 Symbiont. Though he feels a spike of disappointment that it won't fit in with the rest of his team, he can't help but watch it in wonder. After all, he'd never actually seen one before other than in drawings. It moves in a mesmerizing way, floating leisurely, the sun shining off it's bell-shaped head and limbs.

He takes a step forward, reaching out a hand. Was it friendly? Could he still use it?

He freezes when the creature notices him. It stops and straightens out in the air. He can't see any eyes, but he can feel that it's watching him. As it starts to move toward him, apprehension takes over. Something about this feels... wrong - sinister. The way it approaches is almost predatory.

Guzma backpedals, but the beast is so fast that it's suddenly right above him. He looks up, mouth agape. Why was it this thing was called Symbiont? Symbiosis?

It begins to lower. He raises his hands in defense about to break into a run, but then there's a tentacle wrapped around his wrist, his watch now obscured by the opaque appendage trapping him. He tries to pull away, but it's no use. The ultra beast simple pulls back as it continues ever closer to him, it's bell now nearly touching his head.

He opens his mouth to scream, but it's just a moment too late. He's enveloped in the jellyfish now; cold, gelatinous material that feels neither wet or dry encasing his head, torso and arms. The creature's descent stops at his waist, and it begins to lift him into the air.

He struggles, twisting around in the miasma, arms flailing and legs kicking, but he can find no purchase. He yells and hollers with all he's got, but no sound leaves him. Then there's a new sensation - it's like a cold liquid suddenly pumped through his bloodstream that finds its way to his brain. His limbs will no longer obey him. They go limp and useless, leaving him helpless and terrified. His eyes search around wildly for someone - anyone - to help.

And he does see someone - several someones - approaching him, all dressed in white. Lusamine walks toward him with a manic, but triumphant smile, flanked by a few Aether employees. He can see her though the viscous entity surrounding him with surprising clarity. He views her almost as if with new eyes, maybe not even his own. It's like he and the ultra beast are merging. All the while, the feeling of some cold, dark fluid in his veins grows stronger.

The creature lowers to the ground until he's forced to stand in front of Lusamine. He tries once again to make his legs work, but all he can manage is for one of his feet to twitch.

Madam Prez looks thoroughly amused, her awful smile increasing and her eyes sparkling. "Well," she says, a hand on her chin. "Looks like I've finally caught my stray dog."

She'd... planned this? That the girl had found that beast ball was no accident - it was a trap. One that they'd all too easily fallen right into.

"Been having fun?" Lusamine asks as she watches him beyond this ultra beast veil. "You know, I always figured you were a bit of a lowlife, but taking advantage of that poor, naive girl? That's got to be a new low - even for you."

Take advantage? He hadn't done that. At least, he doesn't think so. All he can do is glare back.

Despite his paralysis, there must be some fury evident on his face. Lusamine gives a disbelieving snicker. "What? You're going to tell me Big Bad Guzma's actually developed feelings for her? Let me ask you something, boss, do you really honestly believe that you're what's best for her? Can you really tell me that you're the one who should be showing her the world? What could she possibly get out of you being her guide, huh? What have you done? Who are you?"

How could Lusamine ask such things when the alternative was her locked up? Maybe - maybe he's not the best guy around, but he's got to be better than any life with Lusamine. Who is he? He's-

"A thief," Lusamine says in his silence, answering her own question. "A thug, a gang leader, a criminal, a dog working for scraps just to get by. Isn't it bad enough that you've already roped in a bunch of desperate kids into a life of crime? You really think you and your trashed town are their salvation? As if Team Skull is turning out some fine, upstanding citizens... People are afraid of you."

But so much of their criminal activity were things she'd asked them to do, weren't they? Though, even silently he can't lie to himself and say that there isn't a strong chance they'd still be up to no good, even without Lusamine. But was that so bad? They had to get by somehow. People are afraid of him? Fuck them.

Lusamine continues, her eyes never leaving his. "If you care about her so much, why would you want that for her? What has she done to deserve to be with someone like you? There's no way you can even remotely think you're an option for her. Unless you're incredibly selfish, which I don't doubt."

Guzma was selfish; that much he knew, or at least he figured he must be. Had he been selfish when it came to her too? The cold liquid crawling through his veins grows stronger, and as it does, doubts begin to creep in, aided by Lusamine's words. Whatever's being pumped into him seems to be making him more susceptible to her poison. Not only that, but the world is slipping away.

Lusamine leans in closer, though she's growing fuzzy. "Neurotoxin's kicking in. Get him on the boat," he hears her say. She sounds like she's further away now - and hollow - like she's in another room.

What will she think when she wakes up and finds him gone? Was that better? Was this the better outcome? It couldn't be, could it? He struggles one final time, but it's useless. He's weak now - too weak to keep his eyes open. He closes them.

But then he opens them again.

He's not on Exeggutor Island anymore.

Guzma finds himself in the dark, dusty hallways of an abandoned house on Route 2.

~~~

He's not there when you wake up. He's not in the bathroom or anywhere on the boat. More distressing still, is the fact that all his things are gone as well. It's just you, alone, and your discarded clothes. Confused, and trying to calm your nerves, you quickly dress and go outside. Maybe he'd taken a walk?

But you can find no evidence of him in the surrounding area. You call out his name a few times to no answer. With nowhere else to turn, you start out across the island. Maybe he'd gone back to the alter where you'd found the flute for some reason? There had to be an explanation. He couldn't have left the island - left you - right? No. No, surely not. There's no reason to believe that. You just haven't found him yet. That's all.

Your search continues. You check the cave, the alter, and everywhere in-between, all the while you begin to feel more and more lonely. You haven't been alone for this long since you'd left your room on Aether Paradise. It doesn't feel right.

Exhausted from your fruitless tour around the island, you return to the boat. He'd be back, you'd just have to wait for him there.

You sit on the bed, twisting the fabric of the sheets nervously between your fingers.

But then you hear a voice calling your name. Before you can even process exactly who the voice might belong too, you're back on your feet and out the door, onto the wooden deck.

"Mother?" you say incredulously.

Lusamine stands at the other end of the dock.

You almost back away; almost retreat into the boat behind you, but something about the look on her face stops you. Gone is the malice that poisoned her features that night on Akala Island. You can't even find the pure exhaustion and begrudging defeat in her eyes like you had through the monitor of that device in Haina desert. No, it's familiar and comforting now. She looks concerned, relived... motherly.

"Oh, my dear," she says to you, approaching with her arms outstretched. "You poor, little-"

She stops mid-sentence and mid-step when she sees you flinch away.

You try to find your courage again after your shock. "Mother, what - what are you doing here?"

Lusamine rings her hands worriedly. "Well, I'd heard that you were on Poni Island, and I thought that maybe this time I could just check on you - make sure you were okay. Only, I arrived just in time to see Guzma with his little gang. It sounded as if they'd just picked him up from Exeggutor and that, well, that they'd left someone there. I knew that it was you, and I knew that I had to come find you."

You can only stare and blink disbelievingly, trying to piece together her words.

You can't believe that. You don't believe that.

"You're lying, mother."

Lusamine's eyes grow even softer. Something about the genuineness of this makes your heart race. No, you don't believe her. You won't.

She looks to the ground a moment before turning misty eyes back toward you. "I tried to tell you; tried to warn you what this world is like. The only one who isn't lying to you, is me. Can you still not see that?"

Your breath has quickened now. You don't answer her.

Lusamine sighs and shakes her head in a sad, empathetic way. "You just... you know so little of the world. You've got too good of a heart and you're too trusting. Haven't you seen the looks everyone gives them? The looks they give you while you're dressed up as one of them? Why do you think that is? Why do you think everyone else is so willing to work with me when it came to tracking you down? Because everyone knows how dangerous they are - how dangerous he is. Everyone, except you."

You still can't find your voice. It was true that the locals didn't exactly welcome Team Skull. You'd witnessed the dirty looks and the wide berth everyone gave you and them, but did that really mean anything?

Maybe you can't remember talking to very many people, but you're sure - pretty sure - you can tell the good from the bad.

Mother continues. "And worst of all is how he played with you-"

"He didn't!" you finally blurt out.

She gives you a disgustingly patronizing smile. "Oh, come on now, dear. This romance you've bought hook, line, and sinker is every bit the proof needed that you just don't know what you're doing out here. If he cares so much, then where is he-"

"You did something! You did something to him!" You interrupt, mind racing for anything to combat her with.

"Did something to Guzma? No, there's no reason for me to. I have no use for him anymore."

"You've got no use for me either! So just leave." Please, please just let her leave. Let her say no more that might make you doubt.

Lusamine looks wounded. "You're my daughter. You need no use to be important to me. I love you."

And now you're fighting some compulsion within you that goes against all logic; some emotion that still courses through you despite everything - despite knowing that she's not your real mother and that she kept you hidden away for so long. You know what your next line is supposed to be, but you bite your tongue.

Mother's quiet for a long moment, letting your silence hang poignantly in the air, until she says, "You gave him the beast ball, didn't you? Gave him what he wanted?"

Those words hit you with a coldness you're unprepared for. You blink back tears, still not wanting to give her the satisfaction of an answer.

"I'm so sorry," she says quietly. "I'm so sorry it turned out this way. You must see that's all he wanted, right? Oh, he talked about those ultra beasts so much. Surely he must have to you, too."

One tear defies you and slides down your cheek. Yes, he had, but you won't say it. Can't say it.

Lusamine's eyes examine the boat behind you. "And what else did you give him?"

That question feels like yet another punch - one that makes you feel violated. "Mother-"

"Please come back home!" She says suddenly, tears pooling in her own eyes. "If I were really here to force you, don't you think I would have done that already? I'm giving you a choice here, and I'm asking you to make the right one. Please."

Your shoulders slump, and Nebby's bag drops down your arm. With tears blurring your vision and your mind spinning, you aren't quick enough to catch the bag before it falls onto the wooden blanks. Nebby's catatonic form tumbles out.

Mother gasps. "Is that - is that the Cosmog? Is that Nebby?"

You fall to your knees and quickly scoop the Pokemon back into the bag protectively. "You did this to it," you tell her quietly.

"I'm sorry," she says, eyes on the ground. "I'm sorry for a lot of things." Her eyes meet yours again. "Come back, and we can help it."

You stand, considering her words. You might have your doubts, but you do believe that if anywhere has the technology to help Nebby, it would be Aether Paradise. But what about Guzma? You turn slightly, glancing at the boat.

Lusamine takes a tentative step towards you. "Don't stay out here for him. Don't risk Nebby for him. He took all he could from you, and he left." She opens her arms wide. "But, my dear, I would never leave you."

Something within you breaks. What if she's right? You've been back all over this island with no sign of him. He took all his things and left no trace. He had wanted an ultra beast so badly and he'd finally gotten it.

All it took, was playing you.

You can't resist anymore. Nothing makes sense in this moment other than the familiar arms of the woman you've called "mother" for so long.

So you go to her and return the embrace.

~~~

There's a bag discarded outside the boat rental place - a familiar bag - new girl's bag. Liam picks it up and inspects it. Yep, this was definitely Fluff Nugget's hideaway, but what was it doing on the ground and completely Fluff Nugget-less?

He'd been hanging around Seafolk Village waiting on Boss and new girl to get back. They should have been back a long while ago, but he figures hey! Maybe they were just really really having a good time, and Guzma would absolutely just have to thank him later.

And he sure would enjoy having something to hold over Guzma's head.

But the boat was back now, he could see that much, as it was docked back in its original spot.

A voice from the rental place interrupts his thoughts. But it's not neither the boss or his girl - it's Madam Prez - and it's getting closer.

Liam looks around briefly for a quick exit, but finds no refuge. So, he steps off the wooden slats and into the water.

Frantically, and dragging new girl's bag with him, he half swims/half struggles under the dock, grasping onto a support beam. He watches, quietly as he can, as Lusamine's heels clack onto the surface above him. Behind her follows a woman in a pink sweater - the same woman that helped him and Guzma escape Akala after the music festival had gone to shit. Wicke? That was her name, right?

Wicke looks anxious; her hands are clasped tightly in front of her and her eyebrows crease together behind her glasses as she obediently falls into step behind Lusamine. "You really still need her then?"

"You ever heard of a 'Faller?'" Lusamine asks.

Wicke shakes her head.

"It's someone who's passed through a wormhole. That girl? She is one. It's why that Cosmog took to her so well. Ultra beasts can sense the remnants of another world on them, and they pursue them relentlessly. Maybe she's no longer needed where the Cosmog is concerned, but she could have other uses."

Liam glances down at the bag floating in the water beside him. So Madam Prez still wanted new girl...

"And... the other one?" Wicke says. "That Team Skull boss? Guzma?"

Liam's gaze shoots back up through the slats. What about the boss?

Lusamine clicks her tongue in annoyance. "Well, if he and his band of misfits aren't going to work with us anymore, then it's better they're out of the way. No surer way to kill their little organization than to cut it off at the head. We'll keep him on the island till this is all over. A little time with that Nihilego might reform him a bit."

Liam's grip increases on new girl's bag. Both of them were already captured? Along with his anger is a stab of guilt. He'd been the one to send them off alone. Would things have turned out differently if they'd all been there?

Shadows move above him as Lusamine and Wicke continue their conversation, heading down the dock toward a large, white boat.

Without thinking, he begins to swim for the boat. If he could just get onboard, maybe he could figure out what to do later.

But his determined dog paddle only gets him so far so fast. Before he's even able to touch the boat, it's speeding away, presumably back to Aether Paradise. He stares after it and smacks the surface of the water in frustration.

"Liam? Liam what the hell?" A voice up on the dock says.

He turns to find Plumeria and Sweets there, watching him. Plumeria stands with her hands on her hips, while Sweets smiles in amusement.

Before he can answer, Sweets says, "I got the phones fixed."

Liam practically flies out of the water on sheer will alone. Scrambling up onto the dock, he tosses Plumeria new girl's bag as she shrinks away from the water droplets sent in every direction.

Sweets backs away as Liam approaches saying, "Liam, I swear - don't you hug me. Things live in that water and-"

"Gotta get that phone, Sweets! Got a guy to call!"

"Still after that Aether guy?" she teases.

"Hell yeah! But also-"

"Is this-" Plumeria says, making them both turn towards her. She looks confused and conflicted as she holds the sopping wet bag in her hands. "Is this hers?"

"'fraid new girl and boss got snatched up by Aether," Liam confirms.

Plumeria says nothing, but her shoulders droop and her eyes never leave the bag.

Liam refocuses on Sweets. "So I gotta call Ethan. Maybe he can help."

"Well, I can try anyway," says a new voice.

There, up ahead of them on the dock, is Ethan.

Liam's mind feels like it's short-circuited trying to catch up with what he's seeing. Despite his firm belief that relationships simply don't work... there had always been some sliver of hope he'd never been able to beat down. It was that sliver he blamed his bad habit of falling fast on, and Ethan was no exception.

The bespectacled object of his affection stands there, still in his Aether uniform and doing his best to look confident and brave - even if it wasn't entirely convincing. Still, it was irresistible that he was trying.

But this facade soon drops as Plumeria approaches him threateningly. "How did they get them?! Where are they going?!"

Ethan puts his hands up defensively, taking a step back from her. "I - I didn't - I don't-"

"Plumes, wait." Liam grabs her by the shoulder and gently pushes her aside. "I don't think he's with them anymore." He gives Ethan a hopeful look. "Right?"

Ethan swallows. "Well, you see, the tips the president got led her to Exeggutor Island and I couldn't think of any other reason you'd go there besides the flute." He begins rifling through a messenger bag at his side and pulls out a flute decorated with something that looks like the moon. "I had to know if you were looking for them too, so I hid on the boat over here."

Sweets gasps and claps her hands together in delight.

Plumeria drops the bag on the dock, where it hits with a dull, wet thud.

Liam smiles. So they wouldn't have to chase down the other flute! That's yet another leg of this journey down... as long as new girl still has whatever flute they supposedly found on Exeggutor. But there was still the question of what this meant. What did Ethan's being here mean? He knew how dedicated Ethan was to Aether's original goal. Had he finally given up on that? Who's side would he finally be on?

He takes a tentative step towards Ethan. "And Aether?"

Ethan bites his lip and looks down at the dock before meeting Liam's eyes again. Then, giving him a wide grin, he takes the cap from his head and tosses it into the water. "Fuck Aether."

Liam crosses the planks still separating them and pulls Ethan to him despite his still soaking clothes. He takes just a second to sweep some stray hairs from across his glasses. It feels like he's been waiting entirely too long to do this again.

Ethan smiles at him, his hands finding their way to his shoulders.

Liam kisses him hard and victoriously. He knew Ethan would come around! Well, he'd hoped it, and maybe this time he'd been right to hold out hope.

When they break apart, Ethan's glasses are askew and his cheeks are a light shade of red.

Liam removes the beanie from his own head and places it on Ethan's, who winces at its dampness. "Another member for the Skull family!" Liam declares.

"That's all well and good," Plumeria says. "But there's hardly a team without the boss."

"If I just-" Ethan sighs. "If I still had my tablet."

Now it's Sweets turn to root through her bag. She offers him his missing device. "We might have been borrowing it."

Ethan takes it and holds it almost reverently in his hands. "Liam," he says, giving him a mischievous smile. "Up for a rescue mission?"

Liam pulls him in close one more time. "Hell yeah."

Chapter Text

A familiar and dreadful bright whiteness is all around you. It's ever-present, just as it had been when mother led you onto her boat, where you sat in a pristine cabin and mourned your impending loss of freedom. It's in the dock and hallways of Aether Paradise that mother now guides you through unabashedly, since you're no longer a secret. It's the color forced back onto you as the black clothing Sweets gave you now sits in a garbage bin.

It's the color of Lusmine's teeth as she gives you a sickly sweet smile and proudly tells you, "There, it's like it never happened."

But it did happen - all of it.

It did.

But now Guzma, Team Skull, your answers, the outside world... they're all gone. And if the hollowness you feel now is what you're left with, then maybe it would have been better if it never happened at all.

Is that how you should carry on? Was that how you should deal with this? Pretend it never happened? Try to forget it all, if you're even able to?

But forgetfulness feels almost like your specialty. Maybe that you'd forgotten your life prior to Lusamine was a blessing if the outside world could be this confusing and cruel.

Everything had been an act, and you were just too naive to see through it. The friendships you'd made and the connections you've forged ended with nothing but your isolation on Exeggutor Island. You'd traveled so far from your room and yet you still wound up alone. In your grief you suppose that was just the nature of things. It was as mother had said: you're too unfamiliar with the world to not fall for its traps.

It hurts to think this. And it hurts to think of what Guzma and the others must be doing now. Were they laughing about you? Was anything about your time outside genuine?

If there's any mercy in the world, maybe you'd forget this little misguided adventure. Maybe you'd finally learn to just be happy with what you have and where you are the way mother wants. She was right after all... wasn't she?

But then again, nothing about this feels quite right. Your time in the company of Team Skull could not have been for nothing because if nothing else, you've learned more about who you are. Or, at least, you've started. The hunger you had to see more than what mother would show you has only grown. There's still more to see and more to discover about yourself. These momentary feelings of doubt you have are fleeting. You're not who you were before and you can't go back to whoever that was, no matter where Lusamine traps you how how she dresses you.

You look at Lusamine. The two of you are in her room - a place you'd only occasionally come to before. She's looking into a mirror while fixing her hair. There's fine lines on her face that are the beginnings of what might eventually turn into wrinkles. She'd certainly didn't have those when you'd first appeared here.

You catch sight of yourself in the mirror over her shoulder. And you? You aren't a child, despite how Lusamine speaks to you or treats you. There's a different look in your eye now. You might be in Aether whites, but your hair is still the same way that Sweets cut it. It's you, but a different, better you - one not prepared to go back to how things were. You're not Lusamine's obedient replacement child and you can't be forced back into that mold. The person that stares back at you has grown so much and deserves to see more - you're sure of that.

There's a determination coming back to you just from looking into your own eyes. Despite what might have happened outside this island, you won't go back into that room. You won't be a prisoner again. Team Skull on your side or no, this won't be how it ends.

Mother's eyes meet yours in the mirror. Her mouth sets into a line upon seeing your expression. You assume that you must be so much easier to work with when you're defeated. "And what's that look for?" she asks.

"You're not locking me away again," you tell her firmly.

Lusamine turns away from her reflection and faces you. "And where else do you think you'll go?"

You falter for a second. What was your plan here? Maybe you have nowhere but Aether Paradise, but that room can't and won't be all you see of it. You ignore Lusamine's question, breaking eye contact with her.

There's something so off about all of this - something you're not being told. You can feel it, and maybe you always had, but you'd never had the courage to voice it before. It was in the way Lusamine had called you "research components" back in the Malie Library. It was how she was more concerned over regaining Nebby than anything else whenever she caught up to you. It's all of her saccharine mothering and the whiplash you'd get from her sudden cruelty when you didn't cooperate. You'd sensed before that info was being withheld from you, and it's time you find out if that's true. "You know more than you've told me, don't you, mother?"

It's her turn to look a little caught off guard. But then suddenly her smile turns menacing. "You really want to know? Will you calm down then? Will you obey?" She makes it sound almost like a threat.

So much so that you stay quiet, staring her down.

Your silence seems to set something off in her. She flies to you in a fury, her heels banging against the pure white floor with each step.

You back away from her approach, but she grabs you by the arm and begins marching you along, throwing open the door of her bedroom.

You stumble after her, confused and fearful, down this hallway and that, Lusamine paying no mind to the employees you pass. You pull against her, but she holds fast and digs her nails into your skin.

She leads you not to the elevator, but to a set of stairs, and to even more sections of this compound that you've never seen before. You give up fighting her. At least she doesn't seem to be putting you into your room.

Down more passages to a door with a keypad beside it.

But now there's something familiar about this particular door. Maybe it wasn't that you had never been here, but that you hadn't been here in a long time. Because as Lusamine roughly keys in a code and the door slides open, it dawns on you that you have seen this room just one time prior.

It's Mohn - her husband's - old lab.

And you haven't been here since the day you came through a wormhole many years ago.

Lusamine releases your arm, and you walk inside.

The lab is cold and dusty and it doesn't match the rest of Aether - it doesn't share the white walls, the impeccable cleanliness, or the merciless order. In fact, things are quite messy: books, notes, and items are scattered about. Machinery sits unused and clutters the large and open room.

But what's most noticeable are the hundreds and hundreds of papers, drawings, and scribbles taped to the walls. They're everywhere, some with lines or arrows haphazardly connecting them. But there's a divide in them - one section is in a handwriting you don't recognize (Mohn's?) while the rest is definitely Lusamine's. These musings are so unlike anything you've ever seen her create. They're unorganized and have a frantic, desperate feel to them.

There are photos among them. You're transfixed. Your feet move you to them and you zero in on...

A photo of yourself. It's you, it's undeniably you. But you're so much younger, and you're somewhere you can't ever remember being. There's some kind of stage and you register it as the site of a grand trial. You've got a Litten in your arms. You had a pokemon?

Beside you is a girl. She looks to be the same age as you and with hair as blonde as Lusamine's. Over her shoulder is the same duffel bag you once held Nebby in, and Nebby itself peeks up from beyond the zipper.

Your head is simply static. You look around at the rest of the pictures. They're you - they're all you - at maybe ten or eleven years old and around different parts of Alola, but you don't recognize any of it. Your mouth feels dry and your breathing becomes shallow. It's impossible to draw enough air into your lungs. You gasp out a name - the name of the blonde girl next to you in so many of the photos.

"Lillie?"

"Yes," Lusamine answers in a tone that you're too dizzy to read. "In a sense."

What could that possibly mean? Was it Lillie - Lusamine's real daughter - or wasn't it? Why did you know her? What was this? What had been kept from you all these years?

The room feels like it's spinning. Your mind is trying to solve a puzzle who's pieces are tarnished and won't fit together properly. You back away from the wall of photos and lean on a desk for support. Your hand bumps into something and you glance down.

It's a pokedex of some kind, or the shell of one. As you stare it down, wide-eyed, a smattering of visions - no, memories, you're sure they're memories - plays within your mind. Lillie on a bridge attacked by Spearow. You and Lillie at Malie library reading the same damn book you and Guzma had looked at. You and Lillie finding a flute on Exeggutor Island.

How could any of that be? It's Alola, but something is off, something is different, and you're unable to name what. That Pokedex on the table had been yours once long ago; a piece of technology you knew how to use as easily as any cellphone, but why did you have it? All the answers and everything you've been endlessly searching for is all there, right in front of you, but it feels blurred out. It's still blocked in your mind, hidden behind a veil that you still can't lift no matter how hard you focus. You can't mold and shape the puzzle pieces to fit together.

You place a hand to your forehead as a headache grows. This bombardment of incongruent information is having some kind of physical affect on you. The pressure building in your skull is impossible to ignore, even as you try to pull yourself together.

Lusamine comes into view, her face some combination of anguish and rage. "You still don't get it, do you?"

"Then explain it!" you yell to her through the pain that's nearly blinding you. "What is this?! Who am I?!"

Lusamine's lip quivers. Her voice shakes and you can't tell if it's with anger or sadness. "It's as I always told you," she says. "You're no one. Just one of many."

Tears pool in your eyes from your migraine. You shake your head, still not able to understand.

She draws closer, almost predatory, like the info she's holding over you is a weapon she's about to bring down. "There are countless versions of all of us. There are endless realities; some you exist in, some you don't. Some you're older, some you're younger. Some you're blonde, some you're brunette. Some you've green eyes, some you've brown. Some you're a girl, some you're a boy." Her voice rises as she goes on. She's nearly screaming when she asks, "Do you understand yet?!"

You don't and you don't answer. Just cling to your head as you watch her through bleary eyes. How could there be multiples of everyone?

She's quiet as she stares at you and all you can hear is the buzzing in your ears. Then she whispers, "Yours is simply a story interrupted. You don't matter... except for the fact that that interruption brought you here and took my family. In your reality - in your world - you and that version of Lillie found a way to open a wormhole. It brought you here - but only you and that Cosmog."

"Lillie?" you manage to whimper out.

Lusamine shakes her head, her face falling. "I don't know where that Lillie is. Maybe she managed to stay in that reality. I don't even know where my own Lillie or the rest of my family wound up. The wormhole you opened and the one my husband opened happened at the same time. Maybe they're all in your home - in your Alola. Maybe those two opening concurrently simply made one direct passage..."

Your head won't cease it's pounding. With each pulse you try to hammer the pieces into place, but it just seems so useless. Now that you finally know more, shouldn't this be easier? Shouldn't memories be coming back to you? You're from another reality? That much you knew, but that it was so similar to this one catches you off guard. It only answers some questions and makes you ask all new ones.

Lusamine grows menacing again. "But all this? This is why you can't leave. Do you even know what you are? What that wormhole made you? You're a 'faller.' The poison coursing through your veins that's made you forget all you were is the same that makes that Cosmog obey you. It smells another world on you and it hopes you'll lead it home - same as I do."

"Poison?" you question. The pain in your brain has grown so intense there are tears streaming down your face and it's hard to speak. Whatever residue had been left within you from your interdimensional travel is resisting her words. Was this some kind of defense mechanism? Your mind protecting itself from the reality of the situation? Whatever it is, it feels debilitating.

"Yes," Lusamine answers. "A poison with seemingly no cure, but at least it has it's use. At least, you still have a use. You will continue to help me with ultra beasts. We'll find a way to open wormholes - to open the correct wormholes."

You glare at her through your tears. "You knew? You knew all along? What else is a lie?" You grip the table you're clinging to. It's still hard to grasp what your prior life might have been, but you realize that you had known friendship and that you can still recognize it. Guzma and the others? That wasn't an act, and you won't let Lusamine fool you into thinking otherwise. In fact, you determined to fight harder than you ever have before. "Why should I help you?"

"Because what choice do you have!" Lusamine screams as she approaches you. "Where else will you go? What else will you do? You don't even belong here! Who do you think is going to help you? That gang leader?"

"And what did you do to him?!" you yell back as you struggle to bring yourself upright. Clearly, she'd done something. You're sure of that too. Trusting Lusamine was a fatal mistake - one that you'd made for the last time.

"He's as locked up on this island as you're going to be!"

"I won't go back into that room!"

She takes you by the arm and begins pulling you along again. Your head reaches a new pitch in pain. You can't resist. "You will," she tells you in a sing-song tone. "And we'll be having a conversation about that flute we found you with as well."

You stumble after her, the hallways of Aether an absolute blur in your fury, confusion, and agony. Eventually you're tossed in through a doorway that is all too excruciatingly recognizable. You fall to the floor of your bedroom.

Lusamine's voice is suddenly softer as she says, "This time, it'll be different. This time we can work together. We can both get what we want. I can get my family, and you can go home. Don't you want that?"

You sit up, and silently beg your head to clear. You're certain now that "mother" has no real way of helping you or Nebby - all she's going on is guesses and obsessions. She's relentlessly chasing down what she wants and doesn't care who she has to crush in her path. She'd lied to you about so much: about the outside world, about who you are, about what she knew, and now she has the audacity to ask you to work with her?

"All I want," you tell her, "is to get away from you."

Her face turns stony. "Well, you'll have plenty of time to reconsider." She steps out of the room.

You struggle to your feet and make a dash for the door.

It closes in your face, leaving you leaning against it, weak, panting, and trapped.

So, you have some of your answers at last - or maybe the start of them. It's not so much that you're from another world as you are an alternate reality just like this one. That's why so much seemed familiar despite your lack of experience. It's why your dreams of Exeggutor Island were not exactly dreams, but memories. But what were the implications of that? Was there another you here? Do you have a place in this other reality?

... do you have one here?

You stay there, breathing deeply, and doing your best to push all this new info aside in your mind. You'll have to sort it later if you're able to. Your headache and dizziness finally begin to ebb.

Lusamine was wrong about the outside world, about Team Skull, and about Guzma.

She's also wrong about you.

You're going to get back that flute and Nebby, get off this island, and claim your answers.

This time things would be different. Because this time, you're going to free yourself.

And Guzma too.

~~~

It can't be real - It's not - it's some kind of dream. He's dreaming - he must be dreaming.

But it doesn't feel like a dream.

But it's not reality either.

Is it?

How did he get here? How is he inside his parents' abandoned house - his abandoned house?

He can't recall the sequence of events that brought him here, and yet here he is, sitting in a dark hallway.

Guzma stretches his hands out in front of himself, looking at them. They seem to waver back and forth between the size they normally are, one with a dirty bandage wrapped around it, and then occasionally smaller and less scarred - the hands of a child. He watches this strange phenomenon for a while before a flickering light catches his attention to his left.

The room beside him is the bathroom. He stands, and enters, and as he does so, the light finally stays on. His reflection stares back at him from the mirror above the sink. The rest of him seems to be following suit with his hands. The person before him alternates between the Guzma of now - an adult - and the Guzma of many years ago - a child of maybe eleven.

Well, that's not right. That shouldn't be. Yet, he's not alarmed by this.

So, it is a dream. Or, something like a dream.

What is it he's missing? How did he get here?

He can feel something cold coursing through him. It's barely there, but it pulses away, staying in time with the changing of his reflection. The unreality yet reality of it all fascinates him, and he stays there, leaning on the sink and watching the mirror.

Until there's a shattering sound.

For the first time since waking up in this strange predicament, Guzma feels panic. There's an awful recognition in that ringing out of broken glass. He knows what it is and who's done it. He knows what moment this is and it's not one he particularly wanted to relive.

"Guzma, what is wrong with you?" yells a voice from the kitchen, as loud and alarming as the commotion of shards of cup skittering down the hallway. But it sounds almost hollow and otherworldly. Like it, too, flashes between one existence and another.

Curiosity getting the better of his horror, Guzma leans out of the bathroom door and looks down the hallway.

Sure enough, pieces of glass sit on the floor, and beyond them is...

His father stands there, dark, imposing, angry, and breathing heavy. But he's also... not quite there. He's see-through and wispy - a specter haunting the hallway. Then he looks up, as if he's looking right at Guzma, and storms towards him.

Instinctively, Guzma raises his hands in front of his face, but the ghost of his father merely passes right by him without acknowledging him at all.

The door to his parents' bedroom opens and slams, and he's gone.

Cautiously, Guzma leaves the bathroom and slowly makes his way toward the kitchen, each footstep echoing loudly as he goes.

A door to his right - the one to his own bedroom - suddenly flies open. Out comes another poltergeist of the past.

"Quit yer cryin'!" his father shouts, pointing into the room. "Or I'll give ya somethin' to cry about!" Then the ghost turns, stomps past him, and disappears, vanishing as quickly as he came, once again not ever seeming to see him there.

Guzma glances into the room, but there's no one there. His bed sits empty and his belongings remain where he'd left them at a much younger age. Was there anyone here besides him and his father? Why was this room still so full of his things while the rest of the house had clearly been packed up?

He runs a hand up the side of the door frame. There's something heavy sitting in stomach - something comprised of memories and emotions he hadn't bothered to sort. It was a lump that was (mostly) easy to ignore until confronted with all these images. How long had it been since he'd been back here? When was the last time he'd seen his dad?

"How long you been hidin' that thing in your room, huh?" His father's voice says from the kitchen.

Guzma continues through the house, toward the voice, until he finds himself standing on the other side of the kitchen from him. He flinches when a golf club is suddenly hurled his way, but it passes right through him with no harm done. He looks back up at his father, and he swears that this time he sees him, but then this specter is gone too, also lost to the ether of whatever this vision is.

Guzma lets his feet carry him onward past the cleared out shelves and stray boxes - the remnants of what his parents must have left behind when they abandoned the place. ... When they'd finally given up and abandoned him. His room had still looked very much occupied, but the rest of the house is barren and lifeless.

Guzma's not sure where he should go, or where he's meant to be, but continues until he reaches the dining room.

There he is at the table - yet another ghost, this one sitting in a chair, pouring some kind of liquid - presumably alcohol - into a glass, and sipping from it. His father, alone and sour at the same table where he'd so often imagine the the two of them would have made some kind of amends.

Wordlessly, Guzma pulls out the chair across from him, and sits, but still his father doesn't acknowledge him.

He looks at his hands and realizes that he feels a certain pain with each switch between his adult and child self. The knot in his stomach tightens in time with it, the weight growing heavier. How long had he carried that weight? Was that eternal burden what caused him to still be so unsure of himself, even after so many years gone from this house? Is that what made him shrink himself, always walking hunched over, eyes on the ground?

His gaze goes back to the man across the table from him. "Dad?" he says softly.

But there's no response. His father just continues to stare past him at some spot on the wall as he nurses his drink.

The bandage on Guzma's hand catches on the table. But now when he looks down, it's gone. There's no more flickering. His hands stay that of a child's. He turns them over, palm up, and examines them.

He'd only been a kid.

He didn't know any better. All those times he'd been accused of "screwing up" he'd just been learning. Wasn't he allowed that? Wasn't he allowed to make mistakes? Wasn't that part of growing?

Fear didn't have to be part of that growing. Fear was not a deserved consequence for all the minor infractions that his father turned into major slights.

The knot in his stomach turns spiked and volatile. The relative calm he's felt over this dream-like situation so far is giving way to anger. Guzma slaps his hands down on the table and glares up at the man across from him.

Still, there is no reaction.

But it doesn't matter. "There's so much I've wanted to say to you," he says, clearly, purposefully... even if it is with a voice that hadn't been his in years. His adolescent vocals may not be as deep, but they're no less angry.

His father simply pours more liquor in his glass.

This was his chance to finally just unleash everything. Who cares if his dad can actually hear him or not? Who cares if he'd respond? He could yell, and scream, and spit, and maybe the unending knot would finally untangle itself from his insides and he could spew it all back at his father. It was his anyway - he'd put it there.

The rage he feels is so palpable and real, despite his impossible surroundings. He wants to upend the table. To knock the glass from his father's hand. To-

His sunglasses topple from his forehead and fall on the table in front of him. They sit facing him and he can see his reflection in each of the shiny black surfaces. In one side he's a kid, and in the other, he's an adult.

The look on his own face catches him off guard; he's seen that expression before. It was the same furious face that his father so often had.

Guzma relaxes, his eyebrows unfurrowing and his scowl vanishing as he leans back away from the table.

He's not his father - he won't be, refuses to be - even when confronted with him. Even when given the opportunity to return his actions consequence free.

Slowly he reaches for the sunglasses and places them back on his forehead.

He winces when there's a sudden pain in his hand - something radiating across his palm. The bandage has returned, and presumably whatever injury lies underneath.

What happened to his hand again? He starts to unravel the wrappings to inspect, and as he does so, events start coming back to him.

A girl tending to the wound on his hand in a Pokemon center. The same girl trying her best to get him to dance on a beach on Akala. Exploring Exeggutor Island with her. Hanging out with Plumeria in Po Town as they discuss their next move as a team. Sweets giving him his trademark undercut for the first time. A conversation with Liam on a boat to Poni.

Guzma swallows. When he pulls the cotton swabs away, the cut across his hand is gone.

And so is his anger. He looks up at his father, and realizes that... he's not sure he feels anything about the ghost across from him anymore. Nothing, except maybe sorrow or pity. That fury might be his father's domain, but he doesn't have to inherit it. How sad it must be to so often live in such a state. What kind of life can someone make for themselves or those around them when their greatest show of emotion is a reckless temper?

There are other things. There are better parts of himself to give to those in his company - things his father never seemed to give to anyone. There's so much more than anger - there's joy, there's hope, there's heartache, there's trust, there's love.

There's more than this house, and there's more than his past.

There's a future - and maybe he's not sure what that future looks like, but maybe that's okay too. Maybe it'll never include a reconciliation with his parents, but maybe it doesn't need to. He finds that he's happy there's a future at all, and happy for who might be in it.

Guzma rises from table. He whispers just one thing, and with these words, the knot within him loosens and leaves:

"Fuck it."

The final specter at the other end of the table disappears, leaving behind just an empty glass and bottle.

Guzma turns and heads for the front door. He worries for a moment that it may not open - that it'll be boarded up as he'd seen it from the outside and he'd be trapped within.

But the knob gives and he exits, leaving behind more than just bandages on the table.

 

Then he finds himself gasping for air on the cold, hard, white floor of some room on Aether Paradise. Above him, an ultra beast floats away.

Coughing, and sitting up as he regains his bearings, he looks at his hand.

The bandage and cut are gone.

Chapter Text

Liam is ready. He has never been more ready. In fact, just stick him on Aether Paradise now, and he'll march in there like the one-man-army he is, and get back boss and his girl just like that!

This planning though? This he can hardly sit still for.

They're currently aboard another Aether boat - a much smaller one - thanks to that Wicke lady. She was their woman on the inside! Though her correspondence with Ethan through his newly reclaimed tablet stressed that she could only help them get there through use of this boat. She'd ordered it to be taken to Poni and left for Ethan. The story was that Ethan was to do more research around Exeggutor Island after the girl had been collected, and that he'd need materials and tools that only an Aether craft would have.

After some spectacularly bad acting on Ethan's part (subterfuge clearly wasn't his thing) they'd managed to ditch the Aether Employee that had brought the boat to them, and are currently speeding toward Madam Prez's stronghold.

Ethan is piloting while also balancing nervously adjusting his glasses, pulling up various things on his tablet, and adding to the growing commotion that is this hasty planning session. Liam watches him out of the corner of his eye, still ecstatic that he's finally come around to joining them. Maybe some of that excited energy was what had him so ready and raring to go. Being around Ethan feels like a high that's hard to come down from. He's so distracted that he doesn't even hear what Ethan, Plumeria, and Sweets are arguing over. Planning? Who needed to plan? He could take on anything right now.

"Look, we've only got one shot at this," Plumeria says in a tone wrought with worry and exasperation. "We can't fuck this up."

"Plumes, we won't," Sweets tries to comfort her.

"But you're suggesting we do what? Disguise ourselves? There's not a one of us here that Lusamine hasn't seen before. And I can't imagine Team Skull will be welcome on the island right now. Just cause we're wearing white don't mean she won't recognize us."

Sweets takes the tablet back from Ethan and begins swiping away on the screen. "But she wouldn't suspect anything of Ethan, right?"

Ethan swallows. "Oh, well, I'm not so sure. I mean - I mean I guess she might realize I'm missing? ...If she were looking for me. And whatever excuse Wicke comes up with won't work considering Lusamine never really gave me any orders to go back to Exeggutor. I suppose she's sticking your friend back in her room and probably wants to bump up surveillance, which, uh, you know, would be my job. They already think I was the one who let Liam go before," Ethan meets Liam's gaze and gives him a nervous smile. Liam resists the urge to wink at him. "So I guess I'm not exactly free of suspicion."

"So we're screwed," Plumeria says, crossing her arms.

"No," Sweets turns the tablet around to show them the screen. "We just need a little more info. Ever been in this room?"

The screen displays what appears to be video surveillance of a room on Aether. It's a bland, white room with very little furniture in it - just a desk, some kind of examination table, and shelves along the back wall.

And pulling on the apparently locked door is the boss. A shadow comes across him and he stops and turns to look at something above the camera. He yells at it, waves his arms, and threatens it, though they can't hear him. It moves away, and a few long, clear appendages float in front of the camera, obscuring the view for a second before they move on. Now Guzma's picking up the rolling chair from behind the desk and lifting it above his head, shouting at whatever's in the room with him.

"There's something after him," Plumeria says, alarmed.

Ethan glances again at the screen. "Looks like a Nihilego."

"That dangerous?" Liam asks.

"Well, it sure isn't safe. It's got a pretty powerful neurotoxin," Ethan says, eyes going anxiously from Liam, to the water in front of him, and back again.

"But what room are they in?" Sweets asks once more.

Ethan chews on his lip. "I'd say the lower labs? Madam President would bring that Cosmog down there sometimes."

"I'm guessing not easy to access?" Plumeria says.

Ethan shakes his head. "Not really. It's not as hidden away as the room where Lusamine kept that girl - people at least know about these labs - but there's definitely a degree of clearance needed."

"If stealth isn't an option..." Sweets says as she turns the tablet back to herself, the glow from it reflecting off her glasses, "should we just, I dunno, bust in?"

Plumeria grimaces. Ethan blinks in disbelief.

Liam stands and meets Sweets' eyes with determination. "Hell. Fucking. Yeah."

"What? No!" Plumeria uncrosses her arms and leans forward.

But Liam's already too busy getting ahead of himself to respond. "Alright, so we're gonna split into two teams: Team Daddy Issues and Team Mommy Issues. Got it?"

Sweets shakes her head. Plumeria rolls her eyes.

"But I don't-" Ethan starts.

"You're right. No teams. We'll be one team. Team Kick Ass."

Ethan looks confused, but it's kinda cute. "I thought you were Team Skull?"

"Yeah," Liam says, nodding at him. "That too."

Ethan eyebrows furrow even deeper.

Plumeria and Sweets exchange glances, but Liam ignores them. It might be cobbled together, but he's got a plan - kind of.

Okay, he's got the vague notion of an idea. But he can do this. He points to Ethan's tablet. "Ya got floor plans of the island on that thing? Ya know, architectural drawings? Building layout? Maps? Anything?"

"I, uh, yeah!" Ethan reaches out for the tablet and Sweets hands it back to him. A few swipes and taps later, and the group is gathered around the device.

Page after page of info, maps, and schematics are pulled up. Liam can't resist smiling. Maybe he never finished his degree, but he was glad to realize he'd still learned a thing or two. He studies the screens until he finds what might be the rooms Ethan was talking about. "'Lower' labs, right? They down here?"

"That's them," Ethan confirms before returning his attention to steering.

Liam pauses for a moment, making sure this is indeed what they wanna do. "What we're doing is, we're gonna put a hole in the floor, right on top of that room the boss is in."

"You want us to blast a hole... in the floor?" Plumeria looks incredulous. "Those... those rooms look like they're even below the level the dock is on. So, below sea level. Is that safe?"

Liam wipes at his nose. "I said the floor, not the wall, Plumes. No water getting in here. And 'safe?' Eh, 'safe's' a complicated word. I mean, the boss ain't look safe right now, does he?"

Plumeria's eyebrows crease.

"At least the lower labs are, well, just that - 'lower.'" Ethan says. "Dock level is only one level above them. Once we get there we'll already be on the level we need."

Plumes remains unconvinced. "How exactly are you gonna make this hole?"

Liam fishes out a Pokeball from his pocket. "I know they ain't been out much, but ya forget we got these?" His Larvesta may not be the most powerful thing around, but it should (hopefully) be able to get the job done.

"But you think no one's gonna notice a ceiling being suddenly blown open?"

Sweets smiles. "Distraction time?"

Liam nods. "Distraction time." He turns again to Plumeria who's eyebrows furrow ever further. "What was it ya always wanted to do, Plumes?"

"Music," she says rather reluctantly.

"That EDM racket, right?"

She crosses her arms once more. "Yeah, gee, thanks, Liam."

"You know I think you're the best DJ there is, so let's get you an audience. Ethan, that security station you were in charge of got an intercom system for the island?"

Plumeria's face wavers as she considers the implications of this.

Ethan nods. "But how is anyone gonna get there?"

Liam touches his chin, thinking. True, disguises were still an issue... But they just needed to avoid Lusamine, didn't they? Would many other employees really recognize them by face? Couldn't they just... cover their faces? "Well, some of y'all Aether employees wear those creepy masks things, don't ya? Maybe there's some of those onboard."

Ethan looks out at the water beyond the steering wheel, thinking it over before affirming. "I think there might be!"

"Well then," Liam smiles. Yes, he is often a goofball, but he could pull it together if the situation calls for it. "Looks like we got a plan. Sweets, can you make somethin' real quick for you, Plumes, and Ethan outta what we got?"

Sweets looks around a little nervously before returning his grin. "Not a lot of time to work with, but I'll do my best!" She stands, and motions for Plumeria to join her, but she doesn't budge.

"Okay," Plumeria says. "But what about after that? Make a distraction and provide some noise coverage, cause some destruction, get G, and then? Then what? How do we get the girl after? You got an exit strategy here?"

Liam falters for a moment. "I mean, maybe they put that real keycard to her room back in the security station? I, uh..." he trails off and turns to Ethan, who merely shrugs in response.

But then his eyes go to the tablet sitting on the dashboard in front of Ethan. How much longer could the boss fight off that thing in there with him? "Might have ta make some of this up as we go along," he tells her. "Don't know what kinda trouble boss is in or how long he's gonna last, so that's gonna have to be priority."

Plumeria finally rises in wordless agreement.

"And who knows!" Liam adds, placing a hand on Ethan's shoulder. "Maybe some of those Aether guys'll have a change o' heart too. Might help us out?"

Ethan sucks his teeth and gives him a look of complete uncertainty. "We'll have to see on that one."

Liam swallows and then musters up his best brave face before meeting Plumeria's eyes again. "We'll figure it out. We can do this! But, first we get the boss back."

Plumeria gives him a cautious smile. Then her and Sweets leave to search the boat for materials.

Which, for the first time in a while now, leaves just him and Ethan.

And with this sudden seclusion is now an awkward silence. There's too much to say and nothing to say at all. In many ways, it seems like it never should have played out this way. How was he to know when he made his way to that security room that day, that the person he was meant to merely distract would start to become someone increasingly important to him?

Or maybe he was getting ahead of himself again. After all, it's not like they've known each other very long or seen each other many times. But, well, what could he say? He was definitely a little taken with Ethan anyway. Maybe it's the glasses.

He watches Ethan nervously fish his phone out of his pocket with one hand while keeping the other on the boat's navigation, and realizes he finds even that endearing.

Maybe it was something else - something he's still got to find out.

"I've got something to show you," Ethan says, finally breaking the quiet.

Liam grabs a chair and pulls it over to sit next him. When Ethan hands him the phone, it's opened to the photo app, and on the screen is...

A photo of a malasada sitting pristine and untouched on the floor of some Aether Foundation room.

Liam looks up from the phone to see Ethan's expectant face. He shakes his head, confused. "Wha-"

"It's a malasada."

"Yeah."

"And it's just sitting there."

"Uh-huh."

Ethan's shoulder's slump a little. "Oh, well, I was trying to- It's just that um... On that day? That first day? You, uh, you laughed for a solid five minutes at a picture someone sent you of a half-eaten malasada splattered on the ground, so I just thought-"

Liam smiles wide, realization dawning on him. In the midst of telling him to hurry and get back with the keycard that day, Guzma had also texted him that picture. Nothing made Liam laugh more than sad things on the ground - a small detail that Ethan had evidently (almost) picked up on in their limited time together.

"This one... not funny?" Ethan asks.

"It's not sad enough!"

"What?" Ethan face scrunches up in befuddled amusement.

"Ya gotta find one on the ground that weren't supposed to be - that's funny. This one looks like... did you get a malasada and just put it on the ground for this?" Liam's unable to hold back the chuckle that escapes him as he talks. "Did you waste a whole damn malasada?"

Ethan's cheeks pink ever so slightly as he gives Liam a shy smile. "Well, I don't like them anyway so, maybe I did... But now I feel like you're laughing at me because I'm the 'sad thing.'"

Liam laughs again. "Nah! No, I ain't."

Ethan's eyes narrow playfully. "Yeah, that's real convincing and-"

Before he can finish, Liam's moved toward him and is kissing him, hoping he doesn't crash the boat. How could he resist? So often it seemed to Liam that he was the one vying for someone else's attention. That Ethan would remember something so trivial and do something so hilariously nonsensical all in an attempt to simply make him laugh? He definitely wanted to know Ethan better, starting with-

He breaks apart from Ethan. "Whaddya mean you don't like malasadas? Who don't like malasadas?"

Ethan blinks, and looks back out at the water. "I dunno, the filled ones kinda remind me of Hot Pockets, and one time I had a Hot Pocket that had a bone in it and that's the reason - well, one of the reason's - I can't eat meat anymore and-"

Liam is now openly laughing and it feels good. With so much misfortune thrown their way lately, it's a relief to let go, especially since he was usually the one to make people laugh instead of the one laughing.

"What?" Ethan says, stealing glances at him inbetween navigating and looking very proud at just how entertained Liam is.

Liam huffs. "It's just, uh, you and I couldn't be more different. Ya realize one of my favorite snacks is Oreos that I twisted apart and stuck pepperonis in, right?"

Ethan's face drops. "I'm sorry, what?"

"That one a deal breaker?" Liam says, grinning. "Cuz it would kinda suck if ya threw away your job an' all for some pepperoni-and-Oreos-eater."

Ethan shakes his head, but a smile returns to his lips. "That is some pretty questionable taste to say the least." Then the corners of his mouth droop. "Guess I am out of a job now, huh?"

"That so bad?" Liam asks. "Things been rough with Aether for a while now, right?" The last thing he wants to hear is that Ethan regrets switching sides.

Ethan sighs. "Truthfully, it's been rough since the beginning. The whole foundation never quite was what Madam President said it was. She was so hell bent on the wormhole thing... but then I came across some info on those flutes, so I sort of took that on as a side project. I thought that, I dunno, that maybe if I figured all that out myself, maybe I could just hand the flutes and info off to her and it would all be settled. Maybe I'd finally be at the job I thought I was getting all along."

"That the dream then? Using all your geek stuff for conservation and helping Pokemon?"

"Yeah," Ethan says, sounding wistful. "Guess I'll have to find another way to do it." He looks over at Liam again. "And you?"

"Me?" Liam feels a little taken aback. He knows what he wants, but he's not sure it's obtainable. "I guess it'd be nice to finish that degree, ya know? It was why I moved to Alola from Unova in the first place- for school. But, uh, well's kinda dried up as far as tuition money, so that ain't happenin' anytime soon."

Ethan bites his lip. "You never know, right? Maybe we can figure something out? Scholarships?"

Liam shrugs. Other ways of paying for school had crossed his mind before, but he'd never quite had the motivation to act on them. "Maybe."

"Well, I'll certainly have time to help, seeing as I'm probably either unemployed or soon to be."

Liam gives him a half-smile. "And maybe we can find a way for ya to do your thing too."

"First thing's first," Ethan says, nodding to the window in front of him where Aether Paradise is growing larger.

"Yeah," Liam says, staring down the ivory island and taking Ethan's hand. "Let's do this."

 

The last few moments before they reached the island had been spent preparing and checking on Guzma via Ethan's tablet. At the very least, the boss sure don't give up easily. He's fighting back against the ultra beast with all he's got - including whatever he can find around the room and every pokemon at his disposal. Right now he's got his Golisopod out against it, though Guzma's companion unfortunately looks close to losing.

Between docking and putting together disguises, they haven't kept the closest tabs on him, but if he's been running through his pokemon as quickly as it seems, then they haven't got much time left. What would that thing do to him when he's finally defenseless?

Time to be quick about this. Sharing the device between them, Ethan switches the screen back to the building layout, leaving the outcome of Guzma's battle a mystery.

Liam glances up at Ethan, though he's hardly recognizable now.

They weren't exactly... perfect get-ups, but they'd hopefully be good enough to get them to Ethan's security room. Each of them almost looked right - Sweets had done what she could - but there was something off about each of them if you looked closely. Plumeria in particular stuck out the most, with the tips of her yellow and pink hair poking out beneath the full helmet covering her head and face.

They should act now. The dock they're standing in is unguarded, but who knew how long that'd be the case. Maybe they were already being watched for all they knew.

"So," Plumeria says, making another attempt to stuff her hair under the helmet. "If the keycard's there, we'll get it, try to get her from that room, and meet back here?"

"And if the card's not?" Sweets asks. She clasps her hands in front of herself worriedly. They hadn't been able to find gloves to go with the outfits, and her purple nail polish doesn't seem up to the Aether Employee dress code.

Liam looks away, thinking. Then he shrugs and comes back with, "Blow a hole in that room too?"

"You can't just throw fire at every problem we come across," Plumeria says, giving up on her hair.

"Sure ya can, Plumes. It'll be like Boom! And then right away you'll have a different problem."

Liam can't even see her face, but he's sure she's rolling her eyes behind the mask. "Guess we're just gonna hope something goes our way for once," she says, sighing. "But if we're gonna do it, let's do it."

Liam reaches out to give Ethan's hand one last squeeze.

"Be careful?" Ethan says, his voice muffled by the mask.

Liam pulls his hand to his lips and kisses his knuckles. "Ey, you too."

Then the three of them cautiously set off for the elevator, Ethan leading the way.

Liam returns to switching between studying the map, and checking on Guzma. Now it's his Masquerain that's not looking so hot.

He fumbles around for a particular pokeball again. Speaking of hot, he hopes Larvesta is up for the task. It's just a little guy, but it's pretty feisty. Boss had always been a little jealous of it - it was a bug that wasn't native to this region after all.

Pokeball and tablet in hand, Liam leaves the safety of the dock. He's got to get in position and find the room above Guzma. Time to get the boss back.

~~~

That's it. He's out of pokemon, out of weapons, out of shelter, out of options.

Guzma holds out the longest wooden shard from what was once a desk out in front of him. The Nihilego floats lazily above him. It's been doing that for so long now: looking almost harmless before suddenly and swiftly attacking, almost as if playing with him.

Everything in this small lab-like room is busted apart from his attempts to avoid the ultra beast's capture. Between that and his trying to break down the door it's simply trashed beyond recognition. Nothing had worked. He hadn't been able to find either a way out or a way to take out the monster in the room with him.

And what now? Where even was he? Clearly somewhere on Aether Paradise, but not any room he'd ever been in. And everyone else? Where was she? Had Lusamine gotten her too?

Alright, so if this thing captures him again... then he'd just figure out a way to escape it again. Right? How much damage could another dose of neurotoxin do?

The Nihilego turns in slow circles in the air.

Guzma watches it, gritting his teeth. He's exhausted. If this thing latches onto him again, he's not sure he'll be getting out real soon.

It stops then, all of it's appendages catching up with the motion and coming to a halt too. Another attack?

Guzma braces himself.

But it's not the advances of the ultra beast that catch him off guard. It's a sudden pulse of ear-piercingly loud music that rips through the air. It's fast paced and electronic - like the stuff Plumes always listens to. It fills the room and echoes down the hallways, like it's damn near being blasted across the whole island.

The Nihilego lets out some kind of strangled cry that he can just barely make out above the music. The reverberation seems to be messing with it - there's a rippling across it's bell that looks almost painful. It's movements become erratic and it's tentacles whip about in every direction.

Guzma ducks down and backs up toward a wall out of the way.

And just in time too, because now there's a new sound.

A large, jagged, red circle appears in the ceiling, smoking and sizzling before it falls into the room completely. Tiles, light fixtures, wires, drywall and other assorted building bits crash down upon the Nihilego pinning it to the floor and kicking up dust.

Guzma shields his face against the debris, coughing and struggling to figure out what exactly happened.

"Ey! Ey, boss! Ya alright?!" yells a voice.

"Liam?" Guzma coughs and peers through the settling soot and grit. It seems too good to be true. Maybe he'd been caught by the Nihilego again and was merely imagining this.

But there's Liam, standing at the edge of the hole and silhouetted in the light. By his feet his Larvesta crawls around - someday Guzma really would have to find a way of getting one of those. Liam cups his hands around his mouth. "You know it! Didn't think we'd just let Madam Prez take ya, didja?"

Guzma shakes his head and smiles. He's relieved, but confused - the music isn't helping him regain his bearings. "But how did-"

"Tell ya later!" Liam shouts and extends a hand out to him. "Ya gonna use this door I made ya or what?"

The chunk of ceiling lying on top if the Nihilego creates a convenient ramp. Feeling re-energized with the promise of escape, he runs up it as far as he can and grabs Liam's hand. Then he's pulled up into the bright, white light of the next floor.

Guzma collapses onto the ground for a moment, catching his breath. The music still pulses away all around them. "Everyone else here?" he shouts.

Liam nods as he puts away the Larvesta. "Yeah! And we're gonna meet them at the dock!"

"What?!" Guzma stands. "But what about- Do you know where she is? Is she here too?"

"They took her off Exeggutor, yeah. We figure she probably got stuck back in that room."

Guzma feels like his stomach has dropped out of him. What had he told her in that cave? What had he promised? And he couldn't prevent that one thing from happening. He sets off down the hallway towards the elevator. He'll tear down the door to her room if he has to - he's getting her out of there.

"Wait!" Liam shouts after him. "Plumes and them are gonna try to get her - if they can."

"If?" Guzma asks still making his way onward as Liam catches up.

"Ain't like we had a whole lotta time to make plans," Liam says, still shouting above the ever-present music. "We can't just go up there, G. Ain't disguised or nothin'."

Guzma ignores him.

"Boss?"

"I can't just... I can't go on 'if,' Liam, I - fuck, I told her I'd make sure she was never trapped in that room again."

"Whaddya gonna storm the castle?" Liam says.

Guzma finally stops and rubs at his undercut, considering. "Yeah, yeah I guess so." He turns to Liam. "You up for that?"

Liam cracks his knuckles. "Well, I mean, I did tell a certain someone I'd be careful, but I guess careful ain't exactly our forte."

He smiles at Liam, grateful for the help, but then what he sees beyond him makes it fade from his face.

"What?" Liam asks, turning. "Well, shit, looks like that thing's gonna make the decision for us anyway, huh?"

The Nihilego's bulbous bell rises through the hole left behind in the floor. It floats in a jagged path through the air shuddering in time to the music. It looks almost... pissed. And it's coming right at them, it's speed increasing alarmingly.

No more time to argue over what to do. Now they're both sprinting for the elevator - that damn stupidly designed elevator with it's no walls. Silently cursing Lusamine, Guzma scrambles over the guard rail and begins frantically pushing buttons. Liam falls over onto the platform behind him.

The ultra beast pursues them, slamming into walls and throwing its appendages around haphazardly.

"Shit!" he yells as it draws closer.

Liam sits up on his knees. "Are ya there, god? It's me, Liam. Now, I know we ain't talk much but-"

"Liam!" Guzma shouts. This wasn't the time for his nonsense.

"Boss interrupting is fuckin' rude. Now, as I was sayin', please get us the fuck out of here."

The elevator finally, finally begins to rise, as Liam reverently raises his arms skyward.

The Nihilego disappears from sight between the floors, reaching an angry appendage out toward them.

The few seconds between levels muffles the music for a small moment. Guzma sighs in relief - both from their narrow escape and for the break his ears were sorely needing.

Liam stands and brushes off his knees.

"Since when are you religious?" Guzma says sarcastically.

Liam scoffs. "Sometimes ya gotta lighten the mood, boss. Or, maybe lift it. Lift? Ya get it? Boss, do ya get it? We're in an elevator. Anyway, you know I don't believe-"

The both of them stumble as they're suddenly jostled around from the platform jumping violently beneath them. That thing must be ramming it from below.

"Start prayin' again!" Guzma yells, reaching out for the guard rail in a futile attempt to keep his balance.

The music becomes all too loud once more as they reach the next floor. It's not the level they want to be on at all, but they've got no choice. They abandon the elevator and tumble over the guard rail as the platform begins to crack.

Guzma finds himself standing up and recovering once again. However, this time when he does so, the scene in front of him is complete pandemonium.

They're on the conservation level with all of its greenery and splendor... and every single pokemon is going completely ballistic.

There's also Aether employees everywhere, but they're too busy to pay them any mind.

"This cuz of the music?!" Liam asks.

"Guess so," Guzma mumbles, still taking in everything before him.

One white-clad employee attempts to sooth a Bewear before being tossed bodily into a pool of water by the roaring creature.

Another poor worker is shaking off a Rockruff that's latched onto his arm.

Meanwhile, another even more unfortunate worker is soaring through the air, carried in the claws of a Braviary.

From behind them, somehow even louder than the music and screams of panicked employees, is the rending of metal and building entrails.

Guzma turns just in time to see the elevator platform completely break apart and tumble downward.

And rising from the newly vacated hole is one determined Nihilego.

It jerks in the air in time to the music, as if dancing in a painful and involuntary way. One appendage reaches out toward him, pointing. What was this thing's deal? Did it blame them for the noise?

"Looks like we're taking the stairs," Liam says, ever unperturbed, even in their current predicament. "Ey, the Prez got those here? They're not, like, not aesthetic enough for her or something, right?"

"I'll let you know when I find em!" Guzma yells, taking off into the conservation deck. Surely there's stairs somewhere... they've just got survive an angry UB, wild pokemon, and Lusamine's lackeys to get to them.

Liam stays just behind him, and the two run down the path in front of them. He jumps over a Rattata in his way as Liam narrowly avoids slamming face first into an employee.

"Hey! Hey what the fuck?" The employee yells, staring in disbelief as they continue onward. "There's Team S-" A panicked Sudowoodo runs by, limbs outstretched, clotheslining him before he can finish.

Another steps into Guzma's path, his conflicted face betraying how much he needed to gather his courage to do so. "You did this?!" he accuses.

Guzma merely shoves him out of the way, sending him sprawling into some plants. "Did we?" he shouts to Liam. "This music Plumes?"

"We wanted to create a distraction!" Liam stops mid-run for just a second to topple some sort of feeding station behind them. Bits of kibble pour from it and yet another Aether employee skids across the mess, falling over. "Guess it worked a lil too well, huh?"

There's a wall of foliage up ahead where the path splits to the left and right. "Go right!" he yells.

"What?" Liam says, as he turns to the left.

The Nihilego doesn't even hesitate in following Guzma to the right. Lucky for him it doesn't seem to be a speedy creature - maybe so many limbs created some kind of drag in the air. What was unnerving about it was not its pace, but its determination, and it was absolutely determined to get to him. Nothing deterred or distracted it, not the elevator platform, not the other people or pokemon, no obstacles, not even the hedge he's currently struggling through.

Guzma leaves the bush full of scratches and twigs and leaves stuck to him. He's not sure why he thought taking a short cut through, and not around that bit of plant life seemed like a good idea, but there wasn't much time to think. He sprints onward, wiping bits of greenery from his jacket.

Up ahead one more Aether Employee sees him coming, goes wide-eyed, and ducks down. Guzma jumps over the guy with the Nihilego floating over soon after.

He turns up one pathway and another trying to find his way toward the walls. He hadn't spent much time on the conservation deck and in his current panic the place feels like a goddamn maze.

Around another corner and Guzma yells as he tries to stop short and fails. He collides into the person in front of him and they tumble along the path roughly. How many scratches and bruises was he gonna get here?

"Ey, there ya are!" Liam says, righting the beanie on his head.

The Nihilego shoots into view as they're still on the ground.

"An' your friend!" Liam begins clumsily trying to rise and back up at the same time.

It floats over them, casting a murky shadow as it jerkily dances along.

Everything goes dark. The lights go out, the music stops, and there's a weird humming noise that dies as the power to Aether Paradise goes out.

For a moment everything is quiet, then there's the cautious grumbles and cries of Pokemon around them and the confused murmurs from Aether Employees.

There's a single light behind Guzma and Liam. A long rectangle of daylight stretches out along the ground just barely reaching them. It's coming from a window in a door.

And in that window, is stairs.

Guzma squints into the darkness and can see the vague outline of the UB's appendages swaying in the air. It seems... a lot calmer now that the music is gone, and maybe a little bewildered.

He and Liam glance at one another before quietly rising. Half running and half walking, they make their way to the door and escape into the stairwell.

There's a dull thud on the door as soon as it closes behind them. The Nihilego floats outside of it. It gently presses against the door again, but nothing gives. So, it still wanted to get to him, but it was no longer going to be violent about it. That's fine. Let the damn thing stay trapped here.

The two of them retreat away from the door and into the light from a window. Guzma looks up to see flight after flight of white stairs, with windows to the outside dotting the wall every so often. He sighs when he remembers just how far up her room is.

"Who do ya think cut the power?" Liam asks as he dusts dirt from himself.

Guzma shrugs. "Madam Prez?"

"Think this'll complicate gettin' ya girl back?"

Guzma thinks a moment. Would it? It's not like he really had a plan here. "If we're relying on a keycard, it ain't gonna work without power."

"Well," Liam says, placing a foot on the first stair. "Least we got the cover of darkness."

That much was true. Not to mention if Lusamine was watching any security cameras, she wasn't any longer. He begins up the stairs, but turns when he notices Liam isn't following. He's surprised when he sees him fish out a phone from his pocket. "Thought the phones were fucked."

Liam gives him a devious smile before starting to tap away on the device. "Sweets fixed em and now I've got a certain guy to check up on."

Guzma huffs. "Well you can climb stairs and flirt at the same time, right?"

"Gonna have to find out," Liam answers, now following behind him with his face buried in the phone.

What floor was the conservation deck on again? Only way too many floors to go.

~~~

You tear through your room single-minded and with one goal: escape. As long as you focus on that and nothing else, your headache continues to clear. You can't sit there and sort it - not yet - and even if you tried, would you be able to? Regardless, it's not something you can get lost in now. It's for later. It's for Poni island and the alter there where you'll bring the flutes. You know - you just know - that'll be the final step in clearing everything up. Then and only then, will you allow the unknown to get to you.

Because, beyond anything else, you know that in this room is nothing that will help you make your past clear. All the years spent within these walls and pondering as you did had taught you that. But a means of escape? Sure, maybe you'd never found that in your room, but now you've got more reason than ever to not give up. Somewhere on this island Mother has Nebby and Guzma trapped. She won't keep you trapped too - not anymore.

You go through closets and drawers, tossing things aside and sifting through your belongings for anything that might aid your escape. The room becomes a mess with your efforts, but you refuse to despair and let your doubts and questions creep in.

No. No. You grit your teeth and mentally strain against the encroaching thoughts of everything Lusamine has told you.

You dump out the contents of bins and get on your hands and knees, picking up random objects to inspect them, hoping the sight of them might give you any ideas. You take the sharpest objects mother had allowed you - scissors, pens, putty knives, tweezers - and pick at the electronics on the door. You wedge things underneath it, trying to get leverage to force it open. You pound on the door and scream, hoping that someone - anyone - will hear you and help.

Finally, angry, sweating, and desperate, you pick up a chair and throw it at the door with all you got. It bounces off harmlessly. You rush over to it, raising it up and bringing it down again and again, until you drop it with exhaustion.

But all your efforts have only resulted in some scratches and dents.

You holler with rage, tears stinging your eyes, and drop to your knees in the chaos spread about you.

No. You tell your doubts once more, but your strength is leaving you.

Why did you think you could escape? Had years in here taught you nothing? You fall back into a sitting position and draw your knees to yourself. You will yourself to calm. Will Lusamine's voice and words to leave you be. Maybe a clear head instead of one filled with vengeance would help. Maybe if you just-

There's some sound out in the hallway. Something loud and muffled is just barely making its way to your room. Curious, you scramble over on your hands and knees and lower your ear to the underside of the door. It's... music? It sounds like music - something fast paced and electronic. Well, that was certainly new. Could it be the others? Liam, Plumeria, and Sweets?

Something catches your eye. There's light glinting off a rectangular, glossy object under a bookshelf near the door.

You reach over and pull out a keycard. The same keycard Guzma had used to get in your room that day. The same one Liam had also used and dropped, where it had landed under this bookshelf.

You can barely breathe as you stand. Holding this thing feels like a miracle. For so many years this simple piece of plastic had been your freedom that was so out of reach.

But you've got it now.

With fresh hope, for the first time ever, you slide the keycard along the keypad, and the door opens.

And there's no one in your way.

Steeling yourself for all you might encounter, you step over the threshold and start down the hallway, the music growing louder and louder as you go. The rhythm of it feels like it's matching your pulse and you soon find yourself running for the elevator.

You follow the same route Guzma and Liam had led you down what seems like forever ago. Around one corner, down another hallway, and another, but then you stop short when you come to the elevator.

The music is now almost painfully loud as it reverberates up from the hole and there's some odd smoke and debris rising from where the platform should be. When you grab the guardrail and look over the edge you can see it down below - a tiny disc completely broken apart and wrecked into several pieces.

So the elevator was a no-go. You're not sure what's going on, but you hope this isn't a sign of what's to come. You'll have to find the stairs. Where were they again? You're a little lost after running for the elevator. You back track a bit, eyes hastily scanning the pure white walls for anything that looks like it might lead to a stairwell.

You've never been so free but so frantic in this place. The rare times you had been permitted outside your room, like to Mother's room or a lab with Nebby, had always meant you were chaperoned. Even when you'd escaped with Guzma you'd had him and Liam. The endless hallways and doors spread out around you like a labyrinth now. There's no one to lead the way but yourself. There's something both titillating and terrifying about this fact.

So where was it that you wanted to go?

You can't make a guess as to where Lusamine might be keeping Guzma, but Nebby she might have stuck in one of her more private labs - the ones way down at the bottom level. The ones that Mother had made you climb down endless flights of stairs for. You know where the stairs are if you can just find your way back to-

You see her at the end of the hallway - Lusamine is rushing towards you and screaming into a phone. She's so flustered that she doesn't see you yet, and the music is so loud, that you can't hear what she's saying.

Then she looks up, and sees you.

She stops. Your heart stops. And then the lights go out and the music dies.

It's all so suddenly dark and you can't make out anything. Instinctively you duck low and stay completely still, trying to slow your breathing in the new silence that's enveloped you - silence so searing in the music's absence, that your ears ring.

First one click, and then another. Then a series of them - mother's heels clacking against the hard tiles as she walks toward you.

A streak of light comes down the hallway and you retreat from it as quietly as you can. You catch sight of Lusamine's face in the glow for just a moment as she shines the flashlight from her phone your way.

Barely breathing, you lunge for the wall you can just make out from the phone's light and back up against it, around the corner and out of Lusamine's direct line of sight.

Her heels echo off the walls as she draws closer. She says your name slow and sing-song out into the dark and you shudder at the tone - sickly sweet with just a hint of venom. "Come here now. I'm not mad. It's alright. It's not safe out here. Come with me and I'll protect you."

You inch away from her encroachment, jaw clenched, and all your focus on staying as quiet as the dark air around you. Carefully you step around another corner.

She says your name sharper now. "This isn't a game! Stop playing and come here now."

You find yourself seething a bit, despite your fright and horror. She's talking to you as if you're a child. Even after years and years - even after she's literally watched you grow - she still considers you the same forgetful kid that suddenly took her family's place. You're nothing but a possession to her. A means to an end. And maybe because that end was getting her husband and children back you'd always had some sympathy for her... but, oh, how that was drying up. And her now prowling the hallways for you like prey was not helping. You swallow and continue to discretely make your retreat and search for the stairs.

You freeze when you realize Lusamine's footsteps have disappeared. Had she taken off her shoes? Was she tip-toeing? You look all around you, but even with your eyes adjusting to the dark, it's hard to see anything. There's no windows and nothing to help you determine if shadows you see moving are actual danger or merely your imagination.

A bright light shines into your face from out of nowhere. You throw your arms up shielding your eyes and when the spots clear a moment later, there's Mother, holding her phone aloft, her mouth twisted up into a snarl.

She lunges for you, grabbing you by the arms with both hands. The phone clatters to the ground, it's bright beam of light spinning around until it comes to land between you, illuminating Lusamine's furious face as she says, "You thought you were locked away before? Just you wait till you see where I put you next. You'll be begging for that room."

"No!" is all you manage to cry, strangled, frightened. You stumble backwards, pulling against her, and Lusamine seems surprised by your forcefulness. She really doesn't see how much you've grown - how much you've acquired, strength or otherwise. You jerk back harder, trying to break her grip, and you both tumble to the ground, Lusamine letting out a startled yelp.

Out of the beam of light you struggle in the murky blackness on the cold, tiled ground as she attempts again to catch you - control you. "Stop fighting me!" she yells and you see a hand going for her phone.

You reel back and kick it with all you've got, sending it and the brightness attached skittering away from the two of you. "No!" you tell her.

With a frustrated snarl she lunges back over you, trying once more to grab your arms, shadows moving towards you.

Instead, it's you who catches her by the wrists, halting her advancement. You lean in close and you can feel her fists go limp in shock. With your voice low, menacing, and full of vengeance for the hurt and fear of so many years of wrongful imprisonment you say "I will never be trapped with you anywhere again. You're a terrible person and an even worse mother." She struggles against you, but you hold fast. "I'm going to leave this place and leave you."

You throw her back - hard - sending her sprawling away from you. Then you rise, turn, and run.

You hear nothing behind you for a moment. Then a chilling, shrill, roar sends a shiver up your spine. You can't tell if she's chasing you or not, but you tear down the hallways faster squinting in the darkness and seeking to merely put distance between the two of you.

You silently plead for the walls to start looking more familiar, for the stairs to show themselves. Your prayers are seemingly answered when you come upon a new light, a different light - daylight shining like a beam of hope onto the glossy floor.

Only, there's someone standing in it.

The figure looks up at you when she hears you coming - It's Ms. Wicke. She beckons you towards her with one hand, while her other holds a dufflebag.

You reach her, panting and relieved. Maybe she'd never exactly stood up to Mother, but you'd always felt like Wicke was on your side, and seeing a familiar face right now is helping your spirits immensely.

She places a hand comfortingly on your shoulder, her face etched with concern. "Where's your mother?" she whispers.

You gesture behind you, still too out-of-breath to respond.

Wicke gently places the bag into your arms. You can feel something small, round, and hard inside of it. There's a rising within you, a relief that you can almost taste. "Nebby?" you question breathlessly.

Wicke nods and smiles, her glasses glinting in the daylight. She takes you by the shoulders and looks away for a moment before meeting your eyes. " I'm... sorry I did nothing sooner. But, please consider this me making up for it. Go - take the stairs, and I'll distract Lusamine as long as I can."

You swallow and nod. You can feel that Mother must be almost to you, but you take the time to give Wicke a quick hug and murmur your thanks.

Then it's off beyond the door and down to a multitude of stairs.

~~~

There's a sound up above. A door opening and closing on a much higher level. Then hurried footsteps descending towards them - just one set. One person coming towards them, so not a bevy of guards set upon them, or the Nihilego, or the numerous other things his mind conjured.

He stops Liam and points up. The two of them listen for a moment then lean out, trying to catch a glimpse of whoever is incoming.

To Guzma's surprise, to his utter shock and delighted amazement, the very person they were looking for is coming to them.

"Doll!" he yells up the stairs. It echos off the walls and the footsteps come to a halt.

He watches as hands grab the railing and her face appears over the edge, looking confused and hopeful. "Guzma?"

He can't help but laugh in disbelief. Then he's taking the stairs two at a time, leaving Liam behind to return to texting.

Up above the sound of descending footsteps begins again.

Where does he even start with what to say? As his feet carry him onward and upward he recalls some of the last moments before the Nihilego took him on Exeggutor Island, in particular things Lusamine said. He can admit to himself that maybe she was right in some ways - he's not exactly a model citizen. He's far from having his shit together and, in fact, things seem more scattered now than they've ever been. Maybe he's not the best he could be, but he can try.

And that trying could start with getting her out of here - with making good on what he'd promised in that cave.

Almost there now, just one flight for each of them to cover.

He gets there first, and waits at the bottom of the ones she's racing down.

She stops with just a couple steps left to go so that they're at eye level with one another, both struggling to catch their breath.

They stay like that for just a moment, regarding one another in an almost incredulous way. Then her face splits into a wide grin as she laughs and throws her arms around his neck. All the anxiety that had built up during his climb dissipates in an instant. He takes a step toward her when she pulls him in by edges of his jacket and brings her smiling lips to his. They're both overheated and sweaty, but she clings to him anyway. He wraps his arms about her middle and lifts her off those final stairs, returning the kiss deeply before setting her back down.

Excited, and pretty obviously relieved, they both start talking at the same time when they part. "What hap-" he starts.

"I thought that-" she says.

He shakes his head, grinning. "Nah, I wouldn't just leave ya there."

"Mother?" she asks.

"Yeah, she, uh- so there was an ultra beast in that ball, but ain't what we thought."

She looks confused.

"It was one of them jellyfish-lookin' ones. Kinda caught me." He shows her his hand and the now missing cut across it. A light, pink scar sits in its place. "Least it did this though."

She takes his hand and inspects it. "But why would it fix that?"

Guzma shrugs. "Guess if your gonna have a host, helps if that host isn't wounded or whatever." He shakes his head. "Anyway, what, did Madam Prez just take you?"

"Yes, she just- she told me you guys left. That you'd got what you wanted and were gone."

He's about to speak when Liam interrupts him. "Ey, in Skull Family, no one gets left behind, alright? Now, this is real sweet an' all," he taps on his phone, "but we got a boat to catch. The rest are gonna meet us at the dock, so let's, uh, skull-daddle, as the kids say."

Guzma scoffs. "Make no more puns and it's a deal."

Liam puts a hand to his face as if this is a proposition he's really considering before he says, "no."

Puns or not, they start for the dock.

 

They arrive before the other three. That they made it there without incident and with a boat ready and waiting for them leaves Guzma feeling almost... wary, like this is going a little too well.

The power is still out and things are dark. From the stairs to the boat had been guided by the light from Liam's phone - an item which he repeatedly seems overjoyed to have both back within his possession and functioning.

Everyone's all hopeful smiles, as they wait by the boat for the others, including him, but it all just feels too good to be true.

Then the lights cut back on and he finds that he was absolutely right.

It's not Plumeria, Sweets, or Ethan standing at the dock entrance - it's Madam Prez. "Angry" feels like too small a word to describe the expression on her face. She looks bewildered, beyond frustrated, and positively livid. She's breathing heavy and some of her hair has matted to her forehead with sweat. She's brandishing something out in front of herself towards them.

It's a flute - the one they'd found on Exeggutor. "I think," Lusamine begins. "that you're forgetting about something."

The girl beside him says nothing, but swallows as she stares her "mother" down. Her knuckles go white from her grip on the strap of her dufflebag.

"Need this?" Lusamine says at her expression.

"Haven't you fucked up enough?" Guzma says. If no one else was going to respond to her, he was certainly mad enough to.

Lusamine rolls her eyes. "Your usefulness ended long ago, so if you could just-"

"That's your entire problem, Lusamine," she says pointedly, interrupting.

Madam Prez looks taken aback, almost... hurt from being called her name.

She continues. "People are more than what use you have for them." She purposefully draws the bag in front of herself for Lusamine to see.

Lusamine blinks, recognizing the bag. "The Cosmog? What- How did you-"

Behind her the dock doors open to reveal three Aether employees, all dressed fully in the usual gold and white, but with not-so usual masks covering their faces.

Lusamine's face lights up. She smiles at them cruelly, victoriously. "Get the Cosmog and the girl," she orders.

Guzma braces for a fight, but the three newcomers don't move. Instead, one of them snatches the flute out of Lusamine's hand, leaving her confused.

It's then Guzma notices the tufts of pink and yellow hair sticking out underneath the helmet of one, and the glove-less hands and purple nail polish of another.

They leave Lusamine standing there, aghast, as they remove their helmets to reveal not members of her employ, and not even two members of Team Skull, but three.

The newest member is holding the flute close to his chest. "Sorry," Ethan mutters, back to Madam Prez.

"Sorry?!" Liam questions.

Ethan stiffens, and looks again with more confidence as he points at Lusamine with the flute. "I mean, I am not sorry in the slightest and this is completely because you're a terrible employer."

"Oh," Liam says as Ethan reaches him. "That all, huh?"

Ethan looks at him. "What, am I supposed to say 'oh, hey, also I met a guy and switched sides?'"

Liam grins deviously. "It couldn't hurt. Ya could also-"

"Oh my god!" Plumeria cuts him short. "What is wrong with y'all? Get on the damn boat!"

Lusamine does not try to stop them as they do just that. In fact, the lack of fight or anything playing across her face is almost unnerving.

All six of them climb aboard - no one left behind.

Ethan and Liam enter the cabin and soon the engine kicks on. Plumeria and Sweets follow soon after.

It's just the two of them on the deck now.

She stares down at the two flutes that Ethan handed her just moments before.

"You alright?" he asks.

"We need to get back to Poni," she says as the boat pulls away. "It's all that's left to do and I have a feeling it might - it might help Nebby." She sighs and looks up one last time at Lusamine. "I just want to get this over with. You know?"

Poni. Poni and the flutes. There's still getting them to that island.

And what happens after? Where does she go then?

He can't bring himself to say anything. Instead he takes her hand and follows her eyes back to Aether Paradise.

Lusamine is still staring after them, and floating behind her, is the Nihilego.

Chapter Text

You're both quiet for a long while - no sound but the movement of the water below the boat. You've got two flutes in one hand, while your other lies in Guzma's. You stare out at mother and her island, which grows smaller and smaller as the boat pulls further away, the pinks, oranges, and purples of twilight reflecting off the ivory exterior.

You're not sure what the plan is now, but you know that you need to get to Poni. This was for two reasons: First, there's something within you - perhaps a hidden memory - telling you that it will help Nebby out of its catatonic form. The second was helping yourself. If you complete this mission, maybe it would set everything right in your head. Would something there give you your memories back? Maybe. But, at the very least, you'd like things to fall into place enough to be understandable. If you do this, maybe you can finally figure out what your future holds - figure out yourself. You've got all the tools you need. All that's left is to finish this.

"Hey, so," Guzma begins, rubbing at the back of his neck with his unoccupied hand. "What- what happened before we found you? You seem kinda... shook."

You glance back at Aether Paradise once more before sighing. "Mother- Lusamine, gave me some more info, showed me her husband's lab and-" there's an uptick in your pulse and you can feel yourself start to sweat. "And I can't- I don't think I can go into it all just yet. None of it feels like it makes sense right now."

You feel his grip on your hand increase slightly. "Info?"

"Yeah, she- she knew a little more than she was letting on. But I just-"

Sudden peals of laughter reach you from inside the cabin of the boat. The Aether craft is on the smaller side, especially compared to the boat mother had used to collect you from Exeggutor Island, but it's still decently sized enough to have a deck around the perimeter and a cabin in the center. The others seem to be having a good time with whatever supplies and materials they found inside.

Guzma looks to the door before turning back to you. "We ain't have to talk about it if you don't want. Just, uh, can you answer me one thing? You stickin' around? After Poni I mean." Then he runs a hand down his face as if mentally chastising himself. "You- ya don't gotta answer that. I just-"

"I don't know," you say quietly, truthfully. You want to say yes. You wish you could just say yes. But how could you? If you were to put all the pieces into place and make your past clear again, how do you know you'll stay? You can't guarantee that new knowledge will let you.

You don't even know if you'll be the same person.

If such a thing is even possible. For all you know, your memories may never return. After all, mother did say there is seemingly no cure... But, until you do know, you can't make promises you're unsure you'll be able to keep.

"Oh," Guzma says looking a little deflated.

Your eyes go to the water, feeling a little awkward and guilty at your inability to give him a clear answer.

You hear Liam shout something and more laughter from within the cabin.

Guzma's hand squeezes yours, causing you to refocus on him. He gives you a half smile. "Ey, it's alright, doll. We'll just... have some fun for now? How's that sound?"

You could use a distraction. Thinking about all that's left to puzzle out unfailingly seems to bring on the worst headache. You nod, and he leads you inside.

 

The inside of the cabin looks very much like a dining room. There's a table and chairs at the center and a small kitchen area off to the right. To the front is a large window with a steering wheel and various dials in front of it. Ethan sits there, piloting, with Liam, Sweets, and Plumeria in chairs pulled up around him. To the left is what appears to be assorted research equipment. There's also a door in the floor possibly leading to some area below.

A pile of white Aether clothes sit on the floor, abandoned by Sweets and Plumeria who are now back to their normal wear. Even Ethan has dropped off bits of his uniform into the heap. Atop his head is Liam's beanie.

Liam himself sits with his feet up on the dashboard and an arm thrown around Ethan. He glances up over his shoulder when he hears the two of you come in and grins. "Ey, boss! Bout time y'all joined us!"

"And what exactly have y'all been up to?" Guzma asks, putting his hands on his hips.

Plumeria stands and approaches the table, smiling mischievously - it's also maybe the most genuine smile you've seen from her since you saw her dancing on that Akala beach. Something about even Plumeria being happy relaxes you. She gestures to the bottles that have been collected on the table. "We might have found some things."

"Up for a victory boat party?" Sweets asks.

Guzma gives an amused huff. "And where are you gonna dock the boat?"

"Right here," Ethan answers, and as he does so the engines quiet. He and Liam both turn around away from the window. "Figured we'd drop anchor in the middle of nowhere for a bit."

Liam winks. "No one to complain about noise if there ain't no one around, right?"

"Right," Guzma says as he inspects the bottles. "Madam Prez sure has expensive tastes."

Liam scoffs as he rises and searches through cabinets. "We knew that much." He returns with several small glasses.

"After all we've been through because of her, I think providing booze is the least she could do," Plumeria says, twisting the cap off one of the bottles.

Sweets sighs and takes a glass Liam passes her. "That's for sure."

You and Guzma join them at the table. He looks at you sideways. "Don't suppose you did much drinkin' in that room, huh?"

To your knowledge, you're not sure that you've ever had alcohol before. You shake your head, once more feeling a little embarrassed about your lack of experience. "Guess this is another first."

Sweets gives you a sympathetic smile. "No malasadas, no colorful clothes, no Tapu cocoa, no-"

"No men." Liam interrupts.

Sweets rolls her eyes playfully. "I was gonna say 'friends,' but sure. You've been denied so much, haven't you?"

You shrug, your self-consciousness growing, even though you know Sweets isn't trying to shame you. You just aren't exactly used to being the focus of attention like this.

Sweets stands and slides a glass across the table to you. Liam immediately pours some clear liquid into it. The passing and pouring continues until everyone has full shot glasses.

You swallow, feeling a little nervous as you grab the tiny glass in front of you. Shots? You were supposed to drink those quickly, right?

Eyes twinkling, Sweets raises her glass in the air. "Well, you've got more than friends now - you've got family."

You're unsure what to say. Some of your doubts from out on the deck cause your stomach to stir. Family? For how long?

Guzma gently nudges you with his elbow and gives you a reassuring smile. "Ya do it in one gulp, okay?"

You try to return the expression. "I'll do my best," you mutter.

"And you!" Sweets says, pointing to Ethan.

Ethan visibly jumps and nearly drops his shot glass. "Me?"

"You're pretty alright too," Sweets laughs. "Welcome to the team."

"To our Skull family?" Plumeria suggests, picking up her glass.

Sweets nods. "To our Skull family."

The phrase gets repeated once more by everyone around the table, followed by clinking.

Then all around you glasses are immediately emptied.

You inhale, steeling yourself, then quickly pour the liquid into your mouth.

And it's horrible.

You swallow, your nose wrinkling. The burning goes all the way down your throat and into your stomach.

Ethan starts coughing.

"Woo!" Liam says, slamming the glass back down onto the table before turning to him. "Ey, you alright? Guess they don't exactly have many Aether parties, huh?"

Ethan shakes his head, eyes bleary.

"How was that?" Guzma asks you.

"Awful," you say, eliciting laughter from him.

"Ya wanna try something else?"

You glance over at the other bottles. Even when you'd finally become of age to drink, it wasn't as if any celebrations with Mother had included alcohol. Sweets wasn't wrong in that this was something else you'd been denied.

But you weren't denied any longer.

And besides, if the slight swimming you're starting to feel in your head is any indication, maybe this would help you forget what lies ahead of you for a while.

You turn to Guzma and smile. "Whatchu got?"

 

You only had a bit more of the different drinks passed to you, but it was enough to get you decently tipsy - not drunk. At least, you don't think so. At one point Guzma had to talk a definitely more than tipsy Liam from pouring you more, explaining, "Hey, you wanna be holdin' her hair back while she pukes? Yeah, didn't think so."

You feel... relaxed, and in much higher spirits. The fuzziness you're experiencing did indeed make it easier to ignore the unknown. The added benefit of your "Skull family" around is helping as well. The six of you sit at the table joking and howling with laughter. The sense of camaraderie is infectious and freeing. This... was also a new experience.

Sweets grins at you. "We really need to get you and Ethan out of those whites," she says.

You look down at the clothes you'd been forced to switch into on Aether Paradise. True, after wearing black for this whole adventure, to see yourself in white feels strange and stifling.

"What, did ya bring along spare clothes?" Guzma asks.

Sweets ducks down and searches through a bag at her feet before placing a pair of scissors on the table. "No, but I got these."

Plumeria eyebrows furrow. "Aren't those for hair?"

"Eh, they ain't the good ones," Sweets says, waving her hand. "You wanna help?"

Plumeria grins and grabs a full shot glass in front of her. "Absolutely." She quickly downs the liquid and rises, coming to take you by the arm. "Come on, girlie, let's fix you up."

"I- uh," you stammer, getting to your feet at Plumeria's insistence.

Sweets is busy doing the same to Ethan, extracting him from Liam's unrelenting grip.

"Noooo," Liam says sadly. "Ya can't take him - he's jus' a nerd and can't survive on his own."

"Oh my god, Liam, I think he'll be fine," Sweets says, finally separating the two and leading a very confused and tipsy Ethan to the same door you and Plumeria are standing at.

"Ey, text me!" Liam calls after Ethan. "We can do that again, ya know!" As the door closes you hear him say, "Welp, jus' you an' me, boss."

Guzma sighs and grumbles.

You, Ethan, Sweets, and Plumeria are now in some kind of large pantry. One half of it is filled with dry goods, and the other half with yet more research equipment. Clearly the boat had been stocked for one of the trips Mother would go on to investigate wormhole sightings.

The room is big enough for the four of you to stand in comfortably and move around a bit, but not much more than that.

Plumeria and Sweets stand side-by-side, regarding you and Ethan.

"Is it curable, Sweets?" Plumeria says.

Ethan looks nervous, while you're a little too sloshed and amused to do much but wonder where this is going.

Sweets eyes the two of you gravely and gives a dramatic sigh. "Maybe, but it's gonna be tough. That's a lot of Aether to extract out of these poor unfortunate souls. I'll need assistance. You up to the task, nurse?"

Plumeria snickers, which turns into full on laughter as she leans against Sweets. "You know it, doctor!" You wonder if perhaps that last shot she took had been one too many. Still, to see her so carefree has you smiling. Even Ethan seems less concerned.

Sweets holds up the scissors. "Could I see your top for just a minute."

Ethan glances up, blinking. A faint smile plays across his lips and he looks like he's barely holding it together when he says, "But he's out there."

Plumeria and Sweets look at one another, shocked and confused for a second, before they nearly collapse onto one another with laughter.

As for you, you aren't a hundred percent certain you get the joke - sheltered as you had been - but, you can hazard a guess. You find yourself giggling along with their contagious joy.

Ethan beams, looking very proud at the results of his humor.

Plumeria nudges him playfully. "Hey, I think you and Liam are gonna work out after all."

Ethan smiles, but he looks a little more thoughtful. "Thanks. I hope so."

"Well," Sweets says, "If nothing else, you're fine by us. Now, seriously. Shirts. Both of you."

You hesitate for just a moment, as does Ethan before each of you are handing over an article of clothing.

As Sweets begins to trim away, Plumeria examines the shelves. "Hey, look - bread."

"Oh, let me see that," Ethan says.

The next thing you know, there's a slice of bread on the floor and Ethan is carefully and purposefully stepping on it, leaving a neat indent from his shoe. Then, he hunches over it with his phone.

"I- what?" Plumeria says as he stands and begins furiously tapping away on the device.

The answer to her question comes in the form of Liam's very loud laughter back outside. "Boss, boss, boss, look at this! He's the fuckin' best."

Ethan's still staring at his phone, the warmest smile spreading across his face. He bites his lip at Liam's last sentence.

"Liam likes sad things on the ground," Sweets says after seeing your still confused expression.

"You caught on to that one quick," Plumeria mutters as she continues rooting through the shelves.

"Yeah," Ethan says, still grinning.

Sweets holds up one of the shirts to admire her work before handing it back to Ethan. "You like our goofball that much, huh?"

He takes the shirt and looks a little flustered at the question as he puts it back on. Sweets had cut off the sleeves, the collar, and some of the other excess from it, like the gold bits. Ethan sighs as he finally pulls the shirt down over his chest, then he meets Sweet's eyes. "Things were just- they were shitty before Liam came along... And I never would have had the courage to do, well, any of this if he hadn't shown up in that security room." His gaze goes to the ground, like he's remembering it. "He is a goofball. He makes me laugh. He makes a lot of people laugh, and we could all use someone like that, right?" He looks up for confirmation.

Sweets and Plumeria exchange glances and nod, clearly curious as to what Ethan is getting at.

"But," he removes the Team Skull beanie from his head and stares at it, "I- I can't help but wonder... who's Liam for Liam, you know? So, I want to be. I want to make him as happy as being around him makes me. I know this is just the start of something, but I can't wait to see where it goes." He looks up again, his fingers curling lovingly around the hat as he brings it to his chest and smiles shyly. "So, yeah, I like him. That much."

"Awww," Plumeria slurs as she accidentally knocks a few items to the floor.

Sweets grins. "Yes, adorable, now let me fix your hair. It's been under that hat a little too long."

As she begins combing her fingers through his hair, tousling it around, Plumeria seems to find whatever it is she's been looking for. "Ah-ha!" she says, holding aloft what looks like a bundle of black cloths.

"What are those?" you ask.

Plumeria shrugs. "Cloth napkins that are miraculously black; guess white stained too easily. But, for our purposes, we're gonna pretend they're bandannas." She sets about folding them in particular ways as Sweets demands Ethan remove his pants.

When they're done fussing with him, they move onto you, and as they do so, you think about the things Ethan said. He talked about wanting to "see where it goes" with Liam. Where were things headed with you and Guzma? Where could they go if you were to just... stay? If you were to stop chasing after your endgame with the flutes and stayed with your newfound Skull family, what would happen?

You try to imagine what life would be like, not as a prisoner on Aether Paradise, but as a member of Team Skull. Would you live in Po Town with them after this all blows over? You conjure images of you paling around with Sweets, Plumeria, and the others across Alola. Of more time spent with Guzma - time in which you aren't constantly pursued by mother.

You picture being free.

But, what was Team Skull's future anyway? You're not sure if they'll be able to go back to Po Town considering it came from Lusamine. You wonder if all the help they've given you has made their future as uncertain as yours now.

It's quiet in the pantry. While you're lost in thought, Plumeria and Sweets work. Ethan's smiling face is illuminated by the glow of his phone as he watches a video Liam sent him - from the sounds of it one full of Meowth. You stand there, arms crossed over your shirtless chest and regretting the way you can feel some of your miserableness creep back in. Maybe more alcohol was in order after this.

What would you be giving up if you were to not go to Poni? What do you stand to gain? ... Why were you questioning this now after everything? You know it's because of Guzma. It's because, as Ethan says, there's a part of you that so badly wants to know where it would go.

But what if you were to regret it? Could you live without knowing your past if finding out were a possibility? Then there's Nebby to consider...

You've come this far. You have to see it through. But then you think about that night spent on Exeggutor Island... staying was tempting.

And it was more than just wanting to see where you and Guzma went together - it was also wanting to find out more about him. Where could he go? What more is there to get to know? Did he have anything that made him laugh like Liam does?

You swallow. You'll go to Poni - you have to - but maybe, maybe you could still stick around afterwards.

Other troubles begin to creep back in, but your ponderings are interrupted by Plumeria and Sweets now handing you altered clothing. They both look like they're still a little tipsy and very excited for you to put on their creations. Right, maybe for now all you can do is live in the moment. Smiling gratefully at them, you redress.

For Ethan, in addition to making his shirt more like a tank top, Sweets cut off his pants at the knees and did her best to fray the edges. Gone are all the bulky pouches and most traces of gold. Plumeria had manged to make what almost looked like some kind of belt out of the black napkins, creating a break in the solid white of his shirt and pants. Liam's beanie is back atop his head, though his hair sits in a messier, yet more flattering way now.

When it came to your shirt, they'd gotten a little more creative. Sweets had also removed the sleeves on yours, but she'd taken out much more of the collar, cutting across from one shoulder to the other, creating a scooped neckline. The shirt was cut into strips on both sides, and then braided back together with black napkins woven in. The effect was a tighter fitting shirt with black details down either side of you. Your pants were, of course, made into shorts, with a black square now knotted around one belt loop at your hip. A couple black napkins were folded and tied around your thigh.

For both of you more of the cloth napkins were creased into wristbands and you each had one tied around your neck to emulate the bandannas all the grunts wear.

Finally, Sweets brushed your hair back and Plumeria folded up one last napkin until it formed a strip that she tied under your hair to make a headband.

You look down at your newly put together outfit. Well, admittedly this was feeling far more "you" than all that plain white ever did. And with that thought, you do what you can to place your worries on hold. Because, how often did you get to participate in a victory boat party? Releasing your tensions with a sigh, you decide you'll be part of Team Skull for as long as you can, and you'll make the most of tonight.

Sweets smiles at you. "Better?" she asks.

You nod and return the grin. "Much."

Plumeria opens the door and immediately Liam says, "Finally!"

Sweets is the next one out. "Hey, art takes time," she tells him.

"Well, let's see it! Whaddya do to him, huh?" He stands and tries to get a better look into the pantry. "Ey, you get that Meowth video?"

Ethan laughs and nearly runs out of the pantry, only stopping when he's right in front of Liam.

Liam's eyes light up. "Well, lookit you! Lookin' like some kinda Aether delinquent been corrupted by the likes of us."

"Corrupted?" Ethan asks, smiling.

"Oh, yeah," Liam says, grabbing him by the waist and pulling him closer. "No more Paradise for you, right? If you went back to that island now they'd kick you out for being too bad."

Ethan shakes his head. "You're ridiculous." He leans in to kiss a very pleased looking Liam.

"Alright, girlie," Plumeria says. "Your turn."

You finally move forward and stand in the doorway, a hand resting on the frame. Speaking of ridiculous, you're kind of starting to feel that way now. You keep your eyes on the ground self-consciously, hesitating, before you look up.

Guzma's still seated, staring at you with an unreadable expression and a hand nervously rubbing at his undercut.

"Go on, G," Plumeria prods. "Tell us we did a good job with your girl."

Sweets pushes his shoulder playfully. "Don't just sit there, boss."

"Alright, alright," he says, chuckling and rising to his feet. "Ya did good," he tells Sweets, who nods in agreement.

Then, he gives you the brightest smile you've seen from him yet - one so wholehearted that you're reminded of when he finally kissed you on Hano Beach. Of the breezy, carefree grin he wore in that picture you found on his phone of him with those wild Wimpod. He reaches a hand out toward you, and you take it, beaming. Your self-consciousness melting away the moment his fingers close over yours. For this moment, there's no one here but you and him.

He pulls you in and his other hand reaches for your face, his thumb gliding along your cheek while his other fingers rest in your hair. "Glad to have you back, doll," he whispers, eyes on yours. "And I'm gonna be glad for however long I've got ya."

You can make out a hint of sadness in that last sentence. He really does want you to stay. Would it be better if he just came out and said that? Or would that just make your current internal debate harder? Maybe that's why he won't say it.

But maybe he doesn't need to. It's already there in-between the words he dares speak. It's in his increasing bravery with you, like how close he is now.

Yet, those unspoken words also feel like the very thing that's keeping him at a distance.

~~~

He feels frozen. The tip of his tongue nearly tingles with words that he fights to hold back. Stay. Stay with me. Stay with us. Let's figure out what comes next together. Let me show you all you've missed out on because I think-

I think I might need that. I think I need you.

But what did she need? For so long she'd been trapped in that room wanting nothing more than freedom and answers. And now she's almost there.

So he can't say those things. He can't ask for an outcome and influence her decision without a guilty conscious. He can't make her give up her dreams for him - he won't. Because that wouldn't be her choosing him - it would feel too much like him forcing her to stay.

And she'd already had far too much of someone else deciding things for her.

She continues to look him in the eye as this moment lingers on, her face becoming more concerned in his inability to act.

"Ya need some help there, boss?" Liam says. "Whaddya want us to close our eyes or somethin'?"

Plumeria sighs in exasperation. "G, you kiss her or I will."

Guzma huffs, concentration now broken. He could be conflicted about this later - might as well do as he just said he would and be glad for as long as she sticks around.

Cautiously he puts a hand on her hip, his thumb brushing against some new, black material woven into the white shirt. Seeing her come out in these altered clothes had gotten him a little caught up. She looked like one of them again - another member of Team Skull - but it was a reminder that she might only be a temporary one.

Swallowing words unsaid once more, he pulls her even closer. Her hands come to rest on his chest, and he smiles despite his melancholy. There's comfort in her touch - always had been since the first time she bandaged his hand. Finally he kisses her as hard as he dares, knowing that it'll have to do the talking for him.

Immediately their audience of four makes a big deal of it, clapping and cheering. He feels her lips smile against his as she holds back laughter.

Well, at least the tension within him is now broken. Might as well put on a show. He dips her backwards and she breaks from his lips, gasping in surprise, her arms encircling his neck for support.

More whoops, laughter, and applause from around them.

He grins down at her and feels her grip on him loosen ever so slightly when she realizes he isn't going to let her fall. Then she pulls his face towards hers for one more kiss and the accompanying nonsense from their friends.

To his surprise, she gets in on showing off too by bringing a leg up around him and roughly running her fingers into his hair. He holds her closer still, the feel of her fingers playing with his locks igniting a familiar tingling along his skull.

"Yeah, yeah, alright, we get it," he hears Liam say. "It wasn't a competition, ya know."

Laughing... but also now feeling a little regretful that they've got an audience, he finally sets her upright, instantly missing her hands in his hair.

They stand there, arms still around one another, flushed and smiling for a moment longer.

"Hey, this thing got speakers and some kind of auxiliary port?" Plumeria asks Ethan.

"I think so," he answers. "Why?"

She holds up her phone and smirks. "Night's still young, and life's too short not to dance."

 

A few drinks and some tinkering later, and music now pulses throughout the cabin - a playlist consisting of mixes and mashups Plumes had put together. With the lights now out, there's just the light of a full moon and stars illuminating their little victory party.

On one side of the room, Sweets and Plumeria laugh while they drunkenly plan out a choreographed dance together. On the other Liam seems to be doing his best to get Ethan loosen up his dance moves. This includes doing a few Team Skull poses that Ethan continuously gets hilariously wrong.

As for the boss and his girl, they've yet to do much dancing. Instead, Guzma had searched through the pantry for just the right ingredients to make his own version of Tapu Cocoa. He may not always feel like he's got many skills or talents, but this? Hey, maybe it was just making cocoa, but he was damn good at it.

Now he's got everything lined up right where he needs it, including her perched up on the counter watching him and milk heating up on the stove. The music is loud, but it's nowhere near as overpowering as it had been on Aether Paradise. They might have to raise their voices a little, but they can talk. There's a small light over the oven he's working by, casting a soft yellow glow across the mugs he's got out and his various cocoa materials.

"Just you wait, doll," he says. "You remember that Tapu cocoa we bought on Akala?"

She nods. "Yes, it was the best I've ever had."

"It was shit."

She laughs. "You seemed to drink it just fine."

"It was nothing compared to what I'm about to fix ya."

She leans over while seated on the counter, trying to get a better look. "Why's that? What're you putting in it?"

"Hey, hey," he says, blocking her view. "Special secret recipe."

She sits back, her face quizzical. "Didn't really take you for the culinary type."

"Yeah, well, I'm pretty hopeless in the kitchen otherwise, but this I'm pretty proud of."

"It's really your own recipe?"

"Yep, lots o' trial an' error to get- what?" he stops at the expression she's giving him.

"I dunno," she huffs. "It's just- It's kind of cute picturing Big Bad Guzma doing his damnedest to perfect his cocoa recipe."

"Cute?" he says in mock defensiveness.

She nods in affirmation. "What, have you got a problem with 'cute?'"

"Guess it's alright, long as it's comin' from you." Without thinking about it, he puts a hand on her knee and gives it a small shake. Then he halts. Touch and familiarity have always felt like weird concepts for him. Small signs of affection are not exactly things he's used to giving or receiving. Sometimes actions like hand-holding could feel typical enough to just do without too much thought. And something more grand, like the kissing they'd done in front of everyone earlier was different. But something like what he's just done? Usually takes more deliberation. The confidence to just do it is an intimacy he hasn't experienced in... well, a long time.

It wasn't too familiar, though, was it?

He starts to move away, but then she takes his hand in hers and turns it over, examining his palm and the scar that's left there. When she traces it with her fingertip, he inhales and accidentally knocks over a container of cinnamon.

She jumps and retracts her finger. "Oh, did that hurt?"

"No! No, nah, it didn't," he stammers, his other hand going to the back of his neck in a well rehearsed nervous habit.

She blinks for a moment before looking at the scar again. "No more bandaging needed, huh?"

"Yeah, but, uh," he can't look her in the eye when he says, "I kinda wish you still had a reason to do it."

There's a moment of quiet and he wonders if that was too much - if it was too personal or weird - but then he feels it along the base of his palm - her thumb gliding across it. Then back over, and to the other side again. He sighs and relaxes, that tingle he now associates specifically with her returning.

She gives a small pull on his arm, encouraging him to come closer and he meets her gaze to find an affectionate smile. At her guidance, he moves to where she's sitting on the counter top and both her hands envelope his one. Still nearer she brings him, until their joined hands are between both their chests. She touches her forehead to his and he closes his eyes, feeling transfixed.

That little house on Route 2 might be gone, and maybe Po Town too, but he's still got a home, and it's right here. With her.

He doesn't say anything, doesn't even move, just wanting to extend this for as long as it'll last. But then he feels those words he just can't say bubbling up once more. Would he loose this home too?

He swallows and parts from her. When she looks up at him, he gently places a hand behind her head and kisses her forehead.

"Guzma?" she questions, looking a little confused.

He clears his throat. "Ey, I said I'd make you the best damn cocoa ya ever had, right? So lemme make good on that promise."

"Okay," she says, releasing his hand and giving him a small smile.

He tries to refocus, righting the cinnamon he'd knocked over earlier. Cocoa, cocoa, just center on the cocoa. Willing himself to calm, he sets about mixing various spices and fixings into the two mugs.

She leans forward, elbows on her knees and chin in her hands, watching him. "You won't reveal any of your methods, huh?"

He smirks. "The mystery is what makes it."

"Trust me, I've already had my fair share of mysteries," she scoffs.

Guzma continues to add to the mugs, carefully measuring out each ingredient in a practiced way. "Alright, you get one," he says as he removes the pot of milk from the heat of the stove.

"One what?"

"One key ingredient." He carefully fills each mug with milk, watching the chocolate and spices swirl together.

"And what's that?"

He stirs it with a spoon, then inspects the contents one final time before handing her the mug. "The fact that it was specially made by me for you."

She rolls her eyes as she takes it from him. "Gee, how helpful."

He picks up his own mug. "Guess you'll have to keep me around to make you more." Was that too much to say?

"Depends on how good this is," she laughs.

Okay, so not too much. He huffs and looks down for a moment. Then he inhales once, and lets it out. Cautiously meeting her eyes again he says, "To future cocoas? However they come."

Her gaze goes to the contents of the mug, looking a little lost in thought. Then, back up to him when she answers, "To future cocoas."

They gently clink their mugs into one another before each taking a drink.

He sets his aside and eagerly awaits her response.

Her mug lowers, but then is quickly back at her lips.

"That good, huh?"

She takes another long sip from it and sets it on the counter beside herself. "I mean, I suppose it might be worth keeping you around. Just for the cocoa though."

He chuckles, feeling a little too aware of the twinge of sorrow that can be heard in it. Even so, he leans toward her and she meets him in one more kiss. He can taste the chocolate on her lips.

"Hey!" he hears Liam call. "Y'all gonna come dance, or what?"

He reluctantly parts from her. "Yeah, yeah, give us a sec."

They quickly polish off their cocoa, and he helps her down from the counter so they can join the others.

Life - as well as their time together - is too short not to dance, right?

~~~

You don't truly forget about what lies ahead at Poni until this moment. Maybe your little group of boat dancers is nowhere near as crowded and overwhelming as the music festival on Hano Beach, but you still lose yourself in it. You have no idea what you're doing but alcohol luckily prevents you from feeling most of your awkwardness. Besides, right now everyone kind of looks a little ridiculous in their inebriated boogieing. But perhaps the fact that no one cares is what brings a certain magic to it.

You look from face to laughing face lit up by the moon and realize that... you've got friends. That you're now one of the ruffians and thugs mother had warned of, but that it's pretty fantastic. You're no longer just you dancing alone in an overly bright room to whatever music mother had allowed - You're a part of something, and right now nothing else matters but that.

There's no worry, or fear, or stress in the pulse of the music around you. No moments to rethink from the past and none to fret over in the future. Just the rhythm of the here and now. To let go this much feels like a whole new freedom, especially after your escape from Aether earlier.

You dance as long as your feet will let you, as does everyone.

At some point, Liam clears off the items on the table and drags a nervous Ethan up to dance with him on top of it. They stay up there even after the music has died and things are winding down. Now they lay across it, hands intertwined.

Plumeria and Sweets sit in chairs by the large front window, each with their feet up on the dashboard, looking at the night sky. You and Guzma quietly listen to the others talk, both of you sitting side-by-side on the counter sipping much needed water.

"You sure I shouldn't dye it red?" Liam asks.

"I like the blue on you," Ethan says.

"But red is your-"

"I told you I'm not doing it, Liam," Sweets interrupts.

Ethan laughs. "Blue is perfect." Then he sounds a bit more serious when he says. "So, um, what exactly are you all going to do now? Madam President mentioned taking back Po Town... where does a team without a home base go?"

You feel your stomach drop a bit. So they had lost Po Town because of you.

Plumeria sighs. "That one we'll have to figure out. We've still got people at Nanu's and in Tapu Village. Can't imagine those are gonna last forever."

Guzma fidgets beside you. Being labelled "the boss" can't be easy when there's something like this to worry about. "I'm sorry," you mutter to him.

He shakes his head. "Hey, not your fault. Things with Madam Prez were bound to turn to shit eventually no matter what."

"Ey, at least you don't gotta worry about her no more, right?" Liam says to Ethan.

"Yeah," Ethan answers. "Still not sure what I'm gonna do next but..." he trails off sounding a little upset.

"Nothin' wrong with a new dream," Liam tells him.

Ethan smiles. "Maybe we can both go back to school."

"Yeah? Whatchu wanna go for?"

"Maybe learn some nursing stuff? With Pokemon I mean. See, I always kinda... I kinda hoped I would improve healthcare on Aether, even if that wasn't exactly what Madam President wanted to use me for. I wanted to improve the tools and technology we used."

"Hey, I'll figure out a way to go back if you do," Liam says.

"Yeah?" Ethan sounds hopeful.

"Could be fun. Maybe we'll find a place with courses for both of us. Meet ya between classes for lunch and shit."

"That would be fun," Ethan says wistfully.

You're quiet as you drink your water and think to yourself. New dreams... Would you have a new dream after Poni? Maybe. And what about Guzma? His biggest goal before had been to get an Ultra Beast. Was that still the case?

You lower your voice to a whisper. "You're not still... hoping to get an ultra beast out of this, are you?"

Guzma scoffs. "Nah, doll, think that run in with the Nihilego was enough for me."

"So then... what are you going to do? Weren't you going to try to use an Ultra Beast to earn a spot in the league? Support the team? Prove yourself? Wasn't that your dream?" Despite your efforts to keep your anxiety at bay, your voice becomes more panicked with each question.

"Hey, hey," he says. He hesitates for a moment before putting a hand on your knee and giving it a reassuring pat. "Don't worry about it. It's gonna be alright."

"But..." You're unsure what to say.

"Things change, ya know? New dreams and all that."

"And, do you have a new dream?"

He stays quiet and the moment drags on with no answer. Then he turns to you and opens his mouth as if to tell you something important - but he doesn't. Instead his mouth closes and he swallows as he looks away.

"Guzma?" you question.

He bites his lip, unwilling to meet your gaze. "You. You're- you're my new dream."

There's a bittersweet swelling within you. That one sentence seems to be as close to asking you to stay as he'll come. And, you admit, some part of you so desperately wanted to hear that.

"But, uh," he continues. "I know you gotta find yourself, and I get that. So, I'll help you do that, no matter what the outcome turns out to be."

"And- and if it turns out that I don't go anywhere?" Because that was a possibility, wasn't it? You don't know what will happen after you bring the flutes to that alter.

He gives a half smile, his eyebrows furrowed, and sighs. "Then I'd wanna show you Alola, just you and me."

You think about what it would be like to travel around the islands with him - to see and experience what the outside world has to offer without the looming threat of being chased down by Lusamine. He really would be fulfilling his promise to be your guide in that case. You take his hand and lace your fingers together. "I'd like that."

His fingers tighten over yours slightly. "Yeah?"

"Yeah," you nod.

"Then, we'll see what happens. First Poni, then we'll figure it out from there."

Exhaustion is starting to take over. You're too tired to begin to worry about what may or may not happen. Will you get your memories back? Help Nebby? Find you have another family and home to go to? Or are your memories lost forever and any former life you had along with them? They're all questions for another day, and right now you're in a night you're wishing would last a little longer.

But sleep won't allow it.

You lean against him, your head on his shoulder and you feel him stiffen for a moment before he relaxes. You tell him one thing to try to comfort him. "Future cocoas?"

He wraps an arm around you and pulls you closer to him. He rests his head on yours and your hair flutters from his breathe when he says, "Future cocoas."

Chapter Text

For the first time in a while, the two of you are alone - really alone. You and Guzma stand by a single tree in a circular area fenced in on all sides by natural rock walls. It's the entrance to something he called "Vast Poni Canyon" and it's the only way to get to the Altar of the Sunne. It is all that's standing between you, saving Nebby, and possible answers. Everything you've been through since leaving your room has led to here, and whatever lies ahead.

That it's just you and Guzma making this last leg of the journey feels... almost a little tense. He's clearly accompanying you through something he may not really want to. You're not sure what will happen at the altar. Would it somehow give you a way home - to your real home lost to you so long ago? Would this be your last day together? Such a thought puts too much pressure on the situation, like you've got to really make whatever little time you've got left count.

There's so many troubles on your mind. Last night's party had been a nice escape for a while, but the morning saw everyone returning to their worries.

Plumeria and Sweets had been dropped off on Ula'ula Island with the intention or reorganizing the scattered members of Team Skull. And, after dropping off you and Guzma, Liam and Ethan had a mission of their own.

Liam had jokingly made note that it'd been a while since Ethan had nervously dropped anything in front of him. Ethan had said it was a sign he was growing more comfortable with all of them. Of course, the item he had most often dropped, was one that was currently missing - the tablet. Panic had set in upon this realization because of all that the device contained. If it fell into mother's hands, finding you and your plans with the flutes would suddenly become all too easy.

Liam had likely left the tablet somewhere near the lower labs so recovering it should be relatively simple... right? That was the hope.

But all you can do as you stand in the shade of the tree is silently wish them luck. After all, You've got your own objective ahead of you.

The air around you is arid and dry. The colors of the rocks surrounding you are various shades of grays, yellows, and oranges. Grass exists in patches here and there. The heat and sun are not quite as relentless as Haina desert, but it's not far from it. The occasional wind that blows past offers a nice reprieve. It's every bit what you'd expect a canyon to be and you wonder what perils await.

Guzma looks contemplative - maybe worried - the emotions darken his features. He swallows, eyes on the cave entrance that marks the start of the trail.

"Is this... dangerous?" you ask.

He glances at you before his stare returns to the hole in the wall and rubs at his undercut. "I did hear a rumor once that it's one of the more dangerous parts of Alola."

"But it's part of the Island Trials, isn't it?" Another small bit of knowledge from a life you can't remember. "You've been here before, haven't you?"

Guzma's hand drops to his side. "Nah I- I never made it this far."

"Oh." A thought occurs to you then. Had you made it this far? Had you been here before? Like with Exeggutor Island?

Guzma huffs. "But yeah, I mean, kids come through here, right? How bad could it be?"

"Right," you nod in affirmation. There's a foreboding in you that he's clearly feeling too, but you can't tell if it's apprehension of the path ahead of you or what lies at the end of it.

Maybe it was time to find out.

You inhale and let it back out slowly. Your grip tightens on the bag over your shoulder, where within lie Nebby, the two flutes, and some supplies you'd gathered from the boat. You're as prepared as you'll ever be as you walk beyond the shade of the tree and towards the entrance of the cave. Guzma falls in step beside you. The two of you enter the cavern to finally begin your journey through Vast Poni Canyon.

Within it's much darker and cooler. You'd expected dampness, but it's nearly as dry as it was outside. There's a breeze here too - air flowing from another entrance somewhere. It smells earthy, like dirt, dust, and minerals. It's different from the tiny cave you took shelter in on Exeggutor in it's lack of greenery and humidity. It's dimly lit, but you can see well enough. Along the ground are a few paths that many feet have formed. Maybe this'll be fine, even if neither of you is clear on a direction. You'd find your own way through this trial by following the footsteps of all who'd come before you.

Guzma still looks contemplative. You wonder just how far he'd gotten in his island trials before throwing in the towel. Did being here remind him of all he fell short of? He kicks a small rock repeatedly as you make your way further into the cavern, his hands in the pockets of his hoodie.

"Are you alright?" you ask.

"What? Yeah, yeah I'm good." He gives the stone one final punt, sending it clacking into the dimness ahead. "Why do ya ask?"

You answer with a question of your own. "What happened on your island challenge?"

"Why do ya wanna know?" He visibly bristles with defensiveness.

It's a reaction you weren't quite expecting, but you don't back down. "One of us is going to have to answer a question here instead of asking another at some point."

Guzma shrugs. "Eh, doll, all that happened so long ago. It doesn't matter."

You swallow. Maybe there was another reason you're asking these things. Your mind travels back to the photos of you and Lillie hung up around that lab Lusamine had taken you to. Bracing yourself for the headache it might bring on, you decide to drop a small bomb. "I went on the island challenge."

Guzma stops. "What?"

Your pulse upticks slightly and your breathe in, willing your nerves to calm. How long could you go on without confronting this anyway - internally or otherwise? You're not sure what it is about everything mother told you that sets such a panic in you when you so much as think about it too hard, but maybe finally talking about it would help. You come to a halt too and look up at him. "I don't... I don't remember anything about it whatsoever, but apparently I took the trials as well."

"What, before the room?" He looks so confused and concerned, hands leaving his pockets and one coming to rest on his neck. "When you were, uh, somewhere else?"

Still trying to even your breathing, you start down the path again. There's an exit up ahead, and maybe air outside this cave would help. Guzma follows you as you continue. "Well, we knew from the start I was from another dimension, right? Just turns out that it was pretty much exactly like this one."

"I don't, uh- I don't know where to even begin with that," is all he says.

You smile sadly and give a small laugh. "Me neither. I was friends with Lusamine's daughter - well, I guess my reality's version of her daughter - and it looks like we traveled around Alola together. But it was just me and Nebby that came through that wormhole that day. Her husband and children... she doesn't know where they wound up; neither the versions from this reality or mine."

"You sayin' there's multiples of everyone?" He sounds incredulous.

And you're feeling okay about talking about this despite that - mostly anyway. It's getting easier the more you open up. "I suppose," you answer. "To be honest, I'd been trying not to think about it too hard till now."

He looks away for a moment before asking, "That mean there's another you here?"

Now that was the concept that kept hanging you up; the thing that set your mind on fire the most. Because, if there is another you in this dimension, does that mean that ultimately you shouldn't stay should you be given the option? What does your being here mess up? If possible, everyone should go back to where they belong, right? Set every reality back in order? "Theoretically," you answer quietly.

Light blinds you for a moment as the two of you exit this first cavern. A narrow path lies in front of you, leading to another cave. You don't speak as you head for it, instead you concentrate on the feeling of the sun on your skin before the warmth disappears again.

Maybe what made this subject so hard to broach before is the possibility that maybe you don't have a choice. Maybe you fear having no options again, after so much had already been beyond your control. You'd thought that, should you go back to your reality, it would be because you recovered your memories and simply had to because of the people you'd left behind. But what if it isn't? What if you have to leave because it's what's right? Because maybe two of you should not exist in this reality at the same time. Are there lives, destinies, and more that you're damaging by being where you shouldn't? All of this isn't as it should be - it's unnatural. Mother said your story was "interrupted" and maybe you're interrupting others with your presence. If so, the only moral conclusion would be to fix it.

But when you look at the man walking beside you, and remember the people you've grown close to here, it doesn't feel so black and white. Would it be so bad for you to stay? After everything don't you deserve that option?

Another you... would she look like you? Be just like you? Would Guzma seek her out if you left? Is there someone else you're suppose to be with?

The panic is returning and with it your pace increases. This new cavern is rockier and less trodden, and you shouldn't be tearing through it as fast as you're starting to, but you can't help it. It feels as if you're attempting to get away from all these new thoughts pressing in on you. The cave around you is suddenly too tight and small as claustrophobia begins to take hold. You just need to get through this and get to fresh air again.

"Whoa, whoa! Wait!" Guzma yells as you nearly run through the cave.

But you don't slow; you're too focused on escape. You need to breathe freely. You need to get this over with - all of it. You're so tired of questions. Free reign over your future or not, you'd run towards it if it means this all just ends. If your head would stop-

You slip then. You'd been scrambling up an incline littered with pebbles and your frenzied feet failed you. You come crashing down awkwardly on your hands and one of your knees, sliding backwards. That knee comes into contact with something jagged and you yelp in both surprise and pain. Finally you come to a stop in a heap of dirt and debris, breathing heavily, your head swimming.

"Goddamn, doll! Ya alright?" Guzma asks, kneeling beside you.

Your body may have been forced to a stop, but your head is still reeling. Was it really your responsibility to set things right? You didn't choose this - any of it. Didn't choose to be brought here, to be stuck in a room, to be stagnant until now. None of that was right or fair. So why should you have to fix this?

You watch Guzma as he inspects you, his face full of confusion and worry. He would be hard to say goodbye to if it came down to it. So should you stay? Do you want to stay? Just turn around now? Maybe it isn't your burden to fix what you never broke in the first place - at least, what you're pretty sure you never broke. It's not like you can remember how you came through that first wormhole.

He helps you to your feet saying, "Ya pack any first aid shit in that bag o' yours?"

"I think so," you mutter as you allow yourself to be led and sat upon a large, flat rock. You rummage through your duffel and your hand bumps into Nebby. You go completely still, your mind finally quieting for the first time since this onslaught of anxiety.

If you don't finish this journey for yourself, then you've got to finish it for Nebby.

Shoulders drooping, and your mind nothing but confused, gloomy buzzing, you hand Guzma a small bundle of supplies. Maybe you'd been right to push all of this to the back of your mind before and refuse to touch it - it's too surreal to fully grasp.

Guzma sits back on his heels in front of you and begins rooting through what you gave him.

You feel a pang of pain and almost gasp when you really look at your own knee for the first time since the fall. It's pretty damn covered in blood. There's one long, big gash with smaller cuts and scrapes surrounding it. Dirt and tiny pebbles are embedded here and there. You look at your palms, which are a little scrapped up, but had definitely fared a lot better.

If nothing else, the sudden sight of so much of your own blood has certainly taken you out of the spiraling within your head.

"Guess it's my turn to do this, huh?" Guzma says, wetting a napkin with some kind of disinfecting solution.

"Sorry," you say, looking away.

Guzma huffs. "Nah, don't apologize. Ain't like you haven't done this for me a few times now."

You continue to stare off at some spot in the distance. You'd wanted this for so long - to finally reach this last leg of your journey - but, some part of you feels so far away right now.

You look back, meeting his eyes when his hand comes to rest on your uninjured knee. He offers you a small, cautious smile. "So, uh, this ain't gonna tickle," he says before gently wiping the napkin down your other knee.

It stings, but not much; the falling had definitely been worse.

"Well, okay, maybe it's fine," he says, continuing to clean your wounds.

You blink, now amused, remembering his reaction the first time you'd used something similar on his hand. "What were you expecting?"

"I dunno. An 'ouch!' at least? This shit hurts!"

In spite of your miserableness, you laugh. "It's not that bad."

He stops for a moment and grins sarcastically up at you. "Hey, maybe I'm just a better nurse than you."

"Or you're a bigger baby."

His hand is back on your other knee and he pats it a couple times. "Maybe I was just wanting more of your attention."

You balk. "Are you saying you were faking it?"

He laughs. "Nah, that shit actually hurt like hell. But, uh, you bein' the one to do it made it better." He meets your eyes once more before his gaze returns to your knee, a slight smile still visible on his lips.

You watch as he works. There's definitely a soothing effect that comes with someone tending to you. You begin to feel both relaxed and a little distracted as his large, rough hands perform these gentle actions. He seems a little clumsy and not entirely sure of what he's doing, like perhaps he's just copying the things you'd done to his hand all those times before. There was always something endearing about watching "big bad Guzma" do something so much more soft and delicate than his demeanor.

Finally satisfied that you knee is clean, he sets aside the dirtied napkins and begins to fumble with a tube of cream. "So... what was that about? You know, when you just kinda took off."

There's a spike of panic in your gut at the reappearance of this subject. But then his hand returns to your knee, spreading the antibacterial cream over it, and you find that spike's grip loosening and dissipating as he continues his careful ministrations. You swallow, trying to think of a way to place your jumbled thoughts into a coherent string of sentences. "What if- what if we somehow have the option to set all this right at the altar? I should go back to my own home because... it's what's right. Isn't it? Should we all just be where we're supposed to be?"

Guzma's face falls as his eyebrows scrunch up in thoughtfulness. He says nothing for a few moments as he finishes with the cream and recaps the tube. "Are any of us supposed to be anywhere?" he asks quietly. His looks anxious when his eyes return to yours.

You shrug. "That's the question, isn't it?"

"Doll," he says softly. "What do you want?"

"I think- I think I want to stay here."

Once more a hand comes to your unscathed knee. His thumb rubs back and forth slowly along the side of it. "Then what's stopping you?"

You're grateful for that small motion of his thumb along your skin. It feels as if it's grounding you; a tether keeping your thoughts from running too wild again. "I guess the thought that I might be, I dunno, messing something up by staying? Disrupting the order of things?"

He looks almost hopeful at you now and you wonder if that hope is false. "Little disorder ain't so bad. What, exactly, do you think will happen as a result of you stayin'? I mean, ya been here this long."

"I'm not sure," you say, glancing away. "What if we're all fated to do something, or be somewhere, or be someone? Or... be with someone."

You turn back when his hand leaves your knee. There's the crinkling of paper as he opens bandages. "So," he says, "you asked me about how far I got in the island challenge, right?"

You pause, wondering how these things connect. "Yeah?"

"I got kinda far, I suppose. I quit on this very island. When I was younger, everyone used to tell me how much potential I had and that I had real talent as a trainer. Used to make me think that maybe I was meant for something great - that I could and would do something big despite everything. Despite all my dad said, despite where I came from... I wanted so badly to be a trial captain. But, that never happened."

You stay quiet as he begins to wrap your knee.

All his concentration seems to be on tending to you and the words he's speaking. "I was angry. I was so wrapped up in what I thought was supposed to happen, that I didn't see what could happen. I felt robbed." He gives a small, ruefully laugh before saying, "Probably didn't help that my parents were so damn disappointed in me for quittin'." He looks up at you and gives you a half smile. "Guess you know somethin' about parental troubles, huh?"

"I do." You nod, and for the first time, you realize how much guilt where mother is concerned has ebbed away.

His gaze returns to his work. "Maybe what happened to me wasn't what was 'supposed' to happen, but, you know, I don't think things turned out too bad. Started Team Skull not too long after - got a whole gang of ruffians and thugs to pal around with." He smiles as he repeats your words from when he brought you to Po Town. "You remember what you said to me on the boat to Akala?"

You think back to the ferry ride and the two of you hiding away in the supply closet. Of course you remember, but you're not certain you know what he's referring to. "What about it?"

Guzma finishes with your leg and rises before settling on the rock next to you. "You said that the unknown could be okay. That the thought that anything could happen gives you hope. Did that change?"

You consider this a moment. Had that changed? Even now - even with the possibility of leaving - anything was better than your room on Aether. You shake your head. "No, I think I still think that."

His eyes go to your hand. Gingerly he takes it and interlocks your fingers. "I'm not sure there's any 'destiny' or 'meant to be' or anything like that. And if there is? Maybe it's the ways in which we change it that make things interestin'. You wanna stay? You stay. Fuck destiny. You wanna go? That's fine too. But you decide for yourself, alright?"

"Alright," you say slowly. Then a little more amused you ask, "Fuck destiny?"

"Yeah, well, Liam's got this thing about just sayin' 'fuck it' to stuff and I've been trying to adopt that."

"Fuck it," you say flatly. It's the second time you've repeated this, but it still feels awkward in your mouth.

Guzma laughs. "Exactly. Fuck it."

Maybe that was the answer. Fuck it. The world is not your problem to fix.

~~~

It's weird to be here. He's never been to Vast Poni Canyon, and had, in fact, avoided it. The Island Challenge had been easy at first, and it had also been easy to believe that he had as much potential as everyone told him. But things didn't stay that way - no, they got much more difficult. But it wasn't just the failed trials or the walls he was suddenly coming up against as a trainer, Poni Island was also where he split with the friends he'd been taking the challenge with.

Alone, and faced with navigating one of Alola's most dangerous places, Guzma had instead gone home, where things got immeasurably worse.

And now, accompanying her to the end of this trail, he knows he might lose her as well. Poni Island feels like a place of loss for him - a place where things go wrong. With that mindset about where they're at, it's hard not to be introspective. But, if her little incident banging up her knee is any indication, she's got her own dilemmas she's working through. So, he'd do his best to just... put on a brave face.

They've gone in and out of different caverns since she fell. With each new area paths are less worn and the way becomes less clear. People had clearly given up and turned around as the journey became more treacherous, but it's nothing they can't handle as long as they watch their footing. Her injury has slowed her a little, making careful footing a necessity.

If this is the last they'll be together, then he wishes he could chase away the cloud hanging over them - the one that persistently remains no matter what words they might say to reassure one another. The shadow that cloud casts is more exhausting than navigating the trail ahead of them. So far their hike has been full of highs and lows - both geographically and mood-wise. There's moments where he's made her laugh, and then others where they're both too quiet and glum.

Now the caverns have given way to bridges over canyons. The bridges are wooden and look sturdy, but the lack of railing to guard against falls almost makes that not matter. Things feel tense once more, and he wants to find a way to break it.

He carefully looks over the edge of the cliff they're on. Out in front of him the canyon is wide, rocky, and every shade of brown, yellow, and orange. He accidentally kicks a pebble over the side, and it plummets, bouncing as it goes, the clacking echoing off the walls.

Maybe that was a way to lighten the mood.

He inhales deeply, cups his hands over his mouth, then lets out a loud whoop into the vastness. It reverberates all around them.

She visibly jumps in alarm. "What- what are you doing?"

"Hollerin'!" he answers before doing just that once more.

She looks around nervously like she's checking for other people, but so far the path has been nearly barren. They've only come across the occasional hiker who would either nod as they passed them, or take one look at their attire and avoid them. Right now he can't spot anyone else but the two of them.

She glances from him, then back out at the canyon, her eyebrows furrowed.

"What're ya waiting for an invitation?" he says, grinning.

"You want me to... yell? But why?"

Guzma shrugs. "Hey, it's kinda fun! Cathartic, ya know? You gotta release that pressure valve sometimes." He smiles teasingly. "You maybe more so than most."

Her face fills with uncertainty. "What do you mean by that?"

He gently elbows her arm. "It's just, I dunno, you're kinda quiet most of the time, and you don't have to be - not anymore - not if you don't wanna be."

"And this is... allowed?"

He gestures to all the unoccupied space around them. "Who's gonna stop us?"

She seems to consider this a moment, before her expression grows determined and she sets her bag on the ground. She takes a few deep breathes in and out and then-

Lets out the quietest, weakest yell he's ever heard.

Guzma stifles laughter and she shoots him a withering look. "Yeah, ya sure showed that canyon how you really feel," he says.

She rolls her eyes, but smiles. "It's not exactly like I can remember doing such a thing before."

That there's so much she hasn't experienced might be what makes him the most distraught about the possibility of losing her. He can't quite express why, but he wants so badly to be there for all the firsts she'll eventually find. If those times are limited, then he'd have to settle for small ones, like this. "Alright, alright, we'll build up to it," he tells her. "First, you gotta loosen up." He lets his arms hang loosely at his sides and shakes them out.

She looks unsure at first, but follows suit.

He inhales heavily and holds it in. Again, she copies him, letting the breath out noisily when he does.

Then he cups his hands around his mouth and screams "Fuck!" into the void.

And this she does not follow. "Wait, wait. I thought we were just yelling, not sending obscenities out into space."

"Ya afraid of saying 'fuck?'"

"No," she says defensively, "I say 'fuck.' I said it earlier today. I'm saying 'fuck' now."

"So then," he spreads his arms out to the canyon.

She bites her lip and glances out, then back to him. "Guess it's just... a little different screaming it in a public place."

"What public? I swear there's no one here. Just let loose, doll."

She turns back to the canyon and mutters "Fuck," under her breath. Then she says it a second time, louder, clearer. After a third time, she looks at him, as if for guidance.

"Listen, I taught you all I know. You're gonna have to find the fuck within you," he tells her.

A fourth "fuck" comes from her, this one not much louder, but definitely said with more conviction.

He shrugs and gives her a "so-so" gesture with his hand.

This fifth one she prepares for, and her volume is finally increasing. By the seventh, it echoes across the expanse.

"Now we're gettin' somewhere!" he says, grinning. "Fuck!" he yells, joining her.

Now they're both screaming the word out together over and over out into the abyss. It reverberates all around them, a cacophony of explicit noise filling the empty air.

She smiles broadly - genuinely - for the first time since they've entered Vast Poni Canyon. The way she holds herself changes, no longer so stiff and rigid. Whatever timidness had been instilled in her on Aether seems to leave more and more with each repetition of the word.

There's a noise behind them.

They both whirl about to find a woman standing at the mouth of a cave entrance - just a random hiker. Her face reads complete disapproval, and maybe even disgust, before she turns back into the cavern away from them.

Guzma looks at the girl beside him, worried at first that such an intrusion might make her retreat back into her shell. She'd been loosening up so well and a judgmental look like that might be enough to erase all that progress.

But then, to his relief and delight, her face splits into a grin and she laughs - hard, loud, unrestrained.

He chuckles along with her, probably more alleviated than he should be that she's unperturbed.

Still giggling, she sinks to the ground and sits cross-legged next to her duffel bag.

He settles down beside her, leaning back on his hands with his legs stretched in front of himself. The two of them stare out at the scenery ahead, bright and colorful in the afternoon sun.

"It's pretty," she says, a carefree smile still lighting up her features.

He huffs. "Yeah, sure is."

"I think I've been here. It feels... familiar."

That was still a strange concept he's still trying to mentally work through. Multiple realities? Not exactly an idea he thought he'd be grappling with when this whole thing started. Still, he doesn't seem as bothered by it as she is, but considering the circumstances, that was understandable.

There's nervous fidgeting beside him. When he glances her way, she gingerly scoots closer and leans into him.

He sits up and wraps an arm around her, a goofy grin slowly spreading along his lips. The way things were working out between the two of them was another unexpected outcome of this whole adventure. There's a pang of uncertainty that tries to float it's way back up, but he physically shakes his head, warding it off. The tension had been broken and he'd be damned to see it return so soon.

"I want to see more sights like this," she says quietly.

Guzma swallows, remembering what he'd said to her the night before about wanting to show her Alola. "We'll make it happen, doll." Maybe the best course of action to enjoy the here and now is to pretend as if the only outcome to all this will be a happy one. It beat miserably wondering about all the other possibilities.

That want to show her Alola feels like it encompasses so much. Maybe he could find a new purpose for himself too. Maybe by showing her a good time he'd prove he was worthy of being with someone like her.

She seems to be okay with pretending to. "So, do the cocoas taste different on every island?" she asks.

"Yeah, but none as good as mine," he answers. Was this denial? He decides it doesn't matter. Thinking in circles was proving to be more tiring than anything they've come across on this hike. So they'd circle no more.

She gives a small laugh. "I could definitely go for some of that after all this."

"Ey, you know I'm good for whatever you want."

They fall into a comfortable silence as they take in the canyon together. He has to admit, it is indeed a beautiful sight - and not one he's entirely sure he would have noticed without her. To see Alola all over again through her eyes would be a whole new experience, despite most of the islands being familiar.

He doesn't know how long she wants to stay here at what feels like the top of the world with him, but he's certainly not going to be the one getting them on the move again.

~~~

You continue on when the afternoon begins slowly giving way to twilight. It's hard to get up and go; sitting there with him and staring out at the canyon feels like a pause button. No need to think of the future as anything but all you're dreaming of as long as you remain there. But the sun does not pause, and, given that the place you're going to is called The Altar of the Sunne, it's probably best you get there before dark.

So reluctantly, you pick yourselves up from your perch and set out across the first of a few perilous looking bridges.

At least you're feeling more relaxed. Guzma had been right about all the screaming - you do feel better. Some deep rooted frustration you hadn't even been aware you were carrying has escaped you in all the ruckus.

But now, as you watch Guzma stand before the bridge, there's another emotion swirling in your stomach. It's the unmistakable and somewhat unsettling sensation of familiarity. You'd been here before with someone else - someone else who hesitated to cross this very bridge in another world much like this one. Lillie?

But Guzma is not as afraid as whoever this other person was. He strides out onto it, but stops and turns when he realizes you aren't following. "You ain't scared are ya?" he asks. "This ain't any scarier than that elevator on Aether... well, mostly."

You shake your head. Your reluctance doesn't come from fear - it comes from these strange feelings and the vague outline of memories that still sit in a dark corner of your mind that you're unable to light.

But you think seeing into that darkness gets a little easier as you get closer to the altar.

You join Guzma on the bridge. He seems to sense that something is up, and takes your hand. He jokes with you, clearly trying to keep the mood light, but you're not fully paying attention.

What was it that came before the altar? Then you remember: the final trial. Maybe you had come further than Guzma in your Island Challenge.

A few more bridges, some natural obstacles to traverse, and you're almost there.

And something else is there. You can almost sense it.

"Can I ask you a weird question?" you say.

Guzma looks taken aback. "Uh, sure, shoot!"

"If I... end up leaving, are you gonna, like, find the me of this reality, if there is one?"

He laughs in an amused way and puts a hand behind his neck. "Yeah, that sure is a hell of a thing to ask. I hadn't really, uh, thought of that. I mean, wouldn't really be you would it? She wouldn't have experienced the same things, wouldn't know me... I think that'd be too weird. Far as I'm concerned, you're the only you I need to know."

You suppose that makes you feel relieved.

Or, you did feel that way, until you see something up ahead at the start of the trial area that makes you suddenly pull Guzma behind cover with you.

"Whoa! What-"

"Look," you say in a harsh whisper as your throat goes dry.

There's someone there. Her hair's a little different and she is, perhaps, a little younger, but she is unmistakably you.

How do you even begin to process this? The answer is that you just can't.

You watch her talk with a young trainer and you realize-

"You're- she's a trial captain!" Guzma says.

You don't respond - can't respond - as you continue to spy on your doppelganger.

Beside you Guzma looks almost giddy. He looks so ecstatic he's almost laughing.

"You're sure taking this well," you mutter.

"It's just- you were worried, right? Worried you'd be messing things up by staying where you ain't supposed to? But look! She's fine! Trial captain and everything."

You try to shove down the near existential panic you're feeling as you consider what he's just said. True, she does seem to be doing alright. There's something... different about her in comparison to yourself. She carries herself in a way that's more confident. She talks directly, surely, and precisely to the trainer she's handing something to than you have ever talked to anyone.

You realize then that she's you if you'd never been trapped in that room for years on end.

There's something crushing about this. Could you ever find a way to be like her? Could you work toward shedding this trauma?

On the other hand, Guzma was right - it was a relief to know that maybe things aren't messed up simply because you're here too. Maybe the world (however many there may be) really wasn't your problem to fix.

You watch as she straightens a bag over her shoulder - a bag that is also familiar to you - it's the same duffel you've currently got on your own shoulder. ... does she also have her own Nebby? How would that work?

The best explanation you can come up with is that some things will find their way to happening regardless of circumstances. Maybe there's comfort in that too. Because, if that's true, then perhaps it doesn't matter what you choose to do.

"What do you wanna do?" Guzma asks.

His question brings your focus back. "Well, we're not going out there. Imagine trying to explain all this."

He sucks his teeth, "Yeah, that'd be a hard one. So, then what? Altar's just on the other side of this trial site, right?"

"We're just going to have to wait and find a way to sneak by," you sigh.

Guzma's phone lets out some kind of alert tone.

He throws his hand into the pocket of his jacket and frantically finagles with the device until it goes silent.

Both of your eyes go back to your double.

She's looking around - confused, searching - and walking in your direction.

You hold your breath involuntarily. You can't move, can't think, can't do anything but remain rooted in your hiding spot.

Beside you Guzma stiffens.

She stops before reaching the two of you, still looking around and standing on tiptoe. Then she shrugs, seems satisfied with finding nothing and turns back toward the trainer. "Anyway," she says. "There's a shortcut - let me show you!"

She and the trainer both leave the area.

You don't budge until she's completely out of sight. When she is, you nearly collapse on the ground.

Guzma lets out a low whistle. "Well, damn that was close."

"Yeah," you agree, swallowing and forcing yourself to breathe normally.

She can't know about you. You're not sure what's brought you to this conclusion, but it's what you've decided. No matter what, she can't know about you.

"Huh," Guzma mutters. When you look over, he's checking his phone. "So, that was Liam. He texted me... They can't find the tablet. And, uh, Madam Prez seems to be gone too."

You blink and trying to keep your mind from running too wild with this new info.

Guzma continues. "Looks like there's some shit going down at Aether - people finally rebelling I guess - so maybe that's why she's gone."

Maybe. Or maybe she's found the tablet first.

You look up to find the sun close to setting and stumble your way out of your hiding spot.

Time had always seemed so endless locked away in your prison, but now, with so little left, you can't let it run out.

You tear past the trial site, through and out this last cavern, ignoring the pain shooting through your knee. Guzma stumbles along after you. If he says anything, you don't hear it. There's a purpose radiating throughout you, drawing you closer and driving you forward.

You don't stop until you find yourself at the foot of an impressively large set of stairs.

Guzma comes to a halt beside you, panting. He takes one look at the stairs, says "son of a bitch," and puts his hands on his knees.

But there's no time to waste, not with the sun so far gone. You climb.

"You're gonna kill me," Guzma complains, but he follows.

No breaks, no pauses, no time to waste. You feel like you've maybe got minutes.

But now, after everything, you're here.

This altar is more than just like your dreams - it's just like you remember.

It's ancient, tall, and ornate, with the centerpiece of it all the great, circular stone disk situated above the water and greenery. It's both beautiful and intimidating. It is the end and beginning of everything.

There's a hazy memory coming back to you - the fuzzy outline of something slowly coming into focus. You've done this before and you know even where to stand and what to do. The last time you completed this ritual had been right before you wound up in another world on the cold floor of a lab on Aether Paradise.

This is it. This might really fix it. This could set everything right again. This might just-

But it's different this time. You're with someone else. When you turn to Guzma, you can feel the pinprick of tears starting in your eyes.

His expression is unreadable. He swallows before meeting your gaze, his eyes revealing an inner confliction. "What'll happen?" he asks.

"I don't know," you say in a choked whisper. "But I think it's going to set it all straight. And I think it's what we have to do."

He looks at the ground, eyebrows knit together, and hand at his undercut. "Kinda fucked, ain't it?"

Despite yourself, you give a small laugh, tears pooling and threatening to spill beyond your lashes. "What?"

"Fucked that so much fell on you and- and that ya might gotta make some big decisions here."

A single tear escapes and slides down your cheek. You wipe at it hastily, trying to smile. "Yeah," you nod. "Kinda fucked." There's something reliving about saying that. Maybe sometimes it feels good to simply acknowledge when shit is indeed fucked.

Guzma returns your smile - or, he attempts to. His lips light be going through the motions, but his eyes sure aren't.

He stretches out a hand to you, and for a moment you're reminded of the first time you took his hand: when he comforted you enough to leave the Aether elevator and get on the boat that would take you on this journey. You'd been so scared then - as scared as you are now.

When you take his hand, he pulls you toward himself. Grey eyes fixed on yours, he says, "Doll, whatever happens, just... I wouldn't trade what time I got with you for anything. And it's- it's gonna be okay. I promise."

Your lip quivers, but you manage to get out two words in response. "Future cocoas?"

Guzma huffs. "However they come." Then, fingers softly tilting up your chin, he kisses you deeply, purposefully, and with potential finality.

You dare only linger there with him for a moment, wishing you had longer. But time is so perilously close to being up.

You hand him a flute while you keep the other. Then each of you move to your respective platforms.

In unison, you play.

Just as you had read in the library what feels like so long ago, two tones ring out across the altar - a perfect pair.

Even after mute.

The instant you're finished, the altar quakes. You stumble, alarmed. You look over at Guzma, who glances back at you with the same apprehension.

The water around you lights up from an unseeable source. It starts at each of your platforms and travels along the streams leading up to the great stone disk. And when it touches that disk, it begins to glow so brightly that you shield your eyes.

A beam shoots out and illuminates the ground between your platforms.

Your duffel bag begins to shake. Before you can stop it, it's ripped from you, rising into the air. You reach out, but it's gone, floating quickly towards the growing glowing spot on the ground.

Transfixed, you watch as Nebby's small, catatonic form surges from the bag, and situates itself in the center of the light. Once more you turn away when the brightness becomes too great to behold.

The light dissipates, but when you look back, Nebby is no longer there - well, at least not the Nebby you knew.

There's a new, evolved Pokemon in it's place. A creature that looks like a great, cosmic lion. "Solgaleo," you say, as you begin to approach.

"Hey, hey wait!" you hear Guzma say.

But you don't stop. It's Nebby, isn't it? Surely it's fine. You stretch out a hand.

You're just about to make contact, when the creature flinches away. You withdraw, confused. Was this how it went before?

Nebby regards you for a moment, looking bewildered - maybe lost. It seems unsettled, like it's suddenly aware that this isn't the dimension it should be in. It turns away from you and bellows at the altar. It's a roar so loud that you cover your ears.

There's a rippling through the air in front of the Solgaleo. Reality itself seems to twist and bend until it swirls together into a circular passageway.

A wormhole.

Nebby gives you one last puzzled glance, then gallops through, disappearing into the space beyond.

This... this is it then.

Nebby's going home - back to the world that's calling for it - the same one that you belong to. If you're going to go too, you've got to act now, before the door closes.

You stare into the illuminated ether, light erratically shining everywhere and your hair blowing back. Stay or go. You have to decide. Now.

But... your memories haven't returned. It's not all fixed and you don't know what to do.

"Doll!" you hear Guzma yell above the clamoring of the wind.

You quickly look over to him. Your eyes meet, but neither of you says anything more. You shake your head, feeling frozen. You're finally deciding something for yourself, but you just can't choose.

Guzma looks away to something behind you. His eyes go wide.

You turn.

There, lit up only by the pale blue of the wormhole, is mother.

Only, she's much more than just mother now. She's held aloft by a creature that encompasses half her body. Her torso and head sit inside the bell of a giant jellyfish-like ultra beast while her legs dangle beneath her. You'd seen this particular beast only a few times before, but never like this. The creature itself might look passive, but mother's furious features look terrifying and unhinged in the manic lighting.

She talks then, her voice magnified and distorted. "Enough of this. For so long I've shown you kindness despite the ways you've wronged me. You took my family and now I'm going to drag you with me to every reality in existence until we find them!"

Behind you the glowing begins to dim. Your voice leaves you. It's all too much to take in, and what would you even say to her threat? The most you can get out is a barely audible "no" as Lusamine charges.

She's so fast and frightening in this new form and she's coming right towards you. Even in this last moment, mother will be taking your ability to decide from you.

Something pushes into you, not from the front, but from the side. You fall to the ground from the force of it, and as you do, you catch sight of mother colliding into Guzma, the two of them disappearing through the wormhole.

The wormhole fades, shrinks, and closes before you can even get back on your feet.

You gape at the stone wall of the alter that's been newly returned.

Wait. Wait, wait, no.

The thoughts find their way into actual words leaving your mouth as your hands slap onto the dark stone and feel around for something, anything. "No. No!"

But it's gone. The wormhole's gone, Nebby's gone, mother's gone...

Guzma is gone.

With all of them vanished you can't recreate the ritual. You can't follow. Even if you could, would you be able to find him?

It doesn't matter.

Tears flowing freely from your eyes and shouting cries you let loose into the night, you collapse against the altar.

Your resolution has been forcibly ripped from you.

And you are alone.

Chapter Text

The night is empty, dark, and indifferent to your anguish. Even more than that though, is how desperately lonely it is - there's nothing here but you, in a defeated heap on the cold stone of the altar. You sit against it, hugging you knees to your chest - a fresh wave of blended emotions hitting you upon seeing the bandages covering one of them.

What do you do? What can be done? Could anything be done? Your mind is running wild, both desperately grasping for ideas, and mourning your sudden losses.

All that's led to this moment and everything that it took to escape your room, ended with you not only not finding your answers, but also losing Guzma and Nebby. One, your only companion through all your years of entrapment, and one the person to free you. ... One with whom a different future might have been possible. But now? What does the future look like now?

Where do you go? If you find everyone else, what do you tell them? And what about Guzma? Where did he end up? Will mother do anything to him? Will he lose his memories like you did?

You'll never know. It'd taken mother so many years to finally reach a wormhole, and when she finally did, it was one she stole from you. You can't follow or find him without a wormhole, and now you've got no way of going through another. In the end, Lusamine won. The world is every bit as dark and cold as she described, you just never imagined that it'd be the woman you called "mother" who would make it so.

Guilt drags long, pointed claws up your insides. All of Guzma's help had earned him becoming as lost in another world as you are.

You continue to sob there on the ground, as if your tears and cries might help stave off the feeling of your chest caving in for at least a little while. You're gutted. To get so close only for it to all fall apart leaves you feeling exposed and vulnerable - like you've got wounds that might never let you leave this altar.

And maybe you won't. You came to this dimension with only one thing: Nebby. But now even it's gone. You're alone, and you'll remain that way.

"Uh, hello? Are you alright?"

You freeze, nearly choking from suddenly trying to restrain your weeping. Wiping at your eyes, you glance up, then quickly back down, hiding your face.

It's you there. This dimension's you. She's standing between the two platforms you and Guzma had played the flutes on earlier.

She can't know who you are. You don't - can't - adequately explain, and you don't have it in you to try. Heart pounding, and mind working on overdrive, you pull up the handkerchief tied around your neck over your nose up to your eyes. Hopefully that'll be enough.

"Hey? Miss?" she says, approaching closer.

You get shakily to your feet.

"Are you-"

"I'm fine!" you say hoarsely, praying that the grief and dismay in your voice will be enough to mask it.

She watches you, concerned, and you can't help but marvel at how bizarre this is. It's strange enough to almost take your mind off the situation at hand. You begin trying to come up with ways to slip past her, but then she adjust something over her shoulder, and you get a clearer glimpse of-

The duffel bag.

For a moment all air leaves your lungs and you're unable to refill them.

Does she have a Nebby?

"You sure you're okay?" she says, eyeing you up and down.

The combo of Team Skull-esque attire, injury, and obvious distress probably does not paint a picture of "okay," but you've got bigger things to convince her of besides your well being. How do you even begin this conversation? "You're a trial captain?" you ask. It's as good a place to start as any.

"Yes," she says slowly. "Dragon type trial, back that way," she nods towards the long flight of stone steps. "I was just about done for the day, but there was a bunch of lights and commotion coming from this altar and, well, that never happens, so here I am." She gives you a curious, but gentle smile. "Who are you? ... You're part of Team Skull?"

"Uh," you stutter. If you tell her that you are, would that make her more or less likely to help you? "Sort of," you mumble, eyes on the ground. Before she can say more, you decide to start questioning her. "Can I ask you something?"

She blinks. "I suppose."

"Your bag... is there a Pokemon in it?"

Her grip tightens on it. "Why?"

Maybe this wasn't the right way to go about it, but you can't think of any other, and you're desperate. "I know how to help it," you say. And you do, provided that her Nebby has evolved.

She looks completely taken aback. "But- but how-"

"I'm sorry," you tell her, hoping that you're coming off as sincere and trustworthy... despite most of your face being covered. "This is all gonna sound really strange and there's some things I'm not gonna be able to explain, but I think we can help each other here."

Her face grows more concerned and she maneuvers the duffel bag so that it's behind her. "If you're not hurt... then I think it's best if I go."

Your heart sinks. You aren't convincing anyone here. What can you do to show her that you mean no harm?

She backs away, watching you warily, before hurrying for the stairs.

"Wait! Please! I can show you how to fix Nebby!"

She freezes, the duffel bag swaying at her side. Slowly, she turns back around. "How did you-"

"That's the part I can't- I can't explain. But please, let me help. And please help me."

She looks at the ground, like she's running through the entirety of this strange situation and it's possible outcomes. Then, to your utter relief, she approaches you again.

You heave a large sigh. "You do- did have a Cosmog then?"

"Cosmog?" she repeats, unzipping the duffel. "Is that what it is? I've always just called it Nebby." And inside the bag is indeed another Nebby, this one also in it's smaller, catatonic form.

Beneath your makeshift bandanna you smile, eyes pooling with tears of newfound hope.

"It's been like this for a while..." she says, sounding wistful and sad. "You can really help it?"

"Yes!" you tell her excitedly. "But afterwards I may need to... borrow it for a bit. I'll bring it back, I swear!" you add at her look of alarm.

She watches you for a moment, then her eyes go to Nebby, and finally back to you. "Okay," she says. "For Nebby, I'll give it a shot! What do we do?"

 

Once more you find yourself standing on one of the platforms, flute in hand. Your doppelganger stands on the other, with another flute also retrieved from the ground where it'd been left.

You fidget nervously as you place the flute under the cloth tied around your face. The truth is, you're not certain this will work - it's long after dark and this is the Altar of the Sunne. Did that matter? Would you be able to convince her to wait till morning if it doesn't?

After an exchange of glances, the two of you play your instruments together. Two twin melodies unite in the night air and come to a peaceful quiet once completed.

And nothing happens.

You swallow, your heart pounding in your chest like a hammer. Please.

The only sound is that of the wind rustling past you. There's no lights, no shaking, nothing.

You're breathing so heavy in the quiet around you that you're sure she must hear you - must be already planning to leave. You almost despair again, but then-

It starts smaller, softer than before, but then the earth itself begins to quake.

The entire event begins again - the glowing that meets at the large stone disk, the concentrated beam of light, even the bag ripped from the other girl's grasp as it comes to rest on the illuminated spot on the ground between your platforms.

The girl looks to you, afraid and questioning. You hold down the end of your bandanna against the wind and light whipping about you, and nod to her, hoping that's enough to assure her that this is all to plan.

But then something is different. When the brightness dissipates, it's not a newly evolved Solgaleo in Nebby's spot - instead it's a giant cosmic bat, flying steadily in place. This you hadn't read about. Was this what happened when the ritual was done in the dark?

Your double drops her flute, her mouth hanging open in shock. Then she runs for Nebby.

You leave your own platform and meet her at the center, trying to remember to breathe. You're so close to potentially finding a way to save Guzma. But there's still one thing you'll need to convince her of.

Just as you had earlier, she stretches an arm out towards Nebby, a hand reaching for it's head. Unlike earlier, this Nebby leans into her touch. It doesn't look scared or confused as yours had; it looks comfortable and complacent, like it belongs here.

That is, until it sees you. It cocks it's head to the side curiously, and begins looking from your twin, to you, and back. It knows. You'll have to do this before it gives you away.

"What-" the girl begins, turning to you. "What did it just evolve into?"

You shake your head. "I'm not sure. This isn't the Pokemon I read about... but- but now that I've helped you and Nebby, I need to act fast. I need to borrow it."

She looks conflicted as she pets the giant bat's head. "I-"

The Pokemon gives a low, friendly-sounding grumble, making eye contact with you.

The girl smiles. "Well, it seems to trust you, and I suppose you kept your word about helping us... You'll bring it back?"

"Yes!" you say, perhaps sound a bit too anxious, but the more time you waste, maybe the further lost Guzma gets. "Just wait here, and we'll be right back. I promise!"

She bites her lip, her face dark with worry, before finally taking a step back from the creature. "Okay," she relents, offering a small smile.

Sighing in relief, you give your thanks before turning to Nebby. "There was a wormhole opened here not too long ago... is there anyway you can open another leading to where that one went?" You're not sure this is something it can even do, but you might as well try; you have no direction otherwise. Was it possible that it was sensitive to where recent wormholes might have gone to?

It gives a trill in what you hope is affirmation before bending down.

"I- I think it wants you to get on!" the girl says.

You hesitate for just a moment. You pray that this is the right move. If you get lost as well, then there's no hope for either you or Guzma. But, what other alternatives are there? This might be your only chance. Carefully you climb aboard the Pokemon.

Like your Nebby before it, this Nebby lets out a cry - only this one is much more high pitched and piercing. Still, it has the same effect. Once more, a wormhole is before you on the altar.

But you don't waver this time. "Let's go," you whisper to Nebby.

With a flap of it's massive wings, you're off and through the blue light of the wormhole.

 

At first, all around you is that same light, it's impossibly bright and you close your eyes against it. But then, as that intense luminosity begins to ebb away, you open them to find a world materializing around you.

It's dark, strange, and rocky. There's peculiar formations that look like otherworldly plants glowing along a path in front of you - the purples, blues, and greens coming from them are the only source of illumination in the vacuous and cavernous place. The air is thick, cold, and humid; it takes you a moment to adjust to breathing it in. You tear the bandanna down from your face, inhaling deeply.

Is this another world? If so, it's like nothing you've ever seen. It's bizarre and alien and you feel very small and alone as you take it in.

But this is where other Nebby brought you upon asking it to follow Guzma and mother, so they must be here... right?

You climb ungracefully down from Nebby, wincing as you hit the ground - your knee was not appreciating this.

One step and then another, you start cautiously down the path. Something - many somethings - float in the air above and ahead of you, large shadows drifting lazily through the empty space. One comes close to the glistening plants and you gasp. They're all the same type of jellyfish-looking ultra beasts that mother had been suspended in. You stay frozen for a moment, but none of them seem interested in pursuing you. They don't notice your presence or Nebby's at all, and instead just continue their aimless bobbing.

You begin again, but pause when you realize that bat Nebby isn't following. You turn towards it asking, "Aren't you coming?"

All it does is give a low purr and nod to the wormhole that's still swirling behind it. You can only hazard a guess as to what that might mean. Maybe it has to stay there and keep that particular wormhole open if you're to find your way back? Maybe going through another is what would make you lose memories? You aren't sure, but whatever the reasoning, this Nebby isn't accompanying you. Swallowing nervously, you face the path again, alone.

You shiver as you make your way through the foreign landscape. The hair on the back of your neck stands on end. There's something unsettling about wherever this location is. Was your Nebby here too? You'd been certain that it was going directly back to the dimension you both came from, but that clearly can't be the case. Perhaps Lusamine following had messed that up somehow. You wonder how big this place could possibly be, and if finding Guzma, Nebby... or mother is even a possibility.

You trip over something on the ground - something you see briefly in a flash of gold - but quickly catch yourself. Searching at your feet you find a very familiar pair of sunglasses and you feel the color drain from your face. One side is a full circle, while the other is a lopsided half-moon shape. That second side is shattered, pieces of black glass missing from the whole.

"Guzma!" you whisper harshly, resisting the urge to yell it. Would being too loud attract the ultra beasts?

Now your search is more frantic, as you pick up the pace down the path, eyes searching wildly around. You clutch the sunglasses in your hand as you go. That shattered side - was that because of mother? The Nihilego? Something else? They may not necessarily mean he's hurt, but it doesn't feel like a good sign. But, at the very least, it is a sign that he's here.

The path twists and turns this way and that with no sign of anything but the occasional ultra beast above you. You tear down it until you come upon a clearing of sorts. The path widens into a large circular area before narrowing again to continue on ahead. You come to a stop just inside of it, trying to catch your breath.

Your mind is pins and needles - just a cacophony of your pounding heart, raspy inhalations, and racing thoughts. Your chest aches not just from physical exertion, but from emotional strain. The whiplash of tonight feels like it'll take forever to recover from.

And it's not over yet. You're hit with a new spike of fear and elation as you find what you're looking for in this clearing. There's a figure lying on the ground off to the right side. Guzma. Ignoring the ache of your bandaged knee, you run to him, skidding to a stop and hastily falling to his side.

His eyes are shut and he's unresponsive. There's a trickle of dried blood from both a split lip and one of his nostrils. The pale shadows of what will almost certainly turn into bruises are scattered along his arms and face. There's patches of dirt smeared here and there, and a tear at the shoulder of his shirt. His jacket is just barely still on him.

"Guzma! Hey! No, no, no," you say, words leaving your mouth breathlessly. You shake him gently, but still he doesn't move or wake. Was he even breathing? Eyes wide, you watch the medallion resting on his chest as it slowly rises and falls weakly. Sighing in relief, you place a hand over it. He might be battered, but he's alive.

A shaky hand comes to rest on top of yours, making you jump and look to his face.

Guzma's eyes are barely open. He gives you a feeble smile. "Hey, doll," he says, voice quiet and raspy. "Whatchu doin' here?"

You feel the pinprick of tears of relief as you emit a small laugh. "I- it doesn't matter right now. Are you okay?"

"Eh, yeah, it's- it's fine." His hand leaves yours as he tries and fails to push against the ground and sit up. "I'll walk it off in a minute."

This wasn't good. If he can't move and you can't carry him, there isn't much you can do. You wonder if there's a time limit on how long other Nebby will willingly stay guarding that wormhole. Then there's the question of where mother is, as well as your own Nebby.

Guzma looks dazed, staring off at some far off spot beyond you. You gingerly sweep some of the hair from his forehead with your fingertips and his eyes refocus to meet yours. "Are... you okay?" he asks.

"What? Yeah, yeah, I'm fine. Don't worry about me. Can you- can you tell me what happened?" you ask, a little afraid of the answer. You have a feeling you already know.

"Well," he says, trying once more to rise, and grunting with the effort. With your help he manages to sit up, but he's unsteady. "Madam Prez sure-" he winces as he leans against a rocky wall, his jacket falling further down his arms. "She sure can throw a punch with help of her little jelly friend, as it turns out."

It was just as you had feared; mother had done this to him. You feel a twinge of guilt. Guzma had essentially taken your place by pushing you out of the way, and he paid the price for it. "I'm sorry," you tell him.

He huffs. "Ah, doll, you're always apologizing for things that weren't your fault. That woman? She's sure ain't- ain't your responsibility. Fuck that." Again he gives you that faint smile.

You try to return it, but you just can't. There's too much going on, and too many things to worry about, which now includes Lusamine and her temper. Instead, you lean over him and carefully pull his jacket back up his arms and over his shoulders. His gray eyes never leave yours as you move. When you finish, you find yourself face-to-face with him. His eyes search yours, questioning, but what exactly you're not sure of. Gently you place a palm along the side of his face, and lean in once more to kiss his forehead.

"What, that's all?" he says when you pull away, his lips now forming an exhausted, but sarcastic smirk.

"Excuse me?" you say, a little confused.

"I'm just sayin' that ya boy's hurt real bad and might be dyin' an-"

You cut him off with another kiss, this time, far more intimate then a peck on the forehead. Parting from him you say, "You're not dying."

He gives you a dopey grin, before wincing again. "I dunno. Sure feels like it. Gonna have to bury me out here in, uh, wherever we are."

"So, you don't know where we are either." You settle against the wall beside him.

Guzma shrugs. "Somewhere in-between things is my best guess. Think something got messed up along the way after leaving that altar. We landed here, and Lusamine started going after Nebby to get it to open more wormholes I think. 'Course she had to get a few good hits in on me first."

"And- and where is she now?" you ask, swallowing.

"Dunno, I passed out," he answers.

"And Nebby?"

Guzma shakes his head. "You gonna look for it?" His tone is worried, unsure.

"I'm not sure," you say, biting your lip. You're torn. Part of you wants to do the best you can to drag Guzma back to the entrance now, before you're trapped here. But another part of you isn't sure you could forgive yourself if you leave without Nebby - your Nebby.

"Madam Prez..." Guzma says quietly. "She sure figured somethin' out with those things."

"What do you mean?"

Guzma's eyebrows furrow as he starts to explain. "I was in one of those Nihilego's too."

"You were?" You turn to him. He hadn't told you this.

"Yeah, it's what was in that beast ball Lusamine gave you. Only... me and that thing didn't exactly gel the way she did with it. It knocked me out and made me, uh, relive some things..."

He trails off, leaving you curious as to what he could mean by that. Whatever the visions he had in the Nihilego might have been, they don't sound good. Unsure how else to offer support, your hand finds his. You cradle it and run your thumb along his palm - he seems to like that.

He gives you a half smile, at the very least looking as if he's been brought out of lingering on those memories too long. "Ey, it's fine, doll. I got out an' all." He swallows before continuing. "But that woman she- she's become something else. There ain't no talking or reasoning with her. She's just... gone. Don't- maybe you shouldn't go after her - or Nebby."

You don't say anything as you consider the implications of his words. Is the more rational decision to just leave?

But you find that you can't. You'd been escaping or trying to escape for as long as you can remember, and you just can't do it anymore. And more than that, you can't leave Nebby alone here in a strange place in-between worlds to be hunted by mother.

"I- I have to try," you whisper.

Guzma just nods. "Yeah, sorta figured that'd be the case." He begins to attempt to wobbly rise to his feet.

You grab his arm. "No, no, you stay here."

"I can't-"

"It's gonna be okay," you say, meeting his eyes and doing the best you can to look like you mean that.

He watches you for a long moment before relenting and relaxing back against the wall. His mouth opens, like he's going to say something else, but then he seems to think better of it and closes it again.

"I'll be back quick as I can," you tell him, standing and dusting yourself off.

His hand reaches up unsteadily and grabs yours. "Just... thanks. Thanks for comin' after me."

Did he really think you wouldn't? You suppose you'll have to explain how you were able to later. You kneel back down, enveloping his hand in the both of yours. "No one gets left behind in Skull Family, right?"

Guzma huffs. "That's right, doll."

You give his bruised knuckles a quick kiss before finally releasing his hand. "I'll be back for the cocoas you owe me."

Finally he gives you a toothy grin. "Told ya it was good enough that you'd have to keep me around."

This time you return his smile.

 

You don't want to leave him alone too long - all the Nihilego floating around had been nonthreatening so far, but you can't be sure that'll be the case forever. Besides that, the less time you spend here, the better. Traveling through a wormhole had already made you lose your memory once... being uncertain of the particulars of why that happened doesn't exactly put you at ease in your current situation. So you continue on down the path, on the lookout for any signs of Lusamine or Nebby.

Anxiety makes your mind feel as if it's fraying. If you do find mother, what will happen? Would she hurt you as she had Guzma?

Your nerves aren't calmed by what you hear up ahead. There's yelling, screaming, coming from what is almost certainly Lusamine, but she sounds distorted, as she had on the altar - loud, booming, menacing, and echoey.

"Come out or I will rip every limb from your body when I find you! I housed you, fed you, protected you, same as I did her! Opening the correct wormhole is the least you could do!"

You see her then, figure still suspended in a large jellyfish as she whips this way and that along the path in search of Nebby.

Nebby was clearly hiding. Was it even still here? It must be if Lusamine is looking for it. But why not open another wormhole to escape if its capable? You wonder then if it is capable. Back when it was a Cosmog, opening just a single wormhole had been so stressful that it forced it to evolve. Maybe there was a recovery period before it can do it again. Maybe that was why other Nebby refused to leave the wormhole that it's currently keeping open.

Mother gives an otherworldly, guttural scream of frustration, bringing you out of your pondering. You're about to duck out of her line of sight, but then, she goes quiet and turns, as if sensing you.

For a moment, when her eyes lock on yours, her face reads nothing but complete shock - a face you can still read so clearly despite the creature she's become. Then it's soft, questioning, and familiar, causing your guard to drop. She's not Lusamine then, she's mother. Her arms spread wide, as if inviting you for an embrace. The tentacles of the Nihilego do the same.

You don't move. In the quiet, all you can hear is the sound of your deep breathing. The two of you stare one another down, nothing but a length of path between you.

You could try to talk her out of this madness, plead with her to calm down, to see reason. ... but, it's not as if that's ever really worked before. Friendly and maternal as her features may be right now, this was still the woman who locked you away for years. The same who lied to you time and time again, the one who kept you in the dark, the one who chased you across Alola when you'd finally managed to escape, the one who beat Guzma so badly and hurt Nebby as well.

Fuck this.

Slowly, you shake your head, denying her affections.

Immediately her face transforms into a manic mask of rage. As she had at the altar of the sun, she flies at you. It's so sudden, fast, and frightening, that once more you find yourself merely staring her down.

But she never reaches you. Because leaping into her way, is Nebby - your Nebby. Your constant companion through all your imprisonment is at your side again. A cosmic lion, lowering itself, growling, ready to pounce. Relief and fear flood you. You let free a breath you were unaware you were holding. Nebby might be here to defend you, but what happens now?

Lusamine stops short, taken aback for a second before her fury returns. "You and that thing. Ungrateful till your last," she says, lip curled into a snarl.

"Lusamine," you address her calmly, coldly.

Her face becomes stony. "Am I no longer 'mother' then? Have I not been a mother to you? You took... everything from me and now you'll take this too?"

"I was a child!" you tell her, your voice betraying more emotion than you intend. You struggle to keep your face from doing the same. You are not responsible for whatever happened to Lusamine's family. You were so young when you appeared here, and you let her make you believe that maybe you had done something wrong. But no more. Your heart hammers away as you keep her in your sights. Could Nebby take her on? Could you?

"And what are you now?" she shoots back at you, beginning to circle you and Nebby. "Look at the way you're dressed and all the trouble you've been up to. Running around with a gang of all things. You think you're an adult just because you've grown? My dear, it'll take more than years for you to mature. You're still so naive."

Your mind is running at a near panic, not only with fear of her possibly attacking, but also with the need to defend yourself. She always seemed to have the upper hand in arguments. She was always one step ahead, was always able to say something more underhanded or even deliberately vicious before you could formulate a response. This time is no different and you can't help but feel like your silence means that you're losing somehow.

But then you realize: This isn't a game that you have to play. It doesn't matter what she thinks or says to you. She's wrong - always has been - about every pessimistic thing she's ever told you. You don't have to engage. The best way to "win" might be not playing at all.

"Nebby," you say calmly to the Solgaleo so determined to protect you. "Let's go."

With that, Nebby's low growling dies out. It turns to you, looking almost confused, needing confirmation that you don't intend to fight Lusamine. When you shake your head, it stands up out of his aggressive positioning, and the two of you begin to leave.

Something strikes you - something large and rubbery. You're lifted off your feet and thrown bodily into the air with the force of the impact. In the next second you hit a rocky wall, finally falling in a painful heap on the ground. Hurt radiates throughout you, several areas of your body throbbing and stinging. Bleary eyed, you clutch your arm and look up to find Lusamine poised for another blow, arms and several tentacles raised, teeth bared, eyes afire with indignation.

"Don't you dare turn your back on me!"she seethes.

Nebby roars. It's a ferocious and overpowering sound - one so all-encompassing and overbearing that you cover your ears. The cavern quakes in the reverberation of the noise.

Not one, but several wormholes suddenly open in a circle around Lusamine. She spins in place as they appear one-by-one.

You scrunch yourself closer to the wall, your pain momentarily ignored in wake of all the light and wind whipping about the small area. Your view of the scene is blocked by Nebby coming to stand in front of you, guarding you. You struggle to watch between its legs.

Lusamine's mouth hangs open as she continues to take in all the portals around her. She'd tried so long to find and pass through any wormhole she could, and now here are seven. She and the creature hosting her whirl about and refocus on Nebby.

"Which is the right one?" she demands. Do you hear me, you stupid beast? Which one do I-"

Lusamine's eyes go wide. Suddenly the Nihilego containing her seems to be moving without her approval. She struggles within it in protest, arms and legs kicking. It's an unnerving scene as you watch both her and the creature pull in opposite directions.

But there's nothing Lusamine can do. She's at the mercy of this alien she's decided to pair with. "Wait! No! I can't just- Tell me this is the right one! she screams at Nebby.

But Nebby remains impassive.

Clawing, thrashing, and screaming, Lusamine continues to be dragged to the particular wormhole her ultra beast seems drawn to. You watch as her frantic face disappears into the blue haze, and her agonized, panicked calls die out.

You remain pressed against the rocky barrier behind you. You're not sure what emotion you feel once she's gone - maybe it's nothing at all. You'd felt so many things for her over the years, and now that she's undoubtedly unable to reach you, you can't summon anything. After everything, mother got what she'd always wanted - just not quite the way she wanted it. You're no longer a prisoner - she is.

The entire area shakes, the air between the wormholes starts to look hazy and unstable. It must be dangerous for so many to be open at once. You should run, get back to Guzma, and flee. You almost do exactly that, when the wormholes begin winking out. With each one that closes, the tremors become less and less violent. Even the one Lusamine went through vanishes. They continue to dissipate...

Until there's just one left.

It's not until this singular wormhole stands alone that Nebby leaves you. It comes to a stop just in front of it, and turns back toward you, waiting.

Using the wall for support, you get to your feet. Still clutching your arm, you look at Nebby questioningly.

It's then you understand. This is the correct wormhole. Through this passage is a home you left behind so many years ago. It's the world you and Nebby belong to. The one calling Nebby to it.

You stumble over towards Solgaleo, the brightness of the portal nearly overwhelming. You're here again, with a decision to make, and this time there would be no interruption.

"Doll?" says a voice behind you.

Well, almost no interruption. Guzma stands there, one arm bracing against the wall, while the other lays across his midsection. All the commotion must have brought him to check on you.

You stand there, caught between him and a way truly home, "Guzma, I-"

"Hey, it's okay," he tells you. He smiles, but his eyes remain melancholy. "If... you gotta go, you gotta go. I'll make it back. Ya boy will be fine." He winces as he settles back against the wall and gives a small laugh. "Send me a postcard, alright?"

You bite your lip, tears stinging your eyes. "Alright." You smile.

Your eyes go to the ground, then to the wormhole. Nebby cocks its head at you.

When you turn once more to Guzma, he says one last thing. "You go find yourself. After everythin' you deserve that."

You'd spent so long wanting answers to the questions that plagued you: Who are you really? What family do you have? Where do you come from? What did you lose?

But in your search you've gained so much. In particular you know that you've already got a family should you choose it. Maybe you don't know everything about who you are, but it will be fun to find out - as long as you're doing it with a certain someone. What should be isn't what has be. And you don't have to have all the answers. Lusamine had let the unknown twist her - you won't do the same. Finally, you are able to choose something for yourself.

And you know what you choose.

"Nebby," you say, reaching out a hand. It places its head beneath it in response. "Thank you," you whisper to it. "Thank you for always being there. You were... all I had in my darkest hours sometimes. I know you have to go, but I've decided to stay here."

It doesn't move for a moment, just continues to stand still and let you pet it. Then, it looks into your eyes one final time. An understanding beyond words passes between the two of you - this is goodbye. It nuzzles against you, and tears begin to run down your cheeks. You've spent what feels like a lifetime with this creature and it knows you better than anyone. You feel an ache when it parts from you, turning back towards the wormhole. It gives you one last look, then takes off into the beyond.

The wormhole dims, slows, and fizzles out of sight.

The cavern goes dark and quiet, and for the first time all night, you feel at ease.

Arms suddenly envelope you from behind. You spin around to see Guzma's grinning face. "Not that I ain't happy, but, uh, I don't understand," he says.

You huff, your arms coming to rest on his shoulders. "You know, Lusamine told me once that mine is a story interrupted..." You shake your head. "But I don't have to finish that story. I've already started another somewhere else that I want to see through. I choose you."

Guzma smiles wide. "It was the cocoa, right?"

You scoff. "You and the damn cocoa."

Laughing, he finally brings his lips to yours. You return the kiss deeply, victoriously.

That decision - this thing that you've chosen - is the beginning of truly finding yourself.

 

The thing about a dream coming true, even if it's not quite in the way you expected, is that it's not the end. No, instead it can be the start of something new. You're not sure what your new dream is yet, but you get a better idea with each passing day. Because the world is brand new now, and you're almost certain that it's all so much brighter and colorful than before. With no white walls to hold you, and no one to chase you, Alola is yours to experience and explore.

Or, it will be soon.

In the meantime, like today, you've been waking up in a place far different from Aether Paradise. And usually there's someone beside you when you wake, though he's mysteriously missing right now.

You sit up in the creaky Shady House bed, and stretch, looking around, but there's no sign of Guzma in the room. He'd been hesitant for you to stay here at first, saying that it was dingy, old, messy, and "not exactly a five star joint," but all those reasons were precisely why you wanted to be here. You're far over the pristine and orderly accouterments of a place like Aether, so he need not be embarrassed. Besides, it was better than the floor of a Pokemon Center. So, Po Town is where you've been for now as you both recover from your injuries the night of your visit to the altar.

Anxious, though not fearful, to see where Guzma's gotten to, you get to your feet and set about preparing for the day. It's a big day today after all, and it's strange that he's not here. You peel back the bandages covering your knee to find that you no longer need them. The cuts and scrapes have healed up nicely, even if you may have a scar.

You can't help but roll your eyes and laugh a little as you pick up your clothing from the ridiculous makeshift throne in Guzma's room. "Gotta sit somewhere," he'd told you upon seeing your puzzled expression. "Might as well be a throne."

Guzma may not exactly be proud of the way the place looks, but you've been positively in a state of bliss. To be both safe and surrounded by friends is so new an experience that it feels almost shocking. In the time since that night, it's been pure joy to grow even closer to your Skull Family.

Better still to see their dreams come true.

You leave Guzma's room and make your way downstairs, the echoes of music reaching you. You follow the sound until you find Plumeria surrounded by speakers and complicated looking equipment. What fills the air is an upbeat and fast paced song that feels as if it matches the mood you're in. Plumeria smiles as she fiddles with dials, switches, and other bits you aren't sure what to call. When she notices you, she mouths the word "hey" and turns the volume down.

"Hey," you answer. "You seen Guzma?"

"Nah," she says a little absentmindedly. "At least I don't think he's been through here, but I've been a little busy. Can you believe I've actually booked a show?"

"I can believe it. You're good at what you do, Plumes." You tell her. There's an event happening soon in Malie Garden, and they've hired Plumeria as a DJ. She's been able to create more music as of late, thanks to equipment furnished courtesy of The Aether Foundation and its new President, Ms. Wicke. In fact, a few things have been granted thanks to Ms. Wicke's generosity, like Po Town, and future plans for it.

"Thanks, girlie," Plumeria grins. "Try looking for G in Sweets new place? Maybe he wanted to touch up his hair before you leave."

With a possible lead, you bid Plumeria farewell and exit the mansion. Outside there are numerous members of the newly rounded up and reformed Team Skull all participating in a Po Town cleanup effort. The goal, is to return this place to a fully functioning town, complete with jobs and homes for the team - another venture funded by the Aether Foundation. Some of Team Skull have even chosen to become employees of the foundation now that its efforts are finally and fully on Pokemon conservation.

All around you people are painting, mowing grass, repairing buildings, planting flowers, and more. With the rain cleared, they seem happy to enjoy the sun and work on creating a town they can feel proud of.

One of the buildings being renovated is what will eventually be a salon run by Sweets. Though, as you open the door and step inside, you find that it's not quite ready yet, and also that Guzma isn't here.

"Oh!" Sweets exclaims upon seeing you. "Hey, hey, come check this out!" You oblige, and soon Sweets is showing you the screen of a tablet, and the dock that it will sit in at the reception desk. She's programmed a whole system to have customers check in for hair appointments, choose what they'd like to have done, book future appointments, and so on. When she's finished, you look around in wonder at the nearly renovated salon - much of it is as purple as Sweets hair, and it's as full of personality as she is. From the decorations, to the fabric chosen for the chairs, to even the color of the scissors and other tools - it's all very Sweets.

"So," Sweets says, pushing her glasses up her nose and smiling. "What brings ya in?"

"I thought Guzma might be here. Do you know where he is?"

"Maybe the Pokemon Center? I saw him headed that way, although it was a while ago."

Again, you're off, leaving Sweets to continue her work preparing the salon. When you do reach the newly repaired center, you don't see Guzma, but you do immediately find Liam and Ethan. Ethan has various tools spread out on the counter at the nurses station, his focus on the machine in front of him. It's one standard to all Pokemon Centers, with six carved out spaces waiting to hold and heal Pokemon in Pokeballs.

"Yeah, yeah, ya got it!" Liam says, sitting perched on the counter, a book in his lap. "How 'bout this one? What's the name of the virus that's actually beneficial to Pokemon and ain't require no intervention?"

Ethan pauses in his work, looking contemplative, a wrench pressed to his chin. "Oh, oh wait!" He says, turning toward Liam. "It's Pokerus!"

"Fuck yeah it is!" Liam yells. He grabs Ethan by the hand and pulls him in for a quick kiss. "Think ya gonna ace that test, I really do."

Ethan grins. "And what about you? You've got that project coming up. Don't you have to draw up plans for that? You sure you have time to help me study?"

"Ey, for you I've got all the time in the world." Liam says confidently.

Recently both of them have gone back to school, Ethan taking nursing classes while Liam finishes his architecture degree. You don't want to interrupt their study session, but Ethan notices you standing there and waves.

Liam whips around and throws his arms wide. "New girl!"

"How long are you going to call her that?" Ethan asks him.

"Aw, she don't mind it," Liam says with a dismissive wave of his hand. Then he frowns. "Do you?"

You shake your head. "It's fine." You do still feel new. Maybe not to Team Skull so much anymore, but to the world. "Have either of you seen Guzma?"

"Think ya boy's messin' around in the kitchen over there," Liam says, pointing toward the Center's cafe.

You thank them, wish them luck with their classes, and hurry towards it.

As you make your way behind the counter, you hear an unmistakably familiar "Ah fuck!"

Finally you find him standing among a variety of ingredients and kitchen appliances spread on the counter. He shakes his hand out as if he's just burnt a finger on something.

"Guzma?" you say.

Immediately he jumps in surprise, several of the items in front of him go clattering to the ground. "Doll! Holy fuck!"

You stifle laughter as you approach and begin helping pick up mugs, cinnamon, and butter. "Sorry."

"You are some kinda dangerous for my health, you know that?" he says jokingly.

"Oh." You replace the mugs on the counter and give him a look full of fake hurt. "Should I go then?"

He grabs you by the waist and pulls you close, giving you playful grin. "Don't you dare."

You smile back, noticing a faint scar above his left eyebrow. Like your knee, his injuries are also just about fully healed. "What are you doing here anyway?" you ask.

His face goes from cocky to bashful very quickly. A hand rubbing at his undercut he says, "I was just- I thought that-" he sighs before continuing. "Was gonna bring you a lil somethin' while you were still in bed."

You look around at the ingredients he's picked out. Of course you can guess what the surprise might have been. "But, there's a kitchen in Shady House."

"Yeah, but this kitchen's got the good shit and, I dunno, it's kind of a special day, so I figured maybe I'd be a little extra with it." His hand remains at his neck as he looks at you awkwardly.

You giggle, charmed by the effort he's trying to put into this small gesture. "Alright," you say, sitting upon the counter. "You do owe me some cocoa."

His arm falls by his side as he smirks. "Best ya ever had comin' right up!"

"I dunno, I've had some pretty good ones."

"Yeah, well, we don't settle, ya see. Gotta keep improving the recipe! Ain't perfect yet, but it'll get there."

"Right," you say, smiling and watching him work.

Soon enough he's handing you a mug of frothy, brown, sweet smelling liquid topped with marshmallows - a new addition. He joins you on the counter with a cup of his own. As you'd been shown during the boat party, you gently clink your mug into his before sipping from it.

Indeed it just might be his best yet. "Marshmallows," you say. "Not exactly adventurous, but I say keep them."

He chuckles. "Yeah, well, maybe I'll find somethin' else to add on our little adventure, huh?"

"You... ready for that?" you ask nervously. "Traveling around Alola, I mean."

"Ready for anything as long as we stay away from Vast Poni Canyon."

"You know we will." And it is true that you don't plan on returning there. Not only had the two of you already been through it, but you're still eager to avoid your double. You'd manged to return her Nebby and say goodbye without her finding out your identity... and you'd like to keep it that way.

"Are you ready?" he asks, eyeing you over the rim of the mug.

You set your cup aside. "I'm ready for whatever the future's got, cocoas and all."

He swallows, placing his own mug on the counter. "Then let's get this new dream started, doll."

Smiling, you meet him in a kiss.

Later there's adventuring to do, but for now you're content to stay here with just him and cocoa, looking forward to a future of your own choosing.