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Snow, Ink, and Shadows

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Nanu's boat was still a good mile away from the Aether Paradise, but the white loomed from the dark water like a ghost, spotlights shining from the guard towers and lighthouses. Gladion cut the main engine and went back into the cabin.

Hau had made himself busy, packing the malasadas that had not been eaten back into their boxes.

“Should we leave non-essentials here on the boat?” he said quietly.

Gladion considered. “Yes,” he said finally, keeping his voice similarly low. “Worst-case scenario, we never see them again.”

“That sounds kind of ominous.”

Gladion blinked at him a few times before remembering that Hau had enjoyed something of a charmed life, in comparison to his own miserable existence. He decided not to claim it was realism, rather than pessimism; he had no expectations from Faba and certainly none from her.

“Nghff,” murmured Moon.

God, she was beautiful. Gladion indulged himself in the thought for a moment— a luxury long denied by shame and anger— before glancing at Hau.

“Should we wake her up?” he said doubtfully.

You should wake her up,” said Hau, winking in a way that he was not going to read into, goddamn it.

He didn't really want to wake her up. The orange-gold-fuchsia light from the dying sun played across her skin through cabin windows, dappling and dancing with every bump in the water; her mouth had fallen slightly open and the longest piece of hair she had, the fringe in the very front, was in her eyes.

With some hesitation— knowing Moon, she would probably be pleased— probably— he reached out and brushed the hair away from her eyes. His fingertips met skin and produced a pleasing wealth of nerve signals: soft, warm, fragile, probably sweet but you would need empirical evidence of that before you can say for sure—

“Moon, wake up.” His voice, as per usual, sounded hoarse and a little flat. Gladion wasn't sure if he was capable of sounding silly or flirtatious, and he was much too prideful to try either; so he stuck to the usual delivery. “We're about half an hour from Aether.”

Her eyes slowly opened. Gladion took a quick, shameful moment to commit the dark, lilting fringe of eyelashes to his memory. He'd meant it, when he told her she didn't need to wear glasses to look good. (They'd been cute as fuck, but the memory was mostly shadowed by Null getting confused and attempting to disembowel her.)

“Hi,” she mumbled, reaching up and rubbing at her eyes like a child. “S'nice face to wake up to.”

Hau snickered in the corner; both Gladion and Moon turned to glare at him and he subsided.

“Half 'n hour?” she repeated, blinking up at him not once but several times.

Eyelashes. Goddamn. Warn a guy.

“Yes, half an hour.”

“Mmkay.”

He went back to the cockpit, because Moon as a concept and a physical entity was very bad for the regulation of his biocirculatory systems (translation: his heart wanted to beat out of his fucking chest). He could hear them both shuffling around in the cabin, continuing to get ready; the door was open and he shamelessly, unapologetically eavesdropped.

“What should we take that's Lillie's?” said Moon. He could hear the frown in her voice. “I don't think we should take her whole bag— I'm not taking my whole bag. But once we find her she's going to want some things right away, I bet.”

“Her teammates and her medicine,” said Hau immediately. “Oh, and her phone. I'd want my Dex so I could call— well, so I could call my mom, but I don't think that would do in this case. Professor Kukui and Professor Burnet, maybe.”

“Yeah, maybe.” For a few moments, the two of them were silent. Then Moon cleared her throat. “Maybe the sandwich we got her? It's probably cold by now, but I don't know if she'll have eaten... remember what she told us?”

“Right,” said Hau. His voice was thin and oddly hard. “Some malasadas too, you think? And the soda you got her.”

“Yeah, sounds good.”

So Lillie had told them about her anorexia. Gladion didn't know whether to be impressed or annoyed. That was a vulnerable secret— a heavy secret, the kind of thing someone could use against you. If Moon or Hau ever got angry with Lillie, they could bring it up in a fight, use it to hurt her.

That's her talking, said the voice in his head that sounded oddly like Lillie.

Shut up, Gladion told the Lillie-voice. You got yourself kidnapped, you're not allowed to critique me on my choices.

He poked his head back into the cabin. “Done packing?” he said curtly.

Moon nodded. She seemed more awake now; her face was bright and her hair was wet around the edges, which told him she'd washed it in the bathroom. Hau was looking from him to Moon with a grin on his face and it was too much like the time Lusamine had figured out he had a stupid little crush on Sophie the Aether librarian (nothing would have happened, she was eleven years older and in grad school and he'd been thirteen, for fuck's sake) and promptly had her fired for no damn reason.

Gladion swallowed and nodded. “Good. Turn the lights out.”

“Why?”

He indicated the magenta-purple sky from the window. “The cabin light will show up against the dark water and the night sky. We'll get spotted by the guard towers and escorted in. We want to avoid that.”

“Oh. Makes sense.”

He turned the cockpit light out as well, but Nanu's boat had sonar and he sent a cautious ping out into the waters in front of them. It was some time before he heard the echoing ping of contact with a solid object; the map solidified on the GPS display and he pinged it again, pinpointing the shape of the looming Aether Paradise.

With the darkness of an early winter evening on their side, the boat slipped from open ocean to skirting the very edges of the artificial island. Gladion steered Nanu's boat into the darkened docks and turned it toward one of the employee parking spots. Magnets whirred, and electronics beeped; there was a loud, echoing click, and the docks lit up with the bright snow-whiteness characteristic of any place in Aether Paradise that was occupied by a human.

“Well,” he said, picking up his own slim bag, “we're here.”

Moon tucked a pink knapsack into her own bag— Lillie's team and other necessities, judging by the color and wiggling— and slung it over her shoulder. Hau had his own orange backpack. Gladion pressed the button to open the boat hatch, peering outside.

He'd been expecting almost immediate discovery, but by some miracle there was nobody in the controller's office. It made sense. The dockroom would have been lit up when they went in, if somebody had been there. But there should have been someone there. That was concerning.

“Forget anything?” he said to Moon and Hau, as they stepped outside, blinking at the bright white lights.

They shook their heads. Gladion nodded and locked Nanu's boat. It wouldn't take much for a really determined Aether employee to break into it, but the fact that the boat identification would probably come up in the name of Officer Ishmael Nanu, INTERPOL might give them pause about trying in the first place.

The logical thing to do was to try and use his old access codes to get down to the labs; that was probably where the Cosmog was, and where the Cosmog went they would find Lillie. They went to the elevator, and Gladion dug through his wallet until he found a card that had been sitting in the back for nearly four years— the Aether ID card he had once used to get anywhere and everywhere. He slid it through the scanner and tapped in the code— his birthday, because at some point Faba had been put in charge of the security. The scanner beeped loudly and flashed red.

“Damn.”

“What did you do?”

“Tried to get in with my old ID card, but they've wiped it from the system. Makes sense— it was kind of a big security hole.” He sighed. “I guess we're going—”

“Nowhere,” rang out a voice across the entire dock level. “You're going nowhere.”

He didn't recognize any of the employees stalking toward them, but they were all wearing the shoulder patches that indicated the Security department. They were also all glaring at him, holding Pokéballs. There were probably... ten, maybe twelve; and they seemed to know him so it was likely that Faba or maybe even she had briefed them.

It was probably Faba. She wouldn't waste her time with something like that.

“They're not going to go easy or fair,” he said quietly to Hau and Moon, turning so that their backs faced one another; they were surrounded. “More than one attacking at once, probably. You'll need to be able to run three or four battles at once, or you need to use moves that will hit more than one target.”

“Oh, trust us, that's not a problem,” said Moon. There was a touch of grim humor in her voice that almost tempted him to smile. “Hau, you wanna run the storm play?”

“Oh, hell yes.”

“Surrender now, and your Pokémon will stay unharmed,” called the Aether employee who had spoken earlier. He seemed to be in charge. “If not, we will assume you have intent to harm, and will apply appropriate f—.”

Moon moved next to him, quick and graceful; she sent out two at once. “Hero, use Bulldoze!” she ordered. “Big and obnoxious, throw your weight into it. Ben, Rain Dance!”

He didn't quite follow the logic behind her thinking, but Hau seemed to understand because he sent out his Raichu and a fairly young Tauros, giving practically the same orders for Bulldoze from the latter. Gladion reached for Rey's ball, preparing to send him out in the guise of whoever was last in order— he thought it might have been Nox— but then something yanked hard on his sleeve and he fell over in the aftershocks of the widespread Bulldoze, gasping as the wind was knocked out of him and a shadow loomed above.

“Sorry!” said Moon hastily. Hau was laying down too, peering out from beneath the Metagross that covered all of them; the Tauros had copied them, snuggling close to his Trainer. "We're just— doing a thing, hang on—"

The double unrestrained Bulldoze had knocked nearly all of the Aether employees over, and the patter of water around them told Gladion that Rain Dance had kicked in.

“One,” said Moon.

“Two,” said Hau.

They both looked expectantly at Gladion.

“Uh, three?”

Moon and Hau took a deep breath, then screeched in unison: “Use Thunder!”

Sparks flew over and around the Metagross, but they faded harmlessly into the ground via its legs; those underneath were safe. The Aether employees were not so lucky. With the doubled power of Thunder from a Jolteon and a Raichu— plus, Gladion realized, the attraction to anything metallic or electronic in the vicinity, such as radio communicators and the intercom system on the docks level but most importantly Metagross— lightning arced outward, smacking into people and the few enemy Pokémon that had been summoned to battle and sending them flying. There was a tinkling crash, and the lights went out.

For a few moments, they all laid there in the dark, breathing heavily. There was another click and a whirr, and the emergency lights came online; these were much dimmer.

All of the Aether employees were knocked out cold, along with their Pokémon.

Moon let out a heavy sigh. “I cannot believe that fucking worked.”

Gladion remembered abruptly that he was lying down on his back next to Moon. Her Metagross took a few steps away and she sat up, letting go of his sleeve.

“You had to have practiced that.”

“We'd talked about it,” admitted Hau. “On Route Thirteen, I think. Moon had just caught Hero after all the stuff in the desert, and she was using it as a Ride Pokémon over some of the choppy rocks so that Lillie could use the Ride Pager Mudsdale... Anyway, we got challenged to a battle and Moon was sitting on the Metang but she sent Ben out to attack. Discharge went about five times harder than usual because it bounced off the Metang.”

“So that wasn't just two Pokémon using Thunder for a hundred points of damage each,” calculated Gladion. The three of them got up, and he took the opportunity to swipe an ID card from one of the fallen Aether employees. “That was— well, they have STAB so it's a hundred fifty each, and then multiplied by five is fifteen hundred points worth?”

“I guess, yeah.” Moon grinned. “We made a little plan and practiced a couple times, but it was always awkward because Metang wasn't as broad as Metagross is, so Hau and I ended up really squished together. And we had to preface it with Bulldoze because it hits more than one target and it can have a huge area of effect; and being on the ground for the Ground-type move prevents us from getting shocked along with the opponent.”

“Earthquake would be ideal, but we haven't found that TM in any of the stores.”

Gladion stared first at Hau, and then at Moon. “Arceus fuck, you're both terrifying,” he said plainly. “No wonder the lights went out. Fucking hell.”

“Do you want us to be nice, or do you want us to use our time well so we can find Lillie faster?”

He acknowledged Hau's point with a nod, swiped his stolen card, and pressed the all-access code that would take them up to the main level even if he didn't know the employee's personal code. It was a little odd to leave all of the Aether employees and Pokémon knocked out, but Wicke would be able to take care of them.

Gladion just hoped that the boosted double Thunder hadn't killed any of the employees. Arceus only knew he didn't need more death on his conscience.

Fifteen hundred damage points. Fucking yikes.

“I— could have Null help, if you ever need to do that again.”

The elevator came to a halt on the main level; it sent a horrid crawling feeling over his skin but he tried not to flinch. Moon tilted her head, intrigued. “How would Null help?”

“Um.” He hadn't told her about the Memories, had he. “I'll tell you later, but the short story is that she can learn Thunderbolt.”

“Oh, neat! So we'd have two STAB plus a little extra... hmm. I'll do some math and let you know.”

He led them off the elevator and into the main lobby, but he wasn't quite sure where they should check next. The lobby itself was oddly empty— it should have been full of people, trying to figure out the way to the mall or the library or the amusement park.

“What day of the week is it?”

Moon considered for a few moments before pulling out her Rotom-Dex to check. “Sunday.”

That made sense, then; everything closed up early on Sundays. Gladion looked around and tried to calculate the options. It was difficult, especially with a slightly whispery voice in the back of his head that was heightening the smell of slightly floral chemical bleach and the glaring brightness of pristine white walls.

Aether Paradise was a prison he'd never truly escaped— not when his nightmares brought him screaming back here every time.

“Hey.” A light touch on his hand made him flinch, but it was only Moon. She was watching him, steady and careful with hazel eyes. “Tell us what you're thinking.”

“You know this place better than we do,” added Hau encouragingly.

Gladion swallowed. Moon was warm and alive and colorful, nothing like the black-and-white of the world around them. A ray of sunlight, in the blandness and the blackness. “I thought they'd be down in the labs,” he said, fixing his eyes on her forehead because it was close to eye contact. “Because that's where they kept Null, and I suppose the Cosmog as well. But my access card didn't work, so we can't get down unless someone else helps us. I don't know where else to look, and I don't know if we can get to my contact's office without raising a lot of fucking alarms.”

“It would seem that the world has taught you a great deal of vulgarity.”

At Gladion's belt, Null's ball began shaking violently— so loudly that Moon glanced down, surprised, before turning to see Faba walking toward them.

“Oh hey, Bug Dude,” said Hau— tone somewhere between resigned and gleeful.

Bug Dude?” sputtered Faba, affronted. “How dare you! You should show a Trainer who has defeated you some more respect!”

“First of all, we'll respect you when you fucking earn it,” said Moon, crossing toward Faba in several quick strides. He stopped walking, expression suddenly apprehensive. “Second of all, what the fuck do you want?”

“I want what any reasonable employee would want— for the intruders to disappear.”

“Yeah, I'd bet you wouldn't mind us disappearing,” said Hau, eyes narrowed. “Pretty convenient that Aether Paradise is a big island in the middle of the ocean, huh? Plenty of places to dump bodies.”

Faba sniffed. “Don't let your imagination run away with you, boy. The Aether Paradise promotes conservation— do you really think we would kill people and pollute the oceans with them?”

“No, because you'd kill people and shove them in the lab incinerators before dumping the ashes into the conservatory fertilizer,” said Gladion automatically.

Faba blinked at him several times, mouth falling open; but the treatment of Type: Null certainly wasn't the only atrocity that Gladion, or for that matter Lillie, had seen in the deep labs.

“Are you for real?” said Moon quietly.

It was a crossroads— one he had avoided far too long and far too often. Speak up, and endanger himself and Null, not to mention Lillie and Cosmog— or remain silent, allowing inhumanity to continue.

“I'm dead fucking serious,” said Gladion, meeting Faba's eyes and not looking away. “Let me tell you, I have seen some shit. Shit that would bring multi-billion-dollar lawsuits from real environmentalist groups and the government to Aether, for the misuse of funds in torturing and murdering Pokémon instead of the conservation efforts to which said funds were meant to go originally. And I've got access to receipts.”

Faba snorted, at that. “You have nothing. You've been gone three and half years.”

“I've got Null.” Gladion plucked her Pokéball from his belt; it was shaking so hard he had to use his whole hand to hang on. “She remembers you. And she really, really doesn't like you. If I let her out, I don't know if I could stop her from slicing you to ribbons and leaving you to bleed out on the elevator.”

The man went white. Something in Gladion's gut stirred, hungry and vicious and triumphant. Make him pay.

“And in the event of an investigation on that scale,” he continued, taking a few steps forward— savoring the fear in Faba's eyes— “you would definitely have some explaining to do. A finger in nearly every involved department, not to mention full control over R&D, Medical, Engineering, Accounting, and Conservation, and nobody answering to an ethics committee? It's a recipe to not only have you fired but imprisoned, your reputation at the bottom of the ocean with scandal anchoring it down there. You'd be as infamous, as tainted, as completely ruined as Giovanni of Team Rocket.”

Another touch on Gladion's hand. He tore his gaze from Faba to look at Moon, who was staring at him with wide eyes.

“Shit, remind me to never get on your bad side,” she said. “You want to fight him, or should I?”

Gladion considered this for a few moments, turning back to look at Faba; Hau had circled around behind him, so there was no retreat. “What are we fighting him for?”

“The access card you wanted. He'd be able to get into any of the labs, right?”

He allowed himself a single dry smirk. “I like the way you think.”

Faba looked from him to Moon. “I don't seem to have a choice,” he said, drawing himself and squaring his shoulders— an attempt to maintain dignity.

“That's right,” said Moon pleasantly. “You don't. Gladion?”

He considered it, he really did— but he hadn't been lying about being unsure whether to trust Null, and he wanted Faba to suffer. Null would give him a quicker death than he deserved. “You can take him, I'm sure.”

Moon grinned. “It would be my genuine pleasure.” She turned to Faba. “All right, you soggy panini. Let's go.”

Excuse me?”

Faba only had his Hypno— which was a singularly foolish choice, but the man had an ego the size of Mount Lanakila and probably assumed he wouldn't need anything more. He couldn't have been more wrong. Moon sent out her Golisopod and promptly one-shotted him with First Impression.

For a few moments Faba seemed... oddly pleased. Gladion frowned at him. There was some angle he wasn't catching— he wouldn't have noticed three and a half years ago, but navigating the internal politics and, strangely, friendships of Team Skull had taught him a lot about human observation.

Moon recalled her Golisopod and held out one hand, smiling politely at Faba. “Card, asshole.”

“Living out in the world truly hasn't been kind to you,” said Faba, reaching into his pocket and removing the card in question. He was looking at Gladion, even as he passed it to Moon. “You've become such a hard person. I remember when you were more... teachable.”

This was one of the things Gladion really hated about Faba; that attempt to pander, to appeal to emotion he had never inspired in the first place. “More easily manipulated, you mean,” he answered. “It wasn't living in the world that made me a hard person, Marcus. It was learning how I'd been mistreated before that.”

Faba's mouth pinched angrily at the use of his given name, but Gladion was an adult and he wasn't about to apologize. He took the card from Moon and walked to the elevator. Moon and Hau followed, leaving Faba standing by himself and staring at the three of them.

“Thanks for your help!” said Hau cheerfully— adding insult to injury was something he seemed to be particularly good at. Gladion would have to ask him how it was done.

He swiped Faba's card and typed in the man's birthday— Wicke had taught him, for the escape, and he had remembered it. The light flashed green and with a beep, the elevator descended once more.

They were silent for a few moments, but then Moon said abruptly, “That was too easy.”

“Agreed.” Gladion turned to face them, folding his arms. “There's probably an ambush of some kind waiting at the bottom; that, or there will be an ambush if there's nothing here and we have to go back up.”

He was really hoping that they would find Lillie and the Cosmog in the basement; but if they had been there, Faba would have been the scientist doing the work. He had clearly been freed from duty to try and head them off—

—which meant that in all probability, he was going to have to go home.

Fuck.

The elevator came to a halt in the deepest basement level. Gladion allowed Moon and Hau to take a few moments to look around, to see the four branching corridors labeled IT, Engineering, Medical, and Research and Development, respectively.

“So this is us,” he said, pointing at Research and Development.

“My ears are popping,” said Hau, frowning. “How deep are we?”

“About fifty yards below sea level. There are three basement levels for each hallway. Each of them have the same four corridors, with the same four labels. Level one is for the basic stuff, the things that are more or less public knowledge. Level two is for internal Aether affairs— mostly records and storage.”

“And level three?” prompted Moon.

“It's where the dangerous shit goes. Anything to do with Ultra Space— not to mention the unethical things— are kept down here.”

The crawling feeling on his skin was even stronger; and the hallways were colder than he remembered— the thick layer of glass that separated them from the inky ocean didn't seem to be enough to prevent the chill from creeping in. Null was still shaking— terrified, furious, not wanting to be here. His other Pokémon were still and silent.

“It's okay,” he whispered to Null, running his hand over his belt. “It's okay, Null. I'll keep you safe. I swear I'll keep you safe. He'll never lay a finger on you again.”

Slowly, the vibrations mellowed into a soft buzz— he couldn't ask that she let go of her fear and anger all together; but he would do his best to negate as much of it as he could. He owed her that much.

When he looked up, Moon and Hau were both staring at him, albeit with very different expressions on their faces. Hau didn't have a poker face— though Gladion had been rather impressed with him at Haina Junction, when he'd warned them about Team Skull looking for Lillie's Cosmog. He looked impressed, and oddly fond.

“You're definitely Lillie's brother,” he said warmly. “No doubt about it.”

It was, perhaps, the highest compliment that Hau could have paid him. He wasn't going to blush— he wasn't going to blush, goddamn it.

Moon had a better poker face than Hau, but she wasn't even trying to hide her affection. She hadn't ever really tried to hide it. Gladion had to admit that part of Moon's initial charm, for him, was that she'd been so honest about being attracted to him. She smiled prettily and blushed and sent flirtatious texts— and then, once he'd seen her steel spine and the utter lack of tolerance for any kind of bullshit, the charm had grown into... something else. Something he hadn't wanted to admit, still didn't quite want to admit; something reciprocal.

She didn't say anything, but the smile told him that she was proud, and probably getting emotional; so he nodded once and walked past them, toward R&D level three.

Faba's card and code opened the door onto— of course— three gold-helmeted scientists with full teams.

“Oh, shit,” said Hau.

By unspoken agreement, they each stood before one of the scientists. Gladion sent out Rey, in guise as Nox; on his right, Moon had her Golisopod and on his left Hau had his Raichu.

He was at the worst advantage, because he only had four Pokémon, where Moon and Hau each had five and their opponents had six; but it worked to his advantage when the scientist who faced him sent out a Beheeyem to use Psywave, which was entirely ineffective. Illusion was a fantastic Ability, his favorite of the collective Abilities of his teammates; and he owed Rey one of those lomi-lomi massages that Wicke had recommended. Dark Pulse one-shotted the Beheeyem, of course; and the very confused scientist sent out a Hypno of his own.

Gladion decided that since Faba was his opponent's supervising scientist, he wouldn't judge the man too hard for trying the exact same thing twice, when there was really only one reason a Psychic-type move wouldn't hit what appeared to be a Porygon2 properly. The scientific method of “revising a failed hypothesis” over “beating a dead fucking horse” was probably too basic for Faba to have impressed on his underlings.

Rey was finally revealed when his very confused opponent sent out an Arcanine and broke the Illusion; Gladion snickered when the scientist let out a quiet sigh, voice distorted by the helmet speakers. Arcanine were fast and Zoroark were fragile; so Gladion played his trump card early by recalling Rey and sending out Null instead.

She snarled at the scientist, lunging forward; only a sharp command prevented her from attacking entirely. The other two battles had halted in progress, everyone turning to stare at Null.

The scientist facing Gladion stood still, unmoving; then he slowly reached for the ball that had held his Arcanine and recalled it before raising his hands, backing up.

“Pity,” mused Gladion. “I think she misses killing scientists.”

Null barked out a sharp laugh— she very much shared his morbid sense of humor— and the other two scientists quickly recalled their Pokémon and backed up as well.

“Wow, pretty cowardly,” remarked Hau.

“Sensible,” Gladion corrected him. “Null accounts for approximately forty-seven casualties—fourteen of them deaths, in Aether's Research and Development department. They were all sustained over four years ago, but Null has... a long memory.” He smirked at the unintentional pun. “Go back to your desks like good little dogs, and I won't bring the death count up to seventeen.”

They ran for it, with absolutely no dignity whatsoever. Gladion respected their logic, but Moon and Hau had both cracked up.

Null shifted restlessly, looking around at the surroundings she had never experienced outside of the ball.

“In or out?” he asked her, running one hand along the helmet ridge.

She decided to stay out, pacing ahead of him and trying to sniff the floor— which mostly resulted in banging the helmet on the floor repeatedly. God, he loved her.

Most of the labs on R&D level three were occupied by active projects, but the Type: Null project lab— part of him hoped they'd incinerated Unit One and Unit Three, but he knew better than to trust Aether— wasn't active. He remembered exactly where it was— the second-to-last lab at the very end of the hallway. R&D was organized by priority, and the Null project had been background work in comparison to the other Ultra Space-related projects.

The very last lab, he decided, was probably the one where they had kept Cosmog. It was a long shot for a baby Pokémon to be able to produce entire wormholes, but they would have kept it far away from everything else anyway. He unlocked the door with Faba's code, and was satisfied in his hunch when he saw a biological schematic of Cosmog drawn on a white-board.

“They're not here.”

“I didn't think they would be.”

Hau turned to glare at him. “Then why did we come down here in the first place?”

“Faba didn't think I had receipts. He was correct. I didn't. Now I do.” Gladion pointed at the computer. “You can collect the records and details of the Cosmog's time here from that computer. It will be in the file explore, clearly labeled; the computers don't have locks or encryption because you need cards and codes to get to them in the first place. You can print them or you can email them to yourself.”

“Or I can scan them in, bzzt!” chirped Moon's Rotom-Dex.

“Or that. Leave the door open; if it closes, it's possible for you to be locked in and the ventilation shafts remotely flooded with sleeping gas.” He turned to go and flinched.

“And where are you going?” said Moon, about six inches away from his face. Her hands were on her hips and her expression was suspicious.

“I'm getting receipts for Null.”

“Oh.”

“I'd invite you along, but I'd— rather be alone.” Null padded over to rub against his leg, and he traced along the helmet ridge again. “I think she would prefer that as well.”

Moon nodded, stepping out of his way; he immediately missed the sudden loss of nearby body heat as well as proximity to a smell he vaguely recognized as Sitrus berry. She had always smelled of Sitrus berries. It was probably in her shampoo or her soap.

He unlocked the Null project lab and propped the door open with the door stop before walking over to the freezer to investigate.

Unit One and Unit Three were still there. So was the empty divot from where he had plucked Null's Pokéball.

“Vaaaaa,” said Null— muffled, as usual, by the helmet.

“We still can't take them.” Gladion waved at the Pokéballs; if Units One and Three weren't asleep, they were probably happy to see him and Null. “Hey, guys. We made it out okay. She's doing great, isn't she? Still has a hair-trigger temper, and she's ripped me up and down a few times. But we're okay now.”

“Vaaaa ee,” agreed Null.

He turned away, not without some regret, and went to the computer. He had a thumb drive, and it was a simple matter of copying over the relevant files. He'd seen them before— had written some of them, under the direction of Faba— but not all compiled together.

Worse yet, there were some new documents, sporadically dated since he had left. Gladion skimmed through them, increasingly horrified to discover that Unit One, as Faba had once mentioned as a possibility, had had several major organs removed and donated to Pokémon in need in the hospital. It was alive— technically. A kidney, a lung, a length of the small intestine, and a portion of the brain had been removed— Arceus only knew for what reason, because as far as he knew brain transplants weren't yet viable operations . Unit Three remained untouched, but Unit One had essentially been lobotomized.

“Fuck.”

He scrubbed at his eyes with his sleeve— not turning to look back at the freezer. If he looked at the freezer he really would cry, and now was not the fucking time.

“Gladion?”

It was Moon, standing in the doorway; Hau was behind her.

“I think we got everything we need—” She paused, taking him in. “Are you okay?”

Gladion looked up at the ceiling, willing the tears to dry. “Where there is light,” he said eventually, in answer to the question, “there is also shadow.”

“Gladion,” said Moon softly, taking a step into the room.

Null growled, the sound echoing out through her helmet.

“Easy,” said Gladion, resting one hand on her helmet. “Easy.”

“Is this a place of shadows?” Moon's voice was quiet— soothing.

“Null and I,” said Gladion, looking down at Null, “are more alike than we might look. We're both what we were made to be.”

He took a deep breath and closed his eyes before opening them again.

“I... was like an ornament, to my mother. As was Lillie. We wore what she told us to wear, we acted how she wanted us to act. Null was crafted just as carefully. She was made to battle Ultra Beasts— a weapon to defend the earth, in the event that Aether ever discovered the secret to opening Ultra Wormholes at will. She was made in this room. On this very table.”

Moon's eyes were huge, and so were Hau's. The computer beeped, letting him know that the files were finished copying over; he closed everything and took his thumb drive before walking to the door.

Null remained still for a few moments; but then she trotted around to the chair behind the desk, hopped on it, and lifted one leg. She didn't try to be neat about it, either.

“More than he deserves,” said Hau, as Null shook herself dry. “That's Faba's desk?”

“One of them. It's the RKS system project desk, and he was the project lead, so essentially it was his desk.”

“Did you say Arceus system?” said Moon, glancing at Null.

“RKS,” Gladion corrected her, patting Null firmly as the usual growl escaped. “The letters are different than the name, but it's meant to sound alike. Null has cells from every known Pokémon type— she's a chimera, cobbled together with bits and pieces of other Pokémon.”

“Oh my god.”

“The idea was to create an artificial Arceus. Null, I'm just explaining things, quit growling.”

They were walking back along the R&D corridor by now. Null sniffed disdainfully but fell silent.

“They made three units. My Null is unit two, or she was. The project didn't really work—” (translation: all three of the units had gone batshit fucking crazy) “—so all of the units were outfitted with special helmets to prevent the RKS system from being fully implemented.”

“What is the RKS system?”

“It's a disk drive in her head.”

There was a long silence, as Moon and Hau digested this.

“I'm sorry,” said Moon carefully, after a moment. “Did you say a disk drive, in her head? I could have sworn you said a disk drive. In her head.”

“The helmet blocks access, but it's in there. There are eighteen disks, called Memories. I have the only complete set. My contact helped me get them before I escaped. The idea was that you could insert a Memory into the drive, and the Type: Null would become that type. It's similar to Arceus and the Divine Plates, which I assume you've heard about.”

“What the fuck!”

“They tried to robot a god,” said Hau, sounding faintly nauseated. “That's... hell, that's practically some Foxglove-level sacrilege.”

Gladion snorted. “Want to know what happened to the machine he made to bring bones back to life?”

“I dunno, do I?”

“It's in one of the labs in this hallway. I have no idea which one. Aether doesn't have a lot of respect for the gods. That's why their business is conducted on an artificial island— there's no tie to any deity.”

“I repeat, what the actual fuck,” said Moon. Her voice was shaking with rage.

“I have the Memories, but they don't work properly. If I have her hold them, the way a Pokémon would hold an item, there is an effect. She has X-Scissor right now, for instance; so if I gave her the Bug Memory then she would get a little bonus for the move— not as much as proper STAB, but close enough. And her eyes would change color— you know, you can kind of see them way deep in the helmet. I've used it to scare people before. I usually have her hold the Fire Memory. She looks like a demon with red eyes.”

For a few moments, as they got back onto the elevator, he thought he'd successfully forestalled the question about what was wrong, why he'd been about to cry. But then Moon said quietly, “And that was what you were upset about?”

“No,” admitted Gladion. “I knew all of that already.” He took a deep breath. “Unit One was less stable. They made it first. Unit Two is my Null. Unit Three is more stable than either of them. So— Unit Three's being preserved, in case they figure out how to get the RKS system to work properly. Unit Two was the— the guinea pig. The test subject.”

“The torture victim,” said Moon pointedly.

He nodded.

“And Unit One?”

Gladion took a deep breath. “It was too unstable to survive testing, but had perfectly functioning organs.”

Had?”

“The eighteen-cell-type combination means that they could use its organs for— for any Pokémon who might n-need them.” His voice was shaking and he willed it to stop. “Since I left— they did that. They harvested some of the small intestine and sewed the ends back together. They took a kidney, and they took a lung.” He swallowed. “And they cut out p-part of its brain.”

“Oh my god.”

Before he could move, arms had wrapped around him. Moon, a few inches shorter, was holding him in a way he had only ever dreamed about— and been ashamed of afterwards, since it was his own damn fault it was only a dream. It was so tempting to lay his head on her shoulder and just let go, the way he'd done earlier that day. It was so incredibly tempting. The siren song of shattering into pieces called to him, as it had done countless times since the disappearance of Arbutus Mohn.

But he could not break yet. Null and Lillie needed him.

Gladion moved one arm, carefully resting one hand on Moon's waist. “They were in there,” he said softly. “Unit One and Unit Three. When I took my Null, they were in the freezer with her. I had to take her, because she was the one that got tortured; and they both— they both were fine with that. And now we came back, and Unit One probably—” His voice caught. “It probably doesn't know or remember us, or anything else. They're keeping it alive for organ donation, but it's just— a fucking vegetable.”

For a few moments there was silence, but then Gladion cleared his throat. “I don't really have time to be upset,” he said, taking a step back and breaking Moon's hug. “Did you learn anything about Cosmog?”

“It might be an Ultra Beast, which is why it can make wormholes,” said Moon. She sounded tired. “And there was a load of bullshit about putting it under stress to create wormholes, which we already knew was code for torture. They made something to manipulate the wormholes, and the design schematic is for the box that Faba trapped Nebby in.”

He'd known most of that. Lillie hadn't told Moon and Hau everything about Cosmog. She'd actually let Gladion read the full files that Professor Burnet had managed to wheedle out of Wicke. But the box was new.

“If they've managed to make the device, that explains why they kidnapped Lillie, and evidently hired Team Skull to do the dirty work.” He kept his voice level. “They've got the machine they need; all that was missing was the battery.”

“Dude, what the fuck.” Hau sounded revolted.

“I don't agree with the thought process, but I'll bet you any amount of money you care to name that M— that Faba's reasoning will sound exactly like that.”

He'd almost said Mother, which would have been the worst— they'd met Lusamine, for fuck's sake; and if they hadn't realized her relation to them by the same hair and eye color shared by himself and Lillie, then he wasn't about to explain it to them.

They would figure it out soon enough anyway.

The elevator came to a stop, but there were more people here. Another group of Aether employees approached— a smaller group, only four of them. It was a series of quick fights— they only had one or two Pokémon apiece.

“Right.” Gladion braced himself. “I know where they'll be, since they weren't downstairs. It's going to be hell trying to get over there, though.”

“Not if I have anything to say about it.”

Sweet, pure relief flooded every vein in his body as he turned to see Wicke, striding toward them in her impossible heels and the usual fluffy pink sweater. She was looking right at him, and from what he could see she was tearing up.

And— this was the weird thing— he'd gotten taller than her. Wicke was shorter than Moon, but she usually wore four-or-five-inch wedge heels to compensate and Gladion had never seen her without them. Even with the heels, he was now taller than her.

She came right up to him, resting her hands on his shoulders.

“You've grown so well. I'm so proud of you.”

That almost broke him again, but he nodded once, looking away.

“You guys know each other?”

This was Hau, blinking in confusion; but Moon's face lit up in recognition.

“You're his contact,” she said out loud. “And— you must be Lillie's one friend. The one she said bought a DSM and helped her after she was hospitalized.”

“The fuck? What do you mean, hospitalized?”

Wicke's face, as usual, remained serene and still. “For anorexia. She was malnourished, and fainted during a Pokébiology lab with Faba.”

Lillie had never told him that; she'd just said that Lusamine had essentially talked her into anorexia. Scarlet tinged at the edges of his vision.

“Allow me to assist you all,” said Wicke, beckoning; she led them over to the main reception desk, long abandoned. “I'll heal up your teams for you. Marcus has already requested that his card and codes be revoked; he claims they were stolen.”

“We beat him and he handed them over pretty willingly.”

“I suspected that it was a ruse of some kind. He is too prideful to admit that he may have been bested by—” Wicke paused. “He would say children, but I suppose you are all adults.”

“Did you revoke his access?”

“Of course.” Wicke's smile glittered. “I perhaps neglected to mention that he will subsequently have to go without cards or codes for the next week, which is how long it will take for the paperwork to get through. It may even go mysteriously missing on my desk; I will do my best to stretch it out until it inconveniences Madam President enough for her to complain about it.”

Moon and Hau both began snickering, at that. Gladion was amused, but he was more concerned with a great number of things— what else Lillie hadn't told him about her time living alone with their mother, the Aether Foundation employees that had gathered by the door to the outdoor gardens and, consequently, his own childhood home; the mysterious nonappearance of Faba; and most importantly, where the fuck Lillie and Cosmog and, he was now sure, Lusamine were located.

Wicke healed their teams, then typed something on the computer before going to the back of the room. “I've made you all passes and access codes,” she said, taking three plastic cards from the card printers. “They are very, very off-the-record. Swipe the card, type in your numeric birthday— day, month, year.” She glanced at Gladion. “The name on your card is Arthur Jones, but the birthday is the same. I would have put August Green, which I know you prefer, but some of the employees who work in IT might recognize the name. They won't think twice about Arthur Jones.”

“Thank you.”

“You're welcome.” Wicke cleared her throat. “While you were occupied downstairs, a contingent from Team Skull arrived. They are guarding and patrolling the outdoor gardens. I have no doubt that you can deal with any of them.”

“Guzma?” said Gladion grimly.

“Him and about six others. I think one might be the semi-regular chess opponent you mentioned in your letters, but I didn't recognize anyone else by description.”

“Cassie's here, but Plumeria, Molly, and Rogelio aren't,” Gladion summarized.

“So I would assume.” Wicke cleared her throat. “If you have anything you would like me to keep safe or hang on to, in the event you are harmed—”

Hau frowned. “Wouldn't you rescue us, if that happened?”

“Of course,” said Wicke, unruffled. “But I probably could not do so immediately. I am currently keeping the vast majority of the employees locked into their quarters. The ones who are responding to Faba's calls for assistance are the ones who just so happened to be out. I am also monitoring some security issues such as the IT department attempting to hack into the docking mainframe to access Officer Nanu's boat, and an attempt to send sleeping gas into the RKS System project lab and the Cosmog project lab— both on Faba's orders, which are able to supercede my own. I will continue to do what I can for you from here, but if you were captured I would need to... ah, let me see. Set off all of the fire alarms, flood the R&D departments via the ballast drains to unbalance the Paradise, turn off all employee key cards except for my own, and generally throw the entire Paradise into utter chaos to buy myself time to retrieve you.”

There was a long pause.

“Holy shit, can I be you when I grow up?” said Moon, awed.

“I am very flattered, but I think you should go right on being yourself.” Wicke's gaze flicked briefly to Gladion, and she smirked. “It seems to be serving you very well so far.”

“Oh, Lillie is toast,” muttered Gladion, looking away as the flush crept up his face. “Burnt, crumbly toast.”

But the fact that Wicke clearly approved of Moon was quite comforting— he could trust Wicke to have good judgment. Their Pokémon were healed, and Gladion led Moon and Hau past the elevator, toward the door where a group of Aether employees waited for them.

He hadn't noticed Faba among them earlier, but the man had either shown up while they had been speaking with Wicke, or he was shorter than Gladion remembered. Gladion sincerely hoped it was the latter.

Four employees rushed them. Moon took on two at once, sending her Golisopod and Decidueye out to fight. Gladion was done keeping Null a secret— especially if it had the effect of scaring their opponents off— and he sent her out immediately, enjoying the panicky squeak he heard in the background that had a distinctly Faba-ish air to it.

Then Faba sent out six more employees, which was two apiece; again, not a problem. Gladion had found that Imp's ability to be incredibly annoying was quite useful for Double Battles. Instead of dive-bombing him, the Golbat went gleefully screeching down at the opponent's Pokémon, with Rey-disguised-as-Nox helping at ground level. Hau paired his Primarina with his Noibat and they continued to battle successfully.

As they finished up their battles, both Gladion and Hau were surprised when Imp and the Noibat, respectively, produced blinding bouts of light— Imp's violet, the Noibat's royal-blue— and revealed themselves to have evolved into Crobat and Noivern, respectively.

“Can I just say,” said Hau, cracking a grin, “that things are looking kind of—”

“Fucking don't!” shouted Moon, punching him in the shoulder, but she was grinning too.

“—batty.”

Gladion groaned at the pun. Imp fluttered down to look at Gladion. His eyes were much more intelligent than they'd been as a Golbat, but no less mischievous.

“Nice job,” he murmured, flattered. Golbat evolved into Crobat with high levels of friendship, and Gladion had begun to give up hope that Imp would ever love him enough to make that happen. Evidently, he'd been wrong.

“Man, you look sick,” said Hau admiringly to his Noivern. “High-five, Sonar. You've actually got hands now, you can do it.”

“Vern, vern,” chittered the Noivern, promptly high-fiving Hau in response.

“Gol gol cro,” said Imp softly into Gladion's ear; Gladion, overcome, hugged Imp tightly before recalling him to his ball.

There were only three more employees, as well as Faba. These employees had full teams, but they weren't smart enough to avoid the battle the way their scientist counterparts had done. It was an easy win, and Faba grew paler and paler as they approached him.

“Step aside,” said Moon briskly.

“I am the last line of defense of the Aether Foundation. I will not budge.”

“Buddy, we're not trying to take over,” said Hau, rolling his eyes. “We'd just like to get by.”

I will not move!” shouted Faba, stomping closer.

In response, Gladion pressed one button.

Null came out silent and snarling, leaping on Faba and pinning him to the ground. He screamed and shielded his face, terrified; the green glasses flew off, shattering against the floor.

“No,” said Gladion, catching at Null's helmet.

She had been about to kill Faba with it. He'd seen her do it once, to a Fox in Po Town who'd really had it out for him a year ago or so. She had pinned the man down, lifted her head as high as she could, and used both her own force and the weight of the helmet to smash in his head. He'd had to clean gray matter out of the helmet, and he'd been put off tofu and imi-pork for a good six months after that; but all the same it had been comforting to know that she would protect him to the death.

He probably shouldn't have felt so blasé about the whole thing, but he was numb to a lot of normal emotions.

Null lifted her head higher, snarling; Gladion clung to it, holding her back.

“Please!” screamed Faba. “I don't want to die, please!”

It was gratifying to hear him beg, but that wasn't the point. “Null,” said Gladion.

She stopped, turning her head to look at him. Her eyes were tinged scarlet with the Fire Memory, no doubt burning with the desire to destroy, to remove, to eradicate the thing that had made her the way she was, the thing that had hurt her in malicious unapology.

“It will be so much more satisfying,” he told her, ignoring Faba's whimpers, “if he lives and continues to suffer.”

For a few moments, Null remained motionless. Moon and Hau seemed to sense that it was the right time to be silent; the only sounds came from Faba, crying and moaning and still trying to squirm away.

Gladion slowly took his hand away from Null's helmet. “I trust you,” he said softly. “Will you trust me?”

Null gazed at him for a few long seconds. She turned back to look at Faba, who went still and silent under her gaze; then she turned back to look at Gladion again.

Then she sat back, haunches bending down to rest on Faba's forelegs. Her fin-tail wagged back and forth— a doglike action, one she'd retained from the Houndoom from whence her skeletal and muscular structure were mostly taken.

Gladion swallowed back a grateful sob. “Good girl,” he whispered, leaning down to scratch where the helmet met her head. “Good girl.”

“B-b-but Type: Null has no gender—”

“Do you ever shut up?” sighed Gladion.

Clang.

Faba screamed and twisted to the side just in time. Null had reared back and slammed her helmeted head into the ground— but it seemed she had purposefully missed him because she stood, leaving his legs entirely, and ran around in a circle before rearing up on hind legs and leaping downward, helmet first.

Clang.

She did it again.

Clang. Clang. Clang.

The helmet cracked in two, and the pieces fell off.

Faba screamed again, scrambling backwards on his hands and feet. “It's out! We're all going to die!”

Gladion ignored him, because he was seeing Null's face for the very first time.

He'd seen what she was supposed to look like, in the schematics. It just hadn't prepared him for how beautiful she really was. Her jaw was strong, with sharp lines— an original structure, but designed with biting in mind; carnivorous to contrast with Arceus, an herbivore. The silvery-white ruffled feathers that had stuck out from beneath the helmet continued up to the top of her head in layers. At the crown of her head three more feathers were unfurling, but they weren't feathers— they were something like the tailfin, which was slowly fading from a translucent blue to an equally translucent white— meaning that this was not just breaking free from the helmet, but a full evolution. The feathers were also translucent— a crest, or some kind of coxcomb.

But her eyes were the same, intelligent and angry and scared and— Gladion swallowed— trusting.

“You did it,” he whispered to her. “You evolved.”

She swiveled around, looking at everything with wide, fearful eyes; and he caught sight of the drive— located at the hinge of her mouth.

“Can I test the drive?” he asked, bending down to take the Fire Memory out of her item collar.

Null blinked, then nodded. Gladion ran his fingers over the drive, until he found the slot into which the Memory was designed to go. It fit perfectly, making a clicking noise.

Null closed her eyes for a moment; then she opened them again. Her eyes were bright scarlet, and— Gladion's jaw dropped— her tail and the three crest feathers were slowly darkening from white to the same Fire-red.

“It worked,” said Faba, sounding disbelieving and gleeful. “The RKS System, it worked.”

Gladion spun around to glare at him. “It won't work for you.”

Faba swallowed when Null turned to look at him. “A-a-and why not?” he blustered. “Surely if a mere child—”

“Firstly, I'm nineteen, so you can shove 'mere child' right up your ass and leave it there.” It felt damn good to say that. “Secondly, this only happened because she trusts me. Unit One is brain-dead, so it's probably incapable of evolution. And you think, after everything Unit Three has seen you doing to Units One and Two, it will ever trust you enough to evolve?”

“It's got to be a high-friendship evolution,” said Moon, speaking up. “Hau had that with his Pichu, not long after he caught it.”

“And Lillie's Buneary,” agreed Hau. “Her Cleffa isn't quite there, but I bet she's close. And Gladion's Golbat, just now.”

“I'm sure I could—”

“Pal,” said Moon, every bit as condescending as Faba himself could be. “Don't make us laugh. You lost all hopes of convincing any of us that you could actually give enough of a damn about a Pokémon to make it evolve by high friendship when we read what you did to Null and Nebby— not to mention Gladion and Lillie.”

“What do you mean—”

“If you don't already know, it would take too long to explain to you,” said Moon airily, waving one hand at him. “You're simply that stupid.”

Excuse me, I am not—”

“The fact that you're still trying to argue with us when you've been totally owned kinda proves you wrong on that one,” said Hau kindly. “Just be quiet, dude. If you listen long enough, you might learn something.”

Faba finally seemed to realize that he couldn't argue his way out of this, and took Hau's advice. Moon crossed over to the door that led to the outdoor garden, swiping her card and tapping in her birthday.

“I thought I had my card access revoked,” said Faba plaintively, when the display lit up green.

“Maybe if you weren't such a condescending, misogynistic fuck, Wicke wouldn't like us more than you,” retorted Moon, waggling her card between her fingers. “She made us new ones. See you hopefully never.”

They left him, shivering and hunched on the floor with scratches in his coat, and went outside into the gardens.

The sun had fully set and the stars were twinkling high above them in the sky. Gladion had once spent many peaceful hours here, finding constellations with a folding telescope that his father had gotten him for his eighth birthday; but those days were long gone. He'd given the telescope to Lillie when their father had disappeared, seeking refuge in the conservatory instead— the smells of dirt and leaves and Pokémon, things he couldn't get anywhere else in Aether's white sterility.

“Traitor.”

Gladion looked down from the sky, unsurprised to see Emmett, Kohaku, Jack, Trinh, Uilani, and Cassie. The boys he expected to be hostile, but he had managed to get on somewhat friendly terms with Trinh and Uilani (after repressing the urge to beat the shit out of one or both of them after Lillie had told him about the shopping experience, and having to continue to repress the urge so that he could tell Moon to do the same). And Cassie was his chess partner; he'd have liked to think they were friends.

She at least seemed bored, as though she didn't want to be there. It was her default expression and she had a decent poker face, but he could usually tell when she was enjoying herself and when she was not.

“You don't just get to fucking quit and walk out,” continued Emmett, cracking his knuckles and taking a few steps closer.

“Keep doing that, you look like a gorilla,” suggested Gladion, which of course made him stop in his tracks, furious and red-faced. “And I do get to fucking quit and walk out. If any of you had bothered to actually try and be friends with me, I'd be a little more conflicted about it, trust me.” He looked directly at Emmett. “But I've heard it from the horse's mouth— or should I say, the gorilla's. I'm not really part of Team Skull, and I never will be. So you can't get pissed that I left. I mean, you could be; but then you'd be even more of a dumbass.”

Emmett opened his mouth to argue, realized that Gladion had rather neatly fenced him in, and fell silent.

“You know why I'm here?” he continued, when none of them continued the conversation. “I'm here for my kid sister, and the Pokémon she's been taking care of. Blonde hair, green eyes... friends with these two.” He indicated Moon and Hau. “Ring any bells?”

Recognition, followed by wariness, flashed over their faces. “You never said,” said Trinh, exchanging nervous glances with Uilani as they no doubt remembered their shopping mall transgression.

He waved them off. “She forgave you. You're off the hook.”

Kohaku had been quiet— never a good sign— but at this he stirred. “So you both lied to them, the entire time?” he said, indicating Moon and Hau.

“For perfectly good reasons,” said Moon frostily. “Also, we settled it ages ago and it's none of your damn business anyway. You're not going to provoke us again.”

He grinned. “But you're mad already. I know what I'm about.”

“Trust me, you're not who I'm mad at. You're an insignificant, inconsequential obstacle on my way to deal with the people I'm actually mad at.”

“Keep throwing around those big words. They tell me you're lying.”

“For fuck's sake,” sighed Gladion. “You know we can beat all of you in battle, you've fought at least one of us before now. Step aside and save your Pokémon a beating.”

Cassie walked over to a low wall, sat down, and dug a box of cigarettes and a lighter from her pocket.

“You're just as much of a traitor as he is!” shouted Emmett, glaring at her.

Cassie shrugged. “I didn't want to be here in the first place. Guzma picked me because I can keep you assholes in line. If you want to fight them, be my guest. I'm not fucking stupid, Arceus.”

This seemed to convince Trinh and Uilani, who also sat down with sulky expressions on their faces; the boys didn't back down and soon they matched up. Emmett and Kohaku squabbled about facing Moon, but she just rolled her eyes at them and challenged Jack instead.

“Fire-water-grass, loser has to fight Emmett,” suggested Hau, not even attempting to keep his voice down.

“Hey, what the fuck!”

“You're on.” Gladion won with water to Hau's fire; the younger boy made a face at him but moved to face Emmett. Kohaku studied Gladion for a few moments— no doubt attempting his own creepy psychoanalysis.

“What do you see in her?” he said abruptly, sending out his Banette.

Gladion kept his face impassive but sent out Rey-as-Nox. “Who?”

“Her.” He jerked his head over to Moon. “Hasn't she beaten you every time you've battled?”

“No. We did a Battle Royal once. I came in second and she came in third.”

“You know what I mean.”

“Yes, she's beaten me in every one-on-one battle.” Gladion rolled his eyes. “We've had... four, maybe? I forget. Why would that bother me?”

“You're a good Trainer. I'd be annoyed at her, if I were any better at it myself.”

“If someone wins against you, they earned it. It doesn't bother me when she wins, because she deserves it.” Rey's Dark Pulse knocked out the Banette in one hit; Kohaku frowned and sent in his Hypno.

“You really are hung up on her.”

Gladion sighed. He hadn't been to therapy, but he'd survived her and in comparison, Kohaku had the subtlety of a screaming toddler. “I'm not letting her beat me, dumbass.”

“She's okay-looking, I guess. Not as cute as your sister, but not a lot of people are. Pretty nice rack.”

As if he weren't already painfully fucking aware of that, but it would be a long, cold day in hell before he let anyone know he'd ever had the thought— least of all Kohaku. “Sure, whatever you say.”

Kohaku clearly hadn't expected him to agree without some argument about chivalry and objectification, so it shut him up for a little longer. He sent out his Passimian, which knocked Rey out after unveiling the Illusion. Kohaku's face twitched with annoyance.

“I guess the other one is your sister. Fucking Zoroarks.”

“Well, neither of us like little bitches, and that's what you sound like right now.” Gladion sent out Imp.

“That's a gendered slur, Plumeria's gonna beat your ass!” called Trinh from the sidelines.

“She can't do shit if I'm not in Team Skull.” He paused, more for effect than anything else. “But you're right and she's scary, so I'll amend 'little bitches' to 'little assholes.' Please don't tell on me.”

That made Trinh, Uilani, and Cassie all start cackling. Imp knocked out the Raticate, which signaled Kohaku's defeat. The other boy stared at him, face darkening.

“Maybe I can't beat you in a battle,” he said softly, “but maybe I don't have to.”

Something flashed in the light of a Thunder from Moon's Jolteon, and almost without thinking Gladion shoved her out of the way as Kohaku lunged. It was an admittedly stupid plan— the sharp cut along his arms when Kohaku continued into the stabbing motion told him that much— but it was worth it, because Moon did not have a knife in her ribs.

Cassie was in motion before either Kohaku or Gladion had time to retaliate from the intial cut; one quick fist made Kohaku stagger back, clutching his stomach; and a horrid snapping noise made him shriek with pain before the knife clattered to the ground.

Emmett, already defeated by Hau, gaped with horror; Moon and Jack had been mid-battle but Moon was still on the ground where Gladion had pushed her, staring with wide eyes at a now prone, moaning Kohaku; her Jolteon was hissing and snarling, sparks leaping from its back.

“Listen,” said Cassie coolly, resting one boot on the broken wrist that Kohaku was clutching at, “I get that you think the whole idea of right and wrong, and the sliding scale of morality are for losers or whatever? But trying to kill someone just because you haven't yet managed to beat them, or their not-boyfriend in a battle is the sociopathic equivalent of a three-year-old throwing a tantrum because their mom won't buy them a toy.” She pressed down a little harder with her boot, and Kohaku whimpered wordlessly. “Grow. The fuck. Up.”

And with that she scooped up the knife, turned around, walked back to where she'd been sitting, and lit another cigarette, exhaling cloudy smoke into the cool night.

“I forfeit,” said Jack hastily.

Moon ignored him, scrambling to her feet and rushing over to Gladion. “Let me see, let me see— oh, shit, ohmygod that's a lot of blood.”

“It's barely more than a scrape,” protested Gladion, but it was just a token protest because, well, Moon. She had a will of iron and he had a will of spaghetti. “I've had worse from Null. The angle was off because he was aiming for you and I had my ribs blocked.”

“Still— we need to bandage this up.”

Gladion sighed. Every second of delay was a second further from Lillie, but he had the feeling that arguing would only increase the delay. “I've got bandages in my bag.”

“Does it need stitches?”

“It's too dark to tell.”

“Rotom, bright white light.”

“Sure thing, bzzt!”

It wasn't quite as bright as, say, the inside of the main Aether complex; but it was bright enough to see that the sleeve of his jacket was torn. It wasn't as much blood as he'd expected. Gladion fumbled with the jacket, pulling his arm out of the sleeve and wincing before pushing it out through the knife cut.

“It doesn't need stitches,” he said. (Translation: It actually did, but they didn't have time for it.) “I could probably superglue it closed.”

Or we could bandage it and then you can have it treated later! Superglue, my ass.”

He surrendered to her ministrations, unsurprised when she pulled out some of Rogelio's medical moonshine and using it to dampen a hand towel. The moonshine stung, but knowing Kohaku that knife had seen all kinds of nasty shit and it was better to be safe than sorry.

Moon wrapped the bandage up neatly and tightly, clipping it in place when she was finished. Gladion pulled his arm out of the knife-hole and stuck it back through the sleeve.

“Good as new, let's go.”

Of course, there would be another obstacle, just when Gladion was honestly beginning to be sick of people getting in the way. Guzma sat on the front steps of his childhood home, smoking a cigarette of his own— except it was not a cigarette but a blunt, judging by the overpowering odor of marijuana.

Gladion surveyed him for a few moments. “Any chance you're gonna let us pass through?”

“You got more than ten billion Poké you'd like to donate to fix the fuckin' roof?” said Guzma curtly.

“Probably not.”

“Then no.”

Guzma and Moon faced off— Gladion would have preferred to take Guzma on himself, but he was just— tired. Just fucking tired. He let Hau guide him over to a spot where they could see both Moon and Guzma without getting in the way.

They both sent out their Golisopods— what else was new— and Hau cleared his throat.

“Thank you,” he said softly. “For saving her.”

He didn't really know what to say to that.“Sure.”

For a few minutes neither of them spoke.

“You know, I thought I'd be angrier at you. You were really awful to Moon.”

Gladion nodded, because— well, duh.

“But actions speak louder than words, you know?”

“I broke up with her.”

“Sure, but that kind of pales in comparison to like, actively saving her from getting stabbed.” Hau shook his head. “The two of you... cripes, you're made for each other. You're both stubborn as hell and blaming yourself for stuff you can't control."

“And you think you're made for Lillie?” said Gladion derisively, since Hau had given him the opening.

“Frankly, no one is made for Lillie, but I'm very grateful she's giving me the opportunity to try.”

It was a good answer, one that Gladion found he couldn't argue with.

“She's sixteen and you're eighteen, which puts you—”

“Over the legal age of consent, yeah.” Hau cleared his throat. “For what it's worth, we have an agreement that we're going to go about as fast as a glacier. And she'll be seventeen in like, a week. A year gap is pretty normal, and the law gets kind of fudgy with seventeen-  and eighteen-year-olds.”

Gladion sighed. “Well, she's better with people than I am, and I trust her judgment. It's just, I'd be a really bad brother if I didn't at least tell you to make an effort to... you know. Not.”

Hau squinted at him, a slight smile growing on his face. “Is that you giving your blessing?”

“It's me telling you I can't tell either of you what to do, but for god's sake be responsible about it.”

When Moon had fought Guzma earlier that day, he'd had five of his teammates; but now he had six, adding a Scizor to give him a slight advantage in numbers. Gladion tried to watch the battle objectively— it was a distraction from all the other bullshit— but like the proverbial compass, his eyes were continually drawn true north, which for him was Moon.

Emmett, Kohaku, and Jack had all clowned him for it, but Gladion hadn't dated at all while he'd been part of Team Skull. Part of it was because he had been aggressively unfriendly to the first couple of people who'd tried. Uilani had asked him out about a year and a half ago but he'd turned her down flat in front of about thirty people, which led to Trinh dumping about four buckets of water in his mattress; in the humidity of Po Town, it had taken weeks to dry out properly but he'd probably deserved it.

Rogelio had also, very timidly, expressed interest shortly after he'd joined Team Skull, a little over a year ago. Gladion had turned him down too, but he'd been a lot nicer to him about it. This was partly because the younger boy had at least been discreet enough to ask in private, but it was also partly because he'd learned about Rogelio's awful family at that point and didn't see any reason to be mean to someone who was already dealing with a lot of bullshit. And Rogelio's tiny crush and any ensuing awkwardness had faded long ago— what he saw in Jack other than muscles and a rather square jaw, Gladion had no idea.

His self-imposed celibacy had meant that when he first heard about his little sister's new friend, a talented Trainer with a love for literature and a heart of gold, he'd merely been both curious and grateful; but seeing her in person, catching glimpses until their proper meeting on Route Five, had taken him very much by surprise. From Lillie's description he'd expected someone nerdy and really short; but Moon was only a few inches shorter than he was and her eyes were alight with mischief, as well as intelligence. It was not long before he had determined that her name might have been Moon— but she was bright and warm and full of fire, like the sun.

And sue him, she had great legs and long eyelashes. Kind of a lethal combo.

In the end, it was a close battle. Her Metagross only barely managed to hang onto the last vestiges of health long enough to knock out Guzma's Ariados.

“If you ever come back to Po Town,” he said to Moon, voice flat and unamused, “I'll let the goddamn Foxes kill you.”

“I wouldn't have come in the first place if you were a little more discriminatory about where your money comes from,” snapped Moon.

“Shit,” muttered Gladion, getting to his feet.

“Shit?” said Hau, immediately following.

Shit,” confirmed Gladion, and ran at a sprint toward Guzma as his features twisted into something monstrous, raising one arm.

You shut your fucking mouth!” he bellowed, stalking forward and swinging wildly as Moon scrambled backwards, ducking her head. “You don't fucking tell me how to live my goddamn life! You don't know me, you little shit!

“I'm getting his attention,” said Gladion to Hau. “You tackle him.”

Me?”

“You'll be fine, you're bigger than him. Watch your nose— he likes to use his elbows.”

Gladion grabbed Moon's wrist and pulled on it, flipping Guzma the bird with his free one. The other man let out a feral bellow and at that moment, Hau rugby-tackled him around the waist, sending them both crashing to the concrete.

“He's not your friend,” said Gladion curtly, to Moon. “He can joke and tease like the rest of us, but he's got demons. Don't push him.”

“Sorry,” mumbled Moon.

“Fucking ow!” yelled Hau, struggling to hold a wild-eyed Guzma back.

Gladion pulled Moon past Hau and Guzma, holding open the door. “Drop him and run,” he said to Hau.

Don't you fucking touch me, old man, I'll kill you with my bare hands, I'll beat you to death with one of your own goddamn golf clubs—”

Hau released Guzma and sprinted over to the door of the house. Gladion slammed it shut and locked it with his access card; even if Guzma had his own card, removing a manual lock set by someone else was a privilege reserved for administrative access— such as Wicke, or Faba, or Lusamine.

“Oh,” said Moon shortly. “Fancy seeing you here. You wouldn't happen to know where Lillie and Nebby are, would you?”

Gladion turned around and blinked in surprise at two people who, judging by the descriptions he'd gotten in letters from Lillie, had to be Captain Phyco and Private Soliera.

“They are with the president.” The man— Phyco, Gladion assumed— frowned slightly. “It was noble of you to come here, but your assistance will not be required.”

“We're not here to assist you,” said Moon thinly. “We're here to rescue Lillie and Nebby.”

The woman turned to look at the man. “We did ask them to protect the Cosmog,” she said gently. “They have proven themselves true and loyal many times over. Is it any surprise they have come to do so today?”

“We do not have time.” Phyco's mouth pinched closed for a few moments. “The moon is dying, and must be reborn. The path is clear, and the Cosmog has visited the source for all but two of the Ultra Auras. Once it has broken from its shell, it will not be long before the Blinding One seeks it out.”

Absolutely none of this made sense to Gladion, but Moon and Hau seemed to understand. “Necrozma's going to look for Nebby?”

“Our hand has been forced,” said Soliera quietly. “Progress has slowed considerably since Cosmog's disappearance. The funding was to be cut; without it, we could not find a way to protect either of our worlds.”

Hau's eyes went wide. “You told them where Lillie was!”

Soliera's eyes closed, and her mouth trembled; but then she nodded once.

“The Cosmog should have just enough energy to power a stable Ultra Wormhole,” stated Phyco. “Whether it survives or not... that is less certain. If there were any other way, we would have taken it in a heartbeat.”

Moon drew one Pokéball with her belt. Soliera did the same; by unspoken agreement, they began the battle.

Gladion had never seen the little purple Pokémon that floated out from Soliera's ball, but Moon's eyes brightened. “I forgot this little one,” she said, slightly friendlier. “It's just as cute as I remember.”

Soliera regarded her for a few moments with soft eyes; Moon's Golisopod knocked out the purple thing in one hit, and that was the only Pokémon that the woman had. “You've gone above and beyond for us, and we have basely betrayed you.”

“It was necessary,” said Phyco stiffly.

“It was still vile,” countered Soliera. “Moon Hawkins— and you as well, Hau Akiona. If you wish it, I will speak with Private Dulse and see about giving you each a Poipole, like the one I train.”

Moon's eyes widened. “Are you serious?”

“It is only the least I can offer. I may not go against my superior officer, and he has done what he believes right. I can only do what I believe right.”

“I'll take you up on that, unless I find something I really like beforehand,” said Hau. “They're pretty cute.”

“What are they?” said Gladion, bewildered.

Phyco and Soliera both turned to regard him, a faint air of surprise on their faces. “Ah,” said Soliera, after a few moments. “You must be Gladion.”

He rolled his eyes. “What's she's been telling you?”

“We have been working more with Ms. Wicke, of late. The president has not taken our failure kindly.” Captain Phyco studied him for a few moments before nodding once. “Well, we cannot very well prevent you from passing us. We did our best to make the Cosmog as comfortable as we could, but she has dismissed us for the evening. There is nothing more we can do. You should do whatever you believe will be best; we have no way of stopping you anyway.”

Moon's mouth twisted briefly. “Thanks, I guess.” She turned to Gladion. “Where are we going?”

Sudden dread twisted his stomach. “I— I think straight through to the back.”

“That is where we left them,” said Private Soliera quietly.

She met his eyes— sudden blue, in pale-blue skin; there was something secret and soft and sorrowing about them and he knew, suddenly, that she was aware of the depths to which Lusamine would go to get her way. She had seen something, probably to do with Lillie.

Moon went to the door that led straight through to the back. It was a long hallway, lined with doors. Most of these on the first floor were administrative offices— Wicke's private office was here, though she lived in the employee quarters. He knew each door, pristine and snow-white in walls that were equally pristine and snow-white: file room, archives, accounting, bookroom. Wicke's office— Lusamine's office—

He paused, at the schoolroom door.

“Gladion?”

“It's nothing,” he said hastily, moving on before she could ask.

At the end of the hall was the dining room, which also functioned as a conference room for when Lusamine was hosting people from the government or other regions; and beyond that, separated by a hallway that ran perpendicular to the first, were a set of double doors. These doors, unlike the rest of the doors, were matte-black. Light seemed to sink into them and disappear. Gladion had begun to find it oddly fitting, in the last few months before he had stolen Null and fled.

“Is this it?” said Moon, stopping and turning to look at him.

His mouth had gone all over cottony but he nodded briefly.

Her gaze lingered on him for a few moments before she nodded back and swiped her card into the hall, tapping in the code.

The scanner was silent for a few moments, but then it flashed scarlet.

“Did I mistype?” murmured Moon, frowning.

“No.” Gladion stepped forward. “It wants a retinal scan.”

“Should I—”

“It doesn't,” he said heavily, “want your retinal scan.”

He swiped his card, punched in his birthday, and looked directly up at the ceiling, opening one eye wide.

“Retinal match for: Mohn, Gladion,” said a tinny voice. “Access to family quarters authorized.”

The scanner turned green. Gladion stepped back, gesturing for Moon to open the door.

And there they were, in her bedroom.

It was such a familiar scene that he nearly turned around and left: Mo— Lusamine, elegant and emotionless and evil; and Lillie, pale and terrified as she clung to a black box lined with electric-blue lights.

They both turned to look. Lillie's eyes went wide before she burst into noisy, ragged sobs— not even trying to keep from crying.

“You came— you came.”

Hau took several long steps forward to sweep Lillie, and the box, into a hard embrace. He was already crying, too. Gladion blinked a couple of times, trying to hold back his own tears— it was something fucking else, to see someone physically show that they loved Lillie as much as she deserved.

“So you do know one another, after all,” said Lusamine languidly. Gladion tried not to look at her. “I thought perhaps she'd been, hmm— exaggerating.”

“What reason would she have to lie?” Moon crossed her arms, already on the offensive— good, thought Gladion. She would need it.

“Well, you and Hau are clearly gifted Trainers. I do get reports from Ms. Wicke and Mr. Faba, you know. I wouldn't have thought you'd bother with her.”

Hau's head popped up, whirling around to stare Lusamine down. “And what the fuck is that supposed to mean?”

Gladion checked out of the corner of his vision; his mother merely shrugged. “Just an observation,” she said— not answering the question, a classic Lusamine maneuver.

“I don't need your approval, Mother,” said Lillie softly, turning in Hau's arms to face Lusamine. She still clutched the box that presumably contained Nebby, but her expression was drawn tight— exhausted in so many more ways than just the physical.

Hau stiffened. “Mother?” he repeated, almost under his breath. Gladion was actually surprised at the venom he heard in Hau's voice; but then again, Lillie had been much more open about the— the abuse, damn it, it was abuse— than he had been.

“I don't have any children.”

There was a long silence; and then he heard the click of her heels, striding toward him. Gladion kept his gaze fixed over her shoulder. He would not back away, he would not move, he was a tree with roots and he needed to grow—

“Certainly not any wretched children who would steal invaluable research material, run away, and reject my love.”

Green green green he was drowning in it he was choking suffocating dying he was dying dying dying DYING

“The fuck do you mean, love?” snorted Moon.

The spell was broken. Gladion inhaled as quietly and as sharply as he could, once his mother had turned around to frown at Moon.

“I bore them, in my body.”

He took a very small, very silent step backwards. Earthquakes shifted tree roots all the time; it wasn't a retreat.

“I raised them well. I gave them everything the world has to offer— an education far surpassing the public system, the freedom to pursue any hobbies they wished to cultivate, and the security of being cared for in prosperity. I was the only one who cared for them, when Arbutus was taken from us. We went to Kalos to study the language and the literature and the food, and we went to Unova to study the diversity of cultures and societies. They had everything a child could ever want.”

“Okay,” said Moon, drawing the word out with skepticism coloring her voice. “Sure. You did what every parent is pretty much obligated to do by creating a kid in the first place. Fed, watered, sheltered, educated, given a basic moral code.”

“That isn't love,” said Lillie, her voice thin and soft. “It isn't.”

“I don't know what else you could possibly want from me,” sniffed Lusamine. She turned back to meet Gladion's eyes once more; there was a hint of humor in their depths that chilled him down to the bone— Lusamine's idea of a joke tended to be traumatizing for the audience. “But it doesn't matter. The Cosmog has been encased, and you are powerless to stop me. You failed to convince me to listen to you, Lillie. You don't even have the strength of a Trainer.”

“Oh,” said Moon brightly. “About that. Lillie, we brought you some stuff.”

She reached for her backpack, opening it and pulling out Lillie's pink knapsack and her Trainer's belt, which was vibrating loudly. “Oh, they're glad to see you're safe and sound. Esper cried the whole time we were feeding her, poor thing.”

“You fed them? Thank you,” murmured Lillie. She handed the box of Cosmog to Hau, who squinted at it as though trying to understand what it did, or how it was done. The disturbing thing was that Lusamine did not seem to be particularly interested in physically hanging on to the box; she was content to let Lillie hold it. Either the Cosmog was already dead, or there was a remote system that operated whatever it was the box was doing in the first place. Gladion sincerely hoped it was the latter.

Lusamine's brows knitted into a frown as she stared at Lillie. “Why would you have left your team behind?” she said slowly. “It seems you aren't a very caring Trainer.”

Lillie whirled on her. “I wouldn't bring anything I loved here, if I could help it,” she spat. “I've seen what you do to people and Pokémon who are helpless to defend themselves. I wasn't going to have my team sent off to R&D as the next round of volunteer test subjects, or put down in the— in the—”

She couldn't bring herself to say it, but Gladion knew what she meant. And Lusamine knew it too, judging by the soft, fey smile that slid onto her face.

“In my laboratory,” she said softly. “Speaking of which— I believe it is time.”

She moved faster than any of the rest of them could— there were six bright flashes at once, and six Pokémon, ones that Gladion recognized intimately, appeared. The Mismagius cackled, darting towards Moon and waving its hands; Moon staggered backward, held with Psychic against the hard post of Lusamine's huge bed. The Bewear went for Hau, wrapping arms around him just tight enough to hold, but not to kill— which was impressive restraint, for a Bewear. The Lilligant shot out vines that trapped Lillie, holding her in place; and the Milotic rushed Gladion. He tried to dodge, but it was quick and it twined around his arms and legs, holding him in place with damp, cold muscle.

Her Lopunny and her Clefable trotted over to Lillie, plucked the box from her grip, and gave it to Lusamine— who promptly recalled all of them.

“Follow me,” she said, still smiling. “You'll see. My fathomless love will save even someone like you, when I protect this world from darkness.”

“What are you trying to do?” pleaded Lillie. “If it's about— if it's about Dad, then—”

Shut up!”

The siren screech jangled every nerve in his body; Gladion twitched violently and prayed she didn't notice. Fortunately, she was too focused on Lillie to look at him.

“You don't speak about him!” she hissed. “You never speak about him! If you and that one had just been good, obedient children, we could have had him back by now. It is your fault he is gone, and you should count yourselves lucky I do not send you into the void to look for him.”

“He's dead,” croaked Gladion, in the silence that followed. “M-Mother, he's dead. He's not— he's not coming back.”

“I thought I heard someone pass wind just now,” said Lusamine, not looking at him. “But we all know where that comes from.” She lifted the box containing Cosmog up, dangling it from one finger. “The Cosmog may very well die, when I create the wormhole. But the death of one Pokémon, against an entire world of them? Entirely worth it. The Cosmog should be grateful it can serve such a purpose.”

She smiled at Lillie— terrifyingly sincere. “You've taken it to gather energy all around the region, and you've even kept it safe for me, darling. And for that... I thank you.”

Lusamine had always known how to break them. Lillie's face crumpled, and she dissolved into wild, wordless tears.

“What the hell,” said Hau, gathering Lillie back into his arms and staring at Lusamine in dismay. “Seriously, what the hell.”

Moon, for once, seemed to be at a loss for words.

Lusamine smiled at both of them, blithely ignoring Lillie's sobs, and turned to walk over to the elevator shaft that led to her private laboratory. She pressed the button.

“Follow me, if you like,” she said sweetly. “Not that it will matter if you do. But you might like to witness history.”

(Translation: she wanted an audience, and she knew perfectly well that they would follow her down no matter what she said.)

She closed the door on them, and the elevator took them down. As soon as she was gone Gladion darted over to the elevator, jabbing at the button that would bring it back up to them when she was done.

“Oh my god,” said Hau blankly. “You said she was bad, Lillie. You said she was bad. I didn't get it. Oh my god.”

Lillie didn't respond— couldn't, and her breath was coming far too shallowly.

“Medicine,” said Gladion and Moon, at the same time; they glanced at each other, and Gladion promptly looked away. He didn't need her pity.

“It's in the pink bag,” added Moon. “We brought your entire pillbox, all the bottles, and the first-aid kit— we weren't sure what we'd need.”

“Yeah, I got it.” Hau took Lillie's bag, opening it and pulling out the pills. “Um— I remember this from Haina Junction. It's lorazepam, right? Can you nod yes or shake your head no?”

Lillie's head jerked once in a sharp nod. Hau pulled out the bottle of Cheri cola they'd brought for her, tapping the lid to dissipate the fizz; he unscrewed it and pressed two pills into Lillie's hand. She blindly threw them back, gulping down the soda.

“Caffeine and sugar will help with shock,” said Hau soothingly, rubbing her back. “That's what the trigger list says. I wish the soda was still cold, but there's nothing for it. We got your favorite. There's a sandwich in there for later, okay?”

The bell dinged, and the elevator reappeared. They all hurried inside, and Gladion jabbed B4 and Close Doors.

“I'm guessing that's basement four?” said Moon.

“There's service tunnels that go from the house to the Aether sublevels,” said Gladion tonelessly. “But there's only one way down to her private laboratory. This elevator doesn't stop on any of the other floors.”

The air grew colder around them as they went down. It was because they were below the ocean, but there was something ominous to it as well. Lillie shivered, turning to cling to Hau.

“Thank you for coming,” she mumbled. “And you too, Moon. And Gladion.”

“I had to tell them,” said Gladion, before she could ask. “I'm sorry.”

Her shoulders lifted slightly— a shrug. “You're the one who insisted on keeping it a secret in the first place.”

He could tell that Moon wanted to discuss that further and was clearly restraining herself from asking. It was admirable, but he didn't have time to appreciate it because the elevator rumbled to a stop, and the doors opened.

Gladion had been in Lusamine's private laboratory exactly three times, in his entire life. He had been in basement four before that, because it had once been his father's private laboratory. It had looked very different— lined with bookshelves and cozy armchairs, with a space heater to warm them in the deep ocean. And his father definitely hadn't installed large, clear tanks to display a collection of cryogenically frozen Pokémon— both dead and living, he knew; the point was that you weren't supposed to be able to tell the difference. Lusamine had often waxed eloquent about the eternal nature of both life and death, which was just another tick on the list of things she said that he'd found out were total bullshit after he'd left.

“What the fuck,” hissed Moon.

She'd added more of them. Gladion carefully let his eyes rove the contents of the cages; there was a Slowpoke with a half-grown tail that looked pretty new, as well as— his heart thudded hard in his chest— a Litten, a Popplio, and a Rowlet.

“Oh, god, oh god oh god,” muttered Hau, going unhealthily pale. “I think I'm actually going to throw up.”

Gladion forced himself to look away from the specimens, walking past them to where Lusamine sat, at her computer. The black box was plugged into a large generator that hummed and whirred, a drone-song of certain death; and the worst part was that she'd put a mic on the box and they could now hear the Cosmog inside, whimpering with pain. It was the kind of whimper that happened when you left a baby to cry alone for too long, cries fading to whimpers when it realized it wouldn't be heard.

Lusamine spun in her chair, picking up another microphone. “Guzma to basement four, please,” she trilled. “Guzma to basement four. Thank you.”

“I beat him already,” pointed out Moon.

“Oh, don't worry, darling. I'm not calling for reinforcements. I'm just going to be spending some time with a friend. After all, this is what I hired him for.”

“It's kind of sad that you have to hire someone to be your friend,” said Gladion, before he could stop himself— clearly, he'd been spending too much time with Molly and Plumeria. Lillie and Hau both choked on laughter.

“Perhaps,” said Lusamine sleekly, turning around to look at the computer again. “But it's even more sad that you tried to join Team Skull, when most of them wouldn't want to be your friend— even if they were paid for it.”

The silence was, perhaps, louder than the words that had preceded it. Moon opened her mouth, indignant; but Gladion shook his head firmly.

“Please,” said Lillie, after a few moments. “Mother, please reconsider. If you make Nebby use up too much of her power, she will die.”

Lusamine rolled her eyes. “I suppose I have to give you credit for sheer persistence, Lillie,” she said disdainfully. “But it's beginning to be rather annoying. You must understand: I don't actually care if the Cosmog dies. It's not a unique species. There are more Cosmog in Alola; you can easily find another one at the Altar of the Moone or the Lake of the Sunne if you're so very pressed about having one. But there is only one Arbutus— and there is only one Necrozma.”

“Take me with you.”

His voice came out thin, and the silence grew even louder. Lusamine didn't even look at him, but Moon and Lillie and Hau turned, surprised.

“The T-Type: Null,” he began. “Unit Two.”

“You mean the research material you stole?” said Lusamine, voice tart-sweet.

“Rescued,” said Gladion, under his breath. He cleared his throat. “She— it evolved. I think it's a friendship-based evolution. The t-tail changed color, and she— it broke the helmet.”

“I don't know why you keep using feminine pronouns when the Type: Null don't have a specified gender.”

Gladion gritted his teeth. “It's a beast killer,” he reiterated. “The whole point of the RKS System project was so that Type: Full could be taken into Ultra Space to deal with Ultra Beasts. It's designed to help you with what you're doing.”

“I'll swap you. Let's say... Milotic, for the Type: Full.”

“Not a chance in hell.” The answer was automatic.

“Hmm. Too bad for you.”

Gladion took a deep breath. “Please,” he said quietly. “Mother, please— please don't do this. We already lost Father to Ultra Space. We don't want to lose you, too.”

As much as he hated her, as much as he feared her— fucking hell. She was still his mother.

He still loved her. He hated her, he feared her, he loved her. As Plumeria would say: What the fuck is wrong with you, Gladion?

“Oh, don't you?” said Lusamine, spinning around to finally fix him with her stare. Gladion had been wondering when she would do that, and was almost relieved when she did; the anticipation was worse than the actual effect, even if the actual effect involved him quaking in his shoes. She stalked over to him, looming high on high heels; but he was taller than he had been when he left. They were the same height. “Where was that attitude when you stole the Type: Null and left, hmm? Where was that attitude when you didn't so much as write or call for three and a half years? Where was that attitude when you used to hide yourself in your room and read angsty, pretentious poetry, pretending like you had all of the world's burdens on your shoulders when in reality you led a charmed life? Where was that attitude every time you said something nasty or ungrateful or conceited to me?”

“I'm not perfect.”

“That's probably the only accurate thing you've said today.” She rolled her eyes.

“But— you should know,” said Gladion, steeling himself, “that e-even if by some miracle, Father is still alive, and unchanged by Ultra Space, he would be— he would be horrified to see what you've done to this family. He only got lost, but you dragged the rest of us down to hell with you.”

A sound like a whip cracked through the room; it was only as he staggered backwards and sideways, head reeling, that his mind registered that she had slapped him in the face.

“What the actual fuck!” exclaimed Moon. “Did you forget he's a legal adult? I'm pretty sure you can get charged with assault for that.”

“No, no,” said Gladion, regaining his balance. Everything appeared to be doubled; Moon's hands found his, letting him lean on her shoulder while his brain recalibrated the visual input. “It's a good sign, trust me. It means she knows I'm right, but her ego can't accept being wrong.”

The heels clicked furiously toward him, but Moon turned him, standing in Lusamine's way. Gladion blinked at both of them.

Try it,” said Moon flatly. “Just you try it, and I will be having words with Officer Nanu. I will gleefully press charges.”

Lusamine's gaze flicked from Moon to Gladion, back to Moon again; back to Gladion again. Her mouth curved into a smile— the real smile, the one that made his spine crawl. It was cold, and cruel, and utterly triumphant.

“Oh, I see,” she said softly. “You love him, don't you?”

The silence roared in his ears; his heart sank down, down, down, into something ugly and raw and mired with pain— the sun was sinking, the light was dying

“Yes?” said Moon, sounding confused. “Obviously? I don't see what that has to do with anything.”

And just like that, his heart rocketed back up, overshotting its location on the left side of his chest to lodge firmly in his throat. The skies of his mind lit up white-hot, pure sunshine blazing through the ugliness to burn away uncertainty.

She... obviously... loved him?

Lusamine blinked. Gladion had almost never seen her taken aback before. It was a satisfying feeling. But she recovered quickly.

“He doesn't love you back,” she pointed out. “He's not capable of it.”

“Oh, see, that's where you're wrong,” said Moon, adopting a tone as sickly sweet as Lusamine herself. “He just doesn't love you.”

That wasn't true in the slightest, but it seemed to affect Lusamine anyway. She quickly turned around and busied herself at the computer again, pressing a button.

The whimpers of the Cosmog returned to a full shrilling, keening cry; the box glowed brighter blue.

Mother!” screamed Lillie, running over to the machine. She tried to wrench the box out, but it wouldn't budge. “Mother, please!”

“Guzma!” called Lusamine, ignoring her. “The wormhole's going to be open soon. Come earn that ten billion, if you please!”

“Yes, ma'am,” said Guzma, striding over from the elevator. Gladion hadn't heard it arrive. “Sorry about the wait. Some asshole locked it behind me.” He shot Gladion a dirty look, and Moon a dirtier one. Gladion glared back— he wasn't suicidally flippant with Guzma the way Moon was; but the hated, feared boss of Team Skull had nothing on his own fucking mother.

Lillie caught at Lusamine's wrist. “Please!”

Lusamine looked at her for a few moments. A bright, eerie-green light pulsed at the center of the room, above the generator. Guzma cackled, grinning at the light.

But his mother jerked her wrist out of his sister's grasp. “Children really would all be much happier,” she said venomously, “if they'd only listen to the adults around them.”

The Ultra Wormhole opened, with a buzzing, saw-tooth drone that made his teeth ache. Guzma ran and vaulted onto the generator, turning and offering one hand to help Lusamine up as well. They both leaped upward, into the light.

There was a jolt in the buzzing noise, as though someone had shoved the generator; then it sputtered several times and died. The light faded into nothing— leaving only the four of them in a white, shadowy room.

More silence— though this was not quite as deafening. A sudden pain in Gladion's forehead told him that he'd had a pressure headache building, a headache that had only now decided it was safe to appear.

“N-N-Nebby,” choked out Lillie, and she pulled the black box out of the machine, finally freed as the blue glow faded.

It made a cracking noise and opened with a hiss, almost before could set it down; but the Pokémon inside was not a Cosmog.

“Oh my god, she took your aura. Your little cloud of space dust— it's gone.”

“Wait,” said Hau suddenly. “Remember when we went to visit Gram?”

Gladion stared at him, incredulous. “What the fuck are you talking about?”

“We visited my grandmother in the senior center on Mount Hokulani. She's got dementia, but she saw Nebby and said she'd seen a Pokémon that looked a lot like Nebby once. And she guessed it might have been an evolution. So— maybe Nebby evolved?”

“Don't evolutions usually grow bigger?” said Moon skeptically.

The little Pokémon was smaller and quieter than Gladion ever remembered seeing her. She floated silent and still, several inches above Lillie's hand; her little eyes were closed, and what remaining color there was to her lingered between eight golden ridges that spiraled outward from her face.

“Excuse me, bzzt.”

“What's up, Rotom?” said Moon.

“My scans say that this Pokémon is called Cosmoem— the evolution of Cosmog. The entry is present in the INTERPOL Pokédex.”

Hau clapped his hands triumphantly. “Gram was right!”

“What else, what else?” pressed Lillie.

“Cosmoem is a pure Psychic-type, bzzt. It measures four inches long, and weighs approximately two thousand, two hundred and four point four pounds.”

There was a long pause, as they all stared wide-eyed at the Cosmoem— at Nebby.

Lillie carefully cupped her hands, and Nebby floated down into them. “She's warm,” she said, sounding relieved. “I can feel her breathing. She doesn't feel like she weighs that much.”

“There's probably some level of psychic shielding, going on,” suggested Moon. “It probably takes a lot of energy to maintain. Maybe that's why she's like... asleep.”

“I suppose that's a fair hypothesis.” Lillie gently lifted Nebby and tucked her into the front pocket of her jacket. “You don't mind staying in there, do you?”

There was no response, but Gladion didn't think that any of them had expected one.

The elevator ride back up to Lusamine's room was silent; but thankfully Wicke was waiting for them when they arrived.

“There aren't any cameras in basement four,” she said, without greeting them. “So if any of you require any medical attention, I'd like to take care of that first.”

“Gladion had his arm cut open by the biggest asshole on Team Skull, and Lusamine slapped him upside the head really hard,” said Moon promptly. “He wanted to superglue the cut. Can you believe that?”

Gladion glared at her, but she only stuck her tongue out at him.

“Knowing Gladion? Easily,” said Wicke, offering him a gentle smile. “He's always been very independent. Anyone else?”

“I've had two lorazepam and a third of a bottle of soda in the last seven hours,” said Lillie. Her tone was brittle. “I imagine I've been suppressing my appetite, for some utterly unimaginable reason; but now I'm really hungry.”

“Sandwich in your bag,” Hau reminded her. “Sorry if it's cold, but we got your favorite. Imi-chicken bacon with the lettuce and Tamato berry, light mayo, extra pickles.”

She blinked at him a few times; but then she went pink, looking away. It was really weird, seeing his sister getting flustered over a boy. “Oh— oh, yes. Thank you.”

Wicke took Gladion by the arm, pulling him over to Lusamine's bed; she yanked off the black duvet to reveal the white sheets beneath. “Have a seat,” she said sweetly. “Do feel free to bleed all over the sheets. These are the Kalosian silk twenty-thousand thread count ones, with specially commissioned embroidery; she'll chalk it up to life as usual.”

Moon and Lillie both cracked up laughing at this. Gladion glanced at Hau, who looked as confused as he felt.

Wicke held up a first-aid kit. “Do you want me to call a medic, or shall I patch you up myself?”

“I'd rather you did it.”

She nodded and set to work. Lillie unwrapped her sandwich and began eating. “So tell me, what exactly happened down there? I had alerts about data readings that were consistent with the opening of an Ultra Wormhole.”

Gladion remained quiet, as did Lillie; Moon and Hau explained everything, adding what seemed to him rather unnecessary commentary on some of the things that Lusamine had said. Wicke also stayed silent, drawing from the first aid kit (to his surprise) a suture needle, some thread, and a syringe of what he guessed was a numbing agent. The cut was longer than it was deep— the blade had skated sideways, in Kohaku's surprise. It was fourteen stitches, but once she'd numbed everything up it only felt strange. Null had cut him much deeper than that, and after going to a Pokémon Center the first time and being fussed over half to death by the nurses, he'd bought the superglue and learned some first-aid of his own.

“I'm afraid that virtually none of what you're saying is news to me,” said Wicke gently, as Moon paused for breath in the middle of a diatribe about how Lusamine barely even looked at Gladion unless she was insulting him, what the fuck was that even about. “You forget that I am Gladion's contact, Lillie's friend from home, and the chief executive officer for about two thirds of Aether's separate departments, as well as the president's personal assistant. I am well aware of their dysfunctional family dynamic.”

“It was abuse! She should go to jail!”

“Nobody would have believed us,” said Lillie dully. “We were homeschooled, and we didn't have friends. Wicke and Faba were our tutors. We were well-educated and given everything we wanted.”

“That sounds exactly like what she was telling you to try and guilt you into being grateful—”

“The point,” said Wicke loudly, cutting Moon off, “is that Lusamine has said and done terrible things, yes; but she is also mentally ill, and deserves more of your pity than your ire. This does not excuse her actions, of course.” Her mouth twitched. “From what I know of her, she would resent your pity far more anyway.”

Gladion snorted. “She would hate it.”

“Then I'm going to pity the fuck out of her,” said Moon staunchly. “I hope it pisses her off. God.”

“I did manage to trick her into signing some forms regarding medical power of attorney for both Gladion and Lillie.”

“How do you trick someone into signing a form?” wondered Hau.

Wicke smiled, sewing the last of Gladion's stitches and tying the knot off neatly. “You shove it in a stack of documents that need to be signed and hope she doesn't notice.”

“You have to understand,” said Lillie seriously, to Moon and Hau, “that Wicke doesn't do big, grand gestures. She plans lots of little things and tips them into motion, which results in things that look like big, grand gestures.”

“You play chess,” said Moon, comprehending Lillie's meaning at once; her eyes flicked quickly to Gladion and then back to Wicke. “Lusamine thinks she's the queen piece, and maybe she is; but even a pawn can become a queen. But you're the king. If you get captured, everything's lost.”

“A neatly phrased metaphor,” said Wicke approvingly. “I prefer to think of myself as a rook. The king would have been Professor Mohn, who disappeared through an Ultra Wormhole some six and a half years ago; checkmate, if you will. The rooks guard the king; I was Professor Mohn's personal assistant before I performed the same service for Lusamine."

“Who's the other rook, then?”

“That very much depends upon who you ask.” Wicke began rolling a bandage around Gladion's newly-stitched arm. “To the president, her other rook is Faba, while Guzma would be a knight. She doesn't believe in surrounding herself with individuals; she much prefers to deal with collectives. It is one of the things that— believe it or not— makes her a good company president.”

“Good is a strong word,” said Lillie, wrinkling her nose.

“I should say competent. She is good at her job.” Wicke put away the first aid kit, mouth thinning. “But since you asked me, and not the president— she is the queen, I am a rook. Faba believes he is a rook, but he is a bishop. Guzma is, again, a knight. The four of you, as well as the Ultra Space contingent, are all pawns. Dr. Colress is another bishop— there are some... ah, independent contractors, shall we say, who might be named as the other rook and knight.”

She meant Van and the Foxes— though there were five less of them today than there had been two days ago. Moon and Hau and Lillie wouldn't know what Wicke meant by that; it was a hint for him, something he could use, when he got around to... things. On Ula'ula Island. With Tapu Bulu and Nanu. Things he was very much, very pointedly not thinking about right now because if he did, his entire brain was going to explode.

For a few moments they were all quiet. Wicke washed her hands in Lusamine's bathroom before returning to look at them.

“Here is what is going to happen,” she said plainly. “It is approaching ten-thirty, and after the day you all have had you must be quite exhausted. Gladion, Lillie, your rooms are available if you would like to use them. Moon and Hau, the apartment you stayed at when you were last here is open as well.”

Gladion's mouth went dry. “I don't think I can sleep here.”

“I can prepare another apartment.”

“Let's just all go together,” suggested Moon. “There's a pretty comfy couch out in the main room. I call dibs because I'm the shortest and not injured.”

“There's only two bedrooms,” said Hau, with a hesitant glance at Gladion.

Lillie folded her arms. “I have an even better idea. We'll drag our mattresses from this house over to the apartment and put all of them in the living room.”

Gladion stared at her, unimpressed. “A sleepover? Really?”

She met his stare. “I don't want to be alone right now.”

Well, he couldn't say no to that— because to be perfectly honest, he felt the same way.

In the absence of Lusamine, Faba was technically supposed to be in charge; but Wicke had apparently done some rather clever paperwork that gave her functional leadership and Faba the mere appearance of it. All of the Aether employees had been sent to bed, with overtime and apologies for the inconveniences; the remainder of Team Skull had vanished completely; and Wicke had their bags brought up from Nanu's boat.

And, as Lillie had suggested— Wicke had their mattresses carried over to the apartment where Moon and Hau had apparently stayed. There was a single bathroom, two bedrooms, a kitchenette, and a fairly large living area; it was one of the good guest apartments, the ones Lusamine assigned to visiting government officials or foreign dignitaries. Hau and Moon eagerly shoved furniture around until there was room to spread four mattresses on the floor; then all of the Pokémon were let out to eat and cuddle. It was pure, mad chaos and it was wonderful.

Gladion had showered that morning, but he'd been doing a lot of sweating since then so he gamely wrapped his arm in plastic wrap before retreating to take another one. When he came back, his things had been moved so that his mattress was located next to Moon's.

“You're not funny,” he informed a giggling Lillie and Hau.

“That's what I said, but does anyone ever listen to me? No. No, they do not.” Moon called from the kitchenette. “Anyone want some Tapu Cocoa before bed?”

“If you're offeri—”

His voice died in his throat when Moon walked over to stand into the kitchenette doorway. In the corner of his vision, he saw Hau hold one fist up to Lillie, who bumped it in return.

“Yes or no?” said Moon patiently, though a flush was beginning to darken her cheeks; it matched the deep-rose color of the stupid, open silk robe-thing she was wearing over stupid short pajama shorts and a stupid tank top. She had to have borrowed the robe thing from Lillie. He was going to kill his sister.

(Translation: he owed his sister big time. Legs. Goddamn.)

“Yes,” mumbled Gladion.

He couldn't reasonably sit in bed and drink hot chocolate, so he got up and went over to the kitchenette.

“Turn out the lights while you're up!” cackled Hau. Gladion responded with a middle-finger salute, but flicked the lights off anyway.

The fridge had been fully stocked, it turned out; and Moon pulled out a carton of milk, pouring it in a saucepan.

“Aren't there cocoa packets?”

Moon offered him a withering look. “Sure, but why would you do cocoa packets when you can have cocoa from scratch?”

“I don't know if I've ever had cocoa from scratch.”

She grinned. “Well, you're about to. Can you check the pantry for chocolate chips?”

The pantry did, indeed, have chocolate chips. Moon sprinkled in a few at a time and stirred them in to melt until the milk was a pale, creamy brown. She added a couple drops of vanilla extract and a pinch of cinnamon before going to the cupboard for mugs.

There were marshmallows and whipped cream in the cupboard as well, and Moon found a little bottle of rainbow jimmies that she sprinkled on top of hers— disgusting, he told her; but she just laughed and stuck her tongue out.

They sat in silence with only the kitchenette lights. Hau and Lillie were talking quietly in the living room, and the last time he'd bothered to turn around they were holding hands.

“Are you okay?”

Her voice was soft, and her eyes were softer, and her hair looked the softest of all. Gladion stared at her for a few moments, resting his chin on his hand, until she flushed and looked away; then he realized she'd asked a question.

“I'm never okay,” he said in response.

“Do you— do you want to talk about it?” Moon's voice was hesitant. “I mean— last time I was nosy, you yelled at me, and I deserved it. I am curious, now. Not for the sake of being curious, you understand, but because I— care about you.” She stumbled over the word, over the confession that Lusamine had forced her to make. “And I know I said that last time, when we argued. But I've learned some things since then. Um— because I care about you, I totally get it if you don't want to talk to me about it. It's not about me, and that's fine. But Lillie's had some good things come from talking to Hau and I, and I was wondering if— if you wouldn't like to try the same thing.”

Gladion kept staring, though it was partly an excuse to think about his answer to the question. The whole look, with the pajamas and the robe, was really working for her.

And her legs, Arceus fucking hell. He kept his eyes above her neck after that.

“I reserve the right to pass on any question,” he said finally.

“Done.”

“If you interrupt me, you have to do a penalty.”

“A penalty game, huh?” Moon grinned. “Those can be fun. Let's do it. But you have to have something to do penalties for, too.”

He looked down, away from her smile. “Well, you've been getting on me about being mean,” he mumbled, feeling heat rise to his face. “So— maybe when I'm being mean, or unfair.”

“That works for me.”

“And we're not— this is for you and me. Not for Lillie and Hau.”

There was a long silence. He looked up, cheeks burning, from his cocoa.

Moon was watching him, eyes steady, with an expression he wasn't quite sure how to interpret. The usual admiration he was used to seeing was present in full force, but there was something warmer, something softer.

If he had to thank Lusamine for one thing in his life, maybe, it would be this. He wasn't sure quite how he felt in return for Moon— not with his fucking mess of a brain. But having that clarity, knowing her feelings to be as raw and honest as they looked, was oddly comforting. Her love was sunlight, like she was; he still needed to apply sunscreen, but she warmed him inside out just by smiling when he was cold.

She smiled again, real and wide and happy. “Out of all the shit that's happened to me in the last three days,” she said plainly, “this is definitely the second best.”

“What's the best?”

She waved one hand in the general direction of the living room, which he took to mean Lillie-and-Hau, a singular unit. “They're happy,” she said softly. “It's good for them to be happy. I'm happy, too.”

And there was good reason for him to be fairly happy as well, Gladion supposed, as he finished his cocoa, rinsed out the mug (a matter of habit, to pre-wash dishes and silverware for whoever had dishwashing duty at the Shady House), and plodded back over to the mattress they'd decided was his. His teammates were out and sleeping, except for Null who simply lay quietly, watching him and Moon get ready to go to sleep with sleepy scarlet eyes.

“I'm so proud of you,” he whispered, lying down on the mattress next to her. She curled in around him, resting her head carefully on his chest. “You did it. You fucking did it.”

The truth was out, to Moon and Hau— that he and Lillie were blood, that they'd been raised by Lusamine. They weren't angry with him, and neither was Wicke. He didn't have to answer to Guzma or Plumeria anymore— he was still pissed at both of them, but there was a slight twinge in his heart when he thought of the latter, and of Molly and Rogelio. They weren't exactly his friends, in the way that they had been Moon's friends; but he liked them, and they'd been nice to him.

He and Null had gotten to scare the shit out of Faba, which had been fun and satisfying; he'd gotten all of the RKS System files on his thumb drive; he'd prevented Moon from dying twice; and he'd gotten to witness Cassie getting pissed off enough to snap Kohaku's wrist like a twig.

Though the fact that he was counting that among the good things was probably something he needed to see a therapist about, among all the other shit.

The mattress next to his shifted, and Moon rolled over from her stomach to her back. Her Metagross had been relegated to the corner of the room, folding its legs to sit on the ground; Nox had promptly zoomed over to sleep on top of it. Her Decidueye, Toucannon, and Jolteon were all arranged around her; the Golisopod was curled in some sort of ball at the base of her bed. Imp was dangling from the ceiling lamp, for once quiet and not trying to break shit; and Rey had gone over to hang out with Lillie's Zoroark and Ninetales, like some kind of fox party.

Null's evolution was the best thing that had happened to him today; but reconciling with Moon probably came in second.

 

Wicke came in to wake them up around nine in the morning, but Gladion had already been awake— thanks to Null's habitual need to use the bathroom litter box at precisely seven forty-two every morning. He'd calculated it down to the minute, and when she and the rest of his team had all finished their business he'd gone back to bed, just lying on the mattress and staring at the ceiling and wondering if this was how it felt to not be afraid that Lusamine was somehow watching him.

They had too many Pokémon and people to make a full breakfast in the tiny kitchenette, but the mall and the employee cafeteria were both out of the question so Wicke led them all back to the house and the dining room, sending an order to the house cooks to make what sounded to him like a literal ton of food.

“So, this is your home,” said Moon quietly to him, over imi-bacon and Belue berry pancakes. “You grew up here.”

Gladion swallowed. “I did, yes.”

“Wanna do a house tour, since your evil mom isn't home?”

He considered this. “I guess we could do that.”

As they continued to eat there was a knock at the door and in came Captain Phyco, Private Soliera, and a very sulky-looking Faba. Wicke placidly directed them to the food and moved to the head of the table— Lusamine's usual place, pressing a button underneath the table to roll down the projection screen on one side of the room.

“Oh, is it movie time?” said Hau, grinning. “I like movies.”

“It's presentation time,” Wicke corrected him, with a smile. “This will be tedious and quite probably depressing, which is why I have opted to do it over food.”

“Why is he here?” demanded Lillie, glaring at Faba.

“I assure you, I am not here by choice,” muttered Faba, crossing his arms. Gladion was pleased to see that the man had not yet managed to find replacements for his green glasses.

“Oh, but you are,” said Wicke sweetly. “Your choices are to be here and cooperate with me, or to languish in prison after I send my extensive compilation of evidence to Interpol. Evidence that proves you have repeatedly flouted not only the ethical standards of scientific practice upheld by Aether— for which I could rightfully have you fired— but also a variety of laws regarding Pokémon cruelty, child labor, and misappropriation of company funds that would almost certainly fall under the purview of embezzlement. I am not a judge or a jurist, but my modest calculations would see you in prison for at least twenty years, if not more. The choice, despite what you may think, is yours.”

“God, I love her,” said Moon under her breath, staring at Wicke. Faba went from pink to red to barely-suppressed violet.

Wicke serenely pointed a remote control at the projector that hung from the ceiling, and the light turned on the screen; the overhead lamps in the room automatically dimmed to make viewing easier.

 

Strategic Use of General Allies and Resources; Post-Incident Evaluations

Operation: S.U.G.A.R.; Operation: P.I.E.

Presenter: Amelia Wicke

Contributors: Captain Phyco, Private Soliera, Amelia Wicke, Gladion Mohn, Hau Akiona, Moon Hawkins, Lillie Mohn

Other: Marcus Faba

 

“Thank you all for being here today. I'd like to deal with the unpleasantries as quickly as possible... so let's start with you, Marcus.” The slide-show clicked over to a bulleted list with Faba's name at the top; the bullet points read Evidence, Status, and Requirements.

“I have several doctorates,” groused Faba. “What have you got, some kind of Master of Arts degree?”

Wicke's eyes narrowed. “I understand that your ego has been awfully bruised in the last twenty-four hours, but there's no need to be childish. If you could, perhaps, keep your mouth shut, we'll get through this faster.”

Gladion smirked, not trying to hide it. Faba glared at him, but subsided.

“As I have mentioned, I have spent the last four years or so gathering evidence of your wrongdoing. I have electronic and paper documentation, video evidence and eyewitness accounts, and audio recordings in which you freely admit to said wrongdoing. I have multiple backups of all the evidence in various locations in the cloud and around Alola.”

“I admit nothing!”

“Alola is a single-party consent region. I have taken the liberty of recording nearly every conversation I have had with you in the last four years. That fully covers the periods of time in which you were in charge of the RKS System project and the Cosmog project.”

Faba turned puce, but fell silent.

“You have,” said Wicke, her lips pressing together, “agreed to cooperate with us in exchange for my not immediately releasing said evidence to Interpol. As it stands you are, in name, the head of the Aether Foundation in the absence of Arbutus and Lusamine Mohn. However, that means very little in practicality, as the president left much of the day-to-day affairs in my hands anyway. You will maintain control over R&D and Engineering; I have removed Medical, Conservation and Accounting to my own purview, and maintain Human Resources, IT, Hospitality and Public Relations, Media Relations, Sales and Marketing, Security, and Custodial Services. What I request of you in terms of cooperation is for you to act as though nothing is wrong; make any media appearances that the president would have made, reading from scripts which I will provide for you; and to spend your workdays in either R&D or Engineering. Your activity will be monitored to ensure that you comply with ethical and legal practices; and you will not be granted access to the laboratories containing information on the RKS System project or the Cosmog project. In short: stay down in the basements, play nice for the cameras, and don't annoy me or you will very shortly find yourself publicly humiliated and imprisoned. My patience with you is thin to the point of nonexistence, after having to watch you hurt people and generally make an ass of yourself for five years without being able to do something about it. If you put so much as one toe out of line, I will chop off your entire foot.”

Her voice remained pleasant and even for the entire time she spoke, and the polite smile was all but glued to her face; but chills rocketed down down Gladion's spine as he caught another glimpse of how Wicke had been playing the long game— years and years of patience, accumulating evidence like tiny grains of sand until she revealed the entire desert.

“Do you understand, Marcus? I require verbal acknowledgement and your signature.”

“I understand,” gritted out Faba.

“Thank you. Please sign here.”

She pushed a piece of paper and a pen across the table. He signed it and pushed it back.

“You are dismissed from the remainder of this meeting. Your workday begins at nine a.m. like usual, unless you would like to clock in early. Have a lovely day, and do enjoy the weather; it's very mild for December.”

Faba stood and stomped out of the room, slamming the door shut.

“That was the most beautiful thing I've ever heard in my whole life,” said Moon solemnly. “A true masterpiece. A thrilling display.”

“Thank you, Moon. I think that the rest of this presentation will be marginally more pleasant without his presence.”

She clicked on the remote. The next slide was titled Ultra Megalopolans.

“Captain Phyco, Private Soliera,” said Wicke, turning to them. “Did you receive the briefings I sent you this morning regarding the account of what transpired last night in basement four?”

“Indeed we did.”

“And were you able to take sufficient data readings of your own?”

“We were.” Captain Phyco rose to his feet. “Do you wish for a report?”

“Yes, if you don't mind.”

“Very well.” He cleared his throat. “Last evening, at approximately nine-seventeen p.m, readings consistent with the opening of an Ultra Wormhole were sent from the monitors in basement four— the private laboratory belonging to President Lusamine Mohn of the Aether Foundation. Upon further investigation of the president's computer, as well as residual energy readings conducted in person, Soliera and I have been able to determine that the device which contained the captured Cosmog was designed to pull energy from the Cosmog in question and use it to create an Ultra Wormhole that led to a specific location. It would seem that she wished to go to Ultra Megalopolis, our homeworld. We would have taken her, if she had bothered to ask us.” Captain Phyco sighed. “Our contacts at home tell us that they have not seen anyone answering to the descriptions of either Lusamine Mohn or Guzma Mahelona, so we must conclude that the wormhole did not lead to Ultra Megalopolis. Furthermore, our contacts at home also report increased movement and activity from Necrozma, who we have been tracking here and in Ultra Space; and there have been unusual readings of non-native life forms, as of eleven pm. last evening, in another part of Ultra Space known as the Ultra Sea— or casually, to most Megalopolans, the void.”

Wicke's mouth tightened. “And that's where the president and Guzma ended up?”

“It seems likely.” Captain Phyco glanced at Moon. “The Ultra Sea is home to a variety of dangerous and hostile Ultra Beasts, but none so dangerous nor so hostile as the creature that Terrans have named Symbiont, but we know to be called Nihilego.”

Moon went very still.

“So it is... unlikely that they have survived?”

“The readings indicate that there are still at least two non-native life forms in the Ultra Sea.” Private Soliera's mouth thinned. “Nihilego, if you will pardon my bluntness, like to play with their food before they eat it. It has been some time since anything has gone willingly to the Ultra Sea, and the novelty of it will increase their lifespans. There is an atmosphere of sorts that is mostly compatible with the Terran respiratory system, and there are plants that are edible. With the correct resources and a proper shelter, it is possible to live in the Ultra Sea on a permanent basis. We have a base there, but it's at the other end of the Ultra Sea from where the readings originate. The Nihilego will likely draw everything out as long as they are able to resist a true feeding. I estimate that the president and Guzma could last as long as three months.”

“So there is hope of rescue?” Wicke raised one eyebrow.

Gladion blinked, turning to look at Lillie. She met his eyes with the same resigned expression he knew that he also wore.

Phyco nodded solemnly. “Indeed. If a... stable Ultra Wormhole were to be opened, in a place where it has been opened many times before, then it would be possible for a retrieval team to be sent.”

“It sounds,” said Wicke carefully, “as though you have a location in mind?”

“We do. We have made our own occasional trips back home from the place you know as the Altar of the Moone. It has a long history of Ultra Wormholes.”

“And you would be willing to retrieve the president and Guzma?”

“Willing,” said Soliera, “but not able.”

Phyco frowned at her. “I thought we had agreed not to pursue this line of action.”

“I am only being honest. If I cannot defeat even one of the youngest Trainers on this planet, I certainly cannot hold off a Nihilego— let alone more than one. It would be most prudent to send someone who has already shown that they are capable of defeating a Nihilego.”

“You mean Moon, don't you?”

Hau's tone was more amused than anything.

“Officer Nanu, or a number of INTERPOL agents, would also suffice; but I do think Moon would be the best person for the job.”

“She is but a child,” murmured Phyco.

“I'm eighteen, so not legally,” pointed out Moon. “Don't do the Faba thing, man. You're better than that.”

“My intent was not to demean you, Moon. It is only because of your youth that you should not be asked to bear this burden.”

Moon's jaw tightened. “People younger than me have been forced to bear much heavier burdens.”

Her eyes met Gladion's; he looked away quickly, before he could see pity in them.

“If you are willing,” said Phyco, with a quiet sigh that indicated defeat, “we would be very grateful to you. You see, the computer believed it would be taking them to Ultra Megalopolis, but the readings indicated that the target was actually Necrozma's own aura— they mistook it for our city, because that is where it is supposed to be. Necrozma would have been in the Ultra Sea, at some point. The president's tracker is better than ours; if we can get hold of it, we may be able to reverse-engineer it to bind Necrozma in its cage once more.”

“She said something about saving the world from darkness,” said Moon. “And finding her husband, who I gather is beyond finding.”

Phyco sighed loudly. “What kind of human is she?” he said wearily. “She acted so kind and caring to the public, but beneath that she thought of none but herself. Who is she, to believe she can save the world? We asked for her assistance, not her labor.”

“Perhaps she feels too much responsibility to take everything upon herself to fix,” suggested Soliera.

“That motive seems far too generous to ascribe to her. What an incomprehensible individual.”

Gladion glanced at Lillie. “God, that's a fucking mood.

Moon, Lillie, and Hau all began giggling at that. He hadn't intended to be funny, but he wasn't going to object if it made his sister smile.

“Right,” said Wicke, recalling all of their attention. “That was very informative, but it does also change some facets of the plan. We now turn to the four of you.”

She clicked on the slide; it read Moon Hawkins and Hau Akiona along the top of the screen.

“Before the previous conversation, I would have said that neither of you owe any obligation to the Aether Foundation— and in fact, should be compensated for the troubles we have caused you. But that was before Moon agreed to help retrieve the president and Guzma. Bearing that in mind, I will revise to ask if, as you travel to the Altar of the Moone, you would be willing to allow Lillie to travel with you—”

“Yes, done,” said Moon immediately.

Wicke smiled. “I will write the two of you letters for the island kahuna— if she has been instated as such, yet— and the trial captain, allowing you to pass by any further trial barriers without delay until such a time as either the president and Guzma are retrieved, or the tracker readings indicate that they have been killed. After that, you are of course free to resume your island challenge.”

“Sounds good. Thank you.”

Wicke clicked the remote again; the next slide was labelled Lillie Mohn.

“I have given this some thought,” she said, looking at Lillie. “You said that the president mentioned your having visited places around the region that gave Cosmog energy. What were those places?”

“Well, one wasn't exactly a place,” said Lillie hesitantly, glancing at Phyco and Soliera. “Moon thinks some of the aura from Ultra Space, that comes from Captain Phyco and Private Soliera, is one of the energy sources. It fits with the readings that Professor Burnet and I have taken.”

“Very good,” said Wicke, nodding. “That matches with my own data as well, and I tend to get in touch with Elizabeth as soon as we've finished this meeting. What else?”

“Nebby's visited three of the four Tapus... and the Lake of the Sunne, if that counts? She was more, um, orange after we visited it.”

“Correct,” said Phyco, nodding. “That means that, presumably, you ought to visit the Altar of the Moone as well, and not just to accompany Moon on her journey to retrieve your mother. Seeking out the remaining Tapu would also be prudent.”

“I don't know if it will do any good.” Lillie reached into her pocket and pulled out Nebby— still tiny and motionless. “She evolved, but she's not taking in energy the way she's supposed to.”

Captain Phyco's eyes widened. “That— that is—”

“Cosmoem,” murmured Soliera. “This changes things.”

“How so?”

“You will be able to open a much more stable Ultra Wormhole, with Cosmoem's assistance.” Phyco cleared his throat. “There are two artifacts— a pair of flutes, known as the Sun and Moon Flutes. The Sun Flute belongs at the Lake of the Sunne, but it is currently here, at the Aether Paradise. Some tests were being done with it in basement one of R&D.”

Wicke whipped up her phone and began typing rapidly. “I'll have it brought up at once.”

“The Moon Flute is not found on Poni Island, but at a place called Exeggutor Island, just off the Poni coast.”

“What do we need the flutes for?” asked Gladion, since no one else was asking it.

“It's in the legend,” said Soliera. “If I recall correctly: Two tones rang out across the altar— a perfect pair, ever after mute.”

“That's from The Light of Alola,” realized Lillie. “So the two tones are the flutes?”

“We believe so. The idea is that the flutes will... ah, summon Solgaleo or Lunala, depending on where they are used. At the Lake of the Sunne they will call Solgaleo; at the Altar of the Moone they will call Lunala. Solgaleo and Lunala are both capable of opening and using stable Ultra Wormholes— they are deity manifestations of suns and moons, which are a form of light. Light travels faster than any known substance in existence, and the Wormholes are powered by both that physical light and the aura of Ultra Space. Phyco and I are currently in possession of our world's own Solgaleo, which is how we travel between here and Ultra Megalopolis.”

There was a long silence.

“Wow,” said Hau, after a few seconds. “I did not expect that.”

“So it's settled,” said Wicke placidly. “Lillie will travel with Moon and Hau to Poni Island; they will retrieve the Moon Flute from Exeggutor Island, visit Tapu Fini's den, and proceed from there to the Altar of the Moone— skipping the trial and Grand Trial of Poni Island, for the moment. That brings us to Gladion.”

She clicked on the remoted, and his name popped onto the screen. Gladion looked up at Wicke, waiting.

“You have a world of options before you,” she said quietly— speaking to him alone, though the rest of them could hear. “You have had to become an adult before your time, as Lillie has done; and you have been so very brave, and so very strong, for such a long time. You are not obligated to Team Skull in any fashion; nor will I ask you to fix your mother's wrongs here at Aether Paradise. They are her mistakes, and my choice, to handle. So— you are free to do as you like. You could begin your island challenge, or you could travel elsewhere and take on a traditional Gym challenge in another region. You could stay here, or you could move somewhere else in Alola or the world. I will sponsor you no matter what you do, and I have removed all of your relevant documents, such as your birth certificate, banking information, and international passport from Lusamine's control.”

Gladion stared at her for a few moments. “You aren't asking me to go with Moon?”

“Why would I?”

“Because of Null. She was designed to kill Ultra Beasts.”

“A design is not an obligation, Gladion. I would not pressure you or your Null into anything you did not wish to do. If you and Null wish to accompany Moon into Ultra Space, it is your choice.”

He swallowed hard. The enormity of choice loomed before him. He thought of all the regions he'd dreamed of visiting, of using Null to take on each and every League; but Lusamine's face would haunt him forever if he left immediately.

There was also the small matter of a whole Tapu Bulu, but he wasn't thinking about that. He wasn't.

“I'd like to go with Moon,” he said finally. “I need closure with Mo— with Lusamine. I'll figure out the rest later.”

“Your assistance is appreciated,” said Captain Phyco, inclining his head once.

“A sound plan.” Wicke smiled warmly; and her eyes went suddenly limpid with mischief. “Now, there is the, ah, small matter of your having discovered an entirely new species of Pokémon.” This has not occurred to Gladion at all. “As such, it is your privilege to name the species, for the International Pokédex as kept by INTERPOL. Moon's Rotom-Dex should be able to take scans and measurements and confirm follow-up queries.”

Name it?” said Gladion faintly. “It's Type: Null. Just Null, to me.”

“Generally, Pokémon undergo a name change when they evolve. It differentiates the old from the new.”

Old and new. That was a thought.

“She's a friendship evolution, I think. Like the poem. Make new friends,” he said absently, “but keep the old.”

“One is silver, and the other gold,” finished Moon.

“Null is an old friend, so she's gold. But she evolved into a new friend, a silver one. An ally.” He hesitated. “Silver, ally... Silv-ally?”

“Silvally?” repeated Wicke, a soft smile on her face. “I like it. I rather thought you would go with Type: Full.”

“I thought about it for a second, but that would be giving too much credit to Faba.”

“Oh, drag him,” Hau nodded approvingly, and Lillie giggled.

“Silvally it is.” Wicke typed something into her phone. “Moon, would you mind asking your Rotom-Dex to do measurements and scans?”

“Yeah, sure— actually, wait.” She turned to Gladion. “Null will be okay with that, right? Rotom flying around and beeping at her?”

It wasn't enough that he struggled to maintain his composure whenever Moon so much as breathed; the consideration for Null sent a warm, pleasant ripple through his heart.

“Uh— yes. Yes, she'll be fine.”

“Then that will be the first thing you do, when we've finished up,” said Wicke. “So then: the four of you will go to Poni Island together. I believe that from Seafolk Village, it will take a little less than a month to get to the Altar of the Moone. Most of that time will be spent out-of-doors; and Poni Island is not known for its forests. Most of it is rocky scrubland and canyons.” Her eyes flicked to Moon. “You will probably not be able to use your hammock, as Lillie has mentioned you are accustomed to doing.”

“Aw, man,” complained Moon.

“Since it is very nearly winter, I think it might be prudent to offer the four of you the use of a larger tent to share. Sleeping in the same enclosed space, especially with Pokémon out of their balls, will help you all to keep warm.” Wicke coughed delicately. “I trust that I do not need to remind you to be mature about this.”

“No, ma'am,” Hau assured her, wide-eyed. “We will be very, very mature.”

“Thank you. I'd like you all to spend today resting and preparing for Poni Island. You can do what you like, as long as you don't exert yourselves.” Wicke's gaze turned to Gladion. “Except for you.”

“Me?”

“I have one thing I require of you, and two requests that are optional but would be appreciated all the same.” She placed her hands on her hips. “Firstly, while I am medically trained enough to give you stitches, I would still like one of the medics to examine your injury. If we can expedite the healing process with Audino or Blissey, so much the better.”

“I don't need—”

“This is my one requirement, Gladion. Your medical records are your own now, as an adult. No word of it will ever get back to your mother.”

He hadn't even realized where that particular hang-up had come from, but once she said it out loud, it made perfect sense. It explained why he hated visiting Pokémon Centers, why he had insisted on learning as much first aid on his own as he could possibly manage— though that had been fortunate, as it had kicked off an interest in medicines that had remained with him his entire life.

“Okay,” he said finally, folding his hands in his lap.

“The other two things are simply requests, but they would make me happy.”

“And they are?”

“A proper haircut and some new clothes.”

“Oh, for fuck's sake.”

Wicke merely looked at him, gaze level and kind.

“Sorry,” he said, as an afterthought. “I just— I like my hair.”

“I do, too,” she admitted. “The president's preference for your hair was rather boring. Very short and straight.”

“I looked like a plucked chicken,” said Gladion flatly. “It was gross.”

“Oooh, do you have baby pictures?” said Moon hopefully.

No.”

Wicke ignored him. “I do, but I keep them in a private safe in Konikoni City. Lillie's, as well.”

“Why?”

“Because the president enjoyed humiliating her children to visitors by showing specific pictures of them in the bath, and I thought it would be best for all concerned if all the baby pictures simply went missing.”

Gladion stared at her. He remembered the incidents in question. It would be merely cute to show everyone a two-year-old covered in bubbles when the two-year-old in question was five or six; it had become less cute and more embarrassing when he was ten or so— and the incidents had stopped around that time.

“That was before Father died,” he realized.

“It was.”

“Was he okay with you hiding the pictures?”

Wicke's lips thinned. “I didn't tell him, and I don't believe he noticed, one way or the other.”

“Was she still awful before that time?” wondered Hau.

Gladion shrugged. “It only got really bad after he died.”

“Yes, she was still awful,” said Wicke placidly, ignoring him. “Anyway— haircut and clothes. We'll keep the length and asymmetry, Gladion— I just want it to look like it was done with scissors and a razor, not chewed on by your Pokémon.”

He couldn't very well argue with that, especially when Null had in fact been responsible for his hairstyle. “But clothes?”

“You are free to choose whatever colors and styles you like, but you need something a little sturdier to go camping on Poni Island in the winter than your current wardrobe.”

“I do have some things that aren't—” He gestured at his ripped jacket and the pants. Moon, surprisingly, went pink.

“I'm sure you do, but I'm equally sure that your wardrobe could do with some updating. That goes for all of you, actually. Lillie, you and Gladion are free to take anything from your rooms you would like but I will also give you my company card. You may all, Moon and Hau included, purchase whatever you like from the shops in the mall.”

“What's the price limit?” said Moon, taking the black credit card that Wicke held out to her.

“The card doesn't have a limit, but I would prefer it if you kept your purchases under one million Poké each.”

Moon's eyes went round. “There's no way I'm spending that much, but, uh— thank you for the offer?”

“Of course.” Wicke glanced around the room. “I believe that is everything. You're all free to go.”

There was a lot for him to ponder, through the day. He and Moon took pictures of Null; she proudly showed off her crest and tail each time they put in a new Drive. Rotom did scans both internal and external, and after some debate with Moon and Wicke, the files were sent to Professor Kukui and Professor Burnet, with a request to wait before contacting him for clarification. They would want to come to Poni Island themselves to examine Null, Moon told him; but if he didn't like that then she could probably talk them into a video call instead.

When that was finished, he decided he wanted to go up to his room and pick out things he wanted to take. He'd grown since he had left, so probably most of the clothes were too small; but there were some blankets and a book or two that he'd missed when he was gone.

Moon followed him, remaining quiet as they walked through the house.

“These are offices,” he said, pointing at the doors in the hallway between the conference-slash-dining-room and the front foyer. “Wicke's office is here, and so is Mo— Lusamine's.”

“You can call her Mother if you want to.”

“It's a habit I'm trying to break,” admitted Gladion. “She—” His voice died; he swallowed, trying to regain it. “She doesn't deserve that.”

“From what I'd seen, I'd have to agree with you.”

She stopped in front of the one he'd noted the evening before. “What was this one?”

“Schoolroom.” He felt his mouth tighten, and tried to relax his face. “Mother taught us some things, but Wicke took over most of that. Literature, art, music, and history. Father used to teach us science and math, but after he died Wicke took on math and Faba took on science. Wicke also taught Lillie and I to speak Kalosian. She and Mother took us to live in Kalos for about six months when I was— oh, fourteen, probably. Lillie was eleven or twelve.”

“Really?” said Moon, turning to look at him. “I knew Lillie spoke Kalosian. She would talk with Ilima sometimes.”

“Ah, Ilima,” said Gladion, reminded of something that Lillie had mentioned. “Didn't you like him, once?”

Moon went bright red. “Only for like a month, lay off! I'm going to kill Lillie.”

O, swear not by the moon, th'inconstant moon, that monthly changes in her circle orb—”

“Why the hell do you have Pukeo and Mukiet memorized?” But she was grinning, looking shyly away with her hand coming up to rub at the back of her neck.

“Why did you recognize where it was from?” he countered, leading them both upstairs.

“Dude, we already knew I was a Shakespeare nerd. But you just quote it at me out of the blue, sometimes.”

“Because it's something you'll recognize.”

She peered at him, curious. “Did you memorize it for me?”

“No.” (Translation: yes. Yes, he did, and it sounded pathetic because he'd never had as good of a poker face as Lillie; but Moon was kind enough to simply smile knowingly and move on and god, he liked her so much.)

They reached the door of his childhood bedroom, and he turned the handle— unlocked, because Lusamine had never allowed him or Lillie to have locks on their doors.

It was exactly the same as he remembered it. Lusamine's room was black and white, drawing on the themes of the Aether Paradise. Lillie's rooms, if he remembered correctly, were more of a pearly, dove-gray color; his were darker gray, the color of heavy storm clouds.

The room was clean— not even dusty, clearly maintained by the housekeepers despite his two-and-a-half-year absence. The bed was made, the curtains pristine, the carpets spotless.

“Ooooh,” said Moon eagerly, walking toward the high bookshelf; but then she paused, turning to look at Gladion. “Do you mind?”

He waved one hand at her, turning to the closet instead. “Knock yourself out.”

Gladion picked out a few of the less objectionable shirts— plain, long-sleeved button-down shirts in various shades of black and gray— and went into his bathroom to try them on. Most of them were too small, because he'd filled out a bit since he was sixteen; but he did at least like the way they looked, so he knew what to look for in the store. When he was on the run he'd gone for T-shirts and jackets in dark, neutral colors; when he'd joined Team Skull it was easier to blend in because they had a general punk-rock aesthetic and the semi-official tank top, cap, and face-mask. He only ever wore the tank top to sleep in— nobody needed to see his stupid, skinny chicken arms— but the cap and the mask had been nice sometimes, when he wanted to remain unseen. People saw the cap and the mask, and ignored the face beneath them.

However, two shirts— new, judging by the tags still on them— were just about the right size. Gladion went back out into the room to study them in the tall mirror on his closet door. They didn't really go with his jeans, which were ripped to shit at the knees and not in an intentional way; but a part of him (that sounded suspiciously like Plumeria) liked the contrast.

He was definitely going to need new shoes, though. The red sneakers had served him well, but the soles were almost worn through. A pair of sturdy hiking boots, like Moon's, would be in order.

The dressers were much more helpful. He found lots of socks, most of them black because he'd always worn black or dark gray pants when he'd lived here. Socks were stretchy enough that it didn't matter that his feet had grown. He packed all of them, along with two belts that were in good condition, and a pile of handkerchiefs because they were the one fucking thing he'd missed about the Aether Paradise when he needed rags for bandages or just cleaning shit up.

Literal shit, sometimes. Null hadn't understood the concept of the bathroom litterbox until he'd asked Molly if her Yungoos would be willing to demonstrate.

Gladion had been about to shut the closet and begin raiding the bookshelves with Moon, but something caught his eye at the back— his old black winter coat. The coat itself was too small, and he had a “good” jacket that was dark gray and had a deep hood; but hanging from the inside on the hanger was a soft, wine-red puff of wool.

He pulled it out. Lillie had taken to knitting, a year or so after Father had died. The scarf was lumpy and uneven, and Lusamine had hated it because it wasn't black or white or metallic; but Lillie had made it for him so she couldn't in good conscience tell him not to wear it. It was the one colorful thing in his old wardrobe.

He decided to take it with him. Lillie would probably appreciate that.

Moon already had a pile of books pulled from the shelf— several of them on his mental shortlist of the ones he wanted to take anyway. He found a couple of old favorites— The Man in the Iron Yamask and Neverwhere and a collection of Sherlock Holmes stories, and a nice copy of Howl by Allen Ginsberg, which Lusamine had tried to ban him from reading. Wicke had let him finish it, in the privacy of her office. He wasn't even particularly fond of the poem. The beat poets were interesting, and Howl in particular certainly produced some vivid imagery; but he mostly liked that it was one of the few things in which he'd ever managed to successfully defy his mother.

The shopping ended up going much better than he'd expected. Wicke— despite being eternally busy with running the entire Aether Paradise, seemingly from her phone, on a busy Monday morning after his mother had fucked off into the void— accompanied them all to the mall to give advice and suggest colors. Gladion, having heard the story from both Lillie and Moon, knew that Lillie had done something similar with picking out new clothes and new colors; but she'd stuck mostly to pinks and pastels all the same. It was perhaps Hau's influence that led her this time to some of the warmer colors— reds and golds and yellows; and probably Moon's that led her to the cooler colors, greens and violets. Gladion stuck to his general theme of dark colors. He did branch out from black, gray, and navy into brown and green and red; and with the money and freedom to pick out things he liked and could afford, he found himself fairly pleased with what he saw in the dressing-room mirrors.

“You look nice,” said Lillie approvingly, when he stepped out to ask Wicke's opinion.

“You look like a nerd,” was Hau's contribution.

“A punk rock nerd,” clarified Moon.

“Stylish, but classy,” said Wicke, and that settled the matter.

The only thing left was the haircut, and it was with great reluctance that he sat down at the mall's hair salon. Lillie had her hair trimmed by about two inches, pink streak and all; but Moon had just gotten her hair cut by Uilani (he really would have to thank her, because the cut made Moon's cheekbones into a work of art) and Hau refused on principle to let white people anywhere near his dreadlocks.

Gladion was apprehensive at first, but the stylist just evened out the edges and took perhaps a quarter of an inch off everything. When he looked in the mirror he still looked like himself, but considerably neater and better dressed.

It was a nice feeling.

At Wicke's request, they spent the rest of the day relaxing. Hau and Lillie stayed at the little apartment— Lillie was still recovering from the time she'd been made to spend alone with Lusamine— and Moon suggested that they go explore Aether's public library.

“Should we really leave them alone?” said Gladion, frowning after Hau as he and Lillie laced their fingers together, walking away.

Moon sighed. “They're not going to have sex, dumbass.”

“I didn't need that mental image!”

But he followed her all the same. Gladion had been in libraries at the same time as Moon before— his fucking luck, that he'd always managed to run into her at the Malie City library— but never while they were on friendly terms. She was like a kid at a candy shop, pulling titles from shelves and muttering to herself with a slightly demented smile on her face. Gladion, amused, followed her around until she remembered he was even there.

“You're quiet,” she accused him.

“I'm always quiet, and we're in a library.”

She turned to offer him a deadpan stare; and he was feeling cheerful enough to be brave.

“I like watching you,” he said, enjoying the instant pink-gold flush that rolled up her neck and onto her face. “Libraries make you happy.”

“You—” she sputtered. “You, I— gah!”

He waited until she had turned away before grinning— it wouldn't do to let her know that he liked how she looked when she was flustered.

The afternoon and evening passed by in a quick, hazy dream that he knew he would be revisiting in his imagination as often as he could manage it. They joined Hau and Lillie for dinner, brought to the little apartment by Wicke; Hau suggested watching a cheesy action movie after dinner since they were all still on the mattresses on the living room floor; and they all packed up their things and got ready to leave, as Wicke had arranged for a boat to take them to Poni Island tomorrow morning.

The Aether Paradise, once, had been all black and white. He had never known any other colors there. But with Lillie in her newfound confidence, Hau in his cheer and humor, and Moon— his ray of sunlight, even if he didn't care to admit it— he was finding that there were different kinds of brightness and deepness. Gladion was fast finding that he was willing to leave the ink and the snow to write history upon the earth, and take on the shadows and colors they had begun to help him see.